New Internationalist

Selling Salvation

Issue 98

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CULTURE [image, unknown] Missionaries' marketing strategies

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Selling Salvation
A new breed of North American evangelists are now using big-business strategies to market their particular brands of faith. Their packaged promises of salvation, reports Cammy Wilson are undermining long-established cultures and bringing multinational missionary organisations million-dollar incomes from Third World collection boxes.


Irian Jaya is primaeval, with more impenetrable jungle than Africa or the Amazon, and mountaintops where the snow never melts. It is a tangle of wild rivers and Stone Age tribes who don't take kindly to tire intrusions of civilisation.

So, when out of a clear sky the great light 'birds' came, they created quite a stir. And when the birds began to speak in the dialects of the villagers, the effect was spellbinding - if not miraculous. The voices the tribes people heard came from simple devices carrying recorded messages. The birds carrying the recordings were parachute dropped over the villages by Christian missionaries. They were deploying one of the many weapons in a sophisticated arsenal available to Christians in the mission field today.

More and more, US religious organisations are adopting the tactics and gimmicks of big business - and big government - in their centuries-old battle for souls.

Through such campaigns missionaries can now reach their audiences without tying up the resources necessitated by the old method of staking claim to a bit of jungle turf and waiting years - perhaps a lifetime - for the Lord to work his miracles.

Many religious organisations these days are purchasing marketing analyses and commissioning public opinion surveys, seeking to penetrate cities and saturate likely markets. Movie stars, television personalities, football players, singers, even comedians, may be enlisted for the effort. The trend is for Christianity to be sold to Third World audiences by the same methods that proved so successful for cold-water detergents and under-arm deodorants. Fielding a world-wide 'sales' force and commanding huge budgets, they also enjoy a lack of accountability that the CIA might envy. Within the religious community they are sometimes called the 'multinational missions'. And there is little doubt that the media approach works.

Today's big missionary success stories come from these multinationals. With their impressive claims of conversions - 20,000 Cambodian refugees, for instance - they represent a real challenge to more traditional missionaries like those from members of the World Council for Churches. In fact the multinationals view WCC adherents with particular suspicion, and at the recent Consultation on World Evangelisation (COWE) conference, delegates were warned to keep a special look out for the 'church press'.

The first priority, the multinational missionaries say, is to develop a taste for Christianity among local people. 'One of the problems of people in the big cities is they feel no need of Christianity' one delegate reported. 'You have to get somebody "lost" before you can get him "saved".'

Asia is apparently Christianity's most difficult market. The term repeatedly used to describe the attitude of Asians toward Christianity is 'resistant' - after 600 years of proselytizing, often in conjunction with military subjugation and colonisation, the percentage of Asian Christians remains small. The Philippines is the primary success story (92 per cent Christian); Papua New Guinea is probably next with 51 per cent; then Korea with 16 per cent. Though there are millions of Christians in India, they comprise but 2.6 per cent of the total population.

Developing the 'taste for Christianity' in the cities of Asia can involve elaborate preparation and follow-through. One approach is that of the Southern Baptists' 'All Media Penetration Project' (AMP). According to their marketing survey AMP is a 'three year effort to use all appropriate media to penetrate Bangkok in Thailand with the message of Jesus Christ, confronting every person in the city with Him as a culturally acceptable option. The AMP will follow modern principles of Christian communications strategy and as such become a pioneering and experimental project for urban media-evangelism.'

Public figures are heavily utilised for tire saturation effort. South Korean football champion, Lee Young Moo, is always seen kneeling on the ground with his hands folded in prayer whenever he shoots for goal. Now with a following culled from audiences of three million television sets, he has founded a church composed of top national Christian athletes. And recently the Koreans have been sending their own missionaries to Thailand.

Like finances in families, money matters are hardly discussed by the multinational missions. Many of the large evangelical organisations are like closely held private companies: no-one outside the evangelists, their accountants, and various relatives, can be sure how much money is taken or how it is spent. And it's likely to remain a family secret: for example, Leighton Ford, the Vice President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is Billy Graham's brother-in-law. The only certainty is that the stakes are high.

[image, unknown] The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability which began setting fundraising guidelines for its 100 members after scandals occurred in some groups, says its members alone solicit over $500 million each year. And the 2,200 groups of the United Ways of America raised approximately $1.4 billion last year - much from developing countries. Some donations are difficult to assess. Describing the items found in one collection box after a sermon from the 'Billy Graham of South Korea', the Reverend Kim Ik Do, a booklet says: 'There were 200 finger rings, 22 silver and gold watches, 200 silver ladies' hairpins, and 17,000 in cash'. All from a country where in 1976 the per capita income was just $641 a year.

This contradiction is unwittingly parodied in the 'Sackcloth and Ashes' pin distributed by the Campus Crusade for Christ. A small piece of burlap tied with blue string (ostensibly to hold the ashes in), the pin was attached to an attractive brochure on linen-like paper. 'This unusual two-inch burlap pin reminds the wearer to pray for personal and national repentance' it said. Sackcloth and ashes, when worn by the early Christians, was an agonising experience. The scratchy sackcloth became distressingly uncomfortable with the addition of ashes. Wearers at the COWE conference did not have that problem. Not even a smudge could be delivered by the pin, which contained - not ashes - but a small piece of crumpled waxed paper. But then, the brochure did say 'Sackcloth and Ashes symbolic pin'.

Cammy Wilson, formerly a staff writer with the Minneapolis Tribune, is an Overseas Journalism Fellow based in Bangkok with the Institute of Current World Affairs in US.


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