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Provocative Church, Blaise Pascal & Inbound Marketing

31 August 2014

Church in DublinEvery now and again you read a book which expresses an idea that crystallises everything you thought but had never put into words. One of those books for me was Provocative Church by Graham Tomlin. I read the book 7 years ago and it has shaped my approach to Christianity and church ever since.

The central theme of the book is actually based on a quote from Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century mathematician, philosopher and theologian. He famously said:

Make religion attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.

3 weeks ago my manager at HubSpot, with whom I have many humorous discussions about Jesus being a fairytale, said to me “it’s a great idea Steve…be great if it were true!” Now whilst he thinks I am crazy for believing what I believe (and he really does!), at least he thinks it’s a good idea, at least he can see that it is attractive, it makes a difference to my life and if it were true, it would make a difference to the world. So according to Pascal, I am 50% of the way there…I now just need to show him it is true!!

Tomlin says at the start of his book:

One of the key themes of this book is that unless there is something about church, or Christians, or faith that intrigues, provokes or entices, then our message will fall on deaf ears. If churches cannot convey a sense of ‘reality’ then all our ‘truth’ will count for nothing. Unless someone wants to hear, there’s no point in shouting louder. Churches need to become provocative, arresting places which makes the searcher, casual visitors, want to come back for more.

He goes on to say:

Pascal’s point is that before we ever get to the stage of explaining or convincing, there needs to emerge in people the desire, the question, the hunger to discover more, to find God.

Provocative ChurchNow reading Tomlin got me back to reading my Bible (like all great Christian books should do!!) to see what God’s word actually said about the the nature and witness of God’s people (in the Old and New Testament). As I re-read the ‘big Bible story’ I could see that the idea of a “provocative people” was there all the way through.

  • Abraham and his descendants were to be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3) and that they were to be distinct in the way they lived (Genesis 18:19).
  • Moses was given the law by God on Mount Sinai so as to show the wisdom and closeness of God to the nations (Deuteronomy 4:6-7)
  • The high point of God’s People in the Old Testament is 1 Kings 10 when the Queen of Sheba (probably the richest person in the world) comes to hear the wisdom of Solomon and delights in the happiness of his people.

And I could continue with more examples. Of course we know that God’s people made a complete mess of it, and we still do today. But God’s intention for his people and what we see when they get it right is a provocative people who cause those who don’t know God to start asking questions…to awaken a hunger in people that what they are seeing before their eyes is true!

So it is not surprising that when Jesus formed the new community of God and speaks the most famous sermon in the history of the world (The Sermon on the Mount) in Matthew 5-7, he describes the church like this:

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

This is not about people being bashed with the bible. This is about people seeing a light, a love, a hope, a joy, a strength and a wisdom among God’s people that causes them to investigate the light (on their terms!) and then, if they so decide, start to follow the light itself.

To bring this all up-to-date, modern marketers are now understanding what God had always intended (it’s good to see business and culture catching up with God’s eternal ways…haha!!). I work for HubSpot which is a software company which helps companies grow through implementing Inbound Marketing. Inbound Marketing for ChurchesInbound marketing is an idea that was first put into print by HubSpot’s 2 co-founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah October 2009 (the company was started in summer 2006). Inbound marketing is all about attracting people to your company/product through remarkable content (blogs, videos, whitepapers, ebooks etc) rather than forcing your company/product onto people through TV ads, billboards, spam mail etc (this approach is called outbound marketing and is said to be, mostly, ‘broken). So the idea of inbound marketing for your company/product is the same idea as what the Bible, Blaise Pascal and Graham Tomlin are saying about the church. Don’t force your way on people. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t shout louder. Attract them, lure them, bless them, delight them, help them, awaken a desire in them … and only when they want to engage with you, start to talk more about how what you are doing could be what they need!

That is my hope and desire for us as a church. That we would provoke questions, awaken desire and make people think. Many people will think we are nuts (they thought that of Jesus!) and many people will reject us (they rejected Jesus too!). But my hope is that many people will be intrigued enough to at least check out whether what we are saying could be true.

If you’re interested, we start a 5 week series called ‘Provocative Church’ on Sunday 7th September (next Sunday) at 4.15pm at Filmbase, Curved Street, Temple Bar. Our church then officially launches on Sunday 12th October, same time, same place. For more details about Christ City Church do read part 1 of a 6 part blog series looking at our vision and values.

I hope to see you soon.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. abiflavell permalink
    2 September 2014 7:59 am

    Thought this was an excellent article Steve. Having worked for a design and marketing company for 7 years and then left my job to care for kids and give time to church I was at a loss to see how the skills I learnt could apply to church. Now I know. Thanks!

    • 2 September 2014 9:40 am

      Yes it’s amazing how skills can be used in different spheres…I think the main reason people don’t see how skills from church can be used in business and from business can be used in church. Check out this post I wrote when I first started in business –

      • abiflavell permalink
        2 September 2014 10:27 am

        Another good read. I enjoyed your post on humility too. Very challenging to hold humility in tension with a strong and determined will. To me humility has equated to not pushing myself forward in order to address my pride. Yet deep down I know I am a leader and feel stirred to start a number of new things particularly at church. I hold back waiting to be asked out of ‘humility’ although your articles make me think differently about this. Not sure I know what it looks like to stay humble whilst also pioneering new things, your articles have helped thank you.

      • 2 September 2014 10:40 am

        Hey Abi, yes humility whilst pioneering in leadership is challenge. 4 quick thoughts

        (1) Motivation is everything. So it is not about “pushing yourself forward” but rather about saying “why am I doing this?” to boast my ego or to serve people and give glory to God

        (2) Our motivation will never be pure (until heaven). However that should not stop us. Rather confess your selfish motives, commit yourself and your endeavour to God and ask the Holy Spirit to give you a new motives (Ps51.10-12).

        (3) Grace is what purifies our motives. The only way for our motives to be purified is for us to realise that we have an identity and status given us by God that will never be surpassed by any earthly achievement. Once we understand that and it melts our hearts then we can serve him out of gratitude rather than to build our own name.

        (4) Fear and Pride are opposites. In that people who don’t “put themselves forward” for fear of failure have the same issue of pride underneath there “inaction” as you/I have over our “action”. They don’t want to fail and therefore their pride stops them taking positions of leadership they should take. Again Grace frees us from this. 1 Corinthians 15.10 is key here – by the grace of God I am what I am, may pride not make us more and fear not make us less

        Hope that helps. I am far from there myself!

      • abiflavell permalink
        2 September 2014 10:50 am

        Very helpful insights steve. Appreciate your time in replying. Excited to hear about impending official church launch! All the best

  2. Sean Mullan permalink
    2 September 2014 10:31 am

    Well done Steve – this has helped me to understand inbound marketing. Am thinking it that it need not have anything to do with the internet – the attraction could be something else, like a monthly “pay what you want and b-y-o-b” community meal! I’m also thinking there’s a tension between making something attractive, like the church’s good news, and hiding (or removing) the “hard bits” because people won’t like them. It seems that for every attractive bit – God loves everybody – there’s a corresponding hard bit – his love means he will care what kind of life you live. And the other tension might be that Pascal long before the age of marketing so what he thought of as making religion attractive has nothing to with making religion LOOK attractive which is probably a more common approach today.

    • 2 September 2014 10:44 am


      I am glad that after a 2 hour seminar with me in HubSpot it has taken a blog post to help you understand Inbound Marketing (lesson to me as the teacher!!).

      Yes we did something like the monthly meal you suggested – check out The Dublin Banquet – – and it seemed to change people’s perception a bit.

      Totally agree with what you say about “hard bits” being removed. Big challenge. And yes Pascal was talking about something deep seated within the community not “does it look flashy”. That is a helpful clarification.

      Thanks for your comments

  3. 23 January 2015 11:20 am

    I’m afraid I’m slightly confused by this. You’re saying we should make people want Christianity to be true before actually showing them it is… Then isn’t there a danger of them believing something they don’t actually think is true under normal conditions, but have convinced themselves that it is simply because they WANT it to be? If there are Christians like this, is that a positive thing? Isn’t this how people become manipulated by false gods and religions all the time? Isn’t it how people can become deceived – in wanting something to be true, it becomes true for them….? Would be interested to hear your thoughts on these questions. Otherwise, a thought provoking article though.

    • 27 January 2015 11:13 am

      Thanks for your comment.

      My premise is that Christianity is true. That Jesus rose from the dead, that the bible is authoritative, that there is a creator and that the story of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation best explains our world. All that is true.

      However if that is true then it is also good news, so if it is good news let’s show to people how it is good news so they want it, they wish it were true…and then they discover it is true.

      I am not advocating the power of positive thinking. There are lots of things we wish were true and are not (e.g that I am the most handsome man in the world) and in those cases we need to have a reality check. But when you have a reality check with regards to Christianity you find you have actually hit reality. It is true and it is good news. Hallelujah!

      • 11 February 2015 10:34 am

        Hi Steve. Thank you for your thoughtful reply to this.

        I would like then to present a further question to you: How do you get to that premise? Furthermore, if you start from the premise that Christianity is true, then aren’t you automatically discounting the possibility that it might not be? How can you claim objectivity in the matter? When you talk of someone else ‘discovering’ Christianity to be true, aren’t you just saying they will come round to accepting the premise first of all… and then go out to prove it for themselves?

        I don’t mean this to sound like an attack on beliefs. I’m just curious as to your opinion. I understand if, at this point, it’s tempting for you to close the conversation, as it may be going somewhere you didn’t foresee. Such an action is typical in Christians, I’ve found, who feel they must go and learn the answers before coming back with a prepared one… Again, I’m not attacking, just observing.

      • 11 February 2015 7:22 pm

        Thanks for your comment. All I am advocating is my approach to outreach and spreading the message. Pascal (& inbound marketing) has the starting point that we should attract and compel people by living the truth rather than bashing them (outbound marketing) with the truth. Establishing the premise (the truth of Christianity) is about apologetics and a matter for another blog post.

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