Orthodoxy in the American Religious Bazaar
We live in a world of ads selling us products like cars, deodorant, detergent, iGadgets, but usually the marketing for such items rarely fits the physical item being sold. An ad for a car rarely is about the car, but the benefits it can impute, and these are not physical benefits one would assume like cruise control, anti-lock brakes, power steering, heated seats, etc. Depending on the company, they are selling security, peace of mind, status, coolness, sex appeal, power, etc.
A recent round of Old Spice deodorant and body wash commercials aren’t selling ways to get clean and smell nice, but rather manliness and power. “Buy, and the women in your life will love you more, men will respect and fear you, young children will look upon you in admiration.”
Churches, at least in America, do the same thing.
Do you ever get church invites in the mail? Is it a drab, black and white postcard, with scant text offering service times? No. Have you seen billboards, logos, or letterheads for churches? They are never cut and dry, and completely concrete. They are communicating more than bare facts about their mission and programming, and while it may sound crass, they are selling something. Maybe it’s because we live in a capitalistic culture, bombarded on every side by images, products, and ideas competing for our attention, but the reality of sales is unavoidable.
The billboard advertising of the local mega-church, with pictures of shining, happy families with a mix of race and ethnicity is selling something. “Be a part of us, and you will be shiny and happy too—maybe successful, and we are diverse, so everyone is accepted.”
Another ad has more modern graphics with cool logos and fonts, suggesting that this church is fun, hip, and cool, and if you join, you will be as well. The stylized cross logo that looks to be dancing or happy suggests, “Fun, joy, no pain, yet we are also Christian and will talk about Jesus, who is the giver of these gifts.”
As Orthodox, what are our churches selling? What are we communicating in a world of religious consumers? Domes and onion tops suggest all sorts of impressions. In one city, they are part of the community skyline, yet in others they project an aura of mystery or foreignness, but neither impression generates the same brand content. Externally our identity is difficult for the consumer to grasp. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about our buildings, and the crosses and ornaments don’t grab at felt needs, pulling the onlooker into a vision of happy, successful existence.
If there is anything that communicates what we are selling, if there is anything that draws the consumer into an image of our life, if there is anything that grabs the deepest part of the modern soul—it is placed within our walls. And this internal expression of who we are communicates a level of depth not found in flashy billboards or dancing crosses.
Upon coming in, multiple senses are struck with colors and smells, not with bare walls, but full of light, and paint, and content. Eyes stare at you, some with tears, some in wonder, some full of joy. Images of men and women throughout history are expressing the destiny of humankind.
If we have a brand, then this is it: icons of the holy, saying, “If you enter these walls and absorb this faith, then this is who you can become.” This is not necessarily a transformation into the well-scrubbed package of American success, but thieves becoming benevolent, whores becoming holy, kings becoming missionaries, men, women and children becoming martyrs, wearing the crown of their Savior upon their heads. No race or class or sex is exempt from this crowd of faces—-all can follow this path. Fear wells up in the heart of the onlooker because those eyes express pain and sorrow, but in the midst, there is Resurrection.
In the modern marketplace, the closest images we have to sell our wares are the icons of these holy ones. For in them we express what is possible in our faith: “If you are willing, you too can experience resurrection and know the God of the universe…but it comes with a cross.”
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