The recent Dallas Morning News headline read, ‘I Am Second’ advertising campaign aims to put God first
The story mentioned billboards throughout the North Texas region and an accompanying Web site featuring videos from actor Stephen Baldwin, football coach Joe Gibbs, and other famous people.
While I find some of the “I Am Second” campaign compelling, I’m going to offer a dissenting opinion regarding evangelistic advertising and marketing campaigns.
I think many well-intentioned people are still playing out a trend that began in the early 1900s in the U.S. and the U.K.
Beginning back then, various fundamentalist, evangelical, and Pentecostal groups saw the principle problem as one of competing messages in a time when mass media was rapidly increasing its influence. The pre-set cultural touchstone of Christianity was no longer pre-set, so the goal became to answer the “bad” messages with “good” messages.
Some of these message campaigns, well-intentioned, got out of hand, like when Prohibition became law.
Today, we have too many messages — advertising prompts, marketing slogans, campaigns of various kinds — and most of them reflect a certain set of values that runs counter to traditional religious views.
Therefore, the well-intentioned, yet wrongly oriented, fundie/evangelical/Pente mind thinks that the problem is too many of the wrong kinds of messages.
Unfortunately, in their answers to the wrong kinds of messages, they are simply adding to the message-overload of our media age, in a time when message-overload is a problem unto itself.
They took the premise of our media age for granted, when the premise itself was a problem.
We need more conscientious objectors in the Message Wars (borrowing from Gregory Wolfe’s approach to the Culture Wars).
“The lost,” as the fundie/evangelical/Pente crowd defines them, do not need more messages. They really, really don’t. Meanwhile, inside some religious crowds, folks have abstracted the impact of the Gospel into polling and statistics. Who believes? Who doesn’t? Who is winning?
If the Gospel is about a relationship — with someone who has already won it all — then why make evangelization about competing messages?
To speak in fundie/evangelical/Pente terms, “the lost” need more genuine relationships with Christians who are going to stick around (instead of leaving when evangelistic efforts don’t produce an immediate conversion), and who can actually relate to others within common interests, instead of constantly proselytizing for their point of view. Inside some religious crowds, folks need to be able to identify those with whom they share common interests, and those with whom they don’t share any interests (ergo, don’t push it), and understand that the foundational commonality of bearing the image of God is our essential human nature, even if some of those images are brutally warped instead of partially restored.
Since the early 1900s, there have been generations of fundie/evangelical/Pente folks who “spread the Gospel” by handing out impersonal, mass-produced pamphlets and by inviting people to big-arena crusades (where, if they came forward, they could receive an impersonal, mass-produced pamphlet).
As a person of something like Reformed Anglican faith, I can’t say all the messages and pamphlets and crusades are entirely bad, and I understand how they can be a welcome change within all the static and visual clutter, but I think the people behind the campaigns subtly reinforce fundamental misunderstandings about what the Gospel actually is (a media event? a popular movement? a momentary triumph in the Message Wars?), as well as what actually influences people, which would be relationships.
We need a few more conscientious objectors in the Message Wars.
-Colin Foote Burch