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Do Church Outreach Stunts Send the Wrong Message?

Do Church Outreach Stunts Send the Wrong Message?

Transformation Church’s Easter production, Ransom, took the Christian world by storm last week, although not for the reasons Pastor Mike Todd may have hoped.

Todd’s Tulsa-based church chose to put on a rather extravagant two-hour long Easter production in lieu of a traditional service. But after facing online backlash for the use of pyrotechnics, dozens of dances to covers of Ke$ha and Beyoncé songs, dry ice and demonic characters, Todd posted a video explaining his intentions behind the program.

“Usually Easter is where we come to cheer with the people who are already on the ream. That’s called practice,” Todd said before the production began. “I want to go after the people who haven’t signed up to play the game yet. I want the person who feels lonely and isolated and like God doesn’t care. I wanted them to see how amazing Jesus actually is and what God actually did for all of us.”

Todd’s sentiments might sound familiar to most of us who grew up in church. These sorts of “outreach events” have been prevalent in Western church culture for ages.

In the ’90s and early 2000s, the “Christian Power Team” would travel from town to town, tearing phone books in half and flexing their comically massive biceps all for the sake of the Gospel.

The now-defunct Cornerstone Music Festival was like Coachella collaborated with the Church. The CCM mega-fest was a way to show Christians and non-Christians alike that church music could be fun and cool, too.

And who could forget the OG Easter productions: passion plays. Every Easter, Christian actors would depict the last hours of Jesus’ life on the lawn of the courthouse, within viewing distance of three of the county’s rowdiest bars.

But to be fair, not all church “outreach programs” require ridiculous costumes or over-the-top performances. Sometimes these programs look like inviting unexpected guests to speak at an event or a simple children’s play day that brings local families together.

Unfortunately, church “outreach stunts” can just as easily make followers of Jesus look foolish, and arguably push nonbelievers even further from Christianity. And history is littered with examples. The Fight Church documentary chronicles the odd, but expanding influence of MMA programs within Evangelical congregations. Billed as “outreach movements” because “tough guys need Jesus too,” some churches have gone as far as to stage pastor vs. pastor bouts, with both both fighters sharing the same pulpit the next morning.


And it’s not just celebrities, hip-hop and sex that churches use to draw in nonbelievers. Events like assault rifle raffles have become marketing tools for churches.

Tim Harlow, senior pastor of Parkview Christian Church, who wrote Life on Mission, a book on evangelism, has seen the positive fruits of publicity stunts, as he was mentored early on by a fellow ministry leader who first attended church as a child to get a free plane ride.

“God wants lost people home. If my kid is lost, you can bet I’d do a swan dive off the Empire State building if it helps you find her,” he says. “But there’s a danger too. If we’re doing stuff that makes the world think we’re desperate to proselytize, then we’ve done more damage, and possibly driven nonbelievers further from a place of being able to hear about Jesus.”

Cage fighting, pyrotechnics and AR-15’s have no doubt served as first steps in some lost souls finding their way home to Jesus. The real issue is that we’ll never know how many people are driven even further from the message of Christ by some of the more over-the-top stunts. But a good place for pastors to start is asking themselves, “if this goes wrong, could it be easily parodied on Saturday Night Live?”

While there will always be disagreement within Christianity about pulling off stunts in the name of leading people to Jesus, Chicago-based Pastor Ron Citlau believes that the real harm could come from focusing too much on stunt-based outreach events.

“Marketing is one tool in the toolbox of evangelism,” he says. “I do think churches in general put too much stock into it. What matters is the Gospel being proclaimed and lives being changed. There’s no better marketing than that.”

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