Wednesday, August 18, 2010
The Wall Street Journal has an article on "The Perils of 'Wannabe Cool' Christianity" which, like the Paul Graham article I discussed the other day, is about advertising, this time by churches.
There are two things I find interesting about this one so soon after the Paul Graham piece: (1) It touches on an issue somewhat related to an important problem faced by legitimate cultural activists: How do we pique interest in our message in as much of our potential audience as possible? (2) Christianity, based on faith as it is, has no way to appeal to the minds of its audience, so its advertising will necessarily be misleading. Bearing this in mind, can we still learn anything from the experiences of churches that try to promote themselves as trendy to a young demographic?
I think we can, and to do that, we have to consider the marketing tactics adopted by these evangelical churches as well as what (in generic terms) they are trying to sell. The following two paragraphs give a sense of the marketing approach:
There are various ways that churches attempt to be cool. For some, it means trying to seem more culturally savvy. The pastor quotes Stephen Colbert or references Lady Gaga during his sermon, or a church sponsors a screening of the R-rated "No Country For Old Men." For others, the emphasis is on looking cool, perhaps by giving the pastor a metrosexual makeover, with skinny jeans and an $80 haircut, or by insisting on trendy eco-friendly paper and helvetica-only fonts on all printed materials. Then there is the option of holding a worship service in a bar or nightclub (as is the case for L.A.'s Mosaic church, whose downtown location meets at a nightspot called Club Mayan).Setting aside the inherent problems of attempting to package deal today's somewhat diluted forms of an ancient mystery cult with what are commonly regarded as the benefits of modern, rational civilization, there could be pitfalls inherent to such an approach even for proponents of a rational philosophy.
"Wannabe cool" Christianity also manifests itself as an obsession with being on the technological cutting edge. Churches like Central Christian in Las Vegas and Liquid Church in New Brunswick, N.J., for example, have online church services where people can have a worship experience at an "iCampus." Many other churches now encourage texting, Twitter and iPhone interaction with the pastor during their services.
One could, for example, end up looking patronizing or phony to the target demographic. To wit:
"And the further irony," [author David Wells] adds, "is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them."There is nothing necessarily wrong with a marketing attempt that keeps up with the latest trends (to the extent that they aren't irrational), or of (appropriately) applying new technology to the problem of getting a message out. In fact, both things are good and necessary.
If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that "cool Christianity" is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don't want cool as much as we want real.
That said, Wells knows of which he speaks: There is a mass exodus of the young from such evangelical churches once they become independent adults. Why is this happening after all these attempts to aim specifically for this audience? What -- again, aside from and on top of peddling irrationality and discounting misapplication of technology or badly executing modern styles -- could they be doing wrong?
Part of the answer lies in what kind of product they're attempting to sell -- a comprehensive way of understanding the world in order to lead one's life. These marketing attempts are all about appearances. The target audience wants to hear a specific worldview. They might even be willing to listen to an entire lecture or two without interruption, or overlook the fact that the speaker isn't a dolled-up metrosexual. This last is what I think author Brett McCracken is driving at when he says, "[W]e don't want cool as much as we want real."
So I think several types of problems can arise that one can generalize beyond just marketing attempts to the young: (1) To target a demographic, one necessarily makes hypotheses about that demographic. Done badly or taken beyond a certain point, this can seem patronizing or phony. (2) Too much emphasis on catering to what some demographic (presumably) wants at the expense of what one has to say can dilute one's message, or even seem so far from it as to look like an attempt to put something over.
Either of the above can put off the very people one is trying to reach before one has really said anything.