Marketing God
By Tyler Thoreson

From Gadfly Jan./Feb. 2000


1. The Rock
In early 1999, stickers and flyers started appearing on telephone poles and café billboards around Minneapolis and St. Paul. Army green, orange and black, they were a riot of mod design and faux graffiti, with immoderate use of the word awesome. They were plastered with slogans like "Interested in God but not in religion?" and "Awesome church without all the guilt." "Experience the revolution!" The campaign was quintessential viral marketing, a ground-up, street-level, buzz-generation technique devised to reach younger and more skeptical consumers, and it was the handiwork of a new church called the Rock. Whoever they were, and whatever they happened to believe, it was clear that these people were dead serious about their image.

While poll after poll continues to show that as many Americans believe in God as ever, the way we as a culture are putting that belief into action is changing. Just as small-town hardware and general stores across America have been run out of business by retail giants like Home Depot and Wal-Mart, small, community-based congregations are being steamrolled by the mighty suburban megachurch. It turns out that the Rock is the offshoot of just such a monster congregation, Evergreen Community Church, which is located in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington (which, incidentally, also provides a home to the world-famous, gargantuan Mall of America). Self-consciously different from the traditional churches from which it draws many of its converts, Evergreen is not affiliated with any particular denomination and has jettisoned old-fashioned hymns and liturgies for contemporary jazz/pop music, "meaningful" and "relevant" messages and "friendly people," according to its Web site (—not that, strangely enough, is a country club in Virginia). What Evergreen has done for baby boomers, the Rock's leaders hope to do for Generation X.

Rock services are at six on Saturday evenings, instead of Sunday morning, at an elementary school in the Minneapolis neighborhood of Uptown. Experts will tell you that Rule No. 1 in marketing to the twenty-something demographic is to set up shop as close as possible to the Gap, Urban Outfitters and Starbucks, and around here that means Uptown. It's an area I live smack in the middle of, and the Rock owns the neighborhood. Since the Rock bills itself as an "awesome church without all the guilt," services are heavy on redemption, grace and love. There were about two hundred people in attendance at each of the services I witnessed. Nearly all of them were white, the congregations were skewed heavily toward the female (22-year-old single males take heed!) and dress was uniformly casual: shorts, T-shirts, jeans, etc. There were quite a few ball caps, a nose ring here and there, a peppering of tattoos. It could have been a Dave Matthews concert.

The service began with the kind of musically and theologically fluffy songs, generally referred to as praise music, that churches are using these days to reach young people. The sound was half Indigo Girls and half Hootie and the Blowfish, and several teenagers up front were really getting into it, locking arms, swaying and nodding their heads. Next came some announcements, and an admirably optional offertory during which we were entertained by the most nonmusical, utterly structureless bass solo one could ever hope to hear. Nonetheless, the crowd went wild when it was over, and then Pastor Greg Larson got up and started in on his sermon.

I'd come expecting to hear God filtered through the language of pop psychology, portrayed as the Big Down Comforter in the Sky, and that's what I got, except largely for the God part. Larson managed to eat up twenty-five minutes driving home the legitimate point that we shouldn't be so caught up with success. He urged us to be more willing to accept failure. After all, someone as successful as Michael Jordan in his best season missed half of all his shots, and even the best baseball players strike out two out of three at-bats. Part three in a four-week series on "What to Do When You've Screwed Up," Larson's sermon was more Tony Robbins than Billy Graham.

And that's not accidental. The theological vagueness of Larson's sermon, and of the Rock's service in general, is designed not to reveal the many wonders of the faith, but simply to give college students and single twenty-somethings "something that makes sense, a way that they could interact with people their age," Larson told me in a phone interview. The people the Rock targets "think church is boring," he added. "They can't relate to the messages."

Well, isn't that the fault of the message, then? "Not at all, " he said. "I think the Bible is the most relevant book that's ever been written." For this crowd, he said, what's really important is how you package it, which means that you offer it up gradually. People who come to the Rock for the first time are prepared to think about God, but they can still be turned off by the accouterments of traditional Christian services, things like Bible readings and the liturgy. "If you're brand-new, sometimes they can make you feel kinda dumb," he said. "We take people where they're at and just give them little doses of Christianity," he added. "We're not hooking somebody up to the fire hydrant. We just give them a glass of water, and let them digest it a bit."

As for the music and laid-back style of the service, Larson called it "basically the kind of music that we like to listen to anyway, whether it's Lenny Kravitz or the Goo Goo Dolls." Meanwhile, his group avoids potentially off-putting topics like hell and sin so as not to scare anyone away. "Many people in this community, if I can be frank, have a Catholic background, and they think of a condemning God," Larson said. Also, it's nice to be able to wear your Birkenstocks to church.

But behind all the casual methods and comforting messages is Evergreen Community Church. Recent Evergreen sermons have been preached on such touchy-feely topics as "Overcoming a Dysfunctional Past," "Living with Broken Dreams" and "How to Make Better Decisions," but answers come only from a strict, fundamentalist reading of the Bible. Behind the "fun" style is a strain of Christian faith that takes the words in the Bible—every word in the Bible—as its guide. These are some pretty conservative Christians, with views far to the right of the American mainstream, organ-free service notwithstanding. Larson put it into simple terms: "We believe that the Bible is inerrant."

Taking old-fashioned biblical literalism and applying it to today's morally relativist culture no doubt requires some creative packaging. Evergreen's carefully constructed image seems to be a big hit with baby boomers, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the Rock will have the same kind of success. After all, there has never been a generation so skilled at separating something of real value from a product built solely on high-rent hype. Generation X is so used to being given the hard sell—so attuned to the motive behind every message—that the Rock's attempts to get us in the door are as likely as not to be viewed as the posturing they are.

Still, it's a wonderful thing that everyone is welcome at the Rock, and indeed, the highlight of the second service I attended was a woman's genuinely touching story of her past drinking, drugs, promiscuity and abortions, and how much it meant that God—and the members of Evergreen—loved her despite her sins. It was a powerful message, and one that all Christians relish—forgiveness in the face of personal failure. The tricky part for the Rock is trying to keep everyone feeling welcome while not abandoning their conservative values, which creates a situation that is, on some level, manipulative and dishonest. I'm pretty sure that the Bible has something to say about that.

2. House of Mercy
But the Rock isn't the only group trying hard to reach young people. The House of Mercy, located in a desolate block on the edge of downtown St. Paul, is about as opposite from the Rock as Tom Waits is from Matchbox 20. "A church like the Rock is trying to be so hyper-relevant, like 'We're cool, we're the cutting edge, we're hip-happening,' you know? 'We're the Surge [cola] of church!'" says Mercy's Rev. Russell Rathbun. "And we're trying to say, 'We're peculiar.... This is a crazy message.'" Churches now are like alternative radio, he adds. "Everybody's casting around, trying to be down with the kids." Rathbun, along with fellow Baptist ministers Mark Stenberg and Debbie Blue, founded the House of Mercy a year ago, and if a church could ever be "cool," I suppose this would be it.

The Rock works hard at being awesome, relevant and "real." The House of Mercy, on the other hand, just lets it happen. Services are conducted in an actual church, and music comes from a three-piece country gospel ensemble—about half Hank Williams and half traditional hymns. Where the Rock is "definitely not your parent's church," as they say (note the apostrophe placement), the House of Mercy isn't actually that far off from what you may have grown up with.

The House of Mercy's founders know how important it is to, ahem, keep it real. "People are looking for some kind of particular, authentic experience," says Rathbun. "Anybody can, like, go to the Gap, and be cool. I mean, when we started out, we'd see these people come in, and they just had the hippest look going in the world. We thought maybe they were even street punks. But then we realized that these are all people from Bethel College, and you can buy that look at the mall."

All superficial differences aside, what really distinguishes a church like the House of Mercy from the Rock and its counterparts is the way it handles its message. At the Rock, as Greg Larson freely admitted, you get more of a self-help seminar than a church service. But while Larson and his group are helping college students and Gen Xers cope with their dysfunctional pasts and make better decisions, and eventually apply the Bible's wisdom to their problems, Rathbun is in the pulpit agonizing over the same book's very real complexities and contradictions.

The House of Mercy doesn't shy away from the Bible's least "awesome" parts or skip straight to redemption and grace. Both services that I attended found Rathbun and Stenberg tackling head on the many difficult messages embedded in Jesus' parables. Stenberg, the first week, preached against taking the parable of the vineyard, in which God wreaks vengeance on wicked tenants who kill first his servants, and finally his son, as a justification for anti-Semitism. And Rathbun, much to his adamant chagrin, found himself stuck preaching on Matthew 22, in which a king plans a wedding banquet for his son. After receiving only a lukewarm response from his elite invitees, the king has them murdered. Simple so far, but after the king has declared the feast open to any and all who will come, he flies off the handle again. It seems that a guest lacks the proper attire, so the king has him thrust into eternal darkness, where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth.

No matter how you parse it—and Rathbun gave it a Herculean effort—this is the kind of parable that makes Christians glad that they have other material to work with. And it's also the kind of parable that makes you understand why Greg Larson and company prefer to offer up their message in neat little bites. Which, from this Generation Xer's perspective, only makes what the House of Mercy is doing more admirable.

Still, hand-wringing and head-scratching over just how to reach this elusive "X" generation is growing among mainstream church leaders. Bookshelves overflow with tomes promising to tell readers what makes Xers tick and explain this generation's baffling language and semiotics. A classic example of these efforts is Robert M. Nash, Jr.'s An 8-Track Church in a CD World: The Modern Church in a Postmodern World. A mainstream Baptist, Nash pulls no punches when describing the atmosphere that mainstream Christians are working in. The American religious landscape, he says, is "a community fair with a limitless blue-sky ceiling," whose shoppers can be summed up thusly:

Bright colors attract their attention. Here they dabble in Goddess spirituality. There they discuss the earth as Gaia... some take up yoga; others find meaning in Native American sweat rituals. Some channel. Others meditate. The booths are endless.

With concern, Nash warns readers that "Generation Xers grew up in a postmodern world and tend to be suspect of religious dogma." He writes that we should be aware that twenty-somethings like "churches in which worship is caring and relational" and in which the Bible's inerrancy "rests not in propositional assertions about God but rather in its application to the struggles of daily life" (i.e., ask not what you can do for God, but what God can do for you). Nash deserves credit for not simply writing us off as stuck on a runaway train on our way to eternal damnation, but his talk of adapting the message to fit the market comes across as a bit desperate.

There's no arguing that Generation X is largely unmoved by the language of traditional Christianity, but you don't see many church leaders wondering if maybe the message itself is the problem. With so few people believing in hell, what's the point in getting so worked up about salvation, whether it's by grace or otherwise? Well, naturally, that's a theory Nash and other faithful Christians aren't about to adopt, and we can't expect them to. But they, for their part, can't expect that they'll ever reach Generation X simply by adopting some new catch phrases. Even the title of Nash's book, An 8-Track Church in a CD World, is off base. Sure, CDs may be current, but what proselytizers like Nash don't realize is that it's actually the amusing, retro aspects of 8-track, and not CDs, that are "cool." And in one of those odd space-time rips that aptly demonstrate some kind of supernatural sense of humor, the church that's the least wannabe and thus the most cool, the House of Mercy, actually uses an 8-track tape player.

3. "Generation Cross"
Organized religion may indeed be having an image crisis, but the church has an honest, perhaps even cool, booster in Lino Rulli. A 27-year-old native Minnesotan and devout Roman Catholic, Rulli hosts a local television show called—someone was bound to think of it—Generation Cross, and his goal is to bring a generation of disenchanted former Catholics back to the church by putting a human face on the faith's more foreign concepts. Whether or not he actually is cool, Rulli claims it's the last thing he's trying to be. "I think if the church tries to be hip and cool for twenty-somethings, it just seems contrived," Rulli told me one morning in an Uptown café that happened to be plastered with advertisements for the Rock. "It's like the TV ads where they're trying to play 'too hip.' Or the Sunny Delight commercials where the kids are like, 'Mom's cool!'"

Rulli's show is broadcast on local cable to viewers in the Twin Cities, Boston and Detroit, and might as well be called Cooking with Priests or Rock-Climbing with Priests or Roller-Skating with Nuns. Highlights from recent segments include a priest hurrying to fix his dinner of Ramen noodles and Saltines after a fourteen-hour day because it's 'five minutes till The Simpsons'; a nun taking a swig of beer because she's normal and she likes it; and a thirtyish man who has vowed to ignore his libido for the rest of his life demonstrating the courage to say the word celibacy with a smile on his face. Sprinkled among profiles like those, Rulli does brief bits on the history of the church and Christian theology, some of which were shot in Rome.

The topic may be serious, but the show, Rulli said, is above all meant to be entertaining. Rulli is not trying to be cool, or "with it." "The biggest thing in attracting young people," he said, "is don't try to speak their language. Because if you're a reasonable 20- or 30-year-old, you're just gonna think, 'Ohhhhh, that's cute.'" Generation Cross isn't trying to sell the Bible as the ultimate self-help manual, nor is its host an especially hip guy. "Right now, all that's important is our jobs, our friends and trying to find the right wife or husband," he said. "What I'm saying is religion has got to be important now, too."

But what's really attractive about Generation Cross, whether you agree with its theology or not, is its honesty. Rulli is never anything other than just some guy filling you in on the richness of his life as a Catholic. Take it or leave it, he's saying. People appear to be taking it: Rulli has caught the eye of more than one major network, and there's a good chance you may see him on a television near you sometime soon. Hosting a national religious television show is the last thing that Rulli thought he would end up doing, and he seems genuinely surprised by the show's success. "It's a dumb idea," he said. "It's just a dumb idea to do a religious cable access TV show to attract Generation Xers. It's impossible. I took heat for six months just from my friends. 'Oh, that's gonna go over real well, Lino. That's the dumbest—dumbest—thing you've ever come up with.'"