There’s a reason McDonald’s spends more than a billion dollars a year in advertising. It works. Whether there is truth in McDonald’s advertising or any other form of advertising is another matter altogether.
Advertising is all about hitting one’s “target” audience. That is why commercials for retirement funds, prostate medication, and senior living facilities sometimes are accompanied by music from Baby Boomer rock bands of the 1960s. Nothing like the cognitive dissonance of hearing a song about youthful rebellion by The Who shilling for a Fortune 500 investment portfolio.
There is a sameness to advertising whether it is trying to entice someone to buy a slab of processed ground beef on a sesame seed bun, purchase a particular brand of soft drink, or encourage someone to think about who Jesus is.
So, what are we selling and to whom are we selling with those signs outside of almost every church that almost always have a ubiquitous “All are welcome”?
I’m dancing precariously close to crabby old guy on the porch yelling at the kids to keep off my lawn here, but that “All are welcome” bit always leaves me a little cold. Am I some kind of unwelcoming troglodyte who should be living under a bridge? I don’t think so. Should a church be a welcoming place? Yes.
But it’s a phrase that seems to have a subliminal advertising message to me. It seems to be saying it doesn’t matter who you are, and it doesn’t matter what you do. Come inside and everything is going to be happy and soft and nothing inside is going to make you uncomfortable.
But something inside at the outset is going to make you uncomfortable … or at least it should.
For starters, there is going to be a representation, sometimes a rather large one, of a 33-year-old man strapped to a tree with nails in his hands and feet, a crown of thorns, and blood oozing from a severe gash in his side. You go into some churches in other parts of the world and you will see a corpse under the altar and skulls and bones used as design elements.
And if you’re still feeling welcomed, you are liable to hear the words of this same man telling a bunch of people things either they were not prepared to hear or things they absolutely did not want to hear.
When people voted with their feet after Jesus revealed the fact his body was true food and his blood true drink, he didn’t run after the doubters. He kept walking in the opposite direction, pausing only when he realized Peter was still following.
Peter was also one of those people who heard a lot of things he didn’t want to hear and found himself on the wrong side of a rebuke from Jesus himself. Let’s face it, Christianity is hard. It was hard for 1st century fishermen to get right and it’s hard for 21st century men to get right.
Where the disciples did feel welcome, and where we should seek our sense of security and calm, is in the truth that Jesus revealed despite the difficulty in some of those truths handed down to us and kept safe by Holy Mother Church.
And if you follow the “All are welcome” sign into this place and get there in time for the Scripture readings, you’re liable to come across some more uncomfortable messaging. Big companies get sued for false advertising all the time.
If our “All are welcome” signs just mean come in, hear some nice music and a couple of nonthreatening platitudes, then we are guilty of the age-old advertising gimmick of the bait and switch.
Jesus taught the truth even when it hurt, and he told us to expect nothing short of challenges and struggles for anyone who was to follow him. Of course, he also taught about the light at the end of any length of tunnel we may find ourselves in.
In the spirit of keeping on the right side of the Federal Trade Commission and not adding a scandal of false advertising to other lists of scandals plaguing our church at the present, I would suggest a small “rewrite” of all those “All are welcome” signs in front of churches. My ad man take would go something like this: “St. [INSERT NAME OF SAINT HERE] Parish community ... memberships available / radical personal change required / only saints and sinners welcome."
Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.
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