The Hard Sell

It was last March when I wrote Evangelical Catholicism and New Evangelism. I had my little rant about the modern culture of advertising, hard selling and getting around the fact that a given person doesn’t want or need your product.

When was the last time I met someone in France who is remotely interested in religion or Christianity? My mother-in-law, a Roman Catholic, goes to church most Sundays – and the Mass was absolutely wonderful as soon as there was a little singing and a reasonable number of people in the pews. French Catholicism has been down for a long time, ever since it was no longer the “respectable” thing for thinking people. The Irish Church is really going down. Two factors: sudden prosperity and the paedophile priest scandals.

My wife and I visited a Trappist abbey with a particularly ugly church. The monks were of their usual discretion. There were a few ordinary people there to pray and find a moment’s peace. Yes, Christ is still to be found in the hidden places.

I don’t know about America, but at least we don’t get phone calls about Christianity as we get about having our homes diagnosed for better heat efficiency or yet another insurance salesman. I am glad about that. Telephone sales people are doing their job, so I try not to be rude, simply to say that I protest the invasion of my privacy and inform them that on principle I will not buy anything because of telephone advertising.

Coming to the point, has Christianity had its day or is there a way we can evangelise – ie: market God and Jesus and our particular brand? I have often heard the question asked, whether churches should employ professional sales people and marketers. Marketing is a highly skilled job involving knowledge of psychology and the sort of thing that began to be developed in Germany by Josef Göbbels – propaganda. The mere mention of the Nazi minister of propaganda is certainly enough to show complete cynicism about the whole world of marketing and propaganda. It involves taking people’s freedom away through psychological manipulation and using them for our own advantage. The very idea is anti-Christian.

Marketing is all about selling people something they don’t want or need.

We are all influenced to some extent by marketing and advertising. I try to resist it as much as possible, but we have to be honest. We look at our shopping basket, and find we have some brands of things and remember a particular witty TV commercial. It worked and I kick myself for allowing myself to be a part of the “pit”! My wife and I carefully study the price per kilo of just about everything and have a good look to see there isn’t too much fat on the meat and the vegetables aren’t rotten before they’re ripe. We really do try to restrict ourselves to what we need – and see through the lies. The “special offers” on the ends of the shelves are often more expensive than the regular products in their usual places!

The urban world is a noisy place. I am nearly always out of it, and sometimes completely out of it when out in my boat. The world is selling products and services, and is also offering stimulation and entertainment to satisfy our lower instincts, cravings and addictions. Can we bring religion and spirituality down to this level? This prayer will make you rich and powerful – like – buy this big and powerful car and you might get the pretty girl with it!

Religion and spirituality, not only Christian but other faiths too, are the opposite of the illusion commercial marketing tries to create. The typical religious way involves hardship and priority given to principles and transcendent desires over comfort and emotional stimulation. It is true of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and just about every serious spirituality or philosophy of life. Many atheists have a philosophy of life that involves authenticity, generosity and self-sacrifice. How do you sell suffering and the dark night of the soul?

If I were a car salesman and said to my customer that he can have this beautiful car if he works hard for ten years and saves up to buy it, I would be bankrupt in five minutes! Toil and hardship would have to be rewarded by something more abiding and worthwhile! People think carefully when they are asked to spend real money.

People turn to God when they see that nothing else will relieve their spiritual agony and poverty. What I find interesting is the way people quietly flock to the monasteries and are found in silent prayer, because only God will do – and nothing else. I am glad to live in a country where “evangelism” is not a way of life or a credible way of filling the pews of empty churches.

Most people don’t want or need God because they have something that fulfils them at least for the time being, that is until they are confronted with death, the bottom falling out of their lives or whatever. I read articles about “sustainable growth” and the way this planet can be increasingly populated and people made comfortable and dependent on the right people. I get the feeling that things can only go so far until some big collapse as has happened before in history. We often look to the “end of the world” for self-justification, and that is another blind alley. Our suffering is to see a world that doesn’t care a damn about what we care about most.

Efforts at religious marketing seem to be tied up with the present culture that simply doesn’t want or need God. The big problem is that churches are run like businesses – they need paying customers to keep the buildings and bureaucratic structures going. A business with no market has no future – supply and demand. If there is no demand, you close down your business before it closes you down.They can try marketing and advertising, but what if they have nothing to sell, nothing that corresponds with any real or manufactured need?

Institutional churches are desperate because the churches are having to be closed down and sold. Irreplaceable treasures are going to the highest bidder. The cultural heritage of centuries is being trashed. The institutional Church is going the same way as every single empire this world has known, from the Roman Empire to the Italian, German, British and French versions. It is going the way of the trajectory of history. Our little churches will go the same way in as far as we have the same attitudes and needs to “keep the business going”.

I have no clear answer, but I see light in some of the monasteries I visit. They earn their living making good quality food and home products. Some communities have turned to technical expertise, and often work for industry. Their authenticity as men of prayer is something apparent for all to see, and this seems to be a chink of light at the end of the tunnel. I believe there will be monasteries even when there are no diocese or parishes, no bureaucracy, and at a time when bishops and priests will be working in ordinary jobs and struggling like everyone else.

This being said, there is a “new monastic” movement that involves monks living and working in the modern world and meeting for prayer. But, gone is the splendour of the liturgy and soaring chant in buildings whose only future is being gawked at by Japanese tourists chewing gum and taking photos!

Everyone knows they are there, and can go when they find they want and need God.

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One Response to The Hard Sell

  1. Neil Hailstone says:

    Important I think to have the laity involved in evangelism.Whatever else we do let us please not use high power sales techniques and employ marketing experts as if we were selling Keep Fit equipment on a Shopping Channel. So to all catholic priests who read or post here I would make a plea. Equip and use your lay members for the purpose in addition to your own efforts. Then advise that they spread the Good News appropriately. I don’t think that standing upon a soap box in the nearest high street with an open KJV and doing a lot of shouting will bring forth any good result.

    Personal evangelism, just quietly talking to other people when an opportune moment arises seems to me a better way forward for lay members of the Holy Catholic Church.As the Pope Emeritus said – we need to take our Christianity into the Market Place.

    Another useful activity is involvement in the community, politics or using the written word in various media and doing so without leaving our faith at home. Now and then opportunities pop up bring the Faith before other people. In doing this I strongly advise against any ‘In yer face’ authoritarian attitudes.Just speaking calmly and in a friendly manner or if going into print then always writing in a temperate manner free of polemic.

    For any Christians, members of the Laity like myself, who are reading this I would just add the following..
    If you speak to someone previously unknown to you about the Faith be sure that if you mention the word ‘Catholic’ ( I speak from experience) within the first two sentences of the reply the word ‘paedophile’ will appear.Best to have your answers to that appalling behaviour well thought through.

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