Thoughts on the Meaning of Life… Todd Helmkamp


Posted by Vogeler on March 17, 2007

I’ve recently become a bit dissatisfied with some methods churches use to reach the lost.

I’m speaking of what I call gimmicks. More and more churches are turning to slick marketing campaigns, “cool” services, billboard “teasers” (a phrase or picture designed to gain interest) to reach the lost, to “get them in the door.”

A perfect example of this is Next Level Church, in Florida. There is a huge controversy right now concerning their messages series “My Great Sex Life”. They rented a billboard featuring simple drawings of a male and female (similar to the universal public restroom identifiers) and a website URL that led to a flash video that talked about sex gone wrong (in a limited fashion) and then sent the viewer to the church’s site. This has resulted in a lot of public interest, and media coverage.

So why do I have issues with this approach? It’s certainly not because I have a problem with Pastor Matt Keller or his staff (while I have never met any of them personally, I have heard nothing but good about Pastor Matt which leads me to believe he is a sound, Biblically-based man of God). I also have no problem with the subject matter. Sex (and the misuse of sex)is such a huge part of our society, it’s the church’s responsibility to teach Biblically about it. The only reason I mentioned this church specifically is because it’s very much in the public eye right now. I think it’s symbolic of a growing trend in churches.

It’s a fact in this nation that churches close their doors every day. People are not coming to Christ with any regularity, if at all. We, as Christians, are failing our unsaved neighbors. And because of this, I believe that some churches and leaders are grasping at anything they can to increase attendance, and reach the unchurched. That’s where this current trend in “shock evangelism” comes in. If you can shock people, if you can gain their interest, you might actually get them to attend just to see what it’s all about. So far, so good. But what happens next? Do people get saved at these events? Does this advance the Kingdom of God?

Speaking from personal experience (I’ve only been saved for a little less than 4 years, so I still know the unsaved mindset), this sort of thing would immediately stand out for what it is, a gimmick, and I would immediately say, “nah.” Now, of course, Pastor Matt and these other leaders are sincere. They are doing this to try to further the Kingdom of God. I’m not saying they’re attempting to delude people. I’m saying they’re methods are not the most effective, and their methods are not the methods used by Jesus, the apostles, and the early church.

I study cultural anthropology, both past and present, so I am well aware of cultural differences between Jesus’ time and place and our own. Modern media and technology are good things, and have their place in our society, and our churches. But Jesus never resorted to man-made gimmicks. Nor did his disciples. They attracted a huge following by going to where the people were, not by trying to get the people to come to them. They performed signs and wonders in the Name of Jesus through the power of Holy Spirit to inspire reverent awe in the people. They built relationships with non-Christians (Jesus being the perfect example of this!!), and maintained those relationships. And, once a person became a believer, the new convert was discipled, was taught, and was sent out to spread the good news.

So why aren’t our churches following this model? First, I think it’s because of a focus on the church (the building and the organization) as the place where all Christian activity takes place. Instead of taking church to the people, we want to bring people to the church, get them “cleaned up” and “Christianized.” A second reason, and I think this is especially telling, is that most Christians no longer have any sort of a relationship with non-Christians. Or perhaps not most Christians, who go to work in a secular world,but almost certainly most of our leadership. At a recent gathering of 20-something Christian adults, the consensus was that most of them had little to no contact or relationship with unbelievers. You can read about it here.

So, why do Christians have these attitudes? I think it’s because the church in America has grown soft and weak, and lazy. The world is a hard place. It’s messy, bloody, painful. Spending time with non-Christians is often uncomfortable. Building relationships with the unsaved takes work, it takes love, it takes compassion. Getting outside of our beautiful stained-glass “vanity fairs” is uncomfortable. It’s messy. It’s hard.

I know of at least two leaders who are doing things differently. And, with astounding success (by success I mean changed lives, people accepting Christ as Lord and Savior, and furtherance of the Kingdom of God, which is not a physical kingdom but a spiritual one). Pastor Mark Hadfield, of Scotland, and John Lunt of Dallas, Texas. Pastor Mark is involved with Healing on the Streets, and John Lunt has a thriving prayer and evangelism ministry with the homeless of his city.  Check them out.

Please, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that our current churches are worthless, or that no healing or work of God is taking place. I’m just saying that the current trend in shock tactics concerns me, when it would be a better use of our resources (time and money) to model Christ, and go to where the hurt people are, instead of trying to attract them to us.


19 Responses to “Gimmicks”

  1. Adam Diehl said

    Right on bro.

    But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. A Biblical model….

    Jesus was constantly traveling – and PEOPLE FOLLOWED HIM. Obviously He was attracting them. He constantly tried to get away from lots of people so He could be alone – but He never could. People constantly followed Him and pressed in around Him. It wasn’t just Jesus going out to the people (although that was going on as well). The people were running to Him as well.

    Those people came running towards Jesus because people communicated. They spread news of Jesus’ miracles so people were attracted and went running towards Jesus to get a miracle of their own. Today – communication has changed with media.

    We also need to consider the subcultures we are in. is a multi-site video venue church. One pastor preaches… several other churches watch him preach on a video screen. It works GREAT for them. I visited one of these churches in Tulsa – and was VERY skeptical. But at the end of the service a whole load of people raised their hands to receive Christ- and they went into a “discipleship room” to get the guidance they needed. does LOTS of the “gimmicks” you’re talking about – and it seems to be working for them. Would it work in DeKalb county – prolly not.

    I agree with your “perspective” on church. Let me put it in some different words:

    Church needs to be more like a gas station. You go to the gas station to get fuel and maybe a soda. But you don’t spend your life driving around the gas station parking lot. You go out and you DRIVE AROUND to the places you need to go. You GO AND LIVE!

  2. joe said

    Todd, I’m right here with you!

    But, Adam, consider why Jesus attracted people…He didn’t try to attract people. He was on a mission to connect with people, and He went out and did it. This was so revolutionary, so “out of the box”, so different and unique, that it drew the attention of the people. Had none of the crowds followed Jesus, He would have continued to connect with people. He would have continued going. He didn’t try to attract people. His goal was not to attract people. Attracting people was a by-product of what he did. That’s certainly not throwing the baby out with the bath water, that’s just a good understanding of cause and effect. I think we may have the cart before the horse, or more accurately, we are trying to create the effect in some twisted effort to cause the cause.

    I think this is the principle we should be looking at in the church. We should not do anything simply because it will attract people. We should constantly be finding ways to go to people, not get them to come to us. As we go to people, we will start to attract crowds, but we should realize that those crowds might do the same thing to us they did to Jesus: crucify us (or at least try to). Crowds are fickle. They will follow every change of the wind. So, when we try to attract crowds, we will only get them for a little bit…then they will probably turn on us.

    But, when we start going out and reaching out to people, not only will we see lives changes, we will see crowds attracted.

    I think one of the reasons that churches like are so successful is simply because they are interested in going to people where they are. They don’t do things out of a desire to attract, they do things out of a desire to go, and, paradoxically, the crowds come.

    I’m not a big fan of church being like a gas station, either. If I’m really spending time with God throughout the week, then, more often than not, I should come to church already full, and even spilling over. Jesus fills my cup to overflowing…not church. And, I can meet with Jesus 24/7. Church is just one or two hours out of 168 hours every week.

    So, in a nutshell, Todd I agree with your perspective! 100%, period.

  3. nathan said

    i would issue you the challenge to look at scripture and see what Jesus did.
    Explore the book of John (i have a good FF Bruce book if you want 🙂 ), and look at what we call ‘miracles’. Look at the original Hebrew…
    They aren’t miracles, they are better translated ‘Signs’

    What good was the Day of Pentecost? Didn’t it attract people? (but didn’t they also go?)

    Jesus both attracted people (with ‘signs’) and sent people.
    People who were sent, on the Day of Pentecost, ATTRACTED people by speaking in tongues, which in turn lead to thousands being reached.

    What were his ‘signs’? What were ‘tongues’? Some would call them ‘Gimmicks’. (Even TODAY!)

    Do you have scriptures to support not attracting anybody? i haven’t found this a theme in the Bible, but instead the opposite. I’m interested where we can find the disciples, or Jesus, or anyone, not trying to attract people.
    I issue you the challenge to deeply look at what Jesus did.
    I think you’ll find he did both.

    You are correct he sent. Yes. But did he attract?

  4. Thank you to all have posted. I see that I have kinda touched a nerve.

    Rather than respond in this public forum, I will respond to each privately.

  5. arzell said

    I would argue that Jesus signs were for credential. Signs are used as a label or definition. These were defining who and what Jesus is. As the pieces of the puzzle were falling into place, the crowds began to see ‘authenticity’ in His claim to be God (He did not do that right away.) I don’t see his signs as an attraction, but as fulfilling prophecy, testifying to His nature, and His kindness and mercy toward the hurt and needing. What we get down to is motive. I do not think that it would be consistent with Jesus nature to attempt to attract people. Jesus tried many times to get away from crowds, he spoke to them on few occasions, and spent most of His time with the 12+(+++) disciples who made conscious decisions to follow Him. Jesus was concerned with preparing the twelve for His eventual departure so that they could be witnesses and spread the good news of His death and resurrection.
    Wouldn’t the Day of Pentecost have been about people hearing the “Christians” speaking in many different earthly languages even though these were mostly uneducated people? That would have raised public interest in their cause, yes, but I believe it’s intention was to bring significance to the new religion. The attraction was not intention, but only natural. The truth and the Bible will not return void. So doing exactly what the Bible says to do will attract people in a more significant way than focusing on the attraction, which opens more possibilities for being sidetracked in ministry and even to pride.
    I’m all for making friendships with unbelievers while staying separate from their activities (the ungodly ones). (Be in this world but not of it.) This is probably what they would want more than anything. Nobody likes having to go someplace uncomfortable. Nobody wants to feel strong-armed into church. Everybody wants friendships and their needs to be met. This is what Jesus did. He never sent for people to come hear him. It was unavoidable. He specifically told some of those that He healed to not tell anyone, but they did and He received unwanted attention.
    Being honest in spirit and in truth will bring more genuine converts than any “gimmick” will.

    There is always a balance of some sort. Though I believe the church and sex theme is already being run into the ground by churches across the country, real results do happen and something like that is good in God’s eyes. God has even used unbelievers and evil people to further His plan. I am NOT saying that Next Level Church is evil!

    Honesty rather than what appears by some to be a form of trickery, will achieve far more results.

  6. Mark H said

    Gosh! What a conversation! I only came here to say thanks for the link (and I prefer not to be called “Pastor”).

    I think what is alarming is when church becomes prescriptive. When we cross the line from being inspired by one another, to copying one another. If the sex message thing was totally inspired by God to challenge a specific cultural issue in a specific locality at a specific time, then we would do well to be inspired by it, but very slow to copy it.

    We’re all planted into different communities with different needs, different cultures with different expressions, and we’re all different too, in talent, gifting, and personality.

    I know in my own setting that God has clearly called us to take to the streets. He has given a number of us very specific visions. When we have tried to rebel and do an attractional model of church it hasn’t worked – FOR US – spectacularly! But I do see attraction-ally-focussed churches that seem to be grabbing the attention of people.

    My personal take on sending and attraction is this. Jesus sent DISCIPLES. And Jesus HIMSELF drew.

    As we go into the Streets I anticipate that HIS love manifest through healing, prophetic ministry, love and compassion, and other signs and wonders will draw people to HIM. Of course, it’s also quite possible for us to go to people and just “be nice” and not allow Jesus to minister to them and to draw them.

    I think attractional church models are also “sending”, but in a different way. They are sending a culturally challenging message directly into the community. If they’re following the Willow Creek model then they’re also finding out the felt needs in the community and meeting them. If people are being ministered to by the manifest power of Jesus when they come (rather than just having their ears tickled), and hence are drawn by JESUS, then this different style of “sending” sounds good to me too (but not for me).

    So I think the important questions are:

    (1) Are we each doing what God has called us specifically to do? Do we hear God clearly for ourselves, each of us copying Jesus through the lens of our own community, cultural setting, and talents? or do we copy one another?

    (2) Are WE all sent? Are we challenged and stretched to reach others? Are we making disciples that are also sent?

    (3) Are we all inviting JESUS to draw? Is He ministering to people through us? Or are we actually in His way? Are we making disciples that know the manifest presence and power of God?

    Thanks again for the link. My comments are really just food for thought, not too conclusive, and I hope they’re helpful. I’m learning how to obey. I trust that we all are. I’m certainly learning from you all and I thank God for every example I see of people taking the gospel to people.

    FWIW, I think the culture in the UK has become decidedly post-Christian over the last decade or two. People are no longer shopping for churches. 70% of people in the UK claimed to be Christian in the last census but only 6% of people attend any kind of church. I find that most people don’t know anything about the heart of Christianity any more. Is the US in the earlier stages of a similar change?

  7. arzell said

    Thank you for mentioning the need to listen to God and to the local community for what your church and your local mission field are in need of. Copying other churches because something worked for them leaves God out of the picture and may not even work on your local community. This is something I had thought about in passing, so I was glad to see you mention it and give us all more to mull over and pray about.
    With regard to your last thought, I do believe that the US has been following UK and European trends philosophically and eventually theologically by at least one decade for the last 100 yrs. By what I see around me here, even in the mid-west, though much more removed, the US is certainly already post-Christian. Many may still claim Christianity, though fewer go to church and many more have no idea what this faith is about.

  8. Thanks to everyone for posting. You know, when I first wrote this post, it was because of a problem I felt I perceived in the church in America. I was pretty adamant about it; I knew I was right.

    And I still think that, on some levels at least, I’m right.

    However, through some of the posts here, I have realized that I was also wrong in painting every church with the same brush. As Nathan, Mark, and Adam pointed out, often God will work through attractional methods, not just “sending” efforts.

    I’m glad that several different views were presented (that’s why I started this blog!!), because through them, I was able to see past my own preconceptions and get a deeper sense of God’s sovereignty and work in reaching people.

    Father, help us to always stay teachable!

  9. Mark H said

    Thanks for the conversation Todd.

    FWIW, I really do think you’re aware of something – which is churches desperately looking for the right “formula” instead of listening to Holy Spirit, and obeying Him. This can lead to a whole load of stuff which looks good to us but not to Him (Acts 15:28). I know because … I’ve been tempted in that direction myself.

    A classic example is traditional churches changing the style of their music in attempt to not lose the younger generation – who, ironically, are looking for authentic spirituality IMHO.

    I find that I have to wrestle with the classic “revival payer” in 2 Chronicles 7:14 – to turn from my own ways – my desire for a formula – and seek His face for myself, my family, my local church, my neighbours, and my city. I’m still wrestling. I’m in the process of revival 🙂

  10. Mark H said

    “Where there is no prophetic vision, the people cast off restraint”

    Proverbs 29:18 (ESV)

  11. Tara Lilly said

    What is the explanation behind the silent explosion of Christianity in repressive countries (ie China, North Korea) where not only is there no marketing but the people can’t even say the word Jesus without fear of death? Bold missionaries more sold out than me (sadly) and The Holy Spirit! He moves without us doing a single thing. In America where all types of “religion” are freely bashed over people’s heads, and where everyone is hungry for something-except God-maybe we need to hit the floor and ask the Holy Spirit to move in people’s lives, through us, whatever it takes. The answers we hear may not be anything we have been doing. And to be perfectly on topic, the use of sex thing makes me really uncomfortable, sick to my stomach actually. I spent years treating it as a very casual thing and got BURNED. God finally got through to me that He sees it as a holy thing. The world already sees it as casual; the Church doing the same thing and not having reverence for it is just scary.

  12. John Lunt said

    Thanks for the link. I don’t think I would term what we are doing in Dallas as successful yet. But we are trying to follow the Holy Spirit. I get concerned when I see churches or groups copying other churches and groups… and by the way I’m guilty of it too…. but we’re to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.

    Thanks for some great thoughts. At least the conversation is happening. By the way, I love what Mark and his team are doing in Scotland. I hope to get over there sometime in the next year to check it out.

  13. Mark H said

    Well, we’re just starting out too 🙂

    You’re very welcome to come visit any time. It would be great to meet-up.

    Healing On The Streets starts this Saturday – every Saturday from then on. Street Pastors takes some time to set-up (forming official links with police and local government, several months of training) so I reckon that will not be up-and-running until the Autumn at the earliest. Plus we have other burdens and ideas that we are still in the process of prayerfully considering.

  14. ugh. it doesnt work.
    Go HERE instead.

  15. Adam Diehl said

    @Dustin – don’t be a spammer.

    @ everyone – read this on another blog, and it seems to be related SOMEWHAT. It SHouldn’t matter – but it DOES.

  16. @Adam: Excellent article, good food for thought. Thanks!

  17. Mark H said

    A friend of mine has recently returned from a trip to the US (we’re in the UK). He was very saddened by the number of churches he found where the believers are spectators and the sole focus of the church is … how can we put it … “consumer-oriented meetings”? We’re not without similar problems over here in the UK too, but whereas this is endemic of churches that are dying in the UK, my friend noted that there are many “church plants” working like this in the US that solely on the basis of counting bums on seats would appear to be successful. But they are obviously not producing disciples (so one may also even question the validity of any hope in salvation). I think his observation, and distaste, may be more at the heart of our conversation than comparing mission and attraction without a cultural frame of reference.

    Just some thoughts, offered in the humility of one who is not immersed in US culture, and is not fit to judge, if it helps the conversation?

  18. SLW said

    I wish I had seen this two weeks ago. Wow! Great conversation, I’ve got to link to this.

  19. @Mark: Good thoughts! Thanks for contributing!

    @SLW: Welcome! Feel free to look around, and make yourself at home.

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