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We Need a Pandemic

By the Rev. Zachary Bartels

Grand Rapids is known for many things: having deceptively small “rapids,” being the boyhood home of Gerald Ford, being rather uptight and conservative (in every sense), producing quality wood furniture, and being full of Dutch people (the last two are increasingly outdated stereotypes). Oh, and Amway. Grand Rapids is definitely known for Amway.

Now, technically, Amway is in Ada, Michigan, but it’s just a stone’s throw away from GR. In case you don’t know, Amway is a ginormous corporation that sells everything from insurance to makeup to vitamins. But what they’re best known for is their use of Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) to move these products. MLM is the name for a pyramid-shaped structure of promoters and sales people, in which you get credit for your own sales and for the sales of people you recruit (as well as for sales of people they recruit). Kind of like Mary Kay, Pampered Chef, and that company that sells knives that can cut a couch in half.

Anyway, in Grand Rapids, Amway jokes are good for an automatic laugh. Not that people dislike the company per se, just that it’s a shared point of reference for everyone who lives there. So if a soccer coach tells his booster club, “Jim, you call all of these people about uniforms, Rachel will call people about snacks, and Denise will call the parents about the change in practice times,” then Jim is guaranteed a chuckle if he quips, “This is starting to feel like Amway.”

When I moved to Lansing, I found that Amway jokes didn’t really translate. Mostly because they’re not really funny. And, as it happened, when I moved here, the Amway model was being taken to the next level anyway. While MLM uses existing social networks (friends and family and coworkers, and their friends and family and coworkers, and their friends and family, etc.) to reach increasingly massive group of potential customers, the Internet was making it much easier to use existing social networks to reach millions upon millions of people with almost no investment and very little trouble.

This has been called viral marketing (or viral advertising) because it essentially works the same way the swine flu does, spreading from one person to, let’s say, ten—then from each of those people to ten more, etc., etc. Within 5 generations, you’ve reached more than 100,000 people with your illness (or advertisement). Local businesses, multi-national corporations, and politicians have all scurried to use this type of marketing, and many have been very successful in getting their message out.

It may have a new name and new tools in its belt, but this way of spreading information to an exponentially growing audience is as old as language itself. And, in fact, before it was praised to high heaven by business gurus, this method of disseminating a message was ordained by God as his preferred means for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the wisdom of God and the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.

Jesus told his disciples to “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:5) And, as we see this playing out in the Book of Acts, it takes on a decidedly viral form. Before the Apostles have even set foot in many of the far-flung areas of the Roman Empire, the message has already arrived via word of mouth. A Christian in Jerusalem proclaimed the Gospel to fifty people. Let’s say ten of them believed and were saved. Three of those traveled to a distant city and, “while going,” they made “disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19). Then those disciples made disciples and those disciples made disciples and, as they went about their lives, they brought the life-changing, soul-saving, sin-erasing power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them!

You see, the ability to communicate a message of hope in such a way that it takes on a life of its own is one of the ways in which we are made in the Image of God. It’s not that we’ve taken something bad (a virus) or annoying (Internet advertising) and “Christianized it”; no, this method of spreading information—namely Truth—is a God-ordained phenomenon. When he ascended into heaven, and saw those eleven regular guys and handful of women getting smaller and smaller on the mountaintop below, Jesus knew that they would proclaim the Gospel to all nations. He knew that, unlike viral marketing, the proclaiming of the Gospel is God’s chosen means of giving faith to the faithless, forgiving their sins, and making them new people. And once you’ve been forgiven and made into a new person, how can you not tell the whole world what God has done?

But let me ask this: do we see the same sort of viral growth when it comes to the Church today? If Christianity were a disease (and our culture seems to be leaning in that direction), would the CDC call it a pandemic? Or would it be more or less contained—something you’re unlikely to catch, even if regularly exposed to an infected person? If viral marketing in itself is effective, and if proclamation of the Gospel is additionally given the guarantee of success (since God’s Holy Spirit is at work), why do we see the Church shrinking in the West, rather than continuing to spread at an alarming rate?

The answer, of course, is multi-layered. There is the shift in culture—away from absolute Truth-claims—which makes people less open to the Gospel message. There is the mysterious aspect of God’s predestination, which we can’t factor into our analysis. But most of all, there is the fact that Christians are just not attacking this Great Commission thing with Amway intensity. We’re not proclaiming the Gospel like that pink Cadillac is almost within grasp. In fact, many Christians aren’t proclaiming the Gospel at all.

I mean, think about your own experience here. Have you ever been motivated to sell something? Have you made your living selling clothes or shoes or lawnmowers? Has your kid made doe-eyes and handed you the sign-up sheet for this year’s gift wrap fundraiser and asked you to pass it around at the office? Have you ever found yourself reminding people, "I’ve got quality cutlery at competitive prices; tell your friends!" Or perhaps have you been working to raise support for that 5K charity race for cancer awareness? Have these same people heard the Gospel message from you?

Whether you’re reserved or outgoing, there is something that will motivate you to open your mouth and get a message out to others, even ask them to make a commitment of some kind. It becomes easy to steer the conversation toward that particular item.

Well, we Christians are not “selling” anything (despite what you might hear from certain “evangelism experts” or the late D.L. Moody). In fact, when we approach evangelism like a slick salesman, it becomes painfully obvious and turns people off from the outset. But our passion and intensity in spreading the Good News ought to be far superior to any MLM marketer, over-zealous fundraiser, or confrontational mall kiosk pitchman.

Consider this: an Internet “viral video” of some idiot dancing for six minutes was watched by 100 million people in two weeks because of word of mouth (or “click of mouse”). That started with one person sending the video to somebody else. That’s the power of communication and it’s a power that God has ordained for his use. How many have heard of the saving power of Jesus Christ because you opened your mouth? And how many more could hear if you tell just one more person? Or ten? Or a hundred?

If you’re not proclaiming the Gospel, why not? Maybe you feel ill-equipped. After all, it’s easier to prove that your cutlery really can cut a penny in half than it is to risk entering into a philosophical or theological debate with someone. Or maybe you’ve bought into the culture’s lie that religion is something “personal” and you really shouldn’t “force yours” on to other people, as if the respectful thing to do is just let people die in their sins and go on to a Christless eternity. Well, I don’t know about respectful, but that’s sure not loving. Or maybe you’re afraid that “outing yourself” as a Jesus Freak will mean that your friends will start holding you to a higher moral standard. (They will).

These are all pretty compelling excuses to keep us from proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They’re not entirely different from the excuses Moses threw out when God charged Him with proclaiming a message of freedom and redemption. But ultimately, God won the argument with these words: "Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak." (Exodus 4:11-12 )

In a world where we’re all receiving and sending out information and communication all the time, whether by tappity-tapping it into a little keyboard on a phone, sending an e-mail, or chatting over a back fence, we must remember that our main mission as Christians is the proclaiming of one particular message—the Good News that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, died on a cross for your sins and mine, was raised on the third day so that we could be declared righteous, and is coming again for His own.

As you go about your life, be about that mission, and "be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you." (Deuteronomy 31:6)

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