Advertising for God

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken May 30, 1999

It seems like more people are marketing God than ever before. Here are a few examples:

Late last year the British publisher Canongate began producing copies of individual books of the Bible, like Genesis, Revelation, and the Song of Songs. The text is the same old King James Version. But in addition to postmodern cover art, each little book includes a witty, sometimes irreverent introduction by somebody famous. The books cost just £1 each, and Canongate has now sold over a million copies in England and around the world.

People are also marketing the Bible in America. Aggressively. Not that the Bible doesn't sell well here already. Don't let the list in the New York Times fool you—the Bible is America's perpetual runaway bestseller. But there are still almost 90 million Americans who have never read the Bible, and Pat Robertson and his Christian Broadcasting Network are busy trying to reach 10 million of them. At $7 million, their marketing blitz is the biggest in the history of publishing.

Robertson is helping sell what is called The Book, the New Living Translation published by Tyndale Press. The campaign includes tapes, posters, mailings, and major celebrities. Maybe you've already heard the advertising jingle they use on radio and TV, sung by Smokey Robinson and Andrae Crouch: “Rock me, shock me, turn me, change me, set me free, show me what it has for me, take me to ‘The Book’.” In the words of one marketing director, “The bottom line is, we want to make Bible-reading cool” [Wall Street Journal, 4/1/99, B1].

And speaking of cool, perhaps you've seen God's new billboards: plain white text on a solid black background. The one on the Admiral Wilson Boulevard says, “Keep using my name name in vain, I'll make rush hour longer.” The one down by the airport simply says, “I don't doubt your existence.” In both cases, the billboard seems to be signed by God himself.

These billboards are part of a $15 million, nationwide campaign started by an anonymous donor from Broward County, Florida. Here are some more of the ads, each of which bears God's signature:

“Let's meet at my house Sunday before the game.”

“What part of ‘Thou Shalt Not… ’ didn't you understand?”

“We need to talk.”

“Have you read my #1 best seller? There will be a test.”

It is good for God to get as much publicity as he can. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, we should stimulate people to think about God and to read the Bible as much as we can. This is one of the reasons we ran a high-profile ad campaign here at Tenth a few years ago. We wanted to get secular people to think about spiritual things. The people involved in the current ad campaigns seem to have the same motivation.

If we are going to advertise for God, either publicly or privately, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is to speak in a language people outside the church actually can understand. This is why the new Bible ads are having so much success. People judge books by their covers, so the way a Bible looks is important. Its packaging should be as up-to-date as its message. The billboards work for the same reason. Their short, simple statements are easy enough to communicate with the average commuter.

When we advertise for God, the way we say what we say is important. But what we say is even more important. The evangelist who set the standard for how to present Christ to a secular culture was the apostle Paul, who once explained his strategy like this: We have renounced secret and shameful ways. We do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor. 4:2).

Christians have nothing to hide. Therefore, we should be completely candid about what we believe. Whatever we say about God and his salvation must be absolutely true. Our God is the truth. If what we say about him is anything but the truth, then we misrepresent him. We should never deceive people about our true intentions. We should never distort the message of Scripture. Instead, we should speak the truth, plain and simple.

This is where current attempts to advertise for God run into some difficulty. The books from Canongate, for example, would be better without the introductions. In some cases, they serve to undermine the message of the biblical text which follows.

Some of the billboards are worse. Not all the words they put into God's mouth are appropriate. Some of them make God seem petty, snippy, and even sarcastic. “Don't make me come down there,” he says in one of the ads. Jesus could be sarcastic on occasion, of course, but I doubt the wisdom of portraying God as a deity with an attitude.

The last thing to say about advertising for God is that marketing has its limits. A slogan on a billboard may get people thinking about God, but it will not bring them to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, particularly since the billboards are not explicitly Christian. The only way people ever come to faith in Christ is through the inward work of God's Spirit in their hearts and minds. And that spiritual work only comes through the reading and preaching of God's Word.

This means that the two best things you can do to advertise for God are still the same two things Christians have been doing since the day Jesus ascended into heaven. God's method of evangelism has not changed. First, give people a testimony of God's saving work in your life. Second, expose them to God's Word, either by reading the Bible with them or by inviting them to a church where they will hear the good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then God will use his Word to do his work, as he always does.

© 2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. ©2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org