Are We Preaching a Gospel of Inadequacy?
Every time I go to restock my face cream at the cosmetics vendor, inevitably the sales ladies point out the fact my skin is particularly dry. Oh wait, not just dry, they say, they are also seeing signs of crow’s feet and — gasp! — some dark circles under my eyes. They masquerade as skincare health professionals with fancy dermatology equipment to properly diagnose the ills of my skin. All this, of course, so they can sell me the magic anti-wrinkle cream. And do I buy it? I do. (Dang it, you weak-willed creature.)
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I recently read a book titled, Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs, who pinpoints this trend over the last hundred years of advertising coined “inadequacy marketing.” He summarizes this form of storytelling as follows:
“Inadequacy stories encourage immature emotions like greed, vanity, and insecurity by telling us that we are somehow incomplete. These stories then offer to remove the discomfort of those emotions with a simple purchase or association with a brand.”
The first step in adequacy marketing is to create anxiety:
you have dry skin,
you are developing wrinkles,
you appear old,
your vitality is compromised,
you are losing relevance in this youth-centric world,
YOU ARE WORTHLESS.
Step two, provide the magical solution. Look here! Buy our face cream and — poof! — your troubles disappear. This seemingly ridiculous reasoning has indeed become the most powerful myth to permeate our consumeristic culture.
Alas, I question whether inadequacy marketing has infiltrated the way we communicate the Christian Gospel. In many ways we have conflated evangelism with consumerism. We use the vocabulary of the "gift" of salvation and “package” the message of God using marketing tactics.
Step one: create anxiety. Convince people of their sin. Bestow the anxiety of death and eternal punishment. Feed the fears of young children by warning them the consequences of disobedience. Fan the flame of shame by telling young women to be afraid of their bodies and the power it holds to lead men into lust. Capitalize on guilt in all its forms: criminal guilt, victim’s guilt, survivor guilt, mommy guilt. Once we have people feeling sufficiently condemned ...
Step two: provide the magical solution. We call it the altar call.
I don’t want to dismiss the wonderful, life giving good this form of evangelism has done. God uses a variety of ways to reach people. However, it is worth considering that inadequacy marketing is designed to provide people a temporary fix. It’s supposed to leave you only superficially satisfied so you continue to go back and purchase more. If the Gospel is truly living water that gives lasting liberation from our predicament, it’s time we offer an alternative story.
In thinking about how we ought to present the Gospel to people, I thought I’d go back to the basics and look at how Jesus called his disciples. The Scriptural accounts are rather succinct. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus simply says, “Come follow me,” and each gospel has their own version of Jesus promising to make them fishers of men. Notice there is absolutely no creation of anxiety, no condemnation of their state pre-following of Jesus — just a simple invitation.
What is most fascinating to me is the way John tells this story. In it, John the Baptist sees Jesus passing by and says, “Check it out, it’s the Lamb of God!” Two disciples follows Jesus. Jesus says, “What do you want?” Disciples ask, “Where are you staying?” Jesus says, “Come, and you will see.”
The next day Jesus calls Philip, “Follow me,” he says, and makes a disciple of him. Philip tells Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth to which Nathanael flips out and says, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” And hear Philip’s answer:
“Come and see.”
(Notice a pattern?)
Nathanael goes to see Jesus, who miraculously recognizes him: “I saw you before Philip even called you.” Nathanael is impressed and worships Jesus as the Son of God, King of Israel! Jesus replies, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.”
And to continue the literary pattern of this Scriptural passage, Jesus ends with this promise:
“You will see greater things than that.”
Jonah Sachs’s conclusion is that inadequacy marketing is ultimately, well, inadequate, because it reduces humanity to consumers. We are more than consumers. We are image-bearers of the Creator. We are beautiful, strong, resilient, loving people, who are designed to live a life full of meaning with lasting significance. The key to winning the story wars is to tell an alternative story to inadequacy marketing, inviting brave people to step into the role of a hero who lives abundantly into their truth, with integrity, generosity, and love.
Instead of creating anxiety as a starting point for the Gospel, we live faithfully as salt, yeast, and light on our little hills. Instead of launching flashy evangelistic campaigns with spotlights and celebrities, we extend quiet invitations: “Hey, come and see.”
That’s it. You don’t have to be a seminary grad, or an ordained minister, or a popular blogger, or the latest viral hit in order to be an advocate for Good. Live hard into your ordinary lives with faith, hope, and love. The combined witness of faithful heroes is more captivating than any magical potion offered in the most savvy advertising campaigns. The marketers tell us we are not enough: not young enough, not hip enough, not rich enough, not worth enough.
But we are not inadequate.
We are more than enough.
We are made in the image of a good and loving God.
Though brokenness swirls around us, we swim against the current with hope. Though darkness threatens to extinguish us, we shine with our collective flickering lights, burning with grace and mercy. Though evil reigns for a moment, love defeats it in the next. The life we live, the witness we bear, is more than a mechanism to reduce anxiety. It is a bold invitation to a revolution of boundary-breaking change, system-subverting liberation, love-overwhelming community. We are invited to the journey, and we are going to see greater things.
Cindy Brandt blogs at cindywords.com and serves on the board of One Day's Wages, an organization fighting extreme global poverty. She studied Bible/Theology at Wheaton College and holds a Masters of Arts in Theology from Fuller Seminary.