Consumer Capitalism and Christian Ministry

Tony Jones makes a comment today about Christian publishing and marketing that didn't set right with me.  Over at his The New Christians blog he writes:

For a decade, Doug [Pagit] and I have been speakers at the National Youth Workers Convention and the National Pastors Convention, which primarily serve as platforms for the authors of Youth Speciaties and Zondervan, respectively.  Our initial solo effort was the once-in-a-lifetime book tour, the Church Basement Roadshow.

What bugged me was his description of these massive ministry training events as "platforms" to sell books.  When I receive the emails and brochures, these events are billed as places to learn about ministry, be renewed in faith, and share ideas with other church leaders.  Yet here I read that these events "primarily serve as platforms" to sell books.  Are these events nothing more than elaborate sales shticks?  Am I being hoodwinked?

Similarly, I was critical of the sales/marketing aspect of Tony's Church Basement Roadshow in a post over the summer.  I wrote back then:

And I'm impressed, too, by the
entrepreneurial spirit of these guys.  Yes, this show is part revival,
but it is also part book tour.  There's a $10 cover charge for each
show.  There are various institutional sponsors
undoubtedly providing financial and/or in-kind support.  And surely
while you're at the show you'll be encouraged to purchase a few books. 
As a former sales representative for Augsburg Fortress Publishers
– and as one who took a bookstore display on the road to synod
assemblies and church conventions – I'm impressed by their imaginative

But I remain more baffled than awed.  A pay-to-enter
"revival" is much less a revival than a marketing enterprise calling
consumers rather than converts, pocketbooks rather than pious souls. 

I don't begrudge people the opportunity to produce a Christian book and get paid to do it (see 1 Corinthians 9:14, Luke 10:7), or to travel around to promote the book . . . but what's the driver here – Gospel proclamation or bottom-line profits?  These goals – Proclamation and Profit – are not mutually exclusive, but they do create a tension and can easily be at odds.  As I commented on Tony's blog today:

Should the publisher produce materials that will lose money but further
the Gospel? Should the publisher sell materials that appeal to a broad
audience – generating revenue for the publishing ministry – but which
might be thin on Gospel? And most importantly, we can probably agree
that faithfulness does not directly correlate to profitability. The
marketplace is not the best determinant of what is faithful and
beneficial to the church, yet publishers must make money to keep their
doors open. It's an imperfect and very difficult business to be in.
These questions are posed simply to highlight potential pitfalls and
show how careful we must be when connecting ministry with consumer
capitalism. That's all.

The intersection of Christian faith and capitalist enterprise is a difficult one to navigate, for sure.  I'm generally uncomfortable with the glitz and shine and consumer appeal of the largest church publishers (Group, Zondervan, Youth Specialties, etc.), fearing that they often cross a line I'd rather not cross (while simultaneously doing good work, as I highlighted in my comments on Tony's blog.  I'm a Lutheran, after all – I can see the sinner/saint in most things!). 

What do you think?  Are the best business decisions necessarily the best ministry decisions?  Should a Christian publisher risk going out of business for the sake of the Gospel?  Perhaps what I'm really asking is, to what extent should Christians engage the patterns and practices of capitalism in carrying out their Gospel ministry?  Do we sometimes sacrifice the Gospel so that we can keep our doors open and our bank accounts filled to a certain level?  Does institutional preservation become a greater goal than growing the Kingdom?

Of course, all of these questions could be asked of congregations themselves . . . how do we use our resources?  In what ways do we seek to "market" ourselves to the community?  And in doing so, do we comprimise on the Gospel so that we can get butts in the pews and money in the offering plates?

A seminary professor said to me once, "You know, if we all truly followed Jesus, we'd end up on a cross like his."  Of course, it's in our nature to avoid the cross at all costs . . .

Published by Lutheran Zephyr

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

2 thoughts on “Consumer Capitalism and Christian Ministry

  1. This post is lacking something . . . an articulation of my understanding of sin.
    I posed the question: “Do we sometimes sacrifice the Gospel so that we can keep our doors open and our bank accounts filled to a certain level?” The answer to that question is, of course, YES! But not just in Christian business enterprises, but in daily life. We constantly turn our back on the poor, indulge in selfish consumption, go along with the status quo . . . we are simultaneously sinner and saint – mired in the muck of sin yet also called and empowered to live as saints. It affects us all, of course.
    I’ve worked at the intersection of capitalism and faith, both in Christian publishing and in fundraising for a theological seminary. It’s a messy business, for sure. As a former pastor used to say, “This side of the Kingdom of God, nothing is perfect.” He is right.
    But still, this declaration of simultaneously being sinner and saint isn’t an excuse. We still made decisions, draw lines, and attempt – however imperfectly – to live as saints in a fallen world. The decisions I’d make, the lines I’d draw, are different than those that the massive Christian publishing industry (particularly it’s evangelical core) makes.
    The flash and glitz that sometimes accompanies Christian marketing turns me off (and I’m not just talking about the publishing industry – the self-promotion offered by one Lutheran pastor/consultant/speaker dude from a few years back was over-the-top, if you ask me). I think we’re called to a different way of “doing business” . . .

  2. I think you should amend the original posting by adding your comments to it directly because if a person finds your posting through a feed reader, the comment doesn’t show up.
    I’ve been pondering the whole issue of “wages” lately because of the inequities that have been put in the news because of the bad economy. Maybe I’ll get around to posting if I can order my thoughts on this.
    To your point: The basic question is “When is a church (any branch thereof) successful? When the people hear the message of grace and leave feeling good? When there are more people in the door? When more money comes in? When all the members sacrifice most of their wages for the poor? When the members put their lives on the line to stop injustices? When the preacher preaches these things and the people leave in droves? How does our God measure success?
    Some people I know bought tickets to hear a well-known pastor from Texas who-shall-go-unnamed speak in Mpls. Since when do people have buy tickets to hear the Gospel? Or maybe he doesn’t preach the Gospel. Did one have to buy a ticket to hear Billy Graham?

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