“Why doesn’t the church learn marketing skills?” someone asked the other day. “Not reaching out to customers is a sign of a dying institution.”
Before protesting that we do reach out, aren’t dying, don’t have “customers,” or aren’t an institution, let’s pause to consider. What is our outreach strategy? How’s it doing?
The church has had various marketing strategies over the centuries. Something must have worked sometime, given the billions of people across thousands of years who have belonged. Still, the question is thought-provoking, especially if we look around our congregations and notice who’s there and who isn’t.
In the recent movie Risen, Clavius, a Roman tribune, interviews any follower of Jesus he can find on the first Easter Sunday. Ordered by Pilate to prevent an uprising, he’s trying to find out what happened to the body of the man he personally saw hanging dead on a cross. He interrogates the Apostle Bartholomew, who tells him Jesus offered eternal life. Clavius responds acidly: “A marvellous recruiting tool.” The apostles are not, at this point, particularly good recruiters, cowering in obscure locked rooms and fleeing at the slightest sound. We modern disciples of Jesus may act that way more often than we’d like to think.
Clavius pursues the two people he’s sure would be the best witnesses, if he can get the truth out of them: the soldiers whom he ordered to guard the tomb he himself sealed. He tracks down one, drunk in a bar, and hears the real story at last: a light came from the tomb, the stone moved away, the ropes burst asunder, and out came the risen body. All told in a drunken slur by a trapped, horrified man.
Why would witnessing the resurrection drive a person to alcoholic misery?
If humans had invented it, this might be the kind of resurrection we could imagine: a horrifying one that makes us dissolve into oblivion. The soldier saw something that lit up the pain and dreariness of his life, making it unbearable. He’d helped with Jesus’ torture and crucifixion. The resuscitation and vanishing of the broken, dead body merely rearranged his same old problems, highlighting the failures without giving any antidote.
Like the soldier, we can come to see more clearly the world’s violence, and ours — leaving us with the burden of having to try harder. We can strive more to put down the sword and touch the leper — on our strength, walking alone. Jesus is raised, and gone; we don’t see or touch him, but he expects us to work miracles back here on earth, where the pain and violence are. So, we’ll welcome the refugee, stick out the marriage, suffer through the excruciating illness, stay with the unpleasant co-worker, trying not to complain — on our steam.
This kind of “resurrection” leaves us in the worst place of all. It lets us see through the lies and deceits of our day, illuminating the need around and within, without giving us the ability to change anything. We fall farther when we try. If we’ve hoped in Christ in human terms only, we become the most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19-20).
Does Christ, in calling our names, gives us burden or gift? “You will have tribulation” (John 16:33), but “my yoke is easy” (Matthew 11:30). What are we to make of this? The suffering is clear already. Everyone can see Good Friday for themselves, all the better now that we can watch videos of live crucifixions and receive prescriptions for lethal injections. We don’t need divine revelation for that. But, the resurrection, the power of Life working its way through corruption and death, even the corruption and death in our lives — for this we need apostles, true witnesses of the real resurrection. We need the church.
The apostles were bouleversés, knocked on their heads, flipped upside down by it. Come Pentecost, they flew out of their locked rooms, just as Christ came forth from the sealed tomb. They became drunk, not with spirits but with the Holy Spirit. They shook the world that had shaken them. Their corrosive fear of suffering rose to new courage, and the iron fingers of their self-preservation rose to a love that dared all things, believed all things, hoped all things, endured all things (1 Corinthians 13).
What happened, that gave them access to all this? Mythological resuscitation of a dead body? A teddy-bear feeling that they could commune spiritually with their dead leader and remember him fondly?
Resurrection isn’t a 2,000-year-old memory, or opiatic yearning. If it’s real at all, it’s worth drawing on at Eastertide and every day. It’s the crack where the Divine Light gets in (and out). It’s the gift that makes it worth risking coming out of our locked rooms, even if those rooms happen to be church buildings.
Getting flipped upside down is our recruitment strategy, our marketing tool. Why don’t we use it?
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at email@example.com