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Do Church ‘Publicity Stunts’ Send the Wrong Message?

“The metal bands are amazing, and the drugs are pretty cheap, too.”

I was a newly hired 19-year-old mall employee, and one of my co-workers was explaining why he made the two-hour drive to the now-defunct Cornerstone Music Festival each summer.

My new, heavily tattooed and pierced acquaintance had no idea that I also made the summer pilgrimage to the CCM mega-fest, or that I was a follower of Jesus. What some very well-intentioned folks had thought up as an outreach movement, my new stoner friend just saw as an excuse to get high and listen to music in an open field.

Growing up as a very churched kid, my coming of age years were littered with “outreach events” of varying flavors. The “Christian Power Team” came to town and tore phone books in half, flexed their comically massive biceps, then threw in an alter call to commit to Jesus. Every Easter, my family attended a “Passion Play,” depicting the last hours of Jesus’ life on the lawn of the courthouse, within viewing distance of three of the county’s rowdiest bars. 

When I was a teen, one church brought in a female abstinence rapper (can’t make that one up) to spit some sick verses about her lack of a sex life. This “hip-hop outreach,” closed out with each high school student receiving a “sex can wait” cloth bracelet. (As you might imagine, many teens quickly found a variety of ways to modify these bracelets into ironic accessories saying things like “sex can’t wait” or “sex can wait, masturbate.”)

But to be fair, not all church “outreach programs” result in drug use or teenage lock room humor. Parkview—a megachurch in the Chicago suburbs where I serve as communications director—is full of people who showed up for the first time to hear a guest speaker like former mob boss Michael Franzese (who is depicted in the Scorsese classic Goodfellas), Miss Kay Robertson of Duck Dynasty or KORN’s Brian Head Welch, and then returned the next week for regular services.

But church “publicity stunts” can just as easily make followers of Jesus look foolish, and arguably push nonbelievers even further from Christianity. The recently released 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.

Southern Baptist pastor Ed Young actually suffered an eye injury from sun exposure after spending a day in bed on the roof of his Dallas mega church during a “Sexperiment” in which Young answered sexual questions via a live internet stream.

And it’s not just celebrities, hip-hop and sex that churches use to draw in nonbelievers. Assault rifle raffles are also becoming popular marketing tools.

My own pastor, Tim Harlow, 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.

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“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, sexperiments, 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. As a marketing director in a megachurch setting, one question I often ask in meetings is “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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