Dance or dirge? Jesus’ marketing dilemma
Dance or dirge? Jesus’ marketing dilemma, 9 July 2023
A sermon preached by Kenneth Padley
(Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30)
Why does advertising often fail? We recognise successful marketing when we see it – a catchy slogan or iconic brand. But we also know those times when publicity struggles to get traction.
- Some marketing takes customers for granted, for instance when Coca-Cola launched ‘New Coke’, an innovation that proved much less popular than the original, and so was hastily ditched.
- Then there are campaigns which offend customers, like the strapline which claimed Yorkie bars are ‘not for girls’.
- And then there are adverts which lack cross-cultural awareness. For instance, Walls ice-cream does not sell in some Islamic countries because, I am told, the company’s love-heart emblem looks like an upside-down Arabic symbol for Allah.
Jesus in today’s gospel is struggling with negative feedback coming into his marketing department.
- He notes that John the Baptist failed to win friends and influence people because his pitch was too austere. John spent all his time fasting and ranting against the ills of society. As a result, some thought he was possessed by a demon. It’s like, says Jesus, when professional mourners are wailing but bystanders don’t join in.
- By contrast, Jesus had tried to get alongside people, eating and drinking where John had not. This, however, incensed the more puritanically-minded who condemned Jesus for fraternising with the sinful. It’s like, says Jesus, when children play the flute but nobody catches the tune. They would not dance and they wouldn’t follow me.
How frustrating. There is no pleasing some people!
The conundrum which Jesus so neatly fingered has proved a timeless puzzle for his followers. Should the Church stand apart from cultural norms, calling out ungodliness and requiring distinctive lifestyles among its members? Or should the Church adopt a more conformist model, promoting less radical requirements and so ingratiate itself with wider society?
The first model of the Church gives rise to a small, disciplined spiritual elite. High standards are expected of those within the congregation, and those who do not conform may be asked to leave. The second model of the Church is likely to generate a larger community but with soggier edges, where barriers to entry are low and where there may be little personal challenge or commitment. We might caricature the first model as a Society of Saints, the second as a School of Sinners.
The prevalence of these two models of Church (or ‘ecclesiologies’) has ebbed and flowed across Christian history, largely in response to external factors.
- The Society of Saints model dominated the early Church because it helped preserve Christian ideas and practice against a backdrop of persecution. Christians really had to commit to their faith because it was illegal.
- All this changed when Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian in AD312. Suddenly, the faith was permitted and everyone wanted to get on the bandwagon. As a result, urban Christianity lost much of its aesthetic rigour.
The tension between the Society of Saints and School of Sinners models continues down to the present day with conservative and liberal churches respectively exhibiting characteristics of each. Generally, the Church of England as a national, established institution has favoured the School of Sinners approach. More elitist, dogmatic sects have fractured away but, by and large, the CofE has sought to keep the barriers low, because of which it has arguably failed to take a prophetic stand on some controversial issues.
This is a perennial tension which has beset the marketing department of churches for two millennia. However, I’d like us to also note a couple of additional communication challenges which are specific to our own age, challenges which ask us to think hard about how we, as individual Christians and corporate congregations, should best sing the Lord’s song to our neighbours and friends, classmates and colleagues.
The first is a practical truth of the internet age. Until a generation ago, Britain had a common cultural canon of songs, shows and sports: a large swathe of the population knew the music in the charts, storylines of the soap operas, and which teams were dominating a few sporting leagues. Today, the limitless channels of the internet have blown apart that common cultural canon. It is a paradox that we have more ways than ever of communicating with one another, yet fewer points of common reference. How should we preach into such diversity? One Anglican response to this new landscape has been the emergence of so-called ‘Fresh Expressions’ of Church, gatherings of Christians which are focused less on a territorial model based in a local church and more around a shared activity or interest – be that baking, or mums and tots, or motorbikes.
Alongside the cultural fragmentation which is a bi-product of the internet, a slightly older, more esoteric challenge presents in the form of post-modernism. Now I happen to think that not all aspects of post-modernism are bad for Christian evangelism, but I do have concerns about the post-modernist ideology which claims that individuals are the determinant of their own truth. This subjective approach is naturally sceptical about sources of truth claims which are external to the individual, especially sources which assert objective basis or universal application – as Christianity has traditionally done.
This is why the dilemma of Jesus at the start of today’s gospel is our dilemma today. In the absence of a common cultural canon and in a context where many regard truth as a matter of their own determination, what are the words and images with which we can best sing the Lord’s song to our neighbours and friends, classmates and colleagues?
As so often in Scripture, Jesus poses not only the problem but also proffers a solution. Matthew 11, verse 28: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ Humans are still humans. We all have the most basic of emotional needs. The invitation of the gospel remains at heart what it always has been, an invitation to relationship, a call to loving friendship. That is a timeless invitation which everyone can understand and grasp, whatever our cultural backgrounds and interests.
And I think that this invitation by Jesus to friendship also addresses that older tension I was describing between those competing ecclesiologies, the Society of Saints and School of Sinners. On the one hand Jesus extends the warmest of welcomes: come unto me, and I will give you rest. But at the same time he is also strong on expectation: take my yoke upon you and learn from me. A loving relationship with Jesus will radically transform our perspective and start to change us into the people he wants us to be. Here is a balance which is known to be found in many flourishing churches: hearty welcome, complemented by high expectation. Somehow the two are reconcilable. Christ’s call to friendship is so magnetic that the power of his transformative sanctification naturally fits. For the irony, as he puts it, is that ‘my yoke is easy, and my burden light’.
 James Mallon, Divine Renovation.