One of the things that churches have become famous for is the old fashioned “bait and switch.” It’s a marketing ploy where a business lures someone into their store by offering an incredible deal on something the person really wants. But when the person arrives that item is “unfortunately” sold out. The store does, however, offer the person something that is “actually a better product,” but it comes with a higher price tag. You took the bait (the incredible deal) to come into their store, but they switched it with the product they actually want you to buy.

Churches often do this under the guise of “evangelism.”

They offer a HUGE party with free food, a concert or a giveaway, only to use this opportunity to “share the Gospel” with the unsuspecting visitors. The visitors came for the free food, or the giveaway, or just to have a good time, but they were tricked into a heavily evangelistic event. It’s a classic bait and switch.

What churches are up against

Let’s examine it through the filter of today’s cynical church visitor. Millennials (today’s young adults) display a large degree of cynicism toward institutions – especially toward churches, which are the face of organized Christianity. This is why the Barna Research Group recently discovered that the number of those that self-identify as “religiously unaffiliated” is rising rapidly. According to the latest research, among this demographic the percentage of “nones” (those with no religious background) and “dones” (those that are done with church) make up almost 50% of the population. And it’s over 30% for the general population.

In short, Americans simply aren’t looking to the Church for answers anymore. They may indeed be spiritual, but they often choose other ways of meeting their spiritual needs.

Robin and I saw where this road leads during our 13 years of church planting and church leader training in Europe. According to the 2006 European Spiritual Estimate less than 2% of Europeans have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Christianity is considered a historical relic – a lot like the beautiful, but empty, cathedrals that dot the landscape. And because of this the European Church and its leaders have absolutely NO VOICE in society. Being a Christ-follower is counter-cultural. We knew people that were openly mocked for their faith in Germany. This is the future of the American Church, unless we can adjust to engage the prevailing culture.

What the bait and switch looks like in a church setting

Now let’s examine how the bait and switch event plays out in a typical church scenario. A church member invites their cynical friend to a typical church event. This person comes with their friend, meets a few people, has some fun… and then he/she is preached to. He/she came expecting to have fun, but instead got suckered into a pseudo church service (complete with all the weird traditions that churches are famous for).

They’ve been tricked! Now how much credibility do you think the church member will have the next time they try to invite this person (or anyone this person talks to about their experience) to a church event? More than likely, none.

We have to rethink our strategy! The bait and switch may have worked a couple of generations ago, but it’s not very effective anymore. People today – especially Millennials – have too many other options. What if we, instead, offered a party where the entire goal was for unchurched to hang out with our church people? What if we offered an event where people just came together for a meal to enjoy each others’ company? We should at least teach our people to share what to expect when inviting someone to one of our events. And we should also train our people to not heavily proselytize the visitors. Jesus will probably come up in a conversation. We are, after all, Christ-followers. But we don’t need to force it.

Going back to the beginning

In my daily devotional times I’ve been reading through the Gospels. One of the things I’ve noticed is that Jesus NEVER offered a bait and switch. When you came to Him, you could always expect to receive “grace and truth.” (John 1:14) The only ones to face His wrath and His rebuke were those that believed they were somehow better than others, and that they were capable of pleasing God entirely on their own merits.

Tweet This: Jesus never offered a bait and switch. He offered grace and truth.

We have to get back to representing the true heart of Jesus. One of the church planters I mentor asked his people to invite their friends to “a church service with a baseball game afterwards.” After the short service they grilled hotdogs, then headed over to a pro baseball game to have some fun together. No one was under any illusion as to what it was all about. It was a chance for people to visit the church and then watch a ballgame afterwards. And they DID have visitors because this church was up front about what to expect.

Let’s rethink how we do ministry. American culture is FULL of marketing ploys. As a result, people have become cynical and choosy about with whom they do business. Let’s be authentic and actually EXCEED peoples’ expectations. If we do, word of mouth will be our best friend!

How does your church avoid the bait and switch? Join the conversation below. Your comments help others process how to do ministry in today’s society.