FAIL Month: Awesomeness Fail

June 7, 2010

Know what churches need more of?  Awesomeness. 

All the experts say the church is dying, maybe because churches are just too lame.  So congregations everywhere are scrambling around, trying to figure out how they can trick the masses into showing up.  Churches try to add new contemporary services, or have big events that aren’t church, but everyone likes them, or just try to do an image makeover to look more relevant.  Some attempts are really cool and original.  But a lot…well, I’m not sure what we’re doing, but it isn’t expanding God’s kingdom.

Here’s what I mean.

Qualification Fail

Here’s where a lot of churches start with their attempt to grab new people – hire a totally awesome new person.  If churches can just get someone that understands young people, and pop culture, and knows what on earth “Twitter” is, then obviously, we will have done enough, because it’s now that person’s job to reach young people.

I was a youth pastor for three years.  I got “hired” (I use the term loosely, because there was no money involved) on the qualification that I was 20 years old, I looked reasonably mature, and my involvement would mean no one else need concern themselves with the youth.  My age and awesomeness was supposed to be an asset in bringing in new kids to our youth group, as I was practically still a high schooler.

The problem was I wasn’t hired for my experience.  My youth pastor experience was exactly zero.  Did I deliver?  Yes.  I more than quadrupled the size of the youth group.  I also found out that adding kids to the youth group doesn’t mean their families will show up to church, or even care about who this joker is who’s watching their kids for two hours.  I learned how to be a youth pastor, but not without a lot of hard mistakes.

Teenagers are at a very delicate and critical point in their lives.  It’s the time in their lives when they will make decisions that will affect their spiritual life forever.  And I was not the most mature or qualified person to be caring for those kids.  I was just the closest to them in age.  I don’t think I should’ve been the only youth pastor, despite the fact I “succeeded.”

And I see this happen all the time.  If it isn’t entrusting teens with the guy who just graduated high school himself, it’s giving a huge job to a guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing, with no support because no one else knows how to do the job either.

Pop culture fail

A church doesn’t always have to have a really cool, underqualified leader to step up their marketing game.  One thing I “love” about the church (again, I use the term loosely, as there is no love actually involved in this situation) is its uncanny ability to make a parody of every single piece of pop culture.  It’s like Weird Al Yankovic is on staff at a thousand different churches.  Everyone still loves Weird Al, right?

Sometimes, the parody turns out brilliantly.  When Vintage 21 church can take those old Jesus videos and re-dub them, the result is hilarious.  I even thought those “Christian vs. Christ follower” parodies of the Mac commercials were good.  But more often than not, it’s just lame.  Most pop culture isn’t even worth imitating, because it’s stupid to begin with.  Rule of thumb: if this phenomenon is going to look really stupid in five years, don’t imitate it.

Besides that, the phenomenon of imitating pop culture is so widespread, it deserves it’s own parody.  Remember that treadmill music video by Ok Go?  That was pretty sweet a few years ago.  Now you can’t even find it on YouTube.  It’s buried under a stack of idiotic parody videos.  If you took out all the videos of people imitating someone more awesome then them, YouTube would have approximately five video clips.

Look, we all know most of us are kind of lame.  But you know what’s really lame?  Pretending to not be lame.  When you’re in front of a karaoke machine pretending you can sing, you kind of give yourself a 100% chance of letting everyone know you can’t sing. 

X-treme fail

And of all the things a church can imitate, this is the worst.  Probably the biggest blight on advertising from the last decade is the word “extreme.”  A bunch of suit wearing focus groups decided that everything kids buy should be totally awesome and / or radical, and thus dubbed “extreme” (or x-treme to illustrate the fact that their product is so radical, it doesn’t even conform to proper spelling.)  Everything from yogurt to music needs to give kids a swift kick in the teeth and make them question if they have the gonads to handle this new product.  Kids are into skateboarding and videogames and they don’t have time for some pansy, mom-jeans-wearing yogurt.  They need “hardcore” yogurt that rides a skateboard and flips off old ladies.

If that wasn’t bad enough, churches everywhere soaked this ploy up as if it was going out of style like Cosby sweaters (update: it did go out of style.)  So suddenly, the plan to capture the imaginations of teens everywhere is to make Jesus “extreme.”  (Bonus points since “X” is now a cool symbol for Jesus.)  He’s no longer a meek and mild Savior who loves children and cuddly baby sheep.  He’s a cowboy samaurai robot ninja who has an anime cartoon that will give you epilepsy, and if you don’t like it, you can go to hell. 

The x-treme problem with this is first of all it’s a huge disappointment.  Just like when you had your first x-treme granola bar you realized it was just a regular granola bar in jazzed up wrapping.  The people who go to x-treme lengths to package Jesus hardly ever live up to their image.  Probably the most x-treme things about most of these button down Christians are their potluck casseroles.

And if a church is actually good at being x-treme and they have laser lights and arcades, teenagers still have to deal with the disappointment of graduating high school, and going to “adult” church where they worship lame Jesus, who is definately not x-treme.

If you thought X-treme Jesus would be gone by now, think again.  If there’s one thing the church is good at, it’s being behind the times.  And while music and granola bars can stop being x-treme whenever they want, once you name a church or ministry “x-treme” you’re kind of stuck with it.

Those are just three ways I see short-sightedness in the church.  Has your church done any of these?  What else do churches do to look wild and crazy awesome?

18 responses to FAIL Month: Awesomeness Fail

  1. Along with X-treme, can we scrap the words life-changing, awesome and incredible from church marketing? I keep hearing them used about almost every conference, event and service. I have a few problems with them.
    -If everything is described as life changing or awesome, it takes away meaning from things that are genuinely life changing or awesome.
    – Most services and events aren’t incredible, awesome or life changing. That’s OK. Having your life changed every week sounds rather emotionally draining. Spiritual growth tends to happen in small shuffles forward rather than big events.
    – If we hype up Christian events so much we risk teaching spiritual laziness. Why work on spiritual disciplines if there is an event coming up which is going to give you a fantastic breakthough? I’ve heard people say “Oh I wish there was a Christian conference coming up” when confronted with personal issues they probably should be working on.

    • Wow. That was amazing. I just saw a website for a couple of Christian motivational speakers that described themselves as “life changing.” I knew something big was wrong with it, but you nailed it.

    • I think I’d like to scrap church marketing as a whole. I’m with you for permantly banning those words from any marketing that does happen.

  2. You hit so many points dead on… it.

    My issue is that if some of these extreme ministries spent half the time and energy “walking the walk and getting out there doing what Jesus wants us to do” instead of creating these “awesome promotions/media venues promoting the extreme awakening/revivals” that they are supposedly creating and preparing……we’d have a decent church with youth on the move.

    For example….the money spent on these glossy 2-sided 4 X 6 postcards that are announcing a new series at youth night (that usually just end up on people’s car floors or stuck in their Bibles (like mine)…..could be used to make lunches for the homeless, coats/hats/mittens for the needy or maybe towards Bibles for kids who don’t even have one.

    I don’t know…..I don’t have all the answers but I do know that what is going on right now in many churches is not working. :(

  3. I hate how we’ve applied “relevant” almost exclusively to our gadgets and methods rather than to our message. The North Point “Sunday Morning” parody video was funny, but it was also a little bit disconcerting to me. When I see something boiled down like that so much and as THE formula to reach the unchurched, it just stresses me out a little.

  4. Great blog, Matt! I have always wondered how marketing (which I was in for many years) would ever really grow the church. It seems to have move believers from one Christian Ghetto to the next. Sorta like what malls did to downtown shopping areas in many cities.

    I think give-aways in church are sorta hokey – hey, I won a bike at church! And the multi-level marketing schemes under the guise of debt reduction, or kingdom building.

    I just don’t believe marketing will trick many into salvation – and it appears that it is not working to get people to church as well as it did in the 80’s and 90’s.

    Watch for the new term: “Edgy”. It will include near innuendo and some over the top hyperbole about traditional Bible stories. IE: Ninja Noah, Job’s Jackass Friends, and Whale Vomit, Jonah’s Secret to Influencing Others.

    I am firm believer that Jesus is quit capable of promoting himself – yeah, with love and power. I suppose the church needs to stop abdicating the feeding of the poor to the government and promoting political candidates.

    Check out my new blog, “Who Left the Lint in the Dryer Trap?” It is three ways to promote the Kingdom without marketing.

    BTW – If I was concerned about my image, nah never mind.

  5. When my church built its new building (which was already too small when we finally moved in 15 years after the kick-off of the “building fund”), we put in a full theatrical light set-up in our cafe-gym-na-torium. Yesterday at the “contemporary” service (our biggest service), the light guy decided that he needed to pulse the lights every time the drummer hit the kick during the chorus of one of the songs.

    That resulted in #1) distracting the drummer because she thought she was causing a short circuit or something, #2) distracting at least me because a) it’s such a cheesy “concert” effect and attempt to be “cool” that it just hurt, and b) either he was a hair out of tempo or there was a delay between when he pulsed and when the lights actually changed because the effect wasn’t exactly with the beat. It wasn’t _FAR_ off, but it was enough that it distracted me. I spent the entire song looking down at the floor so that I couldn’t see the stage at all. Every now and again, I’d look up to see if maybe he’d realized how stupid it was and had stopped, but was disappointed every time.

    Why do we need to be “cool” at church? Jesus was the anti-“cool.” I get speaking to someone within their cultural purview and in their “heart language,” but that doesn’t mean we have to be _seen_ as “cool.” That smacks more of pride than it does “relevance” to me anyway. As C.S. Lewis says (approximately), “the truly humble man won’t be thinking of _himself_ at all.”

  6. I don’t get it. What’s your point again? ha!

    Hey Matt, creativity is hard and the church is usually 3 to 5 years behind the rest of the world, what do you expect from us? You want us to pray and fast and experience God for ourselves so that people can see Jesus living through us? That is so 2000 years ago…

    Thanks Matt. :)

    • You had me going there for a second, Jason! I want the church to be as creative as it can, and that is hard. Maybe we should encourage the truly creative people to just create their hearts out for God, and whatever comes out of that, great. It’s really hard to be creative by committee.

  7. My biggest frustration lately is the repackaging of “god” into this gentle, meek, lovey-dovey being who wants peace all the time. Ministries all over are teaching like we serve a gentle, compassionate god that is essentially reduced to love-mush.

    That is not the God I serve. God is powerful and holy and just. He chooses to love us because of who He is, not because he has no choice or because of who we are. He has chosen to show us mercy, he is not obligated to. Jesus said he will divide, and set father against son, etc. That people will hate us because they first hated Him. When Jesus comes back, he will be coming with a sword

    I know that I am personally much more grateful for the mercy and grace I’ve received from God knowing He is powerful and could justly squish me out of existence; Knowing that He has chosen to love me rather than expecting love from God because I think that is all he amounts to or that I deserve love.

    • You make a great point. We tend to focus on the *hugs* a father gives because he loves his children, and totally ignore that a father will also smack his kid if he is doing something destructive to himself. We treat Him like an impotent but cuddly teddy bear instead of an awesome and protective Father. Yes. My earthly father smacked me when I was playing with a knife as a very small child. There is no question about whether he loved me while smacking me. Had daddy not loved me, he could have let me cut myself and learn the hard way (or die trying).

      • There is a GREAT, awesome sermon by Paris Reidhead called Ten Shekels And A Shirt, and in it he talks about serving God for who God is, even if you never gain personally from it because you realize that the almighty God is indeed worthy of worship.

        “Why should a sinner repent? because God deserves the obedience and love that he’s refused to give Him! Not so that he’ll go to heaven. If the only reason he repents is so that he’ll go to heaven, it’s nothing but trying to make a deal or a bargain with God.”

      • P.S. I am so glad someone else sees what I was talking about!

  8. I spend most of my waking hours with people under 20. They are bombarded with media… they are texting, tweeting, listening to their ipods and instant messaging all the time. They have cable at home with a bizillion channels. My experience is that they are looking for people who will love and care for them and invest in their lives. They are looking for a God that is real and different and wants to be a part of their lives too. We can’t compete with the world’s media blitz. But we can learn to really love them. I am so non-cool, non-hip etc and I’m uber non cool. I’m a pudgy middle aged woman who looks just like my little icon… but the kids I work with know that I love them. They know that I’m passionate about seeing them grow. They know that I choose to be with them… and the love being over here. I think we’d all be better off to forget the marketing blitz and ask God how to love the people he’s put in our lives. That’s something the world can’t touch.

    • Linda – so right on! I see it with my older kids 19 and 22. When the church has reached out to them (which is rare I am so sad to say), they have responded. We moved 4 years ago, and it’s been hell trying to get into meaningful relationships. The good news, an hour away, I met a pastor who is interested in my family, and our destiny. On the way we’ll drive by dozens of churches that are too busy to do what they market.

  9. Good post, Matt. How many times have people’s lives been changed by salvation just by having a friend invite them to church and them actually going? Or by praying for someone for as long as it takes?

    There is one area in which I marginally disagree with you, though I don’t think you are stating it as a fact, but merely as a way He is presented in the church: Jesus is NOT lame. Jesus is x-treme beyond words. But it is not in the flashy, adreneline-junkie worldly way. It is in the way of stretching our faith so much that we all look spiritually like Mr. Fantastic and Elastigirl. If church makes Jesus look lame, then shame on us and no wonder all of the lame, worldly, x-treme methods we use to try to lure people into church don’t work.

    Thanks for letting me get on a soapbox. If you’ll excuse me, I probably have a plank somewhere in my eye.

  10. Awesomeness is good. Jesus is the awesome :)

    Luke 6:38
    Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

    Believe those words and surf on over to Click on a link or two. It costs nothing but it sure will help a fellow brother out so he can continue helping others.

    Spread the word to other brothers and sisters. Be blessed.