On the Monday before his crucifixion Jesus went into the temple courts and drove out those who had displaced worship with profit making (Matt. 21:12-13). Some had transformed the outer court into a marketplace and were taking advantage of travelers by changing foreign money into the temple currency and selling priest-approved animals at a profit. Jesus said they had turned the outer court into a den of robbers, referencing Jeremiah 7 where God calls his people to deal justly with each other and stop oppressing “the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow” (Jer. 7:6).
Immediately after Jesus shut down the temple “shopping mall,” he welcomed the blind and lame into the courts and healed them (Matt. 21:14). Perhaps these businesses had turned out the marginalized and now Jesus was restoring space for the excluded to come in and meet Yahweh. Whatever the connection between the moneychangers and the marginalized, the businesses didn’t belong in the temple courts and the blind and lame did.
I’ve often wondered about the right place for advertising. It seems to me that both the prevalence of advertising (we’re exposed to about 5,000 ads per day) and the glitzy attempts at drawing our attention (once stationary ads now jump, jiggle or flash) are products of our materialistic, consumerist society. I squirm a little when I see Christians advertising in the same ways that, say, personal injury lawyers advertise, as if we had to shout as loud as everyone else to be heard.
This is why I was surprised to see ads on my blog site recently, a space where I attempt to challenge materialism and give voice to my friends on the margins.
Urbana.org costs a fair bit to run and, as a leader within InterVarsity and Urbana, they graciously allow me to blog without charge, believing it contributes to the discussion around students and mission. I acknowledge there may be a bit of a continuum in the ethics of advertising. At the most basic level, many of us are trying to engage the marketplace of ideas and actions. We simply want to collaborate with others around things we commonly care about, so we try to get our message out to as many people as possible. Somewhere around the middle of the continuum may be non-profits and mom-and-pop businesses who just want to find the people who want to find them. They provide a product or service which they believe add value to life so they must get the word out. At the other end of the continuum are those using exploitive images, or attempting to create desire where there was none, or those who are purely out to make massive profits regardless of the cost to our souls, our communities and our environment.
I’d like to suggest we need to exercise caution regarding advertising. I feel like those of us following Jesus sometimes capitulate to the culture of pushiness that the ad-crazed society in which we live has turned us into. Bus and billboard ads “selling” a church or ministry simply have the opposite effect on me. I want to avoid them. My wife was at a store recently and someone advertising their church pushed a brochure in her hand. “Oh, no thanks,” my wife said. “I already belong to a church.” “Well …” the woman said dubiously, “you might want to take this anyway, just in case.” It was as if she were saying, “You’re probably not completely satisfied with your church so I think you really want to look into ours.” Like some of the Christian ads I see, it was a bit too “in-your-face” and seemed to call into question my wife and my ability to make thoughtful decisions about our spiritual life.
While doing some research on the Church’s historic concern over charging interest I came upon a site which had a number of Martin Luther’s tracts and sermons. One of them was on his concerns regarding capitalism and charging interest. Because of all the searches I had been doing on charging interest, the computer elves that decide what ads to put on various pages had peppered the site with ads for high-interest “Christian” loans for those with bad credit.
Some of what gets a bit under my skin as we Christians hock our messages and ministries is how invasive they can be. I cannot go to Christianity Today’s website without having to click my way past pop up ads which block the things I actually came there to find. Many popular Christian bloggers have advertisements running up and down their site (apparently I have joined the club). I’m happily married, so I don’t really need to have the benefits of ChristianMingle.com paraded before me when I just want to read a post on marital faithfulness. I come to ministry sites for one thing and am quite often appealed to by someone who has paid money in order to dangle their product, ministry or message in front of me.
If Jesus Christ lived today would he buy the JesusChrist.com domain name to get his message out (that domain name is currently occupied, and you can actually buy “Scripture Jewelry” there – check it out www.jesuschrist.com)? Would Jesus buy pop-up ads on religious sites? Would he advertise with TV commercials?
Maybe, but somehow I think Jesus' advertisements would be significantly distinguished from those whose messages and methods have more to do with indulging yourself than denying yourself. Let's be sure our medium doesn't obscure our message.