Biblical advertising: Let's leave self-righteousness on the cutting room floor
What do you think when you see this? If you're a Christian, you might be thinking "yes, that's right!" and you might already be lamenting the sadness of the crazy consumerist society that is gripping our world, most potently represented by the craziness of Black Friday last week.
You might also be thinking "Oh no, not again" at the corniness and cheese oozing out of these kinds of Christian posters. And you might also be thinking "but the day Jesus died is called Good Friday, not Black Friday", but that's by the by. The important question is "What is the non-Christian thinking?", which one has to ask whether the people who make these sorts of images actually thinks about.
If you look at the image again, and try and imagine a non-Christian perspective (if you need to imagine) probably what comes to your mind first, after the cheese, is the patronising air of smug superiority that seems to form a suffocating cloud around your monitor as you look at the image above. The image seems to be looking down at you, tutting as you go about your Christmas shopping while it gets on with the higher pursuit of sharing the message about the gospel.
Are you warmed to Jesus by this image? Do you think on Christianity more kindly? Do you remotely consider going to church yourself? Or is this just another thing on your list of reasons why you don't like the Church/Christianity/Christians?
The problem with this, and a lot of other church advertising is that it comes from a place of superiority and self-righteousness. The message is essentially "We're right, you should come and listen to why". Many churches think like this, that when they advertise, since they are doing God's work and they are reaching out to people, then surely the mere fact of the message being right is enough. The problem is, this permeates into the message itself, and allows a sneering "look down" approach to creep into the creation of our materials. Cheese is just something that comes from not being good at advertising, but sneering is actually a form of self-righteousness and is something we should be concerned about.
This is a problem many Christians deal with, the idea that because they are right, they are somehow justified in telling the truth about their rightness in any way they like. But the fact is, part of the truth that Christians are right about is the central importance of not sinning. And self-righteousness is a sin.
There are some things Christians need to think about when they make their advertisements, starting with some fundamental understandings about what makes an advertisement good but not sinful (many view the advertisement industry as a whole as deceptive, something that's not helpful).
After that, there is that important commandment Jesus mentioned: "Love your neighbour as you love yourself." You don't want to be talked down to. You don't want to be lectured at. You don't want to be judged or patronised or smothered with a fluffy insubstantial supplicant for the genuine experience of God. You just want honest Christianity. Honest and open and real Christianity.
Recently, Huffington Post freelancer Angela Jamene shared very aptly what it is that this kind of advertising is trying to give people. The following is her testimony:
"Just over two years ago, I picked up a free bible, I had read it before but, this time, almost instantly, in a wave of emotions and realizations and revelations and a wide variety of indescribable sensations, I became a Christian. It happened. It was not deliberate and it was not a choice. It was what I thought never happened to anyone, it was what I had been so sure did not exist the way any of these nut jobs described it, but I'll be damned (pun intended) if it didn't happen to me. I got saved."
She continues: "In any movie centered around a coming of age love triangle, the title character will ask "Dad, how did you know you loved mom?" or, if our lead is female, "Mom, how did you know you loved dad?" and whether mom or dad are answering, the answer is always the same, "I just knew."
"It was like that. I just knew.
"That's what they want for you. That's what the person that has sent you countless emails and texts about next Sunday, or called you every Saturday night asking to pick you up in the morning, wants for you. Every card from your grandma with bible passages written on it means she wants this for you. Every flyer from your neighbor, or old high school friend, about another church event means they want this for you. Every invitation to church is an 'I love you and I want this indescribable love, peace, and joy for you because I genuinely care about you'.
"The people that invite you to church are just like that friend that insists that you try the new Puerto Rican restaurant downtown, they have experienced something amazing and they want it for you too. It's like that, but on almighty steroids. When a friend or a kindly stranger, a relative or a playgroup parent, says 'Hey, why don't you come to church with me on Sunday?' what they mean is 'I love you so much, I cannot describe what I know you can get from this because I can't even put into words what it has done for me'. We understand that when you live in a world of sneaky advertising and suspicious sales scams, this sounds like just another one. But, it isn't."
With Jamene's testimony in mind, let's have no more of this sad attempt to seem relevant by referencing popular culture, and in fact end up driving more people away than we attract. Instead, let's actually think about what people outside the Church want and need of God. Not how we want to feel when we tell them about him. Let's remember the deep and powerful love that Jesus had for us all when he was dying to bring us to him. Let's allow that love to inspire us when we reach out to people through images, words or otherwise, and let's not ever, ever, absolutely never, sin while we do it.