Second Sunday of Lent — February 25, 2024

Is faith something to market? Maybe, writes Teri McDowell Ott.

Listen to Teri read her reflection.

Mark 8:31-38
Year B

Editor’s note: After publishing this lectionary reflection, we learned about the tragic shooting at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston on Sunday, February 11. There is no justification for such horrific violence. We pray for the victims, the Lakewood Church community, and an end to America’s endemic of gun violence.

In 1999, when Joel Osteen took over for his father as pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, his marketing team launched a city-wide campaign, “We Believe in New Beginnings.” The campaign began with television ads, then branched to local billboards, marketing videos, and even bumper stickers. By the time the campaign was finished, nearly everyone in Houston knew about the “New Beginning” at Lakewood. Today, Joel Osteen’s podcast is one of the most popular on iTunes, he’s written multiple bestselling books, and his message extends across all media.

Phil Cooke, Joel Osteen’s media manager, writes, “In a media-driven culture, no matter how powerful your message, if no one’s listening, you’ve failed.”

Let me be honest. I have never been a fan of Joel Osteen’s prosperity theology. It does not line up with the way I read and interpret Scripture. However, Joel Osteen (and his people) know how to market a message.

If you’re reading this, maybe you’re like me and you turn your nose up at the public marketing of faith. When I watch an expensive ad for Jesus during the Super Bowl, I wonder how many hungry people could have been fed with that money. I’ve also inherited a Protestant ethic of politeness, singing the virtue of a quiet, humble faith, averring it’s overly forward to speak of your Christian faith with anyone, anywhere.

But in the text from Mark for this Second Sunday of Lent, we hear Jesus tell his disciples that if “any want to become my followers … let them take up their cross and follow me” (v. 34). In his book Preaching Mark in Two Voices (co-written with Brian Blount), Gary Charles reminds us of what the cross meant for Mark’s readers: a “public spectacle”; an inhumane form of execution meant to put the criminal or the political dissident on display. It was a public shaming for anyone daring to rebel against the powers of Rome or claim any god other than the Roman emperor.

“With this horrific image,” Charles writes, “Jesus demands that those who would follow him move beyond the safe confines of private religious experience. To ‘take up your cross’ is a call … to public ministry that confronts whatever powers prevent the saving work of God.” Later, in verse 38, Jesus calls out those who are “ashamed of me and my words.” I’m not ashamed of my faith in Jesus. Or am I? Is my desire to be Protestant polite really a reluctance to publicly bear witness?

The public nature of Jesus’ call also makes me pause to consider the growing population of “nones” — those who claim no religious affiliation. According to recent data by Pew Research, 28% of U.S. adults identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” Growing from 16% in 2007, this group of unaffiliated adults is steadily increasing. Pew’s research on these “nones,” as well as my experience working among them as a college chaplain, reveals that they are not all anti-church or anti-religion, as we often assume. Rather, they just don’t know us. Most young adults today have not been raised in a community of faith. Those of us who feel it’s too forward to speak about our faith haven’t done much to bridge this relational gap. Yet, in our media-driven culture, the Christians to whom these “nones” will be introduced are those who don’t hesitate to express their faith publicly, to evangelize, like Joel Osteen.

Personally, you’re not going to see me standing at a busy intersection holding a neon-yellow posterboard that reads “Jesus Saves.” I’m also not interested in investing millions in a 30-second Super Bowl ad. But I will write about my faith, and share my writing publicly because I desire for Jesus’ radical story of love and justice to be told. It’s a story worth telling, out loud and often. It’s a story that transforms. Today, I am reminded that it is my story, and yours, to tell.

Questions for reflection

  1. When you hear the word “evangelism” or “spreading the gospel” what thoughts, ideas, feelings or images come to mind?
  2. In what ways do you publicly share your Christian faith? In what situations do you hesitate to share your Christian faith?
  3. How can you or your church “take up your cross” and tell Jesus’ story in your community, or to the general public?

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