A Parable from JC Penney

By: Northern Seminary

Northern Seminary is located right beside Yorktown mall.  Actually we were here first, and then the mall had the good sense to locate beside the seminary.

So I never have far to go for one of my rare shopping expeditions.  In January I was walking through JC Penney and noticed that staff were assembling patio furniture for display.  They had assembled tables and chairs, and were busy slotting giant umbrellas in place as if to shade people from the sun.  In May or June this would not have looked strange.  In mid winter, with snow on the ground and bitterly cold temperatures, it was very odd.  I was there again only a month after the last visit (which is worrying) – and by then a whole summer range of patio gear was on display.  Very impressive, and just three weeks after the third worst blizzard in Chicago’s history.

Why all this summer gear on display in February?  Once the Christmas shopping blitz is over and the first discounts of the new year are gone, the marketing agenda is to make people think forward to what they need for spring and summer.   Stores have to sell, and they want to stir interest early in their customers.

That has made me think about what marketing calls push-pull strategies.  (There is plenty on the internet about it, and this is about as simple an explanation as it gets: http://www.marketing-made-simple.com/articles/push-pull-strategy.htm)

Put very simply, the difference is between how a company tries to ‘push’ its products towards the customer, hoping they’ll be interested, or how customers go seeking – ‘pulling’ – products to meet the needs or wants they have.  JC Penney is putting their patio furniture out hoping someone will think “Oh, we need new stuff this year.”  They are pushing the product.  Eco or finance conscious customers stirring car manufacturers to make products that use less power, now being offered hybrid or all-electric vehicles to buy, is a pull strategy at work.

Here is my point.  Much of what I have seen with evangelism has looked like a push strategy.  We ‘take the gospel’ to people, we ‘reach out’ to a city, or we design literature or events or internet sites and ‘put them out there’ in hope we will catch people’s interest.

This is not wrong.  JC Penney is not wrong to hope customers will start thinking about spring even when the snow is two feet deep on the ground.  A push strategy with evangelism works with some.

It is only wrong if we neglect pull strategies.  Let me give you two biblical examples and a personal example with pull strategies.

  • Acts 3 describes how Peter and John were used by God to heal a lame beggar just outside the temple.  Crowds saw the miracle, knew the man had been lame for years, and they came running because they wanted to see and to understand (v.11).  They were hungry for answers.  All Peter and John had to do was explain God’s work and how they should respond.  Before long “many who heard the message believed” (4:4).
  • Acts 8 is the story of Philip being led close to a chariot carrying an Ethiopian eunuch and hearing him read a messianic passage from Isaiah (v.28). Philip asked him if he understood it.  The man did not, but was curious and wanted Philip to explain.  He did, and the story ends with the eunuch baptized (v.38).
  • Don and Margaret were in their 30s, happily married, with a young son and daughter.  Most thought they had everything.  So did they.  At first.  Then they realized that what they had thought was everything could not be everything.  There had to be more.  If only someone could tell them what that ‘more’ was.  Exactly around that time friends of mine knocked on their door and offered to talk about Jesus.  Don and Margaret could not have been more pleased, and after only a few days had given their lives to Christ and at last felt complete.

In all of these there are strong elements of pull strategies in evangelism.  The interest or curiosity is not aroused by any deliberate strategy of the Christians.  The Christians were able to respond to something already there.

That does not mean Christians can sit back and do nothing.  Often – in marketing or in evangelism – there are elements of both push and pull.  Philip had to start a conversation with the eunuch and my friends had to knock on Don and Margaret’s door.  But they were able to respond to interest in those around them which the Holy Spirit had started.  They were not the initiators.  They were used by God to complete something he was already doing in people’s lives.

My concern is this, that our programs and tools for evangelism are very good for pushing out the gospel to people, blanketing the airwaves or TV channels or putting literature in the hands of thousands or promoting huge events, but people are increasingly immune to our words, or find them irrelevant, or confused because there are many rival voices.  When no-one responds our answer can be to shout louder or do more of the same, and ultimately to blame people for not listening to us.

What if people are seeking, asking, wanting meaning and fulfillment, and we are not listening?  What if God is deeply at work in lives but their way of describing that is a foreign language to us? We’re not attuned.  We think they’re asking the wrong questions, but it is not their words but our ears that are wrong.

What did Zacchaeus want?  It looked like the only agenda was to see the man who was big news in Jericho – Jesus (Lk 19:3).  He climbed a tree to get a good view.  Jesus offered himself as Zacchaeus dinner guest.  Still no overt gospel agenda!  But God was doing something inside Zacchaeus, and the outcome was a radically changed life, a man who had found salvation (8,9).

This is a day to be open, attuned, sensitive to needs not expressed in our Christian terms, but which are real cries of people for fullness of life.  Those cries are God’s early work, a restlessness in people separate from God.  If we’re not open, not ready, or too busy pushing out the gospel our way, then we’ll miss God-moments in their lives.

Not at all do I want to reshape the gospel.  This has nothing to do with that.  But I do want to reshape our approach to evangelism.  It is easier to push our product at people, as if saying “You should want this,” than to take time to listen and respond to confused and awkward people who are desperate for the ‘something’ they know is out there but cannot find.

Does that make sense?

One final word: you may want to tell me that evangelism is not about marketing and the church cannot be run on a business model.  I know, and I agree.  I am using an illustration from marketing, and that is all.  I am asking if we have been using only one approach with evangelism and there are insights from life and from scripture that show us there is another, neglected part to this.  I do not think the Lord minds me creating a parable from JC Penney.

March 3, 2011

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