Marketing God




T

he
Barna Research Group (BRG), a 20-year-old Southern California-based
market research company “dedicated to assisting God’s
people to do the work of the Kingdom,” has come upon some disturbing
data, at least for evangelicals. To wit, although 41 percent of
U.S. citizens self-identify as born-again Christians, only 47 percent
believe that Jesus lived a sin-free life, and only 28 percent feel
the need to recruit others to their faith. Worse, only 6 percent
of born-again teens believe moral truth to be absolute; the rest
believe circumstances influence behavior and waiver about the need
for rigid dos and don’ts. 


For
the CEO of Barna Research Group, George Barna, and other evangelicals,
these findings constitute a crisis. Indeed, they argue that calling
oneself born-again is meaningless if individual adherents are allowed
to interpret scriptural invectives themselves. Instead, they contend
that born-again Christians must be united by fixed precepts: among
them, that the Bible is the completely accurate word of God; that
Satan is a living thing; and that salvation happens by grace alone. 


But
how do you drill this into the heads of the millions of self-styled
born-agains who are less dogmatic? 


Enter
Thomas Nelson, Inc., the number one book publisher in the Christian
buyer’s market. While Nelson peddles goods to every consumer
group—pre-schoolers to retirees—teenagers are of particular
interest to the Nashville firm and staff continually develop new
products to entice them. Barna’s web- site offers insight into
this demographic: “Teens have been among the most spiritually
interested individuals in the nation for more than a decade…Their
perspectives on truth, integrity, meaning, justice, morality and
ethics are formed quite early in life.” 


The
question is how best to win them over—and the disposable cash
they carry. 


Finding
an answer prompted Nelson to team up with youth pastors, Christian
writers, teens, and graphic designers from Studio Four5One, an award-winning
Dublin firm responsible for creating album covers for U2, Sting,
Depeche Mode, and Elvis Costello. The result of their collaboration
was

Revolve: The Complete New Testament

. A glossy, fashion-magazine
look-alike,

Revolve

wrapped an easy-to-read version of the
New Testament—“Matthew” to “Revelations”—with
messages about dating (“God made guys to be the leaders. This
means that they lead in relationships”); sex (“sex is
a beautiful gift that God has given married people. To wonder is
ok…but to fantasize about it, to think about doing it, is sinful.”);
homosexuality (“the Bible clearly says that homosexuality is
wrong”); and a panoply of social issues, from AIDS to eating
disorders to sexual violence. Thanks to stock photos, an array of
beautiful young women of every hue make

Revolve

an appealing—if
often appalling—read. 


Not
surprisingly, Christians and curious others gobbled it up: 300,000
copies of

Revolve

have been sold since its July release.
Nelson reports that it was the best-selling Bible of 2003, available
not only in Christian bookstores, but in Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart,
and other mainstream venues. According to Nelson publicist, Marika
Flatt, “Nearly everyone who got their hands on Revolve, including
the

New York Times


Magazine

and NBC’s “Today
Show,” asked, ‘Will there be a guy’s version?’” 


The
answer was a resounding, “Yes.”

Refuel

was released
in April and is being marketed to males ages 12-22. Like

Revolve

,
it inserts advice on dating, sex, divorce, social activism, pornography,
getting to heaven, hygiene, and becoming a missionary between Scriptural
passages. As visually stunning as its predecessor,

Refuel

is a hefty 390 pages and urges readers to be “radical about
their faith,” and not simply one-hour- a-week Christians. 


Some
of its offerings are what you would expect from an evangelical publication: 


  • “Whenever
    you hear Christians say, ‘Don’t date or marry someone
    who isn’t a believer’…. The words actually picture
    two animals of different breeds lashed together, yanking each
    other to plow in different directions. That’s what happens
    when you let a non-Christian friend rule you. To be a well-matched
    guy-girl couple or even really tight same-sex friends, you’ve
    got to be going in the same direction. Or you get your heads ripped
    off.” 

  • “If you
    give yourself to someone before marriage, you break God’s
    command. But you’re also setting yourself up to get shredded.” 

  • “The Bible
    doesn’t specifically address masturbation. But can it be
    separated from lust? The Bible forbids that, doesn’t it?
    And besides, getting that kind of solo physical release is unhelpful
    because it trains you to be selfish about your sexuality.”


     


While

Refuel

urges readers to “protect girls,” it also
admonishes them to iron their clothes, use deodorant, shower, floss
their teeth, and clean their bedrooms. What’s more, it reminds
them “there are over 2,300 verses in Scripture that command
us to take care of the poor, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked.”
Organizations—many of them secular—where one can volunteer
or intern are listed; a “Travel the Road” section offers
information on both long- and short-term missionary opportunities
for those with a yen to proselytize. 



Refuel

doesn’t mince words: according to the “Bible-zine’s”
introduction, “The Bible is about radical devotion and revolutionary
people. 


“It
is a book that God breathed into the hearts and minds of people
who were grappling with life and rising to the challenge of faith
in the extreme.  


“These
stories were written by and about dreamers and risk-takers….
Because God inspired them, they are 100 percent accurate and reliable….
Jesus was all-the-way man and all-the-way God. He was the truest
revolutionary of all time.” 


Them’s
fighting words and their intent is to up the number of folks whose
evangelical fervor matches that of George Barna and associates.
Teens—developmentally open to a wide range of ideological extremes—are
a logical group to court. But Thomas Nelson is casting a wider net.
Another “Bible-zine,”

Becoming

, intended for adult
women who might otherwise prowl the self-help aisle, will hit bookstores
 in July.



 





Eleanor J. Bader,
a freelance writer and teacher, is the co-author of



Targets
of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism.