Tuesday, April 14, 2009

SoulWow: Problematic or Genius?

So in my morning travels around the internet newspaper sights of Minnesota I happened upon an article which pointed me to the SoulWow. It appears that the Roman Catholic Church of Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island got creative and created a "spoof" commercial based on the "ShamWow" commercials of infamy.

Here it is in all its glory:

Now, I have to admit I am struggling with this one. Is it a genius communication move to encourage followers to practice the sacrament of Confession? Is it problematic because in essence it leads to the commodification of the sacrament?

On the one hand, I applaud these Roman Catholic Churches for coming together and trying to think of a creative way to reach out to people. However, I have to ask at what cost? I find it problematic that the sacrament is changed into a commodity to be consumed. The message is this: We have product A. Product A can do this for you. Come and get/do/receive product A. Maybe it is my ultra-sensitivity to language and communication, but for me to use this mode of communication is to take something that is sacred ,and something that points to another way of being, and change it into nothing more than a product that needs to be consumed (albeit at a cost of nothing). Shouldn't the focus of the sacrament be on something other than the "benefits" that come from the "product" and if this is granted, then to use this avenue of communication is highly problematic.

For those of us who are protestant and might not struggle as much with it because of our understanding of confession (and not viewing it as a sacrament), how would you feel if this commercial were about the Sacrament of Holy Communion (Eucharist)? To me if this commercial isn't problematic, then why aren't we communicating to the world the "benefits" of consuming the Eucharist? I mean if it gets more people participating in the life of the church then that is a good thing right? (Please note my sarcasm)

Perhaps I am just ultra-sensitive to marketing, etc. I would love to hear what other people think?

***NOTE: Please do not attack the Roman Catholic Church in your responses. This post is not meant to be an attack on a certain part of the Body of Christ, but rather a reflective piece on an issue. For anyone who may be quick to criticize this incident, I would encourage you to think about your own denomination/situation and ways that "commodification" of church/faith occurs. We, Methodist, struggle with the same issue in my opinion when we "market" ourselves....but that is another post for another day. (Due note their is a difference between marketing-appealing to a consumer based mentality- and invitation)


Jeff Ozanne said...

My quick reaction is that it is a well-done piece that helps bring peoples attention to their spiritual needs as well as their physical ones. It helps remind people the church can relate to them in ways that are meaningful to them. Does it run the risk of cheapening the sacraments and diminishing in the minds of some that which is holy, yes, but I think the underlying message and purpose is not to do that. I do not see the Catholic church suddenly having drive-by confessionals without any real follow-up, they are simply using the means/methods of the day to remind people of an age old practice. But I get why it makes you nervous.

Pastor Justin said...

I am definitely not saying that it isn't well done. I think as a communication tool it is funny and probably did what they wanted it to do.

My question is deeper in that I wonder if there isn't a cost when we do this? Is there a cost when turn things into commodities that appeal to a consuming audience?

If the "newly baptized feeling" is what we are offering (or insert whatever "thing" being offered) does it diminish what we are really supposed to be about as the church?

I have to admit I haven't fully worked this out in my mind yet, but I had to write to help that process.

Jeff said...

I tend agree with Jeff. Sadly, I don't think many people (Protestants in general) would even think twice about this even it were about the Eucharist.

Pastor Justin said...

Maybe I over-analyze things, but this just doesn't sit well with me.

If it isn't problematic shouldn't we then think about ways we can advertise the Eucharist and all of its benefits to draw people in?

If not, then why? These are the questions I am wrestling with and would love to see responses to.

Anonymous said...

Is there a cost? You bet! Your reaction is the cost. This will bring some folks in and turn some people away. This is true of any advertisement, and the creators of the advertising certainly should weigh the costs versus the benefits.

Ben said...


Interesting post. You are right in your suspicion that this type of presentation is problematic. Protestant churches have been doing this for years with a different product: Jesus. The result: a cheapening of the cost of discipleship.

"Needs-based" approaches to theology and ecclesiology ultimately are unwritten by narratives of consumption against assertions of being and identity. I found the SoulWow spot interesting, humorous, compelling, and entertaining. It may even spike interest and bring some back into the communion of the church. As for being true, I'm not quite so sure.

Pastor Justin said...


I am looking at a deeper cost not just the cost-benefit analysis of advertising/marketing.

Ultimately, I would think there is a greater cost in terms of identity/being.

I mean if we looked at it just as a cost/benefit analysis then wouldn't anything be good that brought more people in then turned people off? The Church (meaning the entire Body of Christ regardless of denomination) stands for something more something that points to something beyond itself (God) and I am wondering if this type of approach loses that telos and instead places it within a sacrament (or the church) as a commodity and end-in-itself.

Thank you to all who have commented. It is wonderful to have a conversation.

joe fischer said...

I wonder, in seriousness, how early Christians attempting to convert others to their religion viewed their preaching. Is it possible that the language they might have used in their mission work would equate to our language of "selling" Jesus, having a good "advertisement" for Christianity, telling people what Christianity "can do for you," etc.?

I'm certainly as skeptical of marketplace language defining everything, including religion, in our society. But there may be a sense in which preaching (and proselytizing) is "selling." Still, it is a serious question whether in a culture of consumption, consumerism, and commodification, Christianity should be offering something different in substance AND tone.

Pastor Justin said...


I think your insight is a good one. That is one of the reasons I am really internally debating this (although I didn't write about it). Early Christianity has many instances of using symbols, thoughts, etc. of the surrounding culture and using them within Christianity (essentially I would argue showing how Christ related, etc.).

However, where I run into an issue is what is the "meaning" of an advertisement like ShamWow being turned into SoulWow? At least in the early instances the symbols, etc. pointed to some type of reality. Now there is a use of a means that is just flipped to advertise a different product? The commercial itself in original form didn't point to a deeper meaning it pointed to a need. Is Christianity nothing more than something within the realm of "utility"?

Anonymous said...

as a born and raised catholic, i have for years been sensing a sort of desperation from the church to add/maintain members. I also saw this when i worked at a catholic school. This advertising seems to show some of that desperation. The main problem i have with it is that it does not really touch on the deeper meaning of the sacrament of confession. This is one of the most important parts of the catholic faiths, but they seem to cheapen it through advertising. I do agree that it may bring more people closer to faith. However, it seems more likely that it will be viewed as an easy way out for the non believers. Here is a no strings attached way to clean yourself of sins. Confession is supposed to be a cleansing for those who truly feel sorry for their sins, not a quick stop for those who want to simply feel better about themselves. This marketing strategy misses the true point of the sacrament and fails to teach the personal connection with God that is supposed to come with confession.

Casey Taylor said...

I love it. It's tongue in cheek. And it's great to see a lumbering beast like the RCC not take itself so seriously

Anonymous said...

This is great. This served as a reminder and reached to the people where they are... online.

This is not selling anything, but acting as a simple reminder, partake in the Holy Sacrament.

The Roman Catholic Church offers much, but depending on the weekly bulletin to get the word out is an old form of "advertising" so why not use a new form to remind the flock. Apparently that is all that it says and all that it took as those seeking confession were way, way up.

And maybe the word "advertising" is the wrong word as it is "communication" and it did its job to the point of reaching so far out of NYC.

I saw bravo and well done!