A number of years ago, I sat in church with a neighbor who was highly skeptical of religion.
I don’t remember what prompted him to attend this Sunday service–probably something to do with one of his kids.
I thought the sermon was decent that day and wondered if it had had any positive effect on him. I quickly learned that it had not. After the service, he referred to the sermon as the “sales pitch.” He gave a quick rundown on the elements of the pitch. He thought the “rapport-building” part of the sermon was pretty good. But he was turned off by the pastor’s aggressive attempt to “close the deal.”
I remember making a half-hearted protest at his description of a sermon as a sales pitch. But he told me, “I work in sales for a living. I know a sales pitch when I hear one.”
To my knowledge, he has not been to a worship service since.
For awhile, I dismissed his analysis as just a bit of blasphemy from a jaded nonbeliever. So what if the sermon was a form of sales pitch? Don’t we have the best product ever to sell? Shouldn’t we be selling it? Isn’t that what Jesus commissioned us to do?
But I had the nagging feeling that my neighbor had hit upon a huge flaw in modern preaching. Do we, despite our best efforts, come across as slick, snake-oil salesmen trying to manipulate people in order to make a sale? If so, no wonder so many people, especially world-wise young people who have been inundated with clever advertising all their lives, view the church with suspicion.
Initially, I had an answer for that, too. The “sincerity” excuse. There’s nothing guileful or manipulative about preaching. We’re different. We proclaim because we sincerely and passionately believe in what we’re selling.
But no. That doesn’t make us different. Who hasn’t been turned off by passionate and sincere salespeople trying to get them to buy things they don’t need and probably can’t afford?
I never figured out what to do with this uncomfortable “sales shill” perception of the pastor, until recently, when I was called out on it by a fairly new member of the congregation. Past experience had made her wary of large parts of the Christian message. Without even realizing it, I fell into the trap of trying to get her to buy it.
Fortunately, she was honest enough to tell me to back off. “I walked into, stayed, and joined a church because there was a person in there who was just being a person, and not selling me Jesus flowers,” she said. Most damningly, she wanted to know if that rapport-building was just my way of getting into a position to close the deal.
Her comments sent me back to the gospels. Where I discovered that Jesus never built rapport so as to close a deal. He never sold anything. Whatever he had to give–and he had plenty–he simply gave away.
I am more convinced than ever that we’re not here to sell Jesus flowers. Yes, we are called to proclaim a message of good news. But proclaiming does not mean selling. Jesus did not commission us to sell anything; he told us to give it away.
If we do it right, we don’t sell anything from a pulpit. Yes, we have a great product. Yes, we are passionate about it. And yes, there’s a sucker born every minute, so we probably could make some sales.
But it is not the calling of a Christian to sell anything. Our call is to give it away. I don’t know that a sales job can change a life. I do know that a sermon that gives away the gospel and its message of love and new life, free of charge, no strings attached, has a better chance of doing that.