I recently posted a picture on my blog of some banners for a Christian campus ministry that said worship teaching and fellowship. The initial letters of each word were in large block print. I noted that this was an epic fail but it turns out that by posting their banners, I inadvertantly joined the “viral marketing” of their campus ministry.
So the banners moved from the realm of “unfortunate hilarious gaffe” to an intentional attempt at cultural relevance. In the market of Christianity in America a lot of churches are looking to the Madison Avenue techniques of branding, relevance and niche marketing to get people in their doors so they can hear the gospel.
Recently a Church in the Phoenix area did an edgy billboard and mailing campaign for a sermon series called “Bringing Sexy Back” with a signature poster of the bottoms of two sets of feet in bed in an obvious conjugal position. The sermons were an “R” rated marriage and family series intended as an “evangelistic effort” … and it got what it was looking for: wide discussion on local talk radio… viral promotion. I listened to some of the talk radio on the way to work and the only people who were impressed with the campaign were, well… “edgy” Christians. Many of the “worldly people” the campaign was aimed at thought it was pretty dumb and saw it for what it was: Christian “bait and switch ruse” to try to get them into the door. But, one MIGHT ask, “How far should a Church go to “speak to the culture” when doing PR for Jesus?” Or does Jesus need new PR as a certain website claims. Is it legitimate to get edgy to appeal to the unchurched, or are Churches setting themselves up for being made fun of by the world who sees it as ultimately just more churchy ill conceived desperation and stupidity and a compromise of our own values and message? And of course even within the Christian community there are those who will criticize and condemn what they perceive as over the top and the edge of the envelope attempts to relate to the culture. We Christians don’t need to make fun of each other for stuff like this, and even if we try to, like most things, the non-Christians do a much better job at it anyway.
In some ways it’s too easy for we Orthodox to sit back and poke fun at what we perceive as evangelical weirdness. I mean God knows we have our own brands of weirdness. In terms of non-Orthodox Christianity, all you have to do is surf around on YouTube and you can find everything from people folk chanting in tongues, clown masses, Partridge family worship bands, 80s hair band worship leaders, all in their own unique way, attempts at being relevant. You’d think by now people would get that 30 years from now what is relevant hip and cool today will be making the rounds on blogs and people will be LOL-ing at it. Hip just ends up looking stupid eventually. But the flip side of this for Orthodox converts is that our branding and our hipness and our relevance is to be irrelevant. The new hipness is to be old and unhip, our branding is 2000 year old nostalgia, and our biggest selling point is that we don’t look like anything else in the market today. It used to be that the Orthodox presence in the community was the church on the corner perhaps a sign in front of it with their service times and may be a small 1” x 1” ad in the religion section on Saturday with their address and the time of liturgy on Sunday morning. With the advent of the Internet, pixels have replaced brick-and-mortar, podcasts and websites, blogs and twitter present everything about the church for the last 2000 years from theology to what goes on behind the altar that the average layman for almost 2 millennia never saw, to its scandals, the private piety of the old grandmothers to the inner Byzantine machinery of its politics. You can like 1000 Orthodox pages on Facebook and be friends with 3000 Orthodox people and never enter a church.
Lest anybody think I’m casting stones at glass houses, I should probably say that I’m fully aware that I’m doing this podcast from within the glass house and in fact it’s a house I I’ve helped build for the last 12 years. So I think in this day and age it’s a legitimate question to ask what does evangelism and cultural relevance look like in the Orthodox church. I think Dimitru Staniloae in his book” The Experience of God” gives us the answer. On page 232 there is a beautiful passage that describes the saint:
In the saint there exists nothing that is trivial, nothing coarse, nothing base, nothing affected (fake), nothing insincere. In him is the culmination of delicacy, sensibility, transparency, purity, reverence, attention before the mystery of his fellow men…comes into actual being, for he brings this forth from his communication with the supreme Person (God). The saint grasps the various conditions of the soul in others and avoids all that would upset them, although he does not avoid helping them overcome their weaknesses. He reads the least articulate needs of others and fulfills it promptly, just as he reads their impurities also, however skillfully hidden and through the delicate power of his own purity, exercising upon them a purifying action. From the saint there continually radiates a spirit of self-giving and of sacrifice for the sake of all, with no concern for himself, a spirit that gives warmth to others and assures them that they are not alone. … And yet there is no one more humble, more simple, no one more less artificial, less theatrical or hypocritical, no one more “natural” in his behavior, accepting all that is truly human and creating an atmosphere that is pure and familiar. The saint has overcome any duality within himself as St. Maximos the Confessor puts it. He has overcome the struggle between soul and body, the divergence between good intentions and deeds that do not correspond to them, between deceptive appearance and hidden thoughts, between what claims to be the case and what is the case. He has become simple, therefore, because he has surrendered himself entirely to God. That is why he can surrender himself entirely in communication with others.
The saint always lends courage; at times, through a humor marked by this same delicacy, he shrinks the delusions created by fears or pride or the passions. He smiles, but does not laugh sarcastically; he is serious but not frightened. He finds value in the most humble persons, considering them to be great mysteries created by God and destined to eternal communion with Him. Through humility the saint makes himself almost unobserved, but he appears when there is need for consolation, for encouragement or help. For him no difficulty is insurmountable, because he believes firmly in the help of God sought through prayer. He is the most human and humble of beings, yet at the same time of an appearance that is unusual and amazing and gives rise in others to the sense of discovering in him, and in themselves too, what is truly human. He is a presence simultaneously most dear, and unintentionally, most impressing, the one who draws the most attention. For you he becomes the most intimate one of all and the most understanding; you never feel more at ease than near him, yet at the same time he forces you into a corner and makes you see your moral inadequacies and failings. He overwhelms you with the simple greatness of his purity and with the warmth of his goodness and makes you ashamed of how far you have fallen away from what is truly human, of how far you have sunk in your impurity, artificiality, superficiality, and duplicity, for these appear in sharp relief in the comparison you make unwillingly between yourself and him. He exercises no worldly power, he gives no harsh commands, but you feel in him an unyielding firmness in his convictions, his life, in the advice he gives, and so his opinion about what you should do, expressed with delicacy or by a discreet look, becomes for you a command and to fulfill that command you find yourself capable of any effort or sacrifice…
Who ever approaches a saint discovers in him the peak of goodness, purity, and spiritual power covered over by the veil of humility. He is the illustration of the greatness and power of kenosis. From the saint there radiates an imperturbable quiet or peace and simultaneously a participation in the pain of others that reaches the point of tears. He is rooted in the loving and suffering stability of God Incarnate and rest in the eternity of the power and goodness of God….
(Dimitru Staniloae. The Experience of God, Holy Cross Press, pp. 232-234)
When I read this passage I thought, “If our Christian lives were even close to being like this among the people we meet day to day, there would be no need for programs, advertising, campaigns, cultural relevance, techniques, classes, seeker friendly services and contrived hype.” The only relevance we need is holiness that is real, has integrity and is grounded in the life in Christ. Relevance, if we take the gospel of God becoming man seriously, is personal relevance: one to one, face to face, incarnational encounters with people. When people are objectified as demographics or as personal evangelistic projects, God becomes the agent of affectation, condescension, duplicity, schemes and phoniness. Because we are not personally an icon of Christ, we create an “image” for our churches to draw people in. Because we are not saints we learn techniques and methods designed to manipulate people, and our personal personas become a well-crafted facade. We employ external techniques because we are still fragmented by sin, we lack integrity, the inner seamlessness of holiness. Methods are calculated schemes, a snare for the unwary and feeble, for the undiscerning emotionally needy or the just plain desperately lonely and hungry for friendship who take our bait. But techniques and programs are not love, they are a camouflaged trap and the outsider, the sinner is the prey. In the end we trap the “man” but kill his spirit when he discovers he was a demographic target or hand picked as a project to be worked over no matter how friendly the spiritual mugging was.
So, how do we evangelize and “engage the culture”? For all the covert talk about “baptizing our culture”, I think the answer is this: There is no Orthodox service for the baptism of a “culture”. There is only one baptism: of persons, and one at a time. The “Church” does not engage cultures, saints encounter people. When enough people live as saints and enough persons are baptized because of those encounters, cultures change. (But even so, cultural relevance or baptism of a culture is still not the goal, the salvation of the person is. An “Orthodox culture” guarantees nothing personally to anyone. Modern Greece with the highest promiscuity and abortion rate in Europe along with its abysmal percentage of church attendance of baptized Orthodox at least anecdotally indicates that having an “Orthodox culture” is no guarantee that “Orthodoxy” is influential culturally or personally).
If the Church is to be relevant, the Church has to be relevant to each member. And then each member must engage the Church’s agenda to make one a saint. And then as saints each person is personally relevant to people. It is impossible for the Church to be relevant to “the world” apart from its creation of saints within it. Putting up websites, hanging banners or doing programs to attract a demographic and then working “the plan” on those they attract is a cheap back up because we have few saints among us who walk in the world as salt and light. Madison Avenue and market research has replaced what St. Paul calls the “fragrant aroma of Christ” (II Cor. 2:14ff), and the beauty of “love unfeigned” (Rom. 12:9).
A phony, insincere, arrogant, base, impure, irreverent, insulting, impatient, selfish, egoistical, narcissistic, angry, harsh, judgmental, rude and impious person is irrelevant to everyone. The Saint needs no banner, no website, no technique, no contrived marketing image because he is in the image of Christ and thus relevant to each person he encounters, regardless of culture or demographic.
If Fr. Dimitru is even close, what the Church needs is more saints to go into all the world as icons of Christ, not more websites and branding and marketing plans to get people to come to the Church.