Marketing Jesus

It's possible that everything I do, I do to experience pleasure, avoid pain, or assuage fear. Folks say I’m thoughtful and generous, but when it comes down to it, I still want the goods. And you do, too. What a challenge it is to find much altruism in any of us.

So it isn’t surprising that we tell people about Jesus in a similar fashion. We assume they’ll only be interested if perks exist. We take the basic invitation to faith, couch it in popular marketing terms, and offer it to potential customers: "[Y]ou (the consumer) 'invite him' (the product) 'into your heart' (brand adoption) and 'get saved' (consumer gratification)."

This little formula is from Tyler Wigg-Stevenson in his Christianity Today cover story, "Jesus is not a brand: Why it is dangerous to make evangelism another form of marketing" (January 2009). Tyler argues that our telling about Jesus is largely based on delivering goods, and his formula sounds like an advertisement, doesn't it?

To be clear, Tyler isn’t undermining the basic message of the New Testament. He’s saying that a generic If-Then evangelistic approach is inadequate. It resembles the frequent problem in which "brands promise to deliver goods - self-esteem, sex appeal, confidence, coolness - that they have no intrinsic capacity to give."

It’s dangerous to sell the Good News like HDTV. It puts the gospel on the same product shelf in consumers’ minds, and it means we’ll face the marketing challenges faced by all marketers. But here's where it gets tricky. We're human, so we’re needy. We need the perks. We shouldn't choose Jesus for what it's in it for us, but we can't help turning to Jesus for what's in it for us.

I can't turn my life over to Jesus just for Jesus' sake. Instead I do it because I've hit bottom and need to be rescued, or I feel insecure and need to be held, or I lack direction in life and need to be guided. Less commendably, I turn to Jesus because my friends are doing it. Regardless, I'm looking for deliverable goods, just like when I buy something from the store. Whether we consume Jesus or a new television, we still want what’s in it for us.

The difference between marketing Jesus and marketing HDTV, therefore, is in the quality of what can be delivered. If "Jesus is the power of God at work for a real salvation," as Tyler affirms, then gimmicks and special discounts are irrelevant. To hell then, so to speak, with fire insurance and promises that troubles will disappear once you have Jesus in your life. This Call-Now-And-You'll-Receive-This-Free-... approach “tend[s] to be met with all the success of a door-to-door salesman who's been working the same street every day for 2,000 years."

Yet because I get something out of it, I pass along the message in much the same way.

Am I to blame for this? Well, not completely. Tyler says that "consumerism is impotent to deliver on its promise." I disagree. We may not get all that we hoped for from a product, but we do get something, and that something is a foretaste (a this-isn’t-fully-cooked-yet foretaste) of what Jesus promises. For instance, a Steeler game on HD is far more pleasurable than squinting to read players' jerseys on my fuzzy analog station. HD won’t save me, and the increased viewing pleasure – as a singular benefit – doesn’t justify purchasing a new TV, but the Butterfly Effect of eventually watching games on a friend’s HDTV changed my social life and his family life and our communal life together. Consumerism may be handicapped, but it isn’t impotent.

Jesus and products provide benefits, but one certainly out-delivers the other. It behooves us to consider how, and then separate them accordingly.

Here is the practical challenge. People who share the gospel must understand that Jesus is not HDTV. This sounds ludicrous, but Tyler is right that our marketing methods are too similar. Second, people who sell products must be honest about what an item can actually deliver. There are marketing similarities between “selling” the gospel and selling products, but if the methods overlap too much, both the gospel and products will suffer a distortion of truth.

And when that happens, nobody will get what they want.

For more, read Tyler’s article, a critique of it, and an interview I hosted here with religious marketing critic, Mara Einstein.


Bradley J Moore January 17, 2009 at 6:08 PM  

Sam - Love this post. I believe evangelistic christianity could use some of this re-thinking. There are a lot of conversations going around today about the relationship between authenticity and christianity. The "evangelical" community has traditionally put so much pressure on its members to convert people, that it turns into these contrived marketing campaigns. I personally don't want to convert anyone anymore, to be honest. I'd rather leave that up to God, and try to let Him just do his remarkable thing in whatever way he wants to, with or without me.

Red Letter Believers January 18, 2009 at 8:31 PM  


This hits right to what I'm tracking on . I think some of the reason the church is, is because we birthed all these babies to be sterile.

How many evangelism effots in the 70s, 80s, and 90 used such an approach. And its not so different now, just much more hip.

"Christ died and was resurrected" was the message that Peter used to convert thousands in Acts. I think that message is the same one we should use today.

We dont need to sell Jesus the person. We need to "sell" Jesus deeds.
David Rupert

Billy Coffey January 19, 2009 at 10:06 AM  

I agree with David. "Christ died and was resurrected" says the truth and says it plainly. I really don't like this new trend of marketing Christianity as a means to get rich and live happily ever after. So misleading, and often just plain not true.

Sam Van Eman January 19, 2009 at 1:52 PM  

brad, you ask the good question about how much of this is the evangelist's responsibility? i think tv marketers run into a similar situation: "yes, we need to let the public know this tv exists, where to buy it and what it does, but how do we let its quality and value speak for itself? if we say too much or promise too much or add too many gimmicks, consumers' trust in us will wane."

david and billy, i like the simplicity of the message. isn't it hard for us to separate the perks from the essentials?

M.joshua January 20, 2009 at 10:07 AM  

I'm a big fan of evangelism. I'm also an advertiser. So how do I market Jesus?

I take a cue from cigarette companies.

Take Phillip Morris for example. Sales on smokes were down and they had just lost a major court case on the negative effects of cigarettes. So what did they do? They launched an anti-campaign detailing the negative effects of cigarettes.

You and I know this as the "Truth Campaign".

So what happened?

Cigarette sales started going up again.

We find that Jesus uses a similar form of "marketing" when he has too many people coming after him simply because of his "product benefits" as the Messiah. He emphasizes how his followers must drink his blood and eat his flesh. He also says that following him results in crucifixion (public humiliation/torture/execution).


Every Square Inch February 2, 2009 at 10:10 PM  

Sam - we do turn to Jesus because of what's in it for us.

True, authentic conversion occurs when we realize that "what's in it for us" is Christ himself and we find that better than everything else.

Sam Van Eman February 4, 2009 at 7:56 PM  

Thanks for the comments. I still struggle to know how much of my consumer mentality gets in the way.

In other words, I don't know how to want Jesus or want redemption or want forgiveness without being selfish. I can't quite wrap my head around that so I tend to think it's impossible to do the one without doing the other.

Anonymous,  September 30, 2010 at 8:19 PM  

Nice post. I think part of the reason that there is so much controversy with "Marketing Jesus" is because people think marketing and selling are the same thing. Marketing isn’t selling. Marketing is generating interest. Marketing is drawing attention to something like a lamp on a table or a city on a hill, our marketing (witness) is meant to be seen.

Check out my blog about it

Sam Van Eman October 5, 2010 at 9:14 AM  

Thanks for the comment and link, Joe.

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