Constitutive Rhetoric to Recruit Faith

Palm SundayWhile enjoying a particularly meaningful church service on this Palm Sunday, I had a bright moment of clarity that presented itself to me in almost tangible form. I did not see God, though. On the contrary, my realization is one that the pastor who was speaking and my parents would be a bit less thrilled with (though my Rhetoric professors at school would be pretty happy with me).

Speaking in generalities – something that I’ll admit can’t be done by someone trying to actually convince someone else of any kind of factual truth – the churches that I have always attended use inclusion and exclusion in their dialogue. Religious messages are often based on assumption that essentially works to recruit individuals to join the faith.

Example: these are all actual quotes copied from this morning’s service, given by Pastor Tom Stroup at Brockport Free Methodist Church. In bold are the portions of the sentences that were left in the sermon notes as blank lines, intended for the audience to fill in.

  • “Sometimes I think God has forgotten about me BUT God never forgets me!”
  • “Even when it seems life is hopeless, hope is what I have in Christ!”
  • “Caiphas would Kill Jesus to save Israel from Rome, BUT Jesus died to save us from our own sinfulness.

It’s subtle, but do you see what they did, there?

Churches frequently use words like I, WE, and US to formulate an in-group and out-group. The in-group are those that believe in God, have hope in Christ, etc. The out-group, obviously, are those that do not. If you had attended church this morning at BFMC, you never had the chance to decide which of those groups you belonged to. They actually decided for you. Even more – you wrote the words on the blanks, participating in the process.

It’s a fallacy of assumption, and it works.

Let’s brainstorm a few individuals who could have been in the pews this morning.

  • A child too young to completely understand religion, too young to have made any of his or her own decisions in regard to what he or she believes in.
  • A recovering alcoholic who was urged to pick a church and find God by a friend of his that goes to his Alcoholics Anonymous classes.
  • An atheist who believes in seeing both sides of an issue and therefore attends different churches from time to time.

Would we consider any of those individuals to be part of the in-group? I would not.

This is the point in the blog post at which I need to give readers notice of two things:

  1. Though it may seem like I am writing in a tone of disapproval of this inclusive language and rhetorical technique, that is not true.
  2. This is a Marketing blog. Occasionally, I am inspired to write things that are more religious, political, or cultural in nature, and when I do I usually have them posted on Trova101 (Thanks, Mark Trova!). This one, though, is here on Millennial’s Marketing. That’s because there is some marketing insight quickly approaching.

Not to take any sanctity out of religion, but… by engaging in this practice, churches are only  tapping into widely used marketing techniques.

In the fields of persuasion, like advertising and public relations, marketers are selling something. It might be an ideology, a product, a service, a human-being, or a cause, but they are selling something just the same. When you tell someone something about them-self, it is only a matter of time until they begin to believe it and use it to construct their own identity. I believe that participation in the message itself only accelerates that process, which can be seen in this morning’s church example. The equivalent, in marketing rather than religion, are social media channels.

Don DraperDon Draper once famously said, “People want to be told what to do so badly that they will listen to anyone.” Is your church and religion as a whole led by an incredibly faithful individual, or an expert marketer?

Probably both.




One thought on “Constitutive Rhetoric to Recruit Faith

  1. Hi Jim,

    You are correct to see the connection between religion and persuasion. The more interesting perspective–not that you don’t raise interesting questions–would be in the reverse. That is, how has marketing taken its cue from religion? For instance, Russell Belk, of York University, has a fantastic article titled “The Cult of Macintosh” wherein he argues that the development of successful brands, like Apple, take their marketing cues from the rhetoric of religion–offering divine figures for their fans to admire (e.g., Steve Jobs), offering sites for communal gathering (e.g., Apple Stores), the offering of satanic opponents (e.g., Microsoft), et cetera. Likewise, the etymology of the word fan (of which the production of a “fan” has become of increasing value to marketers) can be traced back to fanaticism which has its roots in religion–that is, someone with intense, often uncritical devotion. This is not to suggest that religion has not taken anything from marketing but rather that there may be interesting lines worth exploring regarding the interplay between the rhetorical practices of these groups. My guess would be that the spaces in which one may see the marketing influence most heavily would be in the rise of “Mega Churches” and celebrity pastors. Outside of those spaces, I think that when you are sitting in church, in addition to developing your faith, it may be interesting to ask how have some of the most popular and successful brands have taken the model of the church–and not the market (in its crude sense)–as the model of contemporary consumerism. That is, it may not be necessarily logic, nor necessity that guides the contemporary consumer, but faith alone; having taken a page from the bible, it may very well be that this line is the new logic of marketing: Then Steve Jobs declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” In any case, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.



    p.s. Further reading that may be of interest to you might be the work of Russell Belk and Stephen O’Leary, as well as Kenneth Burke (much of his view on rhetoric is entrenched with religious terminology [e.g., scapegoat, god & devil terms, guilt-redemption-cycle, et cetera).

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