Sometimes I honestly wonder what I will be required to rethink next. It is well known that I am willing to change my mind. I learned as a child that I resisted being placed in a box, whether it was cultural or social. I just wish I didn't have to keep doing this so much after age 60. Let me explain.
I was asked last year, by my good friend Professor John Frame, to contribute to a forthcoming festschrift to honor his lifetime of work and teaching. I love John and the subject that he appropriately chose for me was the doctrine of the church. This has led me to undertake a reading of everything John has written on this important subject so that I can interact with his work intelligently. John's most important work on the church is his book Evangelical Reunion (Baker, 1991). But he has written much more on the church, including a number of articles that you can find at his outstanding Web site. One such article is titled: "Is It Wrong to Market the Church?" (It is short and you can read the entire piece at the Frame-Poythress site.)
So what's the big deal? I joined a chorus of evangelical critics in the 1990s and attacked the idea of marketing the church as consistently bad. I saw it as a "sell-out" of the gospel and believed marketing inherently compromised the message of the good news and led the church into a morass of other problems. But John Frame, in his typically fresh and thoughtful way, challenges this approach. He admits that there are serious questions to be dealt with in using marketing. (One thinks of false advertising and "bait-and-switch" approaches.) But Frame also believes that marketing is not wrong in and of itself. He writes, "The Christian religion is a missionary religion. It is outreach-oriented. The main task of the church is the Great Commission, which tells us to take the gospel to all nations. . . . So the questions of contextualization cannot be avoided by simply carrying on according to traditional patterns. We will always face the question of how to reach out to the unchurched. In any outreach, there is something like marketing going on. As corporations offer products, the church offers eternal life. Eternal life is free, but there is a the condition of faith. . . . Preaching the gospel is not marketing, but it is analogous to marketing. How far does the analogy go and the disanalogy begin? We need to do hard thinking on that score, not just reprobate anything that even looks a bit like marketing."
Ouch! That really levels some of my previous thinking. Frame asks, "Is it crass to tell people that your services are relatively short, that your pews are comfortable, that your people are friendly, that your music is high quality, etc.? Are such statements a betrayal of the gospel?" Frame says that if these things are true then he cannot condemn them. I have to agree.
But shouldn't the gospel itself be our only advertisement? Frame says, "I don't see any biblical justification for that claim." I don't either, now that John has forced me to think about this outside my "Reformed" box.
Is it wrong to address "felt needs" as we put it? While the church should rebuke selfish desires, in the right context, Frame says the Bible itself addresses such needs in dealing with things like love, family, community, etc.
What John Frame challenges here is the thesis of Dr. David Wells in his famous book, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993). This book influenced me rather profoundly and still does, at some points. But I have to admit Frame brought me out of the box again and this is, I think, a good thing. We must not willy-nilly embrace any strategy in our mission but surely marketing, per se, is not evil.