Friday, October 21, 2011

Multi-Level Marketing Christianity

Many moons ago, my wife, Lisa, and I ran a successful home-based business.  It was a direct selling, multi-level marketing business.  We did pretty well at it for several years and, for a good year or two, we had a Top 25 team within the company.  We received many accolades and awards, prizes (several free cruises), and hefty monthly commission checks.  Sometimes, I really miss those checks. :)

One of the mottoes we learned, taught to others, and lived by while running our business was:  "Some Will, Some Won't!  Who Cares, Who's Next?"  In a multi-level marketing scheme, the focus is always on building your downline.  Recruit, recruit, recruit!  The more you bring in, the bigger the residual income.  And, the more brought in by those you bring in, the bigger the residual income.  Not everyone you bring in will catch the vision.  Some will.  You focus on them, at least a little.  Some won't.  You can't waste your time focusing on them at all.  But, really, your focus is on those potential recruits - who cares, who's next?  You're always after more.  The more you get, the more successful you are.

This is not to say that Lisa and I didn't care about those on our team.  We did.  We invested in them.  We worked with them.  We helped them.  We rewarded them.  I think we ran some of the most successful team meetings within the company during our heyday.  We were generous with our blessings and eager to help others, genuinely desiring for them to experience the success we had been blessed to experience.  But, the very nature of this type of business is that the way you provide help to those within your team is to motivate them to get out there and sell and recruit, to live by the motto:  "Some Will, Some Won't!  Who Cares, Who's Next?"

While living by this motto has its place when running a multi-level marketing business, it has no business at all within our Lord's Church.  And yet, this is exactly the motto by which those congregations who have bought into the principles of the Church Growth Movement live.  They may not come right out and say, "Some Will, Some Won't!  Who Cares, Who's Next?" but everything they do reveals that this is, indeed, the motto by which they're living.

I know.  I've lived this, too.  My home congregation went the way of the Church Growth Movement years ago and everything we said, thought, and did became about recruiting more members (which was dressed up in the pious language of "reaching the lost for Jesus").  Outreach, outreach, outreach!   That's all we ever heard.  That's why we existed.  It got to the point that the pastor and other leaders of the congregation would just come right out and tell people that, once they're in, their job calling was to go out and get more people to join reach the lost for Jesus.  When once we had Divine Services and Bible Studies focused on feeding Christ's flock, now we had Worship Experiences and Outreach Seminars focused on "growing" the church.  It was quite a transformation to witness, and it wasn't long before both Lisa and I began saying to each other, "What's the difference between what's going on at our congregation and what we're doing in our business?"  We couldn't think of many differences at all.  Just replace a few words here and there and the same mottoes and visions were shared between our business and our congregation.

All of this was brought to mind today as I was browsing the Michigan District website and saw this article, which will be the feature article in the October/November edition of the District's magazine, "Michigan In Touch."  If you click on that last link, you will notice that the cover of this edition will have a picture of the praise band of Messiah Lutheran in Clio leading what they're calling "nXt" worship (which is described in the article found at the first link).

What we see highlighted here is what I call "Multi-Level Marketing Christianity."  The main focus is on getting more "recruits" (which, again, is dressed up in the pious language "reaching the lost for Jesus").  Don't believe me?  Listen to how Pastor Erik Cloeter answers the question, "What is nXt?":
“I meet many people who come to church, join, and say, ‘OK, I’m a Christian ... so what’s next?’ At Messiah, the answer has always been to reach out to those who still don’t know Jesus and to help them connect with God in a real way.” 
Do you see it?  Now that you're a Christian, what's next for you is to reach out to those who still don't know Jesus and help them connect with God in a real way.  That's your job, your calling, your mission.  And, we have created just the "captivating worship experience that breaks down typical church stereotypes" that will appeal to unbelievers, who really don't want anything to do with Jesus and His Church.  Go and invite them to come to this "captivating worship experience," which is "truly unique" and "doesn't look, sound, or feel like a traditional or contemporary worship service," for they will find this "worship experience" to be "something unlike what they may have experienced in the past." 

Yeah, it's what we used to tell potential recruits about our home-based business.  "This direct selling company is unique.  It's not your typical pyramid scheme, but a new and improved, dynamic multi-level marketing plan, which offers you the unique opportunity to succeed, like no other company out there today."  The point was to remove the stigma so many feel regarding these types of businesses and get them to believe that this is totally different.  Same thing with the "nXt" worship marketing:  "This isn't your typical Christian worship stuff here.  Oh no!  We have something new and exciting to offer.  We have chairs, instead of pews, a stage, instead of a pulpit, LED smart lights, media screens, instead of stained glass, and best of all, a live band that will rock your socks off!"  The point is to remove the stigma so many feel about Jesus and His Church.  This is a different kind of Jesus and a different kind of Church.  You'll LIKE this Jesus and Church.  You'll be entertained, moved, and leave on an emotional high, much like what happens when you go to see your favorite band perform a concert.  And - wait for it - you'll really want to go and invite your friends to come and experience this Jesus and Church, which is what's next for you now that you're a Christian and have experienced God in a real way through this "captivating worship experience."   

And, as if all of this marketing is not enough to entice unbelievers to give this Jesus and this Church a shot, the added marketing ploy of getting people to buy into the idea that this kind of "worship experience" is only for serious Christians, who have strong faith, is employed - "nXt is for the people who have strong faith and want to express that faith."  Again, same thing we said when enticing people to join our business:  "This kind of business is for those who are serious about wanting to succeed; those whose commitment and dedication and work ethic is strong," and so forth.  

The article goes on to say, "While the allure of the service is its willingness to boldly challenge the status quo, the heart of the message is what keeps people coming back."  This is typical Church Growth Movement nonsense, for it posits the absurd idea that we can lure unbelievers in by giving them what they want and like in the Church, while keeping the heart of the message - Jesus and the salvation He won for us and comes to deliver to us - in tact.  Um, no.  Doesn't work that way.  Even a seven-year-old knows this.  The allure of the service IS the heart of the message.  People aren't coming because of Jesus, but for the show.  Duh!  That's the whole reason you have "boldly challenged the status quo" in the first place - to give them something unique, captivating, exciting, and different.  It worked.  Good job!  They've come and will keep coming, so long as you keep captivating and exciting them.  Take away the show and see whose left.  Remove the smart lights, stage, band, etc., and just give them Jesus, and see how many remain. 

Not only that, but the dirty little secret no one ever likes to talk about when it comes to all this "creating a church for people who don't like church" stuff is that the turnover rate is enormous.  The "get down with Jesus" approach just doesn't last.  You might get 100 new recruits members in a year, but 30-50 get sick of it and leave.  But, who cares, who's next, right?  You gained 50-70, so, in the words of Charlie Sheen, "Winning!"

But, even if this, or other congregations like it, can boast that their turnover rate is low and their retention rate is high, there is another aspect here which proves that the whole "the allure of the service draws them in, but the heart of the message keeps them coming back" idea is a myth.  Have these "strong in faith" Christians move away from your area, and they will seek out a congregation that "rocks out with Jesus" the best in their new area.  The flirtation with the Church Growth Movement among Lutherans has been going on long enough for us to look at the hard data and draw this conclusion.  I have seen it personally a number of times.  People who have spent years in a "get down with Jesus" LCMS congregation will not seek Jesus where He has promised to be found - in water, Word, Bread, and Wine - but where they have always experienced Him - in their feelings and emotions, manipulated as they've been by smart lights, motivational messages, dramas, skits, testimonials, and, of course, the super-duper, rock-your-socks-off, praise band.  This is because, contrary to belief otherwise, the allure of the service (the gimmicks and fads and multi-media entertainment, supported by the killer praise band) IS the heart of the message.

The article concludes with a quote by Pr. Cloeter, in which he describes the church being like a hospital for sinners, a place for those in need of a Healer and Savior, so that they can ask for and receive forgiveness from Jesus the Christ, the Healer and Savior they need.  All well and good, to be sure.  The Church is a Hospital, Jesus is the Healer and Savior we need, and the forgiveness, life, and salvation He bestows upon us via His Holy Word and Sacraments is the eternal medicine we sick sinners need.  But, then, Pr. Cloeter takes all of this away with his concluding remarks:  "Everyone is welcome.  Come as you are, but leave transformed to reach out to others like you - others who need Jesus.  They're nXt!"

So, for all the pious talk about the Church being a Hospital and Jesus being the Healer and Savior you need, that's not really where the focus is.  The focus is on you leaving transformed to reach out to others who need Jesus.  Recruit, recruit, recruit!  Tell others about how cool this "captivating worship experience" is.  The more you get to come, the more successful a "Jesus Follower" you will be.  In this Multi-Level Marketing Christianity, the essence of being a Christian is bound up in being a good recruiter faith-sharer.  The problem is that your faith is in the lights and the stage and the praise band.

If you go to the website of Messiah, Clio, the homepage has the following welcome message:
We are a Bible-believing congregation, representing a dynamic community of faith, hope and love that exists to "Make More and Better Disciples For Jesus" through Word and Sacrament.  We desire to glorify God by introducing Jesus Christ to as many people as possible and to grow them up in Christ using the most effective means to impact our culture, making a positive difference in this generation.  We invite everyone to share God's joy and peace and partner in touching people in our community and world through biblical teaching, service and life changing ministries.
Does this Bible-believing congregation consist of, or merely represent, a dynamic community, etc.?  Just weird language there.  But, the Multi-Level Marketing Christianity comes through in that the reason this dynamic community exists is to "make more and better disciples for Jesus."  The use of the preposition "for," instead of the preposition "of," is not to be overlooked.  To make disciples FOR Jesus is a different thing than to make disciples OF Jesus.  When you exist to make disciples FOR Jesus, what you're really saying is that discipleship consists of assisting Jesus in reaching out to the lost (Recruit, recruit, recruit!; Outreach, outreach, outreach!), as if Jesus needs disciples to accomplish His salvific work.  He doesn't.  Really.  He's got things under control.  

Now, I'm sure some would criticize me here for picking nits, especially since the statement claims that the way more and better disciples are made for Jesus is through Word and Sacrament.  See, these are Lutherans.  They mention Word and Sacrament.  Why be so critical?  Well, because what follows the reference to Word and Sacrament in the statement shows that they do not believe that the Holy Word and Sacraments are enough.  Other means are necessary, namely "the most effective means to impact our culture, etc."  

This is how it is with Multi-Level Marketing Christianity.  Jesus simply isn't getting the job done His way.  We need to help Him out.  We need to come up with more effective means to make dynamic disciples for Jesus, the kind of dynamic disciples who will buy into our vision that being a dynamic disciple is all about bringing in more and more (oh, and better - don't forget the better!) disciples, who will catch the same vision (which comes through the unique and captivating worship experience) and become dynamic disciples and go out themselves to get more, etc.  It's all about growing the downline by infecting recruits with the desire to be recruiters - it's what congregations like this become all about; the same thing the home-based business Lisa and I used to run was all about.  
And, sadly, this is what the District I belong to believes should be advertised among us, complete with a picture of Multi-Level Marketing Christianity on its magazine's cover and a lead article praising it.  No thanks.  I'll stick with Jesus and His way of making disciples, via His Holy Word and Sacraments alone.  Not with additional allurements and trappings.  Not with the help of gimmicks and fads.  Not by giving unbelievers what they desire and like, but by preaching the Gospel in its purity and administering the Sacraments according to Christ's institution.  I'll let Him do the rest.  He's pretty good at what He does.  He can handle it.  And, as a pastor, I've been called not to follow the motto, "Some Will, Some Won't!  Who Cares, Who's Next?," but to feed, care for, and protect the sheep He sends me to serve, not with food of my own innovation and imagination, but with Him, who is the Bread of Life.  After all, I got out of the multi-level marketing business years ago.  


Jon Bakker said...

Another fine post. I don't understand how theology and practice diverge so greatly, and yet that receives accolades. I guess there are agendas everywhere, and that is really just pathetic. What you win people with is what you win them to, and if it's only an inch deep and a mile wide, it can dry up pretty fast in the heat. People leave the inch-deep churches on campus and come to the Catholics or to us. I'm not endorsing Rome by any means, but they, like us, do not hold anything back in preaching and teaching. The Word does the work, and ignites a hunger in people so strong that when they get the smallest taste, nothing else will satisfy, and they will come back not because of an impressive show; not because they know what they have to do next; but precisely because they do not know what comes next and they are yearning for more of the peace that passes all understanding. Absolution is addictive, in the best possible sense!

Anonymous said...

We're supposed to be like these congregations yet many of us who serve small congregations have nowhere near the resources to do such a thing. Such endeavors are indicative of the culture that we live in - decadent and over the top.

Michael L. Anderson, M.D., Ph.D said...

"While the allure of the service is its willingness to boldly challenge the status quo, the heart of the message is what keeps people coming back." -- Michigan in Touch magazine

The allure is scarcely arising from a challenge to the status quo. The welcome message of Messiah (MI) assures the reader that the congregation resorts to means which connect with "our culture," means which will make a "positive difference in this generation."

Unfortunately, our culture happens to be crude in taste, jaded and sodden in spirit and thus much given to things which propel the senses into over-drive ... the louder and more eye-popping the stimuli, the better. This is a generation that won't easily accept the wisdom (and the Living, sacramental Reality) testified to by the cultural odd-ball Habakkuk: "... the Lord is in His holy Temple; let all the earth be silent before Him (Hab 2:20)!" It seems that for this culture, catechesis ought to be more deem of greater iumportance than indulgence of unbeliever whims.

Traditionally, we've never been good with indulgences or "praise bands." Leave those things to the Romans and the Genevans, respectively. As the old bromide maintains: "If you can't do, teach."

Luther concluded, rightfully, that we Christians are to fear and love God. Note the order, which is probably grounded on the thought that "the fear of the Lord, is the beginning of Wisdom." Wisdom is to know Christ as the Love Who was slain for us, while we were yet mired in sin unto eternal death, and all the while His sure enemy. So a Godly fear, a holy awe and respect, is a good thing to direct towards a God who is just ... and yet who mercifully spares our hides, anyway.

Actually, come to think about it, I'm not sure what sort of fear a raucous "praise band" can generate, exactly, beyond a fear of contracting a premature neural deafness. Still, you never do hear much about "Confiteor bands" among those Lutherans "boldly challenging the status quo," do you. Why is that?

The fact is, the ancient Church has already experimented with being "in-tune" with the culture. The grand result was the dysfunctional congregation located at Corinth, which let it all hang out. I'm pretty sure this church possessed, if not actually invented, the "Who cares? Who's nXt?" attitude of marketing to the community. The laxity eventuated in a Supper transformed into a gluttonous means of expressing class warfare; the liturgy into a babble of incomprehensibility and a feminist megaphone; a congregation inclined to wink at sexual incest; and a flock of concerned letters from Paul and Clement.

I hope we are capable of learning a lesson.

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