The Bible states that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is “...the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first, and also for the Greek.” (Romans 1:16.) Because God wants all to be saved, Christians are commanded to “Go into all the world, and preach the Good News to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15.) Acts 1:8 also says, “...you will be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.”
The Gospel is powerful medicine, a powerful cure for our sinfulness. But like all medicines, it requires a proper method of application in order to be effective. In speaking of physical ailments and their cures, doctors use the term “modality” to describe “a method of application of, or the employment of, any therapeutic agent, especially a physical agent,” or alternatively, “the technique of applying a therapeutic regimen or agent.” (http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/modality) One may prescribe the correct medicine for a particular condition, yet if one prescribes the wrong modality, the medicine will be ineffective. So it is that some medicines are applied externally, some come as pills to be swallowed, some are dissolved in alcohol because they are not water-soluble, others must be inhaled, and yet others are injected.
The historical modality for the delivery of the Gospel has always been by means of spiritual men and women who earned the right to a hearing from others by living a blameless life among others (Acts 20:17-34; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-10, among other passages). But like every other aspect of life in the times leading up to the Industrial Revolution, this approach took a great deal of time and human attention. Because humans naturally tend to look for labor-saving shortcuts in their endeavors, it didn't take long after the invention of the printing press for prospective Gospel preachers to begin to rely on printed tracts and books in addition to face-to-face talks with people. The Industrial Revolution and its aftermath added other tools to the evangelist's arsenal – tools such as radio and television and massive “Gospel crusades” which drew thousands of attendees. These methods were all energy and technology intensive. Yet because the First World was experiencing continued technological advancement and had access to ever-increasing supplies of concentrated energy, these methods – mass broadcasts of Biblical truth and the Gospel message through printed and electronic media – became the methods of choice for those seeking to evangelize the First World, particularly the United States.
But there are two problems with these methods. First, many proclaimers of the Gospel have become ever more removed from personal contact with their audiences, preventing the members of these audiences from observing these preachers to see whether the truths the preachers espouse are actually working in the lives of the preachers. In other words, it has become much harder for people to tell whether these preachers who talk the talk are also walking the walk. Secondly, the methods of mass media have been used by many people, not just preachers. Many of those with access to the media have been caught using their access to manipulate and defraud their audiences.
Consider the pervasiveness of advertising in present-day America. According to the article, “Marketing Advertising and Branding: A Critical Analysis of Commercial Advertising Strategies,” a typical American is exposed to at least 1500 advertisements per day (Source: http://advertising-influence.suite101.com/article.cfm/advertising_tactics). The Association for Consumer Research has performed studies which show a positive link between the amount of TV a person watches and the extent to which that person is a materialist (http://www.acrwebsite.org/topic.asp?artid=351). More and more people with postgraduate psychology degrees are discovering market research as a viable career field (http://www.apa.org/science/nonacad_careers.html). This market research is being used to unlock the soul (and by extension, the wallet) of the typical consumer.
America is a nation that is advertised to death. Those paying for the advertising are driven by a passion to acquire money and/or political power, and they will resort to any trick in order to achieve their ends. Their methods are very similar to the methods which the Church in the West has adopted as its methods of choice – particularly in American evangelicalism. But people in the West are becoming increasingly turned off to these methods, concluding that those who use such methods are simply out to get something for themselves.
Do you believe in “street witnessing” by handing out Gospel tracts in public places? Beware, because you may have competition. I remember a couple of times when I used to work in downtown Los Angeles and I ran into people handing out “free” introductory offers for Nextel phone service at Union Station. I can't count the number of times I have been accosted over the years by people handing out flyers for one thing or another at supermarkets. Do you like door-to-door witnessing? You may have to compete with “home alarm system” salesmen going door to door posing as Neighborhood Watch captains. (One such gentleman visited my doorstep a couple of months ago. I invited him to quickly leave.) I can't begin to count the number of letters I received that said “Official Notice – You Are Paying Too Much For Your Mortgage” after I bought my first house, or the number of telemarketing calls I received even after I signed up for the National “Do Not Call” list. When people see someone “open-air preaching” or they see someone approaching them with a Gospel tract in his hand, it is only natural for them to immediately assume that the person in question simply wants to get something from them.
This perception has been compounded by the fact that several big-name personalities who claimed to be preachers of the Gospel have been found to be frauds whose activities were for the sole purpose of enriching themselves. I acknowledge that not all well-known evangelists are fake. But those who are false have definitely made an impression. Thus even such things as large Gospel crusades may have begun to lose their effectiveness. For instance, within the last few months Luis Palau held a large outdoor Gospel campaign where I live, yet to the best of my knowledge, none of my co-workers attended his rally.
The Christian witness in the West has also suffered from the mingling of politics and faith, particularly in the United States, where the Church has been co-opted by the economic elites through instruments such as the Republican Party, which promises to use the power of the state to enforce Biblical sexual morality on the nation in exchange for the Church's unquestioning support of the agenda of the economic elites. Thus there are leaders in the American evangelical community who deny the reality of global warming, oppose any state-sponsored system of social welfare (even including mass transit), and support American military intervention into other countries for the purpose of taking natural resources from these countries by force. This reinforces the perception that the Church itself is simply one more marketing arm of powerful people who are simply out to take as much as they can for themselves. So when James Dobson's radio “ministry” is broadcast, it's not surprising that many people respond with a cynical “Yeah, right – whatever, dude.”
Even the methods of “grassroots” initiatives have been taken over by corporate elites in order to maintain their power or extend their market share. An interesting term has been coined in recent years: “astroturfing,” referring to the creation of a media campaign by corporations which is designed to look like it was started by common people. A good example of this is the “Angry Renters” website (http://www.angryrenters.com/), a site supposedly sponsored by a grassroots network of house and apartment renters opposed to any bailout or government rescue of homeowners who are now facing foreclosure from the mortgage crisis. A closer look at these “angry renters” shows that this organization was actually created by Republican former congressman Dick Armey and multimillionaire Steve Forbes (“Big Money Backs Renters' Campaign,” NPR, 16 May 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90517606; “Armey's Angry Renters,” Full Frontal Scrutiny, 21 May 2008, http://www.frontgroups.org/node/6378)
Americans are becoming increasingly wary and weary of being jacked, weary of being taken for a ride by slick advertising. Appeals which look like corporate advertising, whether electronic or printed, are losing their effectiveness. There is an increasing hunger for what is real and genuine. And proving what is real and genuine takes time and opportunity for intimate observation. Yet the Church in America continues its love affair with the latest and most modern mass-evangelism “methods,” relying on amplified crusades, high-tech tricks, big-name personalities and slogans and bumper stickers that look like they were invented by some corporate marketing department.
Examples of this which I have seen include bumper stickers which came out during the 2004 and 2006 elections which shouted, “JESUS IS GOD – READ THE BIBLE!” There are the “Got Christ?” bumper stickers which rip off the “Got Milk?” ad campaign. There are the T-shirts worn by some gym rats showing the Lord bloodied and bowed under the weight of the Cross, with a caption at the bottom saying, “Bench Press This!” The silliest and most irreverent example I have seen in a while was a bumper sticker I noticed last weekend during my road trip home from Southern California. The sticker said, “Jesus loves THE HELL out of you.” The idea behind all of these is that it is somehow possible to convince a person to become a Christian by shouting a mere slogan at them without providing any sort of relational context for that slogan. But increasingly, this doesn't work.
In my next post, I will make suggestions concerning what I believe does work, what I believe to be an effective Christian witness to people in our modern society. Stay tuned!
Note: All Scripture quotations are taken from the World English Bible, a public domain translation. No royalties are owed to anyone for its use, and it may be freely quoted in all settings, public and private.