I began my working life in the retail trade. In the shop where I worked, we were often incentivised in order to sell more of this or that product. The ‘hard sell’ was a matter both of pride amongst the staff and a way to take home free goodies. If the product being pushed was useful and effective, selling with conviction came easily. If, however, the product was suspect, we all found it much harder to meet our targets. Personal conviction of the product’s worth seemed essential. That experience made me wary of manipulating conviction.
Our theme this quarter is preaching with conviction. Our preaching needs to ‘ring true’ and be clearly a statement of what convinces us. Without that quality what we say will be boring or unconvincing. That said, we must acknowledge that conviction is sometimes suspect in our cynical world.
Several uncomfortable conversations I’ve had recently have begun with, ‘My years in marketing taught me that …’. On each occasion my interlocutor has gone on to describe how poor the Church is at selling itself. If only we got our pitch right and provided services that met people’s needs, congregations would grow, I was told. Our problem is the inadequacy of our targeting and our poor product development. If we got the offer right, then people would be more easily attracted to things religious.
My hesitations about that argument are twofold. First, it offers a much too mechanistic understanding of marketing. If it was all about pitch, needs, targeting and product development then some of the ‘great names’ of retail sales wouldn’t be as troubled as they obviously are. We’ve all come to know that you can supply what seems like the whole nation’s underwear and still face dramatically falling profits. There are no certain rules about ‘getting the offer right’ in our volatile and every-changing world.
That doesn’t mean that preachers have nothing to learn from marketing. The retailers’ efforts at attraction, engagement, and products that are fit for purpose, are only the beginning of what we should take seriously from that world as we design and implement our sermons. Like the good retailer we must always have at the forefront of our minds those to whom we offer the spoken work as our service. But that doesn’t mean treating our congregations as consumers.
And that brings me to my second hesitation about Church as commodity to be sold: the Gospel is never commodity for our benefit. Rather, it is always gracious gift to our benefit. It is what we are given not what we purchase – always. Ours not the task to sell it, but to simply speak and live the difference it makes – with conviction.