Sometimes, I just have to vent a little– today just happens to be one of those times. Over the last several thousand years, the Christian church has been through hundreds of different phases. In America those phases seem to occur at a faster rate, especially in the last 50 years or so. It may be possible that my generation has seen more change in the church than any previous generation before it. Now, I don’t mean core revolutionary change, like in the Reformation, but more like seasonal changes.
I grew up Fundamental Baptist, a particularly legalistic branch of the Baptist denomination. When we moved to Georgia, my family churched hopped, never really finding a new church home. During that time, we mostly attended churches of the Southern Baptist variety– all of which were far more liberal than what I was used to in a church. I grew up believing that people were going to hell for a host of reasons ranging from having long hair to listening to rock-n-roll.
One Sunday evening at a local Southern Baptist church, I was invited to a special youth service, where I experienced things that confused me. Up until my early teens, I thought that the only clothing acceptable to God for Sunday worship was a suit and tie. At the special youth event, the kids were waring jeans (which offended me) and listened to Christian Rock music (which frightened me). As a kid, I was taught that rock music was something to be feared as satan’s music and so was only accessible to me at pizzerias and roller skating rinks. Never had I thought that I would hear something at church that had pounding drums and wailing electric guitars.
By the close of the 80’s and the onset of the 90’s, “contemporary Christian worship music” was making it’s way solidly into the newest and coolest churches around. Many older churches that added it to their programs, did so to attract the youth, but they often offered special “contemporary” services that were held separately so the older church members can enjoy the classic hymns. By the turn of the 21st century, most evangelical churches had adopted contemporary worship as their primary form.
I think media had a ton to do with this. The 1980’s saw the dawning of a new an powerful media machine, powered by cable television and fueled by the innovative music channel MTV. At the same time, the culture was shifting to follow a new media mantra “it’s all about me”. Television and print marketing flooded our minds with messages that encouraged indulgence and assured us over and over again the we are worth it. I think that the onset of such narcissism began to invade our churches as well.
The late 20th century saw an explosion in the self-help book market, rocketing it into a billion dollar industry. People began to be very concerned about themselves and Christians were no exception. Seeking “God’s will for MY life” seemed to become a new Christian direction. Outside of the Church in the secular realm, people were obsessed with being an “individual” and used every sort of consumable product possible as an accessory to achieve this. After all, the marketing messages were all about it. The funny thing about it is that individualism in this context was a thin veneer and people bought into it hook, line and sinker. Christians began to experiencing the effects of this mindset and it began to undermine the collective nature of the church.
People began to see church as less of a duty and more and more through eyes of the charismatic– something to be personally experienced. With the explosion of Christian media in the late 70’s and 80’s, they were keen to follow this trend and service Christians with greater and greater levels of self-help titles. Also, as a result of the explosion of media, Christians were being exposed to more and more differing religious experiences through the airwaves and later via the Internet. As a result, large groups of Christians began getting dissatisfied with what their particular brand of Christianity was serving up and emboldened with the new “you deserve it” and “…for me” mindsets, church members began leaving churches in search of something more personally fulfilling.
At the same time, media was giving televangelists huge exposure, which often backfired when scandals erupted. Add to this the advent of the Information Super Highway and the personal empowerment mentality became thoroughly ingrained in the American conscience. Technology began to accelerate the speed at which we interacted with the world and offered a superior level of control over our lives. Within a scant two decades a good chuck of American society had become incredibly narcissistic with a constant need for stimulation that only a constant stream of media could provide. This would begin to devastate the churches in America and give rise to a plethora of new churches whose main focus was to make the church “relevant” again.
Today it is 2011 and I have seen tremendous changes in the character and appearance of the Christian church. As you have probably gathered from my tone, I am a bit of a traditionalist and methods and practices of the “contemporary” church often seems to me to be little more than newly-shaped marketing messages created in order to protect a brand against a changing market. It is in the middle of all of this that my venting begins. I am not opposed to the church evaluating itself and altering its language in order to speak more clearly to different world, what I am opposed to, is the church adopting on the most prevailing lie that the marketing world has– HYPE.
This is probably the thing that bugs me most about the church that I currently meet with. They seem to love the hype. Language is regularly laced with superlatives. The next message is always “the most exciting” or “the most difficult” the guest speaker is often “the greatest communicator” and it seems like there is nothing that happens that isn’t supposed to be “the best ever.” It didn’t take me long to figure out that this is how almost all of the key leadership at the church talk publicly. The thing is, this is mostly veneer. On the inside, behind closed doors, things are not nearly that awesome. Messages are difficult and people actively struggle to make things relevant. Sometimes, messages are a big miss, and sometimes the guest speaker isn’t all that great. But you wouldn’t know that when you hear the leadership talk about it publicly.
I think this is the infection of marketing hype. Stay on message and talk like something is the way you want it to be, not necessarily the way it is. I think this comes from a missional objective that attempts to craft people’s “experience.” It is well documented that if you can use positive language, people generally stay positive. If something sucks, but you smile and tell them how awesome it is, people tend to question their judgement. It is a powerful marketing technique I call “shaping reality.” The stronger your influence on someone, the more ability you have to shape their reality– at least as far as impressions go. This is why celebrity sells in our culture. If the pastor thought that the guest speaker’s turd of a message was powerful and enlightening, maybe I missed something– or maybe that pastor knows about marketing.
Maybe this is why I struggle so much when I see a church make media such a key part of the “experience.” I guess it is the same reason I hate when the synth starts playing under the speakers prayer in long yearning minor chords. Perhaps I am myself a product of the “me, me, me” generation that is constantly seeking my own personal perfect. Maybe I am the one that is broken. As I try to figure out what is real and what is lie, I can tell you one thing– I will alway hate HYPE.