Free Booze: A Lenten Reflection on Customer Satisfaction
I heard an advertisement on the radio while driving around today. A restaurant was offering one free glass of wine per person for every visit over a certain period of time. After
frantically altering my lunch plans and stampeding down to this restaurant for an 11:00 lunch snorting derisively at the moral decay and transparent desperation evident in such a marketing campaign, I got to making a few (mostly unflattering) comparisons in my head between restaurants and churches as I meandered along the errand trail for the rest of the morning.
Churches, of course, are frequently not altogether dissimilar in their approach to attracting “customers” are they? The gimmickry abounds, particularly in some of the more creative outposts of evangelical-dom. Specialty coffee bars and light shows and fog machines and top 40 worship-pop and video clips to spruce up the sermons and relentlessly cheerful, determinedly excited hipster pastors and programs for every conceivable interest group out there. All in the hopes of luring people through the doors, getting them to sample the fare.
But it’s not just in the evangelical world that this “anything to attract the customers” mentality abounds. The question is asked and answered differently in more mainline churches, but the same restlessness often animates it. What can we do to get people to come?! Perhaps an environmental justice group? Or some exotic Orthodox iconography? Perhaps a smattering of Celtic liturgy? Cultivate connections with the university? An engaging weekend workshop on a controversial issue? Or, to bring things full circle to the restaurant, what if we feed them? Snacks after worship! Lots of potluck lunches. On and on and on it goes, this panting after the elusive religious consumer.
I’m not suggesting that any of the above are necessarily wrong or inherently inappropriate. Well, maybe the fog machines. Although come to think of it, perhaps a bit of fog would make my sermons seem more dramatic… Hmm…. Never mind. Where was I? Ah yes, attracting the customers. Right. And I’m not suggesting that churches shouldn’t always be thinking about how to be an attractive community that makes the beauty of Jesus known. But as I listened to the advertisement on the radio yesterday, I found myself thinking that the church, of all places, should refuse to buy into the logic of consumerism, of understanding our task as that of attracting the customers and keeping them happy.
This should be obvious at all times, but it has particularly struck me during this season of Lent. So many of the texts that have been part of the lectionary readings over the past few weeks have made it painfully clear that Jesus has never been in the business of catering to consumer demand. Whether he’s cracking the whip in the temple or telling the crowd that if they want to follow him they’d better get ready to carry a cross and prepare to suffer, or describing one of his closest friends as an instrument of Satan, often it seems like Jesus was often doing his best to drive people away from him rather than satisfy the customers.
Jesus pissed people off, to put it bluntly. He annoyed and confused them. He told them hard truths about themselves, he said things they didn’t want to hear, things that upended many of their assumptions about how life worked, about how God worked. He said other things too, of course. Nicer, easier things—things that regularly find their way into the endless varieties of Christian kitsch out there. But it’s remarkable how frequently Jesus made people—especially religious people—very angry. I heard a sermon on my way to work this morning that remarked that given how regularly Jesus confused, provoked and generally irritated people in positions of power, influence, and prestige, it’s a miracle that he didn’t get himself killed earlier and that his public ministry lasted even three years. I’m inclined to agree.
The church is not Jesus, of course. A tragically obvious truth, if ever there was one. I sometimes wonder if our addiction to keeping the customers happy is one of the main ways in which we demonstrate this. Maybe the church should be pissing more people off, driving them away, provoking them, confusing them, irritating them with this foolish wisdom of God that involves a cross and an empty tomb and a path of suffering and rejection and poverty and loving the least lovely as the way to discovering what it means to be blessed. Maybe throngs of happy customers aren’t necessarily the sign of a Jesus-looking church.
In the end, though, the church also has its marketing plan involving free booze. Or, at least grape juice. Weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, whatever. The blood of Christ, we say, as we take this strange Jesus and his strange ways into our bodies and beings. And in offering this gift to one another and to the world, we point to a mercy and a forgiveness that would (and did) literally die for the customers. Not to keep them happy, mind you, because happiness is a far too small and selfish category for this kind of plan. No, to make them whole. To make them human. To teach them to long for brighter and better things.