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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Marketing Christ

Jeff Goins’ guest post at Beyond Evangelical asks “Should Christians Sell, Market, and Promote Products & Services?”

If you guessed he’s coming out strongly in the affirmative, congratulations. He says:
“There are basically two ways to pursue a creative calling as a Christian.

First, you can go into vocational ministry (as I did for seven years) and ask people to support you. This takes time and it may include some awkward conversations, pledge drives, or capital campaigns.

Second, you can get a job or go into business for yourself and support yourself that way. In your free time, you can volunteer your time at church, go on mission trips, and give discretionary income to ministries and causes that you believe in.”
Only two ways? Not exactly. He goes on to suggest another possibility:
“The third way is this: If you have a gift, a talent, or skill that the world needs, you can and should offer it people in exchange for money. If you have value to offer, you should let people pay you for it.”
The “Creative Christian” Dilemma

It’s a legitimate conundrum, and one that many creative people I’ve known over the years have struggled with: how to actually make a living doing something you love. For the Christian there’s the additional complication of trying to do it with at least a degree of integrity.

If you assume there is such a thing as a “creative calling”, perhaps Mr. Goins has a point. Everything he says follows fairly logically from that premise. So there’s not a lot of point in nitpicking at his details or his “how-to’s”.

But I strongly question the legitimacy of referring to a “creative calling”.

Inherent in the word “calling” is the undeniable implication that God is actively and approvingly involved. And while I am perfectly happy for an artist to give credit to God for his skill with a brush, a musician to give credit to God for her vocal or instrumental proficiency, or a writer to give credit to God for her unusually fertile imagination, I draw the line at using the word “calling” to refer to it. That’s assuming something that is not a given.

Any acquired, inherited or, yes, “God-given” aptitude opens up extra opportunities and additional temptations. That’s all it does. Talent does not come with a bonus packet of stickers that read “God-Approved” for the artistic or creative believer to plaster all over his or her choices and render them magically impervious to the criticism of fellow believers.

Criticize or Patronize?

But Mr. Goins isn’t on board with the idea of Christians criticizing one another’s life choices:
“... here’s an idea: what if we Christians were the first to patronize each other’s work instead of criticize it? What if we supported one another instead of tearing each other down?”
Actually, that’s exactly what Christians do. We’re ALWAYS the first to patronize each other’s work. There is a small but built-in Christian market complete with its own distribution system ready and willing to promote and purchase all kinds of artistic, musical and literary creations that are — don’t beat me to death here, but it’s true — not always up to the the standards of real-world competition. Given the limited means of many Christians and the more circumscribed economic realities of the Christian market, I’d say Christians do an outstanding job of patronizing the work of other believers, even on occasions when the work itself is of limited aesthetic value.

Of course not all Christian artists, musicians and writers are hacks; many are very talented, dedicated people. But rather than simply say, “I love music, and I try to use my skills to serve the Lord”, which has the redeeming quality of being simple and forthright, we often get the pseudo-spiritual ex post facto rationalization of a “creative calling”.

The New Testament Pattern vs. Financial Reality

I suspect that if you put the question to Mr. Goins, he’d agree that the New Testament knows nothing of this mythical beast. It is a modern invention buoyed by several generations of Christian kids who have grown up believing we have a right to be fulfilled in our daily labour, or at least that it is reasonable to pursue career fulfillment for its own sake. And why not? It’s fun to create. It’s immensely satisfying; much more pleasurable than sweeping floors, serving coffee or doing somebody’s taxes and, I’ll dare say, almost infinitely more satisfying than a career in middle management.

And that’s fine, if that’s your choice. But be advised, there’s a reason the term “starving artists” was coined. The reason is this: “With the exception of household names, most people in the creative arts need a day job to make ends meet”. Or at least, so says the Guardian.

Is there any particular reason Christians deserve an exemption from a fact of life endured by all other creative people? It might be nice to think so, but I cannot imagine what scripture might be cited to prove such a thing.

But let’s say that, even given all the potential negatives, you are determined to make a legit living as a Christian artist/writer/musician. Let’s consider Mr. Goins’ options in order.

1.  The “vocational ministry”

For those unfamiliar with the term, “a vocational ministry is traditionally understood as a career in which someone is paid for working full-time in a Christian organizational setting”. That’s a definition provided by GotQuestions?org, who also rather reasonably and correctly point out that such a definition is “Christian vernacular” rather than holy writ.

There are some very large churches that are probably able to justify the ongoing expense of a full-time music pastor, if that’s what you really want to do with your life. But there are a very small number of such job opportunities that pay a living wage, and even that doesn’t help Christian writers, artists — or even, heaven help us, dancers — for whom vocational ministry opportunities are surely in extremely short supply.

Moreover, artistic, musical or writing talent is not a spiritual gift, at least not in the sense the word of God uses the term. Such talents are skills or abilities through which gift may be manifested, but there is nothing whatsoever innately spiritual about them. And spiritual gifts, in contrast to those which are merely natural, are given “for the common good”, not for the purpose of enhancing career satisfaction or paying the bills.

Attaching the word “calling” to the use of one’s creative skill set is an act of presumption, to say the least.

I wonder, is it this imaginary, extra-scriptural “creative calling” that has given rise to the practice of dignifying displays of self-indulgence like liturgical dance by accommodating them in our church meetings? I suspect so. Because if it really is a “calling” — if it is of God — then those so gifted and called have not just a right but an obligation to express their creativity in our midst.

Don’t they?

In any case, Mr. Goins points out that going the vocational ministry route has some practical negatives:
“This takes time and it may include some awkward conversations, pledge drives, or capital campaigns.”
My guess would be that if you are compelled to engage in awkward conversations, pledge drives and capital campaigns, or are reluctant to wait for others to recognize that you are suited for any sphere of full-time Christian service, it’s distinctly possible that your “creative calling” is more the product of creative thinking than the call of God.

What about Mr. Goins’ second option?

2.  “Tentmaking”

“Tentmaking” comes from Acts 18, where we’re told Paul was a tentmaker by trade. In Corinth, he paid the bills by working with his hands, then used whatever time was left to serve the Lord.

I can’t see any negatives at all in this approach. It was modeled by an apostle on more than one occasion. It has the advantage of meeting all the requirements of scripture as far as paying one’s own way and not being a burden to others. Of course it is always wise and biblical to seek the counsel of other believers about one’s spiritual activities, but if you are gainfully employed, the practical reality is that you are not obligated to anyone, nor can anyone stand in judgement on your conscience with respect to your service for the Lord when you are providing all the necessary funds yourself.

Further, it enables you to give away your talents rather than to charge for them, and what could be a more Christian attitude than that? And please don’t quote me the one about muzzling the ox that treads out the grain. That’s an instruction to Christians to be generous with those who serve on their behalf, not a license to extract money from Christians generally because you happen to possess particular abilities. Why not give if you can afford to do so?

To be fair, even Mr. Goins lists no negative features in this option. One wonders why he didn’t just endorse it.

Oh, wait. There is the fact that it’s lots and lots of work. And that you’re giving away your talent for free. And that it reduces the amount of time you have available to exercise your creative bent, which makes it not quite so fulfilling as paid artistic freedom 24-7.

A work of service? Absolutely. A career? Not so much.

3.  Selling a product

“If you have value to offer, you should let people pay you for it,” says Mr. Goins. That may misstate the case a tiny little bit. As a creative artist, one rarely has to beat back crowds of Christians hurling fistfuls of money in your direction. More likely you will have to market yourself diligently to get even grudging support unless you are an exceptional talent very much in demand.

But if someone wants to do this for a living, is it really a giant violation of scripture?

I can’t find myself getting too worked up about it personally, especially if their skill is genuinely being offered to the world. Christians who have the talent to “cross over” into the mainstream and make a living selling their products or services are doing nothing intrinsically inappropriate, though they may find their intended market exerts a strong influence on the type of product they are able to successfully sell. Compare the lyrics of Amy Grant’s Age to Age album with with those on Heart in Motion if it’s not instantly clear what I mean. Other than the fact that the music business is a pretty grubby place in which to operate, accusations of “selling out” leveled at Christians who make their living there seem a little unreasonable to me.

As for selling “Christian” products to Christians, well, caveat emptor, I say. As a consumer, I don’t expect to find the best music or fiction in Christian bookstores, so I am almost never disappointed. ‘Buyer beware’ also applies to the practice of putting artists on pedestals. When it turns out a musician like Michael Gungor doesn’t actually believe in the deity of Christ despite being marketed as “Christian” for years, don’t let it shake your faith. Where there exists a market for “Christian” products, you can bet that it won’t be just Christians who are actively flogging their wares to believers.

One caution though: a Christian selling vacuum cleaners, teen fantasy novels or vitamins to fellow believers to make a living is in a radically different position from the Christian who is, in effect, marketing Christ: using him as a brand or the significant feature of a product for sale. That is a distinction Mr. Goins entirely fails to make. To turn the Son of God into a commercial object, however cautiously or affectionately, is dangerous ground upon which to tread. I think of the Lord braiding a whip of cords and driving the moneychangers out of the temple and his words, “Do not make my Father’s house a house of trade”.

Too harsh? Not applicable? You’re certainly welcome to think so. I’m not the one taking the risk.

But in any case, for those who choose to market themselves within and/or beyond Christian circles, my advice would be to develop a thick skin, because the scripture leaves room for differences of opinion among believers. “Let each one be convinced in his own mind”, as it says. Some Christians will criticize your work and your choices, and once in a while those criticisms may come close to the mark. A gracious spirit will take note of all opinions and make use of that which is constructive in them without becoming bitter or lashing back.

To creative folks who take this route, well and good: they have a job or a career like the rest of us, but doing something they love. Which is perfectly fine with me. Mr. Goins makes the case that when he started selling his services, he began to make enough money to be able to give generously, so there may be some positives to this approach.

Just don’t use the words “calling” or “ministry” to describe it, please. It resembles nothing of the sort.

Another Possible Reason for Talent

But indulge me in a crazy hypothetical here. The assumption of the talented is frequently that “God gave me this talent ergo he must have done so in order that I could use it” or to put it another way, in the words of runner Eric Liddell, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast”. But the apostle Paul rightly asks:
“What do you have that you did not receive?”
(1 Corinthians 4:7)
This thing that we now call “ours” — the thing that makes us “us” — is not actually ours at all. We have a God who saved us in order that we might offer back to him our bodies as “living sacrifices” and David reminds us that it is inappropriate and unseemly to offer to God that which costs us nothing.

Since we have nothing to offer but ourselves, and a God who is worthy of the greatest sacrifices, is it unreasonable to imagine that, for some of us at least, God might equip us with lesser, non-spiritual abilities like our creativity not in order for us to use them for our own pleasure and satisfaction or even for the ego-stroke that the exercise of talent often provides, but in order that we might lay them, in spirit, on his altar and sacrifice them to him in the cause of serving in ways that are higher, more faithful and of more direct and immediate use to his kingdom than poetry or art?

Or that until we reach the point in our hearts that we are willing to give up the things that are most important to us — the things that define us in our own minds — we will never really enjoy those talents as they were meant to be enjoyed?

Does that seem impossible to you? It doesn’t to me.

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