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Conservative Christianity's Marketing Gimmick to Keep Its Old-Time, Heaven-and-Hell Religion Afloat

The Southern Baptists are staking their institutional future on the idea that patriarchal religion still has a market for some time to come.

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It’s not a given that Bible-centered Christians should make these passages about proselytizing, belief and baptism the cornerstone of their faith. Some New Testament texts advocate a very different set of priorities. In one place, Jesus says in graphic terms that hell is for those who fail to tend the needy and ill ( Matthew 25:31-46). Elsewhere,  he suggests that worldly riches mean a person is living outside God’s will ( Mark 10:17-25). When asked which is the greatest of the Hebrew commandments, Jesus says that the Torah and Prophets can be summed up very simply: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself ( Matthew 22: 26-40).

Over the centuries many Christians have made these teachings the center of their faith and religious practice. The result is a spiritual life centered on simplicity and service. A Christianity centered on the Great Commission, by contrast has the following defining features.

1. Every member is a part of the sales force. Great Commission Christianity is first and foremost about recruiting, because membership is top priority . The Great Commission brand says that the most important thing churches can do is recruit more converts. Overseas medical services, inner-city food banks, even  friendship –all of these can be smart marketing, but they should be a means to an end, conversion.

2. What is sold is a package of exclusive truth claims. A focus on outreach necessarily goes hand in hand with a certain kind of theology. The recruiting efforts would be pointless if there were many paths to God. The message of the recruiting is that there is only one path to God: being cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Interspiritual or interfaith perspectives are wrong, and adherents need to be wooed from their misguided beliefs to the Righteousness. 

3.  The measure of a spiritual person is right belief. In this case right belief means something like:  You deserve hell; Jesus died for your sins; accepting him as your savior will get you to heaven. Buddhists may believe that compassion is the heart of spiritual practices. Modernist Christians may center in on the words of the Great Commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Priorities like these simply don’t work with the Great Commission strategy; they are too inclusive.

4. Other religions and denominations are competitors, not partners. The Great Commission is a competitive strategy; and in fact successful conversion activities often are described as “winning” souls. Creating heaven here on Earth might require interfaith teamwork. By contrast salvation through right belief is an individual affair, and those who believe they are saved and headed for heaven tend to  get grumpy if someone suggests that there is no hell.

After failing on the great moral questions of the 19 th and 20th centuries—full personhood for blacks and females respectively—the  Great Commission rebranding effort that inadvertently shows the world how little Southern Baptist leaders have learned from two centuries of ethical slumming. Mind you, the Great Commission strategy has been a winner for some mega-churches, and proselytizing is strongly correlated with the growth in minority sects like Scientology and Mormonism.

In past centuries religions could capture mindshare through conquest, which is how Christianity spread through Europe and how Islam spread through India. Competitive breeding was baked into both Catholicism and Islam because it offered some additional advantage. But in the last century, the primary mode of competition among religions has been evangelism.  In other words, the Southern Baptists have placed their bets on a strategy with some history of success.

Whether they win or lose from the standpoint of re-filling church pews and bank accounts remains to be seen. What is regrettable, either way, is that by choosing to be competitive they have once again pitted themselves against the moral arc of history. Whether humanity can flourish in the 21st century will depend largely on whether we can move beyond competition to collaboration. Population growth, resource depletion and weapons technology have carried us to the point that there are fewer and fewer “winnable” competitions. Humanity desperately needs to find common ground in our  shared moral core and dreams for our children. Just as they did on the questions of slavery and the full humanity of women, the Southern Baptists have positioned themselves as moral dead weight, which is a loss for us all.

 
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