Doubt & Church Marketing: An Interview with Jason Boyett

May 5, 2010 by

O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual WeaklingWe don’t talk a lot about doubt in the church. Except maybe when we tell the pastor we doubt parachuting onto the platform would be feasible. But doubt has a healthy place in faith and it plays a role in church marketing. So we sat down with Jason Boyett, author of O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling, to talk about doubt. While that can be a pretty heavy subject, Boyett’s a pretty light-hearted guy. You might not know it from this interview, but his book is actually pretty funny.

You wrote a book called O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling. So you’re basically a spiritual loser. How’s that feel?

Jason: Admitting to spiritual loser-dom is surprisingly freeing. Besides, as the legendary Steve Taylor once sang, “Jesus is for losers.” More recently, Taylor has been working on a big project with Donald Miller. There’s a joke in there somewhere.

Seriously though, brokenness is a very real issue for the church. It’s part of who we are. But how do we talk about that without, well, sounding like a bunch of losers?

Jason: If admitting brokenness and failure makes you sound like a loser, then we Christians come from a long line of losers, starting with Moses and continuing through Gideon, David, Elijah, Jeremiah and the disciples. Paul uses up a lot of ink in 2 Corinthians 11 boasting about his weaknesses. To use his phrasing, he delights in them.

So either we have to paint Paul with the same loser’s brush or we try to learn from his example. What’s more important: cleaning up for church and pretending we have it all together? Or being honest about our shortcomings and failures, because amid that weakness the grace of God is most powerful?

As a dad, I tend to look at a faith through the lens of parenting. Sometimes my kids ask me a question to which I don’t have the answer. What’s better for them? Option one is for me to make something up that’s just flat-out untrue. I could do it, and they’d think I was smart, but that scenario isn’t good for them or me. Option two is to be honest and admit that there are some things I don’t know. If I do that, will the kids think I’m a loser? Hopefully not, because they love and respect me anyway.

The older I get, the more I lose patience with pretense. Losers hide their weaknesses. I’d rather own up to mine.

Churches don’t usually talk much about doubt (except maybe Doubting Thomas, but he’s pegged as the loser disciple). What does that communicate? How is this negative perception of doubt a bad thing?

Jason: I think we’ve been looking at doubt the wrong way. We tend to view it as the enemy of faith, as if faith and doubt are polar opposites, and the presence of one cancels out the other. But doubt is actually an essential element of faith. If you have absolute certainty, you don’t need faith, because you have knowledge. Tested, working knowledge. Faith is only necessary when the outcome is in question — when doubt is present. The two work hand-in-hand.

So why has doubt become something to be ashamed of, something to avoid, and something to pray against? I’ve heard of pastors asking doubters to leave the sanctuary during times of prayer, as if somehow their uncertainty will counteract any prayers offered in faith. By casting doubt as a sin or a spiritual weakness, we communicate that only the spiritually confident are welcome in church. So if I don’t have all the answers–or if I’m not willing to pretend I have all the answers–then I don’t feel like I belong. And suddenly the church has changed. It’s no longer a hospital for sinners. Now it’s a country club for the spiritually confident.

What role do you think doubt has in church marketing?

Jason: In church marketing, doubt tends to be the hole we want you to climb out of. How often do we advertise church as the place to find answers? Come get healed! Come discover life! Come experience the five steps to fulfillment! We don’t do it intentionally, but our tendency is to market Christianity as the antidote to all of life’s poisons. Our stock photography is full of happy people living abundant lives. Which is marketing 101–you want the viewer to see the best version of themselves in the product and associate it with a good feeling or a solution to a problem.

I’m a realist with a background in advertising, so I don’t expect this to change much. No one wants to attend a church that puts photos of sad, confused people on their web site. But it wouldn’t hurt to think about the psychology of what we’re doing: We’re saying that if you come to our church, you’ll get fixed. If you’re depressed, Jesus will make you happy. If you’re experiencing uncertainty, we’ll give you something solid to cling to. But did Paul’s problems go away when he met Christ? Nope. In fact, he encountered a whole new set of difficulties.

I wonder if we’re setting the church up for failure by focusing so much on success and certainty. So when people give Christianity a try but can’t seem to shake the questions, they assume they’re doing it wrong. So they either learn to fake it or they leave the church. Neither option is a good one.

Can advertising a lack of faith be a good thing?

Jason: Yes, in certain situations. A pastor who consistently projects uncertainty probably won’t last long–I think that might be OK for a season but not for a lifetime, because we like confidence in our authority figures. But a willingness to ask questions and entertain opposing viewpoints helps create a safe place for conversations to happen. I’ve been a part of some fascinating conversations with atheists and agnostics. I think this has happened due to my willingness to listen without feeling like I always have to be “defending my faith.” Because I’m OK entertaining hard questions, they feel OK talking about them. If a lack of faith leads to personal humility and respect for people on the other side of an issue, then yes, it can be a very good thing.

How should the church approach the Doubting Thomases (Thomasi?) among us?

Jason: Jude 22 tells us how: “Be merciful to those who doubt.” When you find out that I have doubts, that doesn’t mean you need to start shoving Lee Strobel books at me or uploading John Piper sermons onto my iPod. Most of us have read the apologetics and heard all the rational arguments. If we could have been reasoned into spiritual certainty it probably would have happened by now.

And please don’t patronize us by suggesting that what we really need to do is “get into the Word.” Most of us are quite familiar with the Bible. Our doubts have led us to it in search of answers–only when we turn to Scripture, we come away with more questions than we started with.

It’s not your job to fix us. Just love us and pray for us. Give us opportunities to serve, minister, and love others. Offer to walk alongside us as we try to follow Jesus–even if the following sometimes gets ahead of the belief. Doubt is no excuse for inaction, and we need the church to help us remember that.

How can the church best address the doubters outside of the church?

Jason: I’ve found that doubters outside the church are willing to talk to me precisely because I’ve expressed doubt from inside the church. The unchurched doubters I know aren’t the militant, angry atheists and agnostics we often assume are out there opposing us. Instead they are thoughtful seekers who are passionate in their pursuit of things like truth and science–but who have concluded that the idea of God is more likely to be a human construct than a reality. They haven’t abandoned God because they’re bad people or because they want a license to sin. They’ve abandoned the idea of God because they didn’t find enough evidence to believe otherwise. I’m not there, but I can empathize.

We’re not going to build relationships with this kind of doubter by demonizing them and calling them names. But we can befriend them, engage in conversations with them, and try to understand their point of view. This doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. But it does mean that we need to stop treating them as the enemy. Openness and vulnerability are the keys here. You can’t have a meaningful conversation if you’re on the defensive. It’s like trying to talk to someone while hiding inside a tank. It can still be done, but it sure makes things uncomfortable for the person on the outside. Sometimes it’s good to step outside the tank.

So there you go folks—no tanks in church marketing. Thanks Jason.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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One Response to “Doubt & Church Marketing: An Interview with Jason Boyett”

  • Struggling with doubt I think is part of the life of all believers. If we could understand and readily stay faithful 100% of the time, Jesus redemption and salvation wouldn’t mean so much. It is in our times of spiritual weakness that the power of God is truly revealed.

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