As the president met with House Republicans yesterday in the Capitol basement, Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) got out his BlackBerry and started to Twitter. “President Obama is speaking to House Republicans right now on Democratic stimulus bill,” he wrote on the social networking Web site. “Good salesman, bad product.”
Flake, stopped in a basement corridor as he departed the room, expanded on his Twitter report. “He’s reaching out, he’s genuine about it,” he said of the new president, but “it’s like trying to sell a Ford Pinto.”
That’s an apt description. Obama is an exceptional salesman pushing a horrible product and millions are lining up to buy it. In politics, the losing side is always claiming that they didn’t do a very good job of communicating their message. It never seems to occur to anyone that we understood the message loud and clear; we’re just not buying.
That’s because in our over-commercialized society we believe everything is about sales. I can’t count the times in my life when I mentioned to others that I am not interested in Sales and they say something to the effect that “Everything is Sales.”
Some years back I got into a heated debate with a friend in Sales who told me that if a product failed it was the fault of the Sales team. I agreed that it could be but that it didn’t have to be. VCRs didn’t die out because of an ineffective marketing strategy, for example. In fact, VHS beat Beta in the video format war for a variety of reasons, some having to do with marketing strategy, but it wasn’t marketing that caused VHS to decline; it was for the same reason you don’t see buggy whip factories anymore: Obsolesce.
Superior salesmanship will only bolster a bad product for so long. In our everything-is-sales world there is a phenomena that doesn’t fit. It’s like “the structures of scientific revolutions” in which anomalies that don’t fit the model add up and eventually lead to a paradigm shift. How do we account for the fact that sometimes growth happens with bad salesmanship?
While there is much that is useful in the various movements that help church growth using more modern techniques, the church is in desperate need of a paradign shift. The Gospel never becomes obsolete, and it’s not a product to be sold. It is a relationship to be lived.
Witness John the Baptist. People flocked to this gaunt, bearded, wild looking man of the desert dressed in camel hair. What was his message? “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” (Matt 3:2) He goes on to say in Matt 3:11-12 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Speaking of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, the Messiah, not the Great Salesman, what was His message? In Luke 14: 26-27 Jesus proclaims “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Whoever does not hate his family can not be my disciple! Whoever doesn’t carry his cross—keeping in mind that in the context of Roman occupation, this meant going to your death—whoever does not carry his cross can not be my disciple! Whoever doesn’t give up all of his possessions can not be my disciple! (14:33) Give up the things you love, the people you love and go die.
No wonder G.K. Chesterton once observed that “Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting, as it has been found difficult and left untried.” Give up the things you love, the people you love and go die. Maybe we should put that on our marquee and watch the crowds come pouring in.
But the thing is, if we take a look at the verse before all this (14:25) we find: “Now large crowds were traveling with him.” This is a jarring incongruity to the modern media and market driven mind. Can you imagine a Nike campaign that said “Our latest shoe will pinch your toes, rub your heels and cost a lot of money”? No one would buy it, and yet people flocked to Jesus.
What was Jesus offering that was so good that people wanted to follow Him if that was His message? He was offering them nothing less than Himself. They wanted to be near Him. They wanted to hear Him. And they wanted to be like Him.
Let us not forget that it was through a rag-tag band of fishermen, tax collectors, lowly outcasts that Jesus changed the world, not a crew of highly trained executive account managers and salesmen.
Obama can pitch a bad product with style and poise, charisma and charm. Let the Church keep pitching a Carpenter for King no matter how awkward, ugly, incompetent and old fashioned we may be.