Repackaging Jesus

by Tim Watkin / 25 December, 2004
Churches around the country are changing, diversifying and adopting marketing practices in order to attract new and particularly younger members.

Among the unholy trinity of work deadlines, Christmas shopping and holiday planning, December is one of the few times of year that non-churchgoers consider catching a church service. Whether you're looking for some meaning among the mall-trawls and mistletoe, wanting to give your kids a bit of baby Jesus and all that tradition, or after just a few minutes' peace, you might be shopping for a church about now, alongside the stocking fillers.

Just like the retailers, the churches are chasing your business. They, too, have been spending on their marketing and promotions and organising some special deals. This is a prime time for them to give you a taste of their product or, to steal from the marketer's phrase book, to "gain trial".

So, if you're expecting what Rev Dr Steve Taylor at Opawa Baptist Church in Christchurch calls "a Mr Bean experience" - a mumbled sermon and badly sung ancient hymns, with people dozing off around you - think again. If you haven't darkened the door of a church for a few years, you might be surprised to learn just how much churches up and down the country have changed and diversified. A church these days might begin by renting a school hall, then buy a warehouse where hundreds or thousands gather to hear rock bands and watch audio-visual displays. But, in truth, that's just one of many products on the market. There seem to be as many types of church as there are Barbies.

Opawa Baptist have got nine truck containers parked outside their church, each with a different art display. One's full of stick men behind barbed wire, inviting you to spare a thought for the people you know who feel trapped and others suffering in the Third World. Another has shoebox dioramas done by children from the local school, after Taylor went along to talk about the Christmas story.

"Like a lot of churches these days, the whole use of multi-media and the arts are important to us," Taylor says. "Behind that lies a desire to be a lot more connective with people outside the walls of the church. We try to get alongside people."

Last year, Opawa Baptist's "Christmas Journey" was through hay bales and attracted around 1000 people.

A rare example of innovation? Maybe 10 years ago. But especially at times of peak flow, this is becoming the norm for churches as they seek to gain the attention and interest of the many tens of thousands of New Zealanders who know nothing of church life.

One of the buzz-phrases in Christian circles these days is finding "new ways to be church".

Never is that more obvious than at Christmas, as the Church seeks to reclaim its most celebratory festival. At the start of the month, Christian City Church in central Auckland took its weekly Primal meetings, usually held across eight suburbs, out to the skate parks of the city and got about 2000 young people involved. On Christmas Eve, the church will be joining other central city churches at the 3000-seat Beaumont Centre, where the "service" will be headlined by bands and high-profile Christian speaker Ian Grant, and MCed by TV3's Petra Bagust.

It's not just the Pentecostals that are ditching the "same-old". Even in the typically conservative Presbyterian churches of the even more conservative Eastern suburbs of Auckland, you'll find a range of "products" that would have been largely unknown a generation ago.

At Somervell Presbyterian in Remuera, the traditional midnight mass has been put to sleep. Instead, a children-focused service is held at 6.00pm, where the congregation will create an "instant nativity play", children will make Christmas decorations and minister Brett Johnstone will throw lollies.

"The kids love it," he says.

Towards the sea, at Kohimarama Presbyterian, a temporary pond is being built where the pews used to be. You can float a candle in memory of those who won't be with you at Christmas, due to distance or death, and around the pond are a series of artistic reflections on contemporary New Zealand poetry, from Lauris Edmond to the "12 days of Christmas"-style Pukeko in a Punga Tree.

"As a woman at church was saying the other day, art and symbol are languages of the day," says Rev Richard Ward. "We're trying to move beyond carols and Santa and find new ways of talking about Christmas."

Further east at St Columba in Botany Downs, the Christmas Eve service is a pyjama party. The church upped sticks from its old site in Pakuranga to plant itself among new subdivisions and has marketed itself heavily, insisting that its image is as professional as the chain stores in the giant Botany Downs shopping centre nearby.

The sign outside the church last week read: "What do I have to do to get your attention? Put an ad in the newspaper? Signed God."

It's indicative of how churches all over the country are waving their arms, trying to get your attention; although newspaper ads are positively old hat. Try glossy flyers, websites, text campaigns, catchy billboards and e-ministers.

"It's a big push away from the idea that church is boring," says Rev Reuben Hardie. "People are used to coming to church to sing some hymns and listen, but it's a much more complete package these days."

Quite simply, the Church is getting market-savvy. It's rebranding the message. Repackaging Jesus. Demand-driven. The language of the marketplace is now commonly used in the sanctuary.

"We're trying to tailor the message to the audience," says Dean Rush, associate pastor at Christian City Church. "It's such a great message being overlooked because the packaging has been a bit old and dusty."

Peter Lineham, associate professor of history at Massey University, says churches are working hard at building strong, supportive communities - "a kind that people want to join" - and then selling it to them.

"The booming churches are very carefully marketed, and what they're marketing is a feeling. Feeling good about yourself and self affirmation."

Why all these changes? The main reason is simply numbers. The mainline churches - Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and the like - which basically were the Church, then, lost members at a startling rate in the 60s and 70s. The baby-boomers just didn't follow their parents into church - they left altogether or joined the new Pentecostal movement that was being born. By the late 80s, church attendance had fallen to the point where barely 10 percent of New Zealanders were worshipping weekly, says Lineham. But since then, the numbers have stabilised and some even claim there are signs of new growth.

"In the past, it was one-size-fits-all," says Brian Hamilton, vicar of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Tauranga, which, after an arsonist destroyed its historic kauri church, re-invented itself to target a youth market. "It was like it or lump it. And quite a few people lumped it. Numbers dwindled and if you're dwindling in numbers, you've got to say, 'What are you doing wrong?'"

When they have asked that question, most churches have concluded that it's the sizzle that's the problem, not the ever-loving, divine steak.

"My experience in going around congregations is that there's a growing awareness that the reasons for people having given up on church over the past 40 years have nothing to do with them becoming more irreligious, but because the way that religion is packaged and sold doesn't meet with the reality of their lives," says Dr Kevin Ward, Dean of Studies at Knox College, in Dunedin, who travels the country trying to shake churches out of their slumber.

"When the 60s came along and society changed, the old churches just kept trucking down the same old road and it wasn't really until the 90s that they woke up. So a lot of the change has been desperation-driven."

The social change in those intervening years has, of course, been enormous. Churches, which almost had a Sunday monopoly in the 60s, are up against precious family time for those working longer hours, shopping, sport and other religions and spiritual pursuits.

The questions that many people are asking these days, says Ward, are, "What are the things that give rhythm and meaning to life and what helps build community? The Church is not the only answer any more."

Research done by the Presbyterian Church in late 2002 found a perception that churches were out of touch and judgmental, that they weren't an essential part of a spiritual life and, even among those with more favourable attitudes, they weren't flexible enough to fit into people's busy lifestyles.

Where the Church was seen as controlling, respondents tended to want to express their spirituality more freely - they felt closest to God or "a higher power" at the beach or in the bush.

At Opawa Baptist, that kind of message has been taken to heart. For the past three years at Easter, they've been bringing 20 tonnes of sand into the church (don't worry, they put down two layers of polythene first). Plants along this "beach" create corridors leading to a garden, mimicking the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus spent his final hours before his arrest and crucifixion. This year, one of the Stations of the Cross on the way to the garden was "a foreshore station", says Taylor. "We want to be relevant ... and by changing the environment, there are a whole lot of fresh questions that get asked."

But this - and other - research showed that people had been turned off by the Church not just because it was out-of-date, but because a Christian - through thoughtlessness, judgment or cruel intent - had condemned or harmed them. And that damage is, if anything, more of a problem in the modern, trendy churches.

Rev Dr Alan Jamieson of Wellington Central Baptist Church studied why people had left Pentecostal or evangelical churches and found that they felt stymied or wounded. "Many of these churches create a glass ceiling which encourages faith development only up to a point."

With such barriers between them and their target market, churches now realise they can't take the old institutional loyalty for granted. What they're learning is that they can't even assume brand awareness.

For Kohimarama's Rev Ward, the management maxim that "if change is happening faster outside your organisation than within, you're in trouble" hit home when he recently went to a local school's Christmas play. "There was Santa, presents and talk of being nice to each other, but no Jesus, no link with a baby born in Bethlehem. Twenty years ago, you could assume that most kids would know the story, but you can't do that now and that's a huge challenge the Church has to cope with ... Churches are madly trying to catch up."

The Church's response has been to diversify. The barrage of new "products" means that if you prefer a Trade Me or Warehouse-style church to, say, a Farmers style, you can get that without Christianity Inc losing your business.

"If you haven't been to church for a long time, I'd say you won't find the hard pews, you won't find choirs dressed in gowns," says Somervell's Johnstone. "You won't find the same old music, and the building might even be different. Except that there are places where you'll find all those things. You can't generalise about the Church, just as you can't generalise about Maori. We've got the same issue. We're tribal."

Lineham says the Church has splintered, even within denominations, into a variety of niches. Alongside the traditional sermon and hymn style, there are meditative Taize services, café worship, High Church liturgy, family worship, rap-based services, US-style televangelists ... Something for everyone. At one North Shore church, you can join an African Swahili choir.

A focus on youth is popular.

Rush grew up in the Church in the 80s and spent most of his time trying to escape it. "The Church was a sub-culture 10 years behind the rest of the world ... Now, kids can come in and feel comfortable, because it's music and language they recognise."

However, amid the diversification and repackaging, some are wary. Growth in some churches is purely at the expense of others. Fair enough in the religious free-market, but some fear that competition isn't exactly godly. And as God gets a new surge of customers, some less-than theologically sound operators are looking for a cut.

"With all the new churches, there's hardly a school free in Auckland on a Sunday, and some are preaching some pretty rough stuff," says Lineham.

Graham Redding of St Johns Presbyterian in Wellington shares the concern. "Like when you're going shopping, you have to be a discerning seeker of good value."

But the Church has to be careful as well. "If we're not careful, people could feel like they're just another notch or another customer. The Church is different because people are not merely consumers, but people with real emotional, physical and spiritual needs and we're about trying to engage with these needs."

As the Church turns its well-groomed, welcoming face to the world, it risks not asking the hard questions or taking a stand, Lineham adds. Instead of fighting for the poor and marginalised, "Jesus, then, is presented as sweet and cuddly. Where are the challenges and the demands for justice?"

But Mark de Jong, head of Christian record company Parachute, says he's seeing the opposite. Generations who have never had to make a sacrifice for a greater good - through a war or depression - are hungry for a challenges beyond themselves.

"The whole Christian message is about laying down your life and I would say that part of the success of the modern Church is because it has stopped watering down that message. People find it attractive to live their life for a cause."

Concentrating on the core message of hope and love among life's gritty realities is growing mainline churches, too.

"People find it appealing to think about something bigger than themselves. Sports clubs aren't going to ask the big questions that people have. That's what religion's good at," says Redding.

In that sense, the Church is doing what it has always done, and that's still important and attractive, says Ward. Recently back from a US conference, he says the consensus was that "under-forties are looking for rituals and traditions. What they're resistant to is the way these traditions have been used to try to control people, not the traditions or beliefs themselves."

He says you're seeing churches reclaiming the tradition from the Middle Ages of treating Christmas and Easter as fun community festivals. The Parachute music festival, which draws 20,000 people, successfully follows that model.

Back at Opawa, Taylor says that each church has to be like a DJ, sampling from a range of texts and traditions - the Bible, culture, ancient rituals. Whatever it takes to get people dancing. Different cultures, generations and churches will come up with different rhythms and God's big enough for that.

"When you mix these tracks together, new mixes emerge, new sounds."


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