Editorial Note: An overseas reader writes that while preparing for a public relations weekend, he consulted again the excellent publication Breakthrough by Howard B. Weeks. Chapter 21, "Public Relations, Advertizing, and Evangelism," struck him so forcefully that he felt it would be well for parts of it to be reprinted in THE MINISTRY. In presenting this material we are honoring his request and concurring with his sentiments. We would also urge study of the entire chapter.
Can Evangelism Hurt the Church?
If public evangelism is so conducted as to confirm and contribute to public esteem of the church, it will succeed. If it detracts from that esteem it will fail, for it will be undermining the very foundation upon which it must rest. Whether or not we like it, an acceptable public image of the church behind the evangelism is the sine qua non for evangelistic achievement today among the great uncommitted mass of people.
A series of public meetings usually creates a larger impact on a community than any other effort the church exerts. There is a larger volume of advertising in the newspapers and on the radio and television than at any other time. Perhaps there are even billboards, and always handbills, direct-mail campaigns. Everyone is made aware of the church's existence.
Sometimes this promotional material actually hurts the church among the majority of people in a town, even though it may succeed in filling an auditorium. If it does create the wrong image of the church, if it conveys the impression of an unlettered group still in the sawdust and canvas days of the frontier, it will surely erect barriers of prejudice hard to surmount in future years. This is a fearful price to pay for an evangelistic audience.
On the other hand, evangelistic promotion can actually contribute to the over-all objectives of the church, even among those who do not attend the meetings, if it creates positive, constructive impressions.
Evangelistic promotion hurts when it is crudely prepared or, most often, when it is emotionally overwrought, when it is reaching too hard for an arousing, sensational effect. "River of Blood 200 Miles Long!" "Three Angels Flying Over Hicksville!" "Cancel All Other Engagements! The Whole Town Has Been Waiting to Hear . . . " Phrases like these suggest to thoughtful people that whoever is putting out such advertising must be somewhat detached from real life, intoxicated perhaps with a feeling of importance.
To anyone who has ever had responsibility for the success of a series of meetings, this emotional supercharging of the advertising is at least understandable, if not forgivable. A great deal has usually been invested. Moreover, the personal reputation of the speaker as an evangelist is at stake. We just must have a large opening-night crowd. Everything depends upon it. An opening night is a bit like flying the Atlantic Ocean—nothing but a complete success will do. Thus keyed up, we inject personal anxiety into the advertising copy. But the reading audience, unaware of the reason for our apprehension, is not in a position to appreciate or understand the vibrations he receives, and may well be turned against the sponsoring organization. We tend to shun those who seem to be emotionally disturbed.
Evangelistic Advertising in Perspective
One reason these problems arise is that in evangelistic activity we depend for our success too much upon the power of advertising. True, all too often everything does depend on it, for nothing else has been done previously in the community to create an appeal. We should realize more fully that it is not the power of advertising that determines the success of church evangelism. It is the church's basic relationship in the community. Where knowledge of the church and confidence in it do not exist, our advertising efforts will avail little except among that type of person always interested in some new religious manifestation.
Evangelism and evangelistic promotion set correctly in the over-all public relations context has no need for hyperemotional advertising. Advertising is used, not as the sole means of success, merely as one means. In fact, the advertising contributes to the total public relations picture, fulfilling with dignity its primary functions.
One of these functions is to establish the meetings as a public event. Unadvertised meetings are more or less private affairs. Advertised meetings are public—something to which members may more readily invite their friends. Advertising, then, helps to draw into focus all the forces that will lead people to join your own members at an evangelistic session. With this advertising objective clearly in mind the evangelist has no need for turning emotional handsprings. —Pages 236, 237.