In Praise of Obscurity

Traveling around the UK I am more aware of just how affected I am by the marketing mentality so prevalent in the US. Maybe it has something to do with the centrality of commercial television in the US for the past 70 years. Right from the start all BBC channels have been commercial free. It is hard for me to fathom flipping through channels on the tele for hours without encountering a single appeal to buy something, but that can happen in the UK. Even the magazines I’ve seen here are very thin on ads.<--break->Maybe it’s the understated English way, or maybe it’s just the type of people we’re hanging out with but it’s simply quieter here. One can go through a day without the oppressive onslaught of someone’s promotional campaign or the latest viral marketing idea being dangled in front of you through a friend who says “This is so cool, you have to see this.”

I’ve quite gotten used to the greatly diminished hype over the past couple of months and dread arriving back into the States during the run up to the high holy days of Blitzmas.

I fear that the shouting car salesman has become normalized for me. I worry that the advertising steroids pumped into the meat of our culture has been consumed by the church and has made its way into her bloodstream. I’ve been in full-time Christian ministry nearly 25 years now and can tell you from experience that we have bought into the marketing mentality to the point of syncretism. Many of us have become obsessed with attempting to engineer a social movement using the same viral marketing techniques which fuel consumerism. In so doing we’ve forsaken the power of a Savior who chose obscurity in his birth (peasantry over royalty), obscurity in his work (carpentry over celebrity),obscurity in his ministry (rejection over election) and obscurity in his death (execution over revolution).

Is Jesus really just waiting for us to dream up the perfect viral marketing gimmick for him? Most of the Christian book, conference, church or ministry hype I encounter is all about the book, conference, church or ministry being hyped. Very few Christian marketing campaigns are interested in the ministry vehicle becoming obscure and unremembered in the act of kingdom transformation. We want to see kingdom transformation to be sure, we just want to be sure our logo is somewhere nearby when it happens so that we can expand upon it by building brand loyalty.

In kingdom parables like the mustard seed, the leaven and the grain of wheat, the agent of change is forgotten. The little seed doesn’t grow into a big seed and the yeast doesn’t multiply into a massive yeast ball. The mustard seed is buried, the grain of wheat dies, and the yeast dissolves. These parables are not about a little church becoming a big church; they’re about the sacrificial death of a small, obscure thing which dynamically transforms the environment out of all proportion to their own size.

We met Richard the other day. He, his wife, and another couple are hoping to see the kingdom grow in a poor area of London amongst working class people who aren’t very interested in church, but who may in fact be interested in Jesus and his upside-down kingdom. When they moved into the area Richard asked where the sketchiest pub was. Everyone he asked seemed to point to the same place. So faithfully, week by week, Richard endured the untoward stares and cold silence he encountered as he stepped into an environment rife with illegal activity. In time the people in the pub have come to accept Richard and see him as their vicar. It is a kind of church which I doubt exists in too many other places (most churches do not need to put concrete over smooth surfaces like toilet seats so people will stop using them to lay out their cocaine lines). Slowly and without fanfare the kingdom is growing.

Richard, his wife and friends are not trying to birth a giant ministry or create a mega church. They quietly, almost invisibly, love people who would never darken the doorstep of a church or turn up for a ministry program. In fact the nature of the people they work with require that their efforts remain obscure and that the work remain small. To recruit teams to come with him to the pub would commodify the people he loves – not to mention that they’d see through any attempt to turn them into a ministry. They trust Richard and confide in him. For him to use his relationships and experiences to launch “Seedy Pub Ministries International” would cheapen the beauty of what he is doing.

If we must promote something, let’s promote the idea of working quietly among friends without having to turn our work into a mega-something. Let’s promote the sacrificial death of small things which create massive scale kingdom transformation – and when people ask, “Who got all this amazing stuff started?” all anyone can respond is, “Hmm. I knew once, but I’ve forgotten.”

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