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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Dial It Back A Notch

Marketing is an appalling thing.

My favorite sales technique is something called puffery, which is just what it sounds like: a whole lot of hot air. Okay, maybe “favorite” is the wrong word: it’s merely the technique easiest to identify, the one that, even to the uninitiated, screams ‘Marketing!’ at the top of its wheezy, overinflated little lungs. Once stung by the puffery-fish, you recognize it forever by any name.

Sadly, marketing to Christians has become just as fishy as marketing to secular rubes.

Exhibit 1: The 81 Hour M.Div.

Midwestern Seminary markets its Master of Divinity degree with all the integrity of a carnival barker:
“The Master of Divinity, Midwestern Seminary’s flagship degree, is our primary track for ministry preparation. At 81 hours, the M.Div. offers a complete foundation for full-time ministry leaders, offering all you need for a lifetime of fruitful ministry. Join other students in vibrant Kansas City as you train in a unique collaborative environment focused on the local church. We are developing a new culture of discipleship devoted to the local church and committed to taking God’s unchanging Word into a rapidly changing world.

The Master of Divinity is the central seminary degree for ministry preparation, exposing you to a breadth of pastoral disciplines, depth of biblical knowledge, and a variety of practical skills for ministry in an ever-changing world. This degree is specifically designed for those who have been called by God to gospel ministry in the church. Is that you?”
Where do I start here?

Puff the Magic Degree

As Cynthia Myers said in a Houston Chronicle article:
“The claims made by puffery may be false, but they are not really lies because no one can disprove them. No one can prove them either.

Puffery is characterized by exaggeration and hyperbole. ‘The best hamburger in the world’ is so beyond belief that a reasonable person would not take the claim seriously. Advertisers use exaggeration and hyperbole to get people’s attention and make their message memorable. Because the claims in puffery are obviously exaggerated, and because exaggeration works to get people’s attention, puffery is an accepted advertising technique.”
Well, the Midwestern ad is certainly memorable, I’ll give it that much.

Oh Well, That’s Okay Then

Now let me make it clear I’m not slagging seminaries generally. They’re not for every Christian, but knowledge is beneficial provided we do the right things with it (like not getting our heads inflated by our own learning and perceived importance), and especially as long as we recognize that accumulating information without acting on it leads inevitably to self-deception.

So I guess so long as we take it for granted Midwestern’s claims are “obviously exaggerated”, there’s really nothing to be too terribly concerned about. If all we’re going to do is refer to Kansas City as “vibrant”, I probably wouldn’t be too bothered. If all we’re going to do is describe ordinary classroom learning as a “unique collaborative environment”, I can probably let it slide. If we’re going to characterize as “new” the culture of discipleship that has been going on for two millennia, well, okay.

BUT REALLY …

In the overinflated claim department, “all you need for a lifetime of fruitful ministry” surely has to rank right up there with “the best hamburger in the world”.

“All you need?” Seriously? 81 hours? We’re out of the realm of puffery into the realm of pure porkies, I’d say.

How long does it take to read the Bible through? At around 800,000 words, assuming the average person reads 250-300 words per minute, several different sources have calculated that reading the entire Bible requires about 54 hours. That’s straight through, with no sleep or coffee breaks.

Now nobody is suggesting you’d take Midwestern’s M.Div. having never read the Bible right through, perhaps multiple times. Of course not. I hope. But I offer that number to add just a little perspective. How do you, in a mere 81 hours, even START to comprehend something that takes 54 hours to read through once, let alone imagine you are qualified to teach it? How do you imagine for even a nanosecond that the equivalent of a mere THREE WEEKS of full time study could possibly provide “all you need for a lifetime of fruitful ministry”?

Hello? Anyone?

The Ultra-Comprehensive Magic Degree

In that 81 hours, candidates will cover some or all of the following: Biblical Hebrew, Biblical Greek, Old Testament literature and theology, New Testament literature and theology, Biblical Hermeneutics, Systematic Theology, Church History, Leadership, Preaching, Pastoral Ministry, Counseling, Ethics, Evangelism, Apologetics, and Missions.

Oh well, that’s good. At least it’s comprehensive.

Also good: Cynthia Myers says, “Puffery does not intend to deceive. Advertising that deliberately misleads or makes false claims is illegal, while puffery is legal”.

That should come as a relief to Midwestern’s marketing department.

Going On to Maturity

Another question: how long did it take you to mature in the Christian faith? Surely we want maturity in our “ministry leaders”? That would seem non-negotiable. Such a person, according to the ad, is envisioned as being tasked with gospel ministry and with making disciples in a local church context. But here Midwestern, I think, confuses “leading” with ordinary Christian living.

Witnessing to my neighbours and friends does not require an M.Div. I can go about sharing my faith the moment I discover the Lord Jesus, just as New Testament converts did. And serving in the church does not require even three weeks of concentrated study. The Christian can begin serving the very first time he or she enters the fellowship of other saints, even if initially it only involves stacking chairs, shaking hands, or showing friendship to someone standing alone in a corner. Even teaching scripture in a local church is something that can happen informally quite early on, if one is diligent and faithful to the word of God and maintains a good testimony. In short, preaching the gospel and making disciples are responsibilities of every believer, not some special caste of trained leaders.

On the other hand, leadership is work only for believers who are fully mature. Believers that are familiar with scripture from regular reading and capable of communicating it clearly. Believers that make a practice of being hospitable. Believers that have been discipled by other seasoned Christians. Believers that have established an excellent reputation inside the church and outside. Believers that are not novices. Believers that have other important character qualifications spelled out by Paul to Titus and Timothy.

Such men are leaders, and leadership is for the mature. It is not something a young Christian man can expect to assume simply because he has taken the equivalent of three weeks of training.

Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Reckless Exaggeration

As it stands, Midwestern’s ad cannot do anything but recklessly exaggerate the benefits of its program. No matter how excellent the faculty and how much time you might put into extracurricular studies, it is impossible for an 81 hour course to serve as anything more than a primer, given that so many areas of study are included. If they were to market what is currently their M.Div. as an “Introduction to Leadership”, indicating that the completion of their course is a good starting point on the road to learning what leadership in the church actually entails, they might at least approach an honest, Christian description.

But as it is, the benefits of its program are so preposterously inflated that the only graduate who will not be disappointed is the one who enters it with no expectations at all, or worse, the one so spiritually dull or inexperienced that he does not recognize how far short of a “complete foundation” he has received.

“If anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself,” said Paul to the Galatians. That statement can be true in many ways, not least in making the unfortunate assumption that three weeks of seminary training might equip us for “a lifetime of fruitful ministry”.

There are no shortcuts to spirituality. Almost everything that matters in life takes time.

Dial the rhetoric back a notch, folks.

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