Which gospel are you selling?

December 1st, 2015

People buy stories, not the truth.

Not long ago I read the helpful book "All Marketers are Liars" by Seth Godin. Actually, the copy I picked up was a later edition, on which the phrase “are liars” had been scratched out and changed to “tell stories”. The basic premise of the book is that people buy goods or services for the story associated with their purchase, for the way the thing makes them feel, and not because they have conducted a careful examination of the facts.

Successful marketers, Mr. Godin explains, learn how to tell authentic stories to people who already believe them. They look for customers whose worldview makes them hungry for the seller’s product. For example, a local organic farmer would do well to offer her produce in places where customers are likely to buy it. If she’s smart, she’ll tell a story that emphasizes her personal connection to the customer’s community. At the farmer’s market, she’ll project an image of healthy, wholesome living. Or maybe she’ll partner with restaurants that like to feature fresh, local foods in their menus.

People don’t buy her produce because they have scientifically examined the evidence and objectively concluded that her vegetables are higher quality than what they could pick up in the grocery store. Instead, what they really purchase is the feeling they get when they walk up to the produce stand at the farmers’ market on a nice Saturday morning. They like to know their tomatoes were grown by a friendly person with whom they can share a personal human interaction. They tell themselves, These tomatoes are better because Rebecca grew them on her organic farm ten miles from here. They buy the story, not the facts.

Facts vs. the Gospel

The facts about Jesus are pretty slim. He was a Jewish man operating near the edge of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. He started a movement centered on the concept of the Kingdom of God. His life ended when this movement gained enough attention to get him publicly executed for sedition by the Roman government. To an objective observer of history, this is about all we know with any real certainty.

But stories of Jesus have a power far greater than the facts they contain. After his death, the followers of Jesus created all kinds of tales about his life, death, and resurrection. Some of these were more grounded in reality than others, but we really have no way of knowing for sure which are more factually true.

Many gospel narratives were lost.* The ones which survived did so because they were important to Christian communities. Like all sacred texts, these were the stories that sustained the body of believers. They interpreted important events, provided meaningful instruction, and offered encouragement in the face of overwhelming odds.

In the difficult and dangerous world of ancient Palestine, the stories of Jesus and his followers helped a battered community survive and even thrive. That’s why they lasted through the first century and why they continue to be shared today. The gospels gave us what we needed to catch on to Jesus’s inspiring vision of the Kingdom of God. They continue to sustain us in times when the world would have us believe our existence isn’t that important.

In other words, the gospels speak to our worldview, to our human condition. They tell us a story we want and need to hear. And it doesn’t matter whether or not we can prove that story is factually true.

Think about this. One could easily and convincingly argue that greed, power, and violence rule the world. It was as true when Jesus lived as it is today. Not much has changed in that regard. The people in charge are the ones who have the most assets protected by the most powerful military. If you were born powerless, most likely you will die powerless. All evidence points to the fact that resistance is futile. After all, look what happened to Jesus.

But what good does that narrative do anyone? Who benefits from hearing, “Hey, just resign yourself to living under the boot of your master’s oppression. It’s either this or death, because really, you don’t matter that much.”

Most of us can’t buy that depressing story, even if all the facts staring us in the face point to its probable truth. Instead, against all reason, we cling to the belief that indeed there is hope. We assert that we do matter.

The gospel story says that not only do we matter, but all people matter because we all are children of a loving God. And nothing, not the world’s brutal circumstances or even our own miserable failures can separate us from God’s love. Somehow, we hear it and we believe it in spite of the evidence. Somehow, God will find a way to make us whole, to set us free, even if it has to happen after we die.

Trying to prove the gospel’s truth is a waste of time.

In his book, Mr. Godin also explains that marketers who try to create need within an unreceptive audience are wasting their resources. To use farmer Rebecca again as an example, she’s much more likely to sell her produce to a restaurant than she would be to an auto-parts dealer. It doesn’t matter how much that second set of customers might benefit from eating her vegetables. The store isn’t going to sell them.

Likewise, you can’t sell the gospel to someone who doesn’t feel like they need your version of it. And the more you push for them to understand how important the gospel is, the more resistant they’ll become. Arguing harder is a waste of time. (And it’s also just rude, like a telemarketer who won’t shut up.)

An authentic story is only true if it looks believable from every angle.

Imagine this scenario. You walk into a store that advertises handcrafted solid-wood furniture. The first piece you see is a veneer-covered particle board bookshelf manufactured in China. This is false-advertising, you think. What a bunch of scam artists.

This is dangerous territory for Christians (and most religious groups) because the Bible (and most every sacred text) contains blatant inconsistencies. Jesus asks us to love our enemies in one passage, then tells stories where people are thrown into eternal fire. God says, “Thou shalt not kill,” but then commands his people to commit genocide. Christians say, “I believe every word in the Bible is divinely inspired, Word-of-God truth,” but then ignore major sections of its teachings.

Christians will never win the argument with nonbelievers that the gospel is literally, factually, consistently true. That kind of “gospel truth” is an oxymoron.

But things look different if the good news becomes more than words. When loving kindness can be seen in every aspect of a Christian’s life, that person is communicating an authentic gospel story. When churches practice social holiness instead of isolating themselves by judging society, they are telling an authentic gospel story. When convincing people of their own sacred worth becomes more important to us than making sure they join our side, we are living out an authentic gospel story.

People are ready and waiting for this kind of good news. They hunger for it. They want to be loved. They need supportive community. They will only thrive if they know they are valued. In the end, they don’t really care about the so-called facts. They buy the story. The only question is, which gospel are you selling?

*Some were lost for a time and then rediscovered. This website holds a collection of noncanonical texts—some of which were gospels—related to the biblical story.

comments powered by Disqus