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Let’s stop trying to sell the Gospel


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 06/26/19

Salesmanship always sells the Gospel short. Here's a better way

What’s the hallmark of a good salesman? Perhaps it might be:

A good salesman is one who can sell you what you don’t need: “He could sell ice cubes to the Eskimos!”

Another definition of a good salesman:

A good salesman is one who can sell what you didn’t know you couldn’t live without until after you bought it.

Example: I do remember that there was a time when I didn’t have a smart phone or an ATM card or a portable electronic reader. But I don’t recall such a time clearly anymore, and (most days) I’m not sure that I would want to return to those days.

How might a good evangelist “sell” Christianity? Well, from a marketing point of view, hawking Christianity as a means toward, say, self-esteem, wellness, wealth (and the many other forms of the so-called “prosperity gospel”) has a long and checkered history. It’s an error that just won’t go away.

One reason that it won’t go away is because, in a certain sense, it works. In a consumer-driven society, where there are infinite options available for (apparent) pleasures and satisfactions, the only way for the Christian brand to get “shelf space” in the mind of the consumer is to offer the consumer what he already wants, but with some kind of Christian logo on it. We see that in some of the poorer forms of youth ministry, for example, where “retreats” are pitched, according to one exasperated priest I know, as “play dates with Mass afterwards.”

But the world will always be more entertaining and effective at offering worldly goods.

But the world will always be more entertaining and effective at offering worldly goods. Well-intentioned Christians will diminish the Gospel and embarrass themselves, when they market t-shirts reading JESUS IS MY HOMEBOY because “young people like that sort of thing.”

We’ve been warned against this nonsense repeatedly:

A man who first tried to guess “what the public wants,” and then preached that as Christianity because the public wants it, would be a pretty mixture of fool and knave. (C.S. Lewis)

If Christian evangelists are looking for (paying) “customers” they will be embarrassed when Jesus says: 

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:12-14)

The way forward that does justice to the demands of the narrow gate, was identified by art critic John Ruskin:

No lying knight or lying priest ever prospered in any age, but especially not in the dark ones. Men prospered then only in following an openly declared purpose, and preaching candidly beloved and trusted creeds.

Who can deny that we’re in dark times? If the content of our preaching is to be truly the Gospel, we must have preachers who are already submitting themselves to the disciplines necessary to find and enter through Christ’s “narrow gate.” Our preaching must be more than a human work. Renowned preacher Charles Spurgeon taught:

The gospel is preached in the ears of all men; it only comes with power to some. The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher; otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning; otherwise it could consists of the wisdom of men. We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were mysterious power going with it – the Holy Ghost changing the will of man. O Sirs! We might as well preach to stone walls as preach to humanity unless the Holy Ghost be with the word, to give it power to convert the soul.

When I taught seminarians, I told them that their quality as confessors was directly related to their quality as penitents. Only sinners who met the saving grace of Christ in the sacrament would have the generosity and compassion needed to be just and merciful confessors. Likewise, only preachers who know themselves to be rescued from sin and rescued for Christ would have the good sense to seek the anointing of the Holy Spirit before they opened their mouths.

If we find ourselves looking for techniques, gimmicks, novelties, or glitter in order to “sell” the Gospel, we would do well to consider whether or not we really believe Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ of God. We should ask whether we really believe that only the narrow gate leads to life. We’re more likely to appear credible to would-be converts if we ourselves were already converted to Christ. 

When I write next, I will speak of the work of missionaries. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Young Woman Praying at Mass

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