Market-Driven Church Creates Its Own Victims

About two weeks ago Ron Carpenter, a pastor of a popular mega-church in the Greenville area made a somewhat startling revelation to the congregation regarding his wife and family.

I admit to having some serious issues with this. I believe that it is unethical and–dare I say this?–un-Biblical to bring an accusation against someone in front of the Body of Christ when that person is not present. Carpenter’s wife was not only absent but is being kept in isolation, although she has supposedly authorized her husband to speak for her.

Perhaps it is a cynical (bordering on un-Christian?) attitude on my part to be suspicious of all this and what’s really going on with these two ministers who lead a massive congregation. But I have no desire to add any more hurt to an already hurtful situation. Whatever is going on, this family needs prayer and hope. This church needs prayer and hope.

At the same time, the entire incident raises some questions that go beyond the Carpenters and their ministry at Redemption World Outreach. It goes to the heart of what we are as church, and how we present Christ to the world through the church.

We are in a present church culture that talks as much about marketing strategies as it does about Jesus. Lessons on how to reach Millenials or how to get larger numbers of members or how to make sure that the church takes in more offerings are all the rage. Conferences, seminars, marketing strategies, social media teleconferences are all out there for the taking. And pastors are constantly encouraged to join in the festivities; in fact, they often feel forced to do these types of things in order to be real or relevant or intentional or whatever the catch word of the day is.

Church marketing and growth strategy has become an entire cottage industry, from The Purpose-Driven Church all the way to the current tweet-based culture of promoting growth strategy. Pastors and strategists and speakers bounce around the country on private planes, and make millions of dollars on books and seminars about how to become a “growing” church (read what you like into those quotation marks). These leaders throw around talk of mission statements, vision-casting, relevant, “capturing” culture, and creating movement. And lists. Yes, there is a passion for lists of “4 Things that…” or “12 Ways to…” or “7 Things that Will…” do whatever to/with/for your church. There is plenty of spiritual language mixed in with all this, but strategies and marketing are clearly the focus.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with informing people about the church or letting everyone know the ministries that are happening. Marketing can be vitally important, and even life-giving, for a church. You want to let people know what the church is doing and how it is working to transform lives and communities and even institutions. Those lists and strategies and purpose statements all have their place as the church attempts to engage a culture that is saturated with market thinking (more on that in a later post).

What happens, however, when the marketing becomes the message, and image is everything?

And what happens when something goes bad, and the image is at risk?

All that publicity can suddenly turn into scrutiny. The same media outlets that you used as your friend can quickly turn into the enemy.

What happened with the Carpenters at Redemption World Outreach may well be more than the product of a deeper problem behind the alleged sinful behavior. It may be the product of creating an image-conscious ministry that forces leadership to create an aura of invincibility while problems bubble under the surface.

Transparency and honesty on the part of a pastor are absolutely critical; however, that doesn’t mean every piece of dirty laundry needs to be aired in front of a YouTube audience. It certainly doesn’t give a pastor the right to humiliate his wife or children without offering them an opportunity to explain themselves. As cynical as some of us may seem for questioning Ron Carpenter’s motives, it’s also a reaction to the constant publicity-seeking nature of certain styles of church.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t use the internet and closed-circuit television and social media at every turn and then express shock when those who are watching begin to question the motives behind what is said and done. When the churches uses marketing to excess and budgets huge dollars towards that, it automatically creates the perception that certain things come across much more like “spin” than sincerity.

And whose reputation is being protected? Certainly not Hope Hilley Carpenter, who is either incapable or is being prevented from speaking for herself. When church becomes empire-driven, then some things must be sacrificed in order to protect the empire. That can end up being the most vulnerable person available–which, in this case, appears to be the wife. I really don’t even want to think about what’s happening to the children, other than to pray for their well-being in this mess.

Revolving a ministry around the cult of personality of the pastor(s) and an overload of volume-building marketing strategies means that the image has to be protected, and the members convinced that questions should not be asked. As great as it is that the membership at Redemption is standing by the pastor, it also has a responsibility to hold the pastor and leaders accountable for their actions. Perhaps if the market mentality had not been so prominent, the Pastors Carpenter could have worked out their problems 10 years ago rather than keeping up the charade for the cameras.

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Have we let our marketing overshadow our message?

RWO does a lot of great work, and will hopefully continue to do so. Great work does not excuse the handling of this situation, nor justify selling out the church to press secretaries and marketing agents. Continually driving for a greater market share also creates a vulnerability to critics, as well as exposing the leaders of a ministry to extensive pressure and scrutiny. No person can stand on the pedestal that is built when image becomes the message. Protecting that image is extremely costly in more ways than one.

It is perfectly acceptable for churches to seek publicity and marketing strategies that will help them accomplish their mission. But when the image starts creeping too high up the priority ladder, the Gospel fades and the problems start to bubble.

Whatever is going on with the Carpenter family, I hope and pray for peace, healing and some measure of redemption (no pun intended) for all of them, especially their children. I offer the same to the church and ministry.

I also pray that a lesson will be learned by the people of that church, as well as all pastors and the people of all churches. Pastors should strive to be above reproach, but they are not above imperfection and certainly not above accountability. Publicity and marketing are fine, as long as they are used with care and do not climb to the highest rung on the priority ladder. If churches continue to market image and personality, there is great risk, no matter how many “good things” they do.

All pastors–and yes, that includes me–church leaders, and members must remember that the message of Jesus isn’t A thing, it’s THE thing. We are accountable for spreading the message of Christ, not the cult of personality of a pastor or the marketing strategy of the church. What good does it do to reach a larger market if we have to sell our soul in order to do it?

We are not called to empire-building. We are called to kingdom-building. And there is a difference. If we forget that, we risk damage to all that Christ calls us to be and do.

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