It was a Christian organization.
But sometimes Christian organizations don’t act very Christian.
There was nothing spectacular about the woman. Her skin was weathered and her hair was ordinary. The clothes she wore served the purpose of covering her body, not drawing attention to it.
Someone from the organization to which she belonged was walking around taking pictures for a brochure. The photographer walked up to her and spoke with a very kind voice.
“If you wouldn’t mind, could you please move to the back of the room?”
My friend thought nothing of the request. Without a second thought, she left her seat and moved to the back. There was one more request from the photographer. This one was for the lady with the blonde hair, seated at the back of the room.
“If you don’t mind, could you please move to that empty seat up front?”
The pictures were taken. The brochure was published and sent out. The blonde girl was featured. My friend was left out.
Who needs authenticity when the manufactured can be so, well, attractive. And plus, it’s all for Jesus so that makes it okay, right?
That seems to be the approach of a lot of churches today. Sure, there’s a lot of talk about being real or relevant, but the truth, as ugly as it tends to be, cannot be avoided. There’s nothing relevant about manipulation.
I too was a victim of the manipulation game. I was never told to change seats so that another, more attractive person could be featured in my place. I was just told to raise my hand.
It was at an evangelistic crusade. The guy preaching had me confused. I knew that I was a Christian but he was starting to make me wonder. At the end of the service, with soft music playing, every head bowed, every eye closed, he closed the deal. Always be closing. They must have taught him that at Glenngary Glen Ross Theological Seminary.
I don’t remember his exact words but they were somewhere along the lines of, “If you forgot to put the cap back on the toothpaste tube this morning, raise your hand.”
My hand raised.
“Now come down and get saved.”
“But I thought I was already…”
Thankfully I had a pastor who cared more about truth than manipulation. So I went to him. His words are tattooed on my brain to this day.
“There’s something you have to remember about some of these guys, Jay. All they care about is numbers. They just want to go back to their financial backers and tell them how many people raised their hands at the last crusade.”
Some things never change.
Today it’s churches giving away free iPads or $50 gas cards to the first 100 guests through the doors on Easter Sunday.
Or it’s pastors constantly talking about their baptismal numbers and trying to market their technique so that you too can share in their “success.”
Whatever happened to just preaching the simple message of sin and forgiveness, loving God and loving others? I’ve got an idea. Numbers. That’s what happened.
Simply preaching the gospel may or may not draw a crowd. Certainly there are many large churches that are devoted to the gospel without manipulation. But there are even more gospel churches that struggle to draw a crowd. Same message. Different results. So is one church really more successful than the other? God would say no. For him, success has more to do with obedience than numbers (Isaiah 6).
Marketing has it’s place. Somewhere. But the greatest need of the church is the gospel. We need to preach it. We need to live it. We need it to remind us to crucify our egos and fascination with numbers.
We need to be like Micaiah (1 Kings 22).
He was a prophet in the days of King Ahab. Ahab wanted to go to war with Syria. Before doing so he sought his prophets for their opinion. His prophets. They essentially responded by giving him a free iPad, a $50 gas card and a blank check to do as he pleased. Jehoshaphat, another king, had a question for King Ahab.
“Have you sought the advice of someone who actually speaks for God?”
Ahab responded, “No, because he won’t tell me what I want to hear.”
Such is the case for a large portion of our culture today. It turns out that Paul knew what he was talking about (2 Timothy 4:3-4). And sadly, many churches are content to follow the example of Ahab’s false prophets and tell the world exactly what it wants to hear. Just as long as they keep showing up.
“As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I will speak.” 1 Kings 22:14 (ESV)
Drawing a crowd can be hard work. The old saying is true. What you catch them with is what you’ll have to keep them with. All of those iPads can murder a church’s budget.
But just preaching the gospel is relatively simple just as long as you are willing to do it to an ever decreasing crowd while facing some opposition along the way. It’s a matter of saying what God is saying. Exactly like Micaiah did.
The church that I pastor is growing. Every week I see new faces and returning visitors. And it’s not because our leadership has taken a manipulative approach to get people in the doors. It’s just God being good to us.
But the numbers could go away any time. I could stand up this Sunday to preach to my wife, kids and some drunk lady who got lost on her way to the Waffle House. And if that’s the case, God is still good to us.
His goodness is seen in his character as revealed in his word, not in some number on a pie chart mapping your church’s growth.
Which leads me to a question. It’s one that I think we would all do well to consider. What if your church lost all of its money? And as a result, what if there was no way to have any programs? What if all that was left was the gospel being preached? What if the crowd of people listening to that gospel got smaller every week?
Would we still be successful?
Would God still be faithful?
Jesus never promised us a crowd. He certainly knows how it feels to lose one. And there’s more than one way to do that. Sometimes simply being faithful to the gospel will do it. But sometimes it happens when people begin to see through the manipulation and discover that they have been had.
Once the programs have faded away, there are no musicians left to play the new Katy Perry single in your worship service and the budget has dried up, one question will remain for those of us in leadership positions in the church.
Were we salesmen or were we shepherds?
God has been proven faithful.
May the same be said of us.