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Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Sound of Salesmen

The above line comes from a couplet in a Rush song called “Spirit of Radio”, one of the few classic rock tunes I could stomach during my post-punk phase. Neil Peart’s lyric goes like this:

“For the words of the profits were written on the studio wall;
Concert hall echoes with the sound of salesmen.”

It’s actually a rather ironic subversion of Paul Simon’s words in “Sound of Silence”, but that is neither here nor there. Peart once said, “The Spirit of Radio was actually written as a tribute to all that was good about radio, celebrating my appreciation of magical moments I’d had since childhood, of hearing ‘the right song at the right time.’ ” What Peart didn’t say is that it’s a wistful tribute: it ends in his disappointment with the ubiquity of commercialism.

I had a “Spirit of Radio” moment in church the other night.

Marketing the Gospel

A Christian worker was in town to share what the Lord is doing as he and his wife work among the poor in the third world. It’s a worthy effort that impacts the well-being of hundreds of children and adults, many of whom live on the streets. But over and over again as he laid out very specific financial objectives of his ministry, I felt like I was watching a World Vision commercial. I actually looked around for Sally Struthers at one point …

Some of you will be saying, “So what?”

After all, Christians in many evangelical congregations have gotten used to being on the receiving end of blatant sales pitches. The collection plate gets passed in some churches more frequently than dating service commercials are aired on late night TV. If that is your regular experience, it may seem petty to object to endless requests for a few bucks to benefit this ministry or that one. It is hard to make a case against it when many of the salesmen and marketing guys (and that is what travelling reps for parachurch organizations have shamelessly become) are pleading on behalf of genuinely good causes.

Who can argue about the importance of caring for orphans and widows? Not me.

How Far Does It Go?

The hard-sell is not an unexplored subject. A poster at Bible.org cites all manner of abuses among the religious:
“A synagogue in suburban Minneapolis took some of its members to court to collect their unpaid pledges. The judge ruled that their pledges (ranging from $167 to $1,000) were legally binding, even though these people had left the congregation. A Catholic Church board asked its members to contribute half of the savings gained from a recent federal income tax cut.

Bake sales, bazaars, and bingo games have all become accepted means of providing the church with additional funds. Professional fund-raisers are often employed, and denominational headquarters supply their clergymen with fund-raising kits (one can only guess what these kits contain). A few have even resorted to blackmailing some of the wealthier ‘black sheep’ in their congregations. Fund-raiser Francis Harvey put it this way, ‘Priests give them a chance to do a little good with the money they gained by doing so much bad.’ Some may think twice before confessing their sins again. Because some of the members drop out due to the high cost of worship, recruiting new members has become a science, making the efforts of door-to-door salesmen look amateur and half-hearted. Some churches even lower their ‘rates’ to attract new members.”
Most of our readers will not have experienced such a degree of departure from the principles of scripture, but it is worth noting that such excesses exist in Christendom.

The Hard-Sell is Unscriptural

I believe you will search in vain throughout the New Testament for an example of the hard-sell that we are encouraged to emulate. The Lord Jesus and his apostles simply didn’t ask for a lot of help. Paul, for one, was quite happy to work with his hands rather than be in anyone’s debt or risk reducing his opportunities to preach and teach the gospel.

Yes, it is noted that the apostle Paul on at least one occasion asked Christians for money. What is less frequently observed about that request is that he didn’t ask for himself.

Others have done a much better job of setting out what Paul actually did and didn’t ask for, so I will not attempt to reinvent the wheel. What is evident is that not the tiniest fraction of the gift he solicited contributed to his personal upkeep in any way. I have no objection to the public support of causes with which the pitchman has an arm’s length relationship, though I question whether we need to sell merchandise to generate support. 

The Hard-Sell is Unnecessary

Perhaps a little background may help. My dad was a full-time itinerant Bible teacher for over fifty years. He worked for no denomination and was salaried by no organization. He and my mom raised a family on what arrived in their mailbox or was slipped into his jacket pocket in churches where he preached and taught. To the best of my knowledge, he never revealed a need to anyone. Like the apostle Paul, he was commended to the grace of God for the work that he eventually did and turned loose into the world to do it by a group of elders who believed such a life was the Lord’s will for him. My mother, in an act of faith she probably thought no big thing, joined him in his labors a few years later.

Over twenty years of having a full belly, clothes to wear and a roof over my head as a child, teenager and young adult are ample evidence to me that the hard-sell is unnecessary. Our Father knows what we need before we ask him.

Wickedness and Utility

So is my missionary friend a wicked man for shoving his perceived requirements for his ministry down the throats of the faithful as he has opportunity? Absolutely not. Genuine poverty is being addressed. Needs are being met. The Bible is being taught. Christ is being preached. All of that is worth celebrating.

But it also falls short of the ideal somehow, doesn’t it? If our God is as big, as powerful and as caring as we proclaim him to be, does he really need our twenty-first century marketing skills to make his desires known or to accomplish his purposes?

I suspect he does not. The sound of salesmen is not a modern noise, but it is merely noise nonetheless.

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