on papering holy cities with mailers to come to church

I make mention in the about section here that I live in the holy city of Mid-America. This is because this city is host to the global headquarters of a major American religious denomination and is quintessentially Bible belt.

Believe me, if you lived here, you would definitely recognize the latter and haven’t a clue about the former.

Growing up back in God’s country in the upper Midwest, those of us who were raised in the aforementioned American religious denomination had a concept of here being something akin to Calvin’s Geneva or Augustine’s City of God, that is, if we ever exposed to Calvin or Augustine in church. I had this idea that Springfield was this sort of New Jerusalem, where the denomination held influence and was brimming with activity and ideas.

Then I became more acclimated to the area, and visited on occasion. In the meanwhile, agents of said denomination sullied, blackballed and redacted me from their records in between my teen years and moving to Kansas City in 2009. Some of you who read are familiar with parts of that sordid story, but I digress. What I discovered is that 1) this city is kind of a dump–after Route 66 was decommissioned, the central part of the city was essentially left to rot until recent revitalization efforts–and while it has a sort of retro charm, it also suffers from retro camp. 2) Evangelicalism–including the denomination–has next to no influence in the city whatsoever.

The proof, before Passion Week, was in the mail, several times over.

You see, this city is a microcosm of everything that is wrong about Evangelicalism’s sense of self: there are churches everywhere, but in my non-ecclesiastical line of work, it’s clear that neither religious faith nor church attendance has any bearing on a decent cross-section of the populace. The idea that the church is advancing exists only in the minds of pastors whose worldview depends on the head count in Sunday services and their accommodating, enabling adherents who buy in. If this idea were actually existent in reality, there would be no need for full-color postcard mailers inviting people to Easter Sunday and megachurches w, x, y and z, would there?

We got several highly-designed, full-color mailers during the week preceding Palm Sunday in our mailbox here at stately Chateau Sirvio. This city has about 160,000 people, and the area totals over 500,000. Several major Evangelical denominations have considerable operations of some sort here, and seldom fail to shy away from mentioning it.

So, let’s assume 500,000 people living here, and further assume 275,000 residences. Even with non-profit postage and bulk mail rates, even with non-profit discounts or mass mailing discounts for charitable organizations, 275,000 quality–using the term loosely–mailers are not going to come cheap. Even at $1 a mailer, and I seriously doubt that they cost that little, that is $275,000. We’ll get back to this.

The median household income in Springfield in 2009 was just over $30,000, median non-household income under $20,000. This is a region where the economic meltdown took a severe toll on the middle class, in fact, it could be argued strictly from statistical analysis that the middle class hasn’t really been here in quite some time. The rusted-out Toronado and the new Toyota 4Runner park together in the same Walmart parking lot, and the store itself is filled with a mishmash of the washed and unwashed masses. Again, keep this in mind.

When I did my internship with a campus ministry at a major ACC university during the 2006-’07 academic year, we handed out flyers to our weekly meetings. We copied thousands of them and thousands ended up in the trash. I got in trouble because I lost interest in giving someone trash and began being more selective in handing them out. Attempts to rationalize and reconcile the chasm that opened between theory and praxis were futile, and I was nearly dismissed from the program because of my concern that we weren’t engaging students outside the fold beyond literally handing people garbage. Of those who received those handouts each Wednesday, we would have been dancing in the aisles to have see even 1% in a Thursday night meeting. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not being critical of what we were doing, but this is, in essence, what it was.

So, megachurch x decides to *ahem*invest*ahem* $275,000 into sending out a mailer to every residence in the Springfield area:

85% of those are probably going to get thrown in the trash straightaway. People don’t like junk mail, even if it’s prayed over before being mailed;

10% or more are going to probably end up on a countertop, buried underneath other junk mail, old pizza boxes or perhaps something scarier;

If you’re keeping score, we’ve already eliminated over 261,000 households, or over half the metropolitan area. Some return on your investment there, brother.

4% already go to megachurch x;

…and we’re stuck with 1%. 2,750 people. Some of them might think about it, some might be reminded to go back to their own church for their semi-annual obligation, a handful might actually go.

But let’s face it: why would even a megachurch which can only house maybe 3,000 per service–and even considering multiple services–send out mailers to over a quarter-million households? It’s an even more cockamamie and hair-brained idea when they think that they have so much clout and influence in the community and then act as though no one has ever heard of them. In all honesty, they’d be better off enabling their adherents and members to go reach their spheres of influence–even if it means something as stupid as inviting people to church–and probably get a better ROI from it!

As if we weren’t already looking at a laughable enough scenario, that’s over a quarter-million dollars thrown away during an economic crisis when the working class is repeatedly getting kicked in the jimmy; a quarter-million dollars that could be invested into charitable or relief efforts, invested into providing workforce education or just back into the local economy. Missions, perhaps? (…but not home missions. That’s the province of the local church body. Unless we’re talking about the north side, where apparently God is no longer present. But we’re not interested in that, we’re expanding our campus to Republic and Ozark!) Really, anything, anything but self-indulgent, crappy mailers ultimately celebrating just how awesome they are, and giving some associate youth pastor in skinny jeans armed with his requisite MacBook the idea that he’s actually a minister of media arts or something inane like that.

And people whine about greedy bankers and big oil. How about these clowns who are inching the guv’mint closer to revoking religious organizations’ 501 status?

This demonstrates a number of points: first, churches grossly overestimate their influence in the community. If it’s happening here in the Bible belt, you think it’s any better anywhere else in America? Second, churches have invested a ton of time, energy and money into focusing on small groups and trying to become more people-centric. The end result is still resorting to macro-strategies and garden variety semi-annual Sunday extravaganzas, like Easter cantatas or Christmas musicals. The church is not becoming monolithic, it is already a monolith. Third, coming from the first and second, people in churches are not being enabled to do anything in their world, but to feed the leviathan. Fourth, Evangelicals have a serious problem with the other: flaunting themselves when people are hurting, struggling or otherwise indifferent to the religious cause is not Christ-like. They might have had better success mailing the metropolitan area a $5 check per household. At least people wouldn’t throw away a check as easily as a mailer!

This is the city where I live. There’s a good reason I don’t attend a church here. Most of the truly wonderful people I’ve met here don’t attend, either. They can have their kingdoms of fancy-looking steel buildings and their six flags over Jesus. After all, it’s not like they can take any of it with them. Not even a leftover box of full-color mailers.


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