When Grace is an Introductory Offer

*Disclaimer: after a discussion with a trusted mentor who said this original post sounded like a whiny church-hater, I have edited it to be more constructive. This blog should always be critical and provocative but never senseless or without hope. I critique to prune, not destroy. Hopefully this edition reveals more of my heart.

I originally titled this post “When Church is a Pimp.” That’s what it could be called. Or even “When the Church is a Gang.” The same psychological principle applies to all: the old bait and switch.

The function of the bait-and-switch is simple, advertise one thing, and then turn it into something else. For instance, offer the introductory rate of $29.99 a month and after 3 months, it goes up to $199.99 a month. And we’ll be sure to not send you an email before it does.

Gangs and pimps promise great things to get you in the door. Most importantly, they offer a place to belong with no strings attached. They promise never to judge you, to accept you as you are, and they even give you free stuff.

But once you are hooked they switch the model. For pimps and gangs there is usually a sharp contrast. The prostitute finds herself “indebted” to the pimp, who now expects obedience, usually reminding them of their initial “generosity” and the prostitutes continual ungratefulness. For gangs, that sense of belonging and family now comes at a cost. You begin to feel pressured to do what the leaders say and follow the groupthink. Or else.

Now, I am not comparing church leaders to pimps or gang leaders. But sometimes this is, unfortunately, the exact strategy I see in far too many churches. But in churches, the switch is much more gradual and subtle.

Attempts to give away free gifts, free coffee, and make a guest feel welcome are slowly replaced with calls to give financially, serve in the nursery or pressure to be a “life group leader.” The same leader who was eager to tell you that you will never be judged now starts to question why you are living with your girlfriend. And your girlfriend gets wind that some of the women in the group are talking.

Most confusingly, the church told you as a guest that this church was for you and about you. Now, that you are not a guest, the church is telling you that this church is not for you and it is not about you. But, and here is the kicker, they never tell you about the switch. You’re left to figure it out on  your own. And when you do, you feel deceived.

That is to say, you begin to get the feeling that grace and acceptance was just an introductory offer – and your 3 months are up.

Unfortunately, this sometimes also involves what it means to follow Jesus. As an “outsider” we tell you that grace is free, you can do nothing to earn it. Nothing you can do can make Jesus accept you any less. And you get to go to heaven when you die. And he’ll help you get out of debt and have a great marriage. Who wouldn’t sign up for that deal?

But after we have you sign on the dotted line, we start to see the fine print. Jesus might accept you as you are, but there seems to be higher expectations around here. There is now talk about the “proper views” of the Bible, behavior, and social issues.

So how do we avoid this strategy in the churches? This approach that leaves people feeling dirty, deceived, and duped?

Admittance – it is simply not okay in evangelical culture to admit that you believe “true Christians” behave a certain way and believe certain things. It’s grace alone. But the reality is, we still do. We have our cultural (or even biblical) baggage for how a Christian should look. Perhaps some of that is appropriate. Oftentimes it is not. And we can deal with all that. But, first, we have to be willing to admit it, to ourselves, and to people who are “checking us out.”  And until we do, we will be selling a Jesus that our system cannot deliver.

Transparency For a religion that talks so much about the truth, we aren’t very good at communicating it. We are so desperate to get people to know Jesus, we oversell. If we really believed that conversion is the Spirit’s job, we would stop trying so hard (or at least be a little more honest). If you honestly believe you can’t be a faithful and obedient Christian and also believe in evolution, for crying out loud, stand up and say so. Say it from the pulpit and say it in your membership classes or whatever other venues you have. If you are selling “nothing but Jesus” and then throw in some additions after they have bought in, expect not to be trusted. That is shady telemarketer business.

More importantly, if you treat guests one way and expect “attenders” or members to act in a different way, be transparent about that. Make it explicit and over-communicate why you do that. And give people a tangible way of knowing “which side” they are on.

And finally, either live up to your slogans or change them. In the world of advertising, we are sold too many false promises already.

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3 responses to “When Grace is an Introductory Offer

  1. I think this has similar undertones in your posting about how the children’s ministry is handled. I understand the nature of what you are saying, but I think it is kind of an unavoidable phenomenon. You say on a regular basis that the belief in the resurrection of Christ is the cornerstone of Christianity, that he died for our sins. To me, that naturally seems like the place to start.

    I agree that there seems to be an over emphasis of churches trying to gain new numbers rather than refine the body they have. How would you change the system as it is? I just can’t imagine asking new believers to try and comprehend all of the implications of becoming a Christian as soon as they walk in the door. I think that is impossible.

    • I agree Steven. But there is a certain transparency and communication that allows for people to grow into expectations without feeling deceived or duped. Like I said, it’s not a moral problem, just a systemic problem. And I think the first step is recognizing the reality of what we are doing instead of pretending we are doing something else.

  2. Well, I can certainly relate. My last church loved to say they would do “Anything short of sin to introduce people to Jesus”. Cool. Don’t you know that certainly drew some pretty messy people with some pretty radical ideas.

    I can’t recall how many times I heard from the pulpit…”this is your church (especially on the new start-up campus) “you’re in on the ground floor…” We want you to check it out…ask questions…kick the tires”… “We want you to take ownership here and partner with us in ministry”…Seriously.

    A year or so later…when I wanted to introduce a new opportunity for women’s to gather for community and learning…but logistically needed to meet on campus…I was dumbfounded when I heard “We don’t really do that here”. When I had questions about what seemed to me, to be wasteful and irresponsible spending on youth ministry activities like; purchasing IPODS, Itunes gift cards, Xboxes etc…to give away as ‘prizes’ on weekly basis as well as providing pizza and soda for 100 kids every week…and yet they balked at the idea of having to help a single mom pay her rent/utilities more than once…I felt confident I could challenge that…ask why….since I was told it was my church and they wanted me to take ownership…and partner with them…So I did…and I was knocked down of ‘my presumptuous high horse’ pretty quick.

    What I eventually recognized was that ‘bait and switch’ you mention here. The sweet deal, the perks…last until you are ‘all-in’. Then there is a different standard of service, how you relate to authority in the church and what you can and cannot question, say or do. This is one of the reasons I am so allergic to church today.

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