A few weeks ago I had one of those “did he really say that?” conversations with a clergy colleague. We were discussing a news story about Baptist churches in Kentucky and New York that were advertising they would be giving away door prizes to entice new people to attend their church.
Apparently forgiveness and salvation aren’t reward enough to get some people through the church doors since many churches have tried similar gimmicks. There was a church in Columbus, Ohio a few years ago giving away a car on Easter. Sure beats the coffee mug, cheap pen and refrigerator magnets our church offers as welcome gifts.
What got my attention about the Baptist churches’ promotion was that they were promising to give an AR-15 and other guns to the lucky winners of their door prizes. The church in Troy, NY even went so far as to quote John 14:27 (“…my peace I give to you”) over a picture of a semi-automatic rifle! To make matters worse, the churches in Kentucky were in Paducah – where three students were killed during a school shooting in 1997. Really, you can’t make stuff like this up!
Foolishly assuming that most followers of the Prince of Peace and certainly most pastors would agree that this was a really bad idea, I made a comment to my colleague about how absurd, if not blasphemous, this was. His response blew me away. He said, “Well, we wouldn’t do that in my church, but if that’s what it takes to appeal to the target (Freudian slip?) audience in that community, then it might be OK.” I was too dumbfounded to respond.
When I relayed the conversation to another friend, his immediate reply was, “No it’s not OK. A stripper would attract some people to church too, but that wouldn’t make it right.” Churches that start acting like businesses are in danger of selling their souls along with their “products.” Marketing strategies are fraught with ethical dilemmas in any business, but certainly the church must hold itself to a higher standard than Wall Street or Main Street when it comes to promoting the Gospel. When churches or any institution fall prey to the temptations of growth and institutional preservation as the primary motivation for what we do and say, we are on the slippery slope of believing that any means are justified if they achieve an honorable end.
It is no secret that mainline churches are in trouble. Membership and attendance figures have been in a steep decline for decades, and that reality can convince otherwise good people to compromise their ethical standards and fall into a panic mode of self-preservation. It is an inherent danger to institutional religion. Institutions almost always have a primary value of preserving and maintaining themselves. Institutional leaders have a vested interest in looking successful and maintaining their livelihood that can cloud objectivity. And the more dire the statistics become the greater the danger. Desperate people do desperate things, like giving deadly weapons to people instead of “beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)
Yes, these are scary times, and I understand why individuals want to protect themselves and why churches want to keep themselves alive. And I know all motives for what we do are mixed. I’m sure those Baptist churches have a genuine desire to share the gospel along with the guns. Self-preservation is a very basic human motivation, but Christians are called to measure the means we use to achieve our means by the higher standards of the one who said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).