“If any man comes after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will find it.” (Mark 8:34)

‘Marketing the Gospel’ – is it a contradiction in terms? The concept sounds sort of self-defeating, like trying to get the church to run a protection racket or to set up a brothel as a form of Christian outreach. And at a glance, our Gospel text would suggest that, if there is such a thing as Gospel marketing, Jesus obviously didn’t know how to do it.

And yet, strictly speaking, we preachers are always doing marketing. Whenever we present a ‘product’ of any kind, we are marketing it, and that’s as true of our presentation of the Gospel as it is of any other product. It’s just a question of whether it’s good marketing or bad marketing.

What I mean is that you can never present anything in a neutral way. The way you dress, the way you speak, the way you present yourself to others, always shapes the way your message is perceived. If you preach the gospel in a way that is fiery and aggressive, that is going to affect the way your message is perceived by your audience. If you wear clerical robes that are colourful and symbolic, that is going to effect the way people hear you. If you try to remove yourself from the process completely by simply reading pieces of Scripture in a monotonous tone, that too is going to shape what your listeners hear.

There is no neutral ground. Every time you present anything by way of dialogue, written article or sermon, you package it in some way or other, and so you market it. Admittedly, some preachers package the gospel in such a way that the message seems to be more about the preacher than about Christ, but that just means that they are marketing their message badly (or marketing the wrong message). Either way, we can’t escape marketing. What we need is marketing that is appropriate for servants of the Lord Jesus. And there’s the rub.

The problem with most marketing, as I see it, is that it is judged solely in terms of its results. If lots of people buy your product as a result of your marketing, it is good marketing. Conversely, if only a few people buy it, you have marketed poorly. This is obviously is not sufficient for the Gospel marketer.

While it is tempting to assume that the sermon that leaves a goodly number of parishioners in tears is a good one, it may just be the result of clever emotional manipulation on the part of the preacher. Conversely, we may be quick to judge the sermon that has parishioners storming out during the service as a bad one, but isn’t that exactly the sort of response the Lord Jesus regularly received?

Now I know that we are taught to ‘know the tree by the fruits’, which means that good outcomes should indicate good marketing, but I’d suggest that we need to look for those fruits further down the track. Teary parishioners and large amounts of cash in the offertory are not necessarily the good fruits we need to look for. Changed lives that go the distance – now that’s fruit. Think again of the message of the Lord Jesus Himself. Over time, it turned human history upside-down, but in the short-term, the only obvious result was that He got Himself killed.

Let me cut to the chase here. The missing criterion by which good marketing ought to be judged is… truth! This is the ingredient that differentiates the marketing of Jesus and the Apostles from so many of their modern-day representatives.

Telling the truth, and marketing in a way that is true to the message – that’s what puts the Gospel into Gospel marketing.

Good Gospel marketing functions to make the Gospel clear, not necessarily attractive. It means communicating to people in a language that they can understand, but without importing the values that they are comfortable with.

Does this mean that we should disregard results as a means of judging our success? Undoubtedly the answer is ‘yes’ – at least in the short term. We must focus on faithfulness rather than results, and leave the long-term results up to God.

Does this mean that we should disregard all the obvious marketing mechanisms that appeal to the basic human appetites for sex, youth and beauty? Well, first and foremost we need to be true to the Gospel.

For the Christian faith does celebrate the ‘abundant life’, but it’s an abundant life that includes sacrifice, suffering and death, and these are difficult concepts to ‘sell’. And we do celebrate beauty, but if you can’t see the beauty in offering a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty, well … you’re not ready to market the Gospel.