A marketing genius told me about one of the more amusing marketing failures in the history of corporate America. The corporation in question decided to market its product in Africa. The target market in this story was an illiterate one, and the population identified the contents of the package by the picture on the label. If the label had a picture of a tomato, the can was a can of tomatoes. If the label had a picture of apples, then the jar was a jar of apples.
So when Gerber went to Africa and put a picture of a baby on the label, you can understand why they sold few jars of baby food.
One American auto company had trouble breaking into the Japanese market because, among other reasons, in Japan they drive on the left side of the road, whereas the imports from the good old USA assumed that everybody drives as we do.
That mistake was easily fixed, but another one still lives in the annals of cultural legends. General Motors had difficulty selling their most popular Chevy model south of the border until someone figured out that Nova in Spanish means, “It doesn’t go”. (No va!) Would you buy a model named “It doesn’t go”?
Christianity, in order for it to be successful, also must be aware of the culture around it. Jesus and the earliest disciples all hailed from a Middle Eastern culture and were Jewish by religion and race. They viewed the world from the perspective of that people. But in order to break out of the culture of one people and to appeal to the entire world – a world that largely did not know the God of Israel – the peoples of other lands had to be approached from a perspective that they could understand.
When the Apostle Paul, who had the advantage of both a classical and a Jewish education, entered the picture he was able to speak in terms understandable to both Jew and Greek. “To the Jews I became a Jew,” he wrote, “that I might win the Jews. … To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. … I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
He knew how to approach people from their perspective, sometimes quoting their poets and always speaking their language. If Christianity is to capture the hearts of today’s world, today’s Christians need to learn all they can about popular culture and what makes the world tick. The language that worked in the more biblically aware world of fifty years ago cannot work today. It no longer works to tell people that they need to “be saved” because most don’t even know they are lost. Telling them to repent of their sins when “repent” is meaningless and “sin” a doubtful concept will do little more than solidify in their minds a stereotype of Christianity.
Just like those marketing gurus in foreign lands, we can have the best of intentions, but the signals we send do not address who we are and what we stand for. Just as Paul could converse in the language of the day, we must do the same. We must approach people in a way that is meaningful for them, and quite often that means providing a meaning to life in this increasingly nihilistic world. It means learning the rationale behind the relativistic philosophies of the day and showing where such philosophies inevitably lead.
And it means living in a way that is consistent with our values, not only to give glory to God (which is important), but to also show that the way we walk works, even in a world that might scorn it.