For anyone who owns a personal computer, spam is a familiar headache. It gluts our mailboxes with offers to refinance our mortgage, enhance our sexual performance and increase the size of selected body parts.
Lately, however, I've noticed a new trend: spiritual spam. My mailbox is glutted with advertisements for Christian conferences that promise to increase the size of my church and enhance my spiritual performance. In some cases, the spam comes from Christian organizations I respect and admire, which makes it all the more disturbing.
Recently, I received a brochure for a "Renew the Passion" conference at Willow Creek. It says: "Get ready for three days of life-changing, church-transforming, passion-renewing, foundation-building ministry, training and inspiration." Now, I've been to conferences at Willow Creek and enjoyed them. But reading this brochure, I can't help but marvel at the level of hubris and hyperbole. Didn't it occur to Bill Hybels that this might be just a little over-the-top?
Rick Warren, author of the mega-bestseller The Purpose Driven Life, invites me to attend one of his 12 Purpose-Driven conferences that are currently being held around the country. If I attend this 2-day conference, I will "…join more than 250,000 pastors who have discovered how to reach the unchurched." Again, you can't help but marvel at this claim. If 250,000 pastors were actually reaching the unchurched in America, we'd be seeing a major revival. But according to the latest Gallup surveys, the number of churchgoers is static or declining. So where's the revival?
In Christianity Today I found an advertisement for "Beyond All Limits," a pastor's conference in Orlando, Florida. If I attend this conference, I will receive "Ten Lifetime Rewards." I will discover my hidden talents, become more Christ-like, refine my ministry philosophy, learn how to become a visionary leader with God-size goals, learn to understand the culture, learn how to create wealth and attain financial independence, develop intimacy in my marriage, help others achieve their spiritual goals, and lead my church in exciting areas of evangelism. I actually know a pastor who attended this conference and when he returned home he resigned from his church and quit the ministry.
Another ad in Christianity Today promotes "Crossculture," a youth ministry summit held in Indianapolis. According to the advertisement, if I attend this 3-day conference it will "redefine" youth ministry and enable me to "make the cross relevant again." Excuse me, but I thought it was Jesus who made the cross relevant in three days.
Just last week I received a brochure from Promise Keepers, inviting me to attend not just a conference but an "Uprising." By attending this conference I will be joining a "revolution" that will "…change a life of imitation and mediocrity into one of passion and character…a radical revolt that will forever change the world."
Not even the most shameless spammers would match the claims made by some Christian promoters. Recently, a pastor stopped by to ask if he could display some posters in our church lobby. The posters advertised a two-day Christian seminar that promised to "Improve Everything in Your Life Immediately." Needless to say, I turned him down. Not even Jesus Christ will improve everything in your life immediately.
For thousands of years, Christians sought spiritual renewal by turning to God in prayer, humility and repentance. Today, we attend conferences.
The striking thing about all this spiritual spam is that it reduces the Christian faith to a handy grab bag of formulas and techniques, principles and paradigms. Like the early Gnostics, they offer us new and hidden wisdom that is not available to the ordinary Christian.
Lurking behind the deluge of Christian spam is the false god of marketing. The glossy brochures tempt us to believe that everything we lack will be instantly and completely supplied by experts who know far more about God than we do. It used to be that we were promised Thirty Days to Thinner Thighs. Now, it's Forty Days to a Purpose-Driven Life.
Peter Larson is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, Ohio, and a contributing editor to PRISM. He can be reached at Peter@LebanonPresbyterian.org.