Church leaders find themselves today harangued and prodded to build an “online presence”. This usually means a busy Facebook page, a Youtube channel, a Twitter account, a static website, live-streamed services and more. Without these, we’re told, a church is mostly “invisible” to the world, and is “failing to reach its community”. It is even called a neglect of evangelism, a failure to connect, or hiding one’s light under a bushel.
In urban settings, it is true that the Internet has become the primary source of information. Gone are the days of the phone book, the classified sections in the print newspapers, the community noticeboards and the leaflets for the mailboxes. These still exist, but people looking for services, restaurants, directions, and, yes, churches, are likely to Google before they look to some other source. Therefore, I have no quarrel with those encouraging churches to use these means. Indeed, my church uses some of them, and will likely use more of them in the future.
I do have a deep concern that many who are pushing for “more online presence” have lost all sense of distinction between very different things: visibility and publicity.
Visibility is allowing those who are looking, and even those who may not be, to come across your church. In years past, this was everything from your church sign, to its steeple, to the bells on Sunday morning, to an ad placed in the community newspaper. Now, in addition to these, a church does well to enable those looking for churches through the window of a computer or cellphone screen to be able to find you. Visibility is simply gaining enough presence on the web for a “seeker” to come across your church as an option.
Publicity is a very different animal. Publicity is the work of marketers, advertisers, promoters, publicists, and those masters of hype and spin. Publicity is the creation of an image, a “brand”, to produce an impression of success, popularity, and customer satisfaction. When a church pursues publicity, it paints an idealised image of itself for its target-market. The church is a “relaxed atmosphere”, where all should “come as they are” and enjoy a warm welcome and a cup of coffee. Child-care is available, and plenty of parking, too. A nice “what to expect” page briefs the customer as to how to place this church on the spectrum of churches, so he can try before he buys. Photos of happy people abound, as well as pictures of the worship band, to assure you that there won’t be an organ.
Publicity works hand-in-hand with celebrity. The simple, but carnal, appeal to mass approval is supposed to confer importance upon the church. If the church’s social media has thousands of “likes”, followers or subscribers, if the pastor has his own radio or TV show or podcast (who doesn’t, these days?), if he has books published (preferably with his smiling face on the cover), if he is a sought-after conference speaker, then this must be hyped. The pastor becomes a brand, and if he has some particular spin or take on the Christian life, all the better. He can be marketed as the wild-at-heart preacher, or the ragamuffin Gospel preacher, or the Christian hedonist preacher, or the God-is-indescribable preacher, or the biblical-counselling man, or the current-affairs-and-prophecy man or you-fill-in-the-blank preacher. If you want celebrity, you can’t simply expound the Word each week: you need some unique schtick to distance you from the pack, and create hype around your personality.
Some Christians are so embedded in the celebrityism and exhibitionism of the web that they cannot see that these are hostile to the gospel. Publicity is the work of those wanting to sell something. It is a commercial animal, and it lives on the showmanship, competitiveness and shameless self-promotion of those hawking their products and selling their stuff. To treat your church, the gospel, or any man’s ministry in this fashion falls under the clear condemnation of Scripture:
“For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ.” (2 Cor. 2:17)
“But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Cor. 4:2)
Publicity does not simply create visibility for your church or ministry. It reduces Christianity to the level of every other product and service competing for customers. It speaks the language of consumers, and those Christians using it should not be surprised when those arriving in church have the attitude that the customer is king. It trivialises holy things by portraying the church as just one more accoutrement to the narcissistic secular man’s life. It seems to believe the opposite of what Jesus taught: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Lk. 6:26), “wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it…narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt. 7:13-14). It inverts these values and prizes what the Internet has trained us to prize: as many five-star ratings as possible, as many happy customer reviews as possible, and the endorsement of an “Influencer” with thousands of followers. It trains us to be exhibitionist instead of modest about our achievements, to praise ourselves instead of deflecting attention, and to hunger for online approval instead of seeking real-life faithfulness.
Yes, churches, seek visibility. People should know your church is there. But once you’re visible, that’s enough. Remember: He must increase, and we must decrease.