Jesus as a Product

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


Recently, Daniel Schultz, aka pastordan, one of the regular contributors to Religion Dispatches offered a link to the Church Marketing Sucks website. It's worth a look-see.

Church Marketing Sucks has been a provocative voice in the area of church marketing for quite a number of years now, pointing out, quite often, that indeed, much church marketing really isn't all that good or helpful, and suggesting (sometimes by satire) ways to do it better.

But a little less than two weeks before pastordan made his recommendation, one of the articles posted there started to gain attention, not for satire, but for the controversial proposition made in its title -- "Jesus as a Product."

Brett Borders, the author of this small piece, admits that thinking of Jesus in the same category with other things that are marketed does create a serious cognitive dissonance-- but only for those who do not know Jesus. His argument is that media marketing saturation is simply a fact of life in the West these days, and so a failure to participate in it or participating in it poorly (by manipulative or shoddy means, for example) represents a fundamental failure to communicate the very gospel we claim to be the most important message in human history.

So he advises at the close of his article:

"Let’s not get hung up on the concept of Jesus as a commodity. Instead, let’s embrace it so we can leverage the craft of good advertising in order to make sure our message is the one people hear. Not one of the 3,000 that gets shut out. Our product is way too important to let that happen."

Martin Buber might agree, in part. After all, if one has never actually encountered Jesus, the most that can be expected is precisely an I-It relationship, the basic descriptor of a relationship of an individual to a commodity that one uses or knows something about, not a person one knows and actually interacts with.

The Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novelette of the same title learns as much from a fox in a wheat field one day-- that until one actually tames the other, the fox is just like a hundred thousand other foxes and the boy just like a hundred thousand other boys. Something has to happen to move this from an I-It relationship where nothing is actually exchanged to an I-You relationship where both can be changed forever.

But that "something" that has to happen is just where marketing Jesus is bound to fail. The fox reminds The Little Prince that taming takes time, consistency and presence. Marketing can at best achieve the first two of these-- delivering a consistent message over time. Repeat the same message over time enough times and in enough ways and places, and the very repetition and echo-effect will lend it credibility.

But marketing cannot replicate what matters most-- actually being physically present to and for the other. It is presence offered consistently over time that ultimately makes possible an actual I-You relationship. It is presence, more than message, that can actually lead to the transformation of life.

Marketing, then, can only get one as far as creating the possibility for a stronger I-It relationship. Even marketing an I-You relationship with Jesus turns that very thing into an I-It project. But no matter how strong the I-It becomes, it can never become I-You. I-You can (and sometimes needs!) to revert to I-It for all sorts of reasons, but I-It cannot, of itself, convert to I-You.

So, ironically, marketing Jesus would be a terrific strategy for us if we were actually atheists about him-- that is, if in fact we believed it were not possible or even desirable to form an I-You relationship with him.

This may be why the best communication of presence we can offer is what he himself offers-- flesh and blood. His-- at a table we share weekly in worship. And ours-- at every table and all the places in between them where we live out the real thing, the I-You with him, and with our neighbors as ourselves.

What do you think? Even more-- what do you do to be part of Christ's taming of the world, renaming us all "You" to his eternal "I."