The Risk of Using Shock to Spread a Message

I had recently given my life to ministry when my Dad and I were working together on a remodeling project not far from my home. The homeowner was a brave believer who shared the gospel with us and left us with an old-fashioned gospel tract. That was when my appetite for excellence in church communications really started.

The tract was poorly designed and even more poorly printed. What I’ll never forget was the cartoon-ish imagery of a man being flung into hell by one of God’s angels.

You’ve probably seen similar pieces distributed by your neighborhood church. It’s often called “using shock value” to get people’s attention . . . and it’s dangerous.

There are some drawbacks to using shock value.

We can alienate our intended audience as easily as we can attract them. We can lose the respect of needed friends and mentors. We can even misrepresent the core of our message without even realizing it. But the biggest danger in using shock to spread a message is that often, people don’t look past the object of their shock.

Rather than reading on to get the message of how to go to heaven, many people who received the tract I received, would get stuck on the brutal imagery. Their thinking would hang up on the secondary matter. So instead of communicating the core message, we’ve communicated the attention-grabbing hook instead. And usually, we’ll complain that people are missing the main point.

Using shock is trendy.

Pastors who use profanity, Bible studies involving beer drinking, and sermon series’ on sex that push the boundaries of appropriateness are all the rage. But as communicators, we have to be concerned about the long-term effects on our trust equity. If we condition our audience to be shocked by our approach, will they ever trust us enough to hear our message?

Please understand—I’m not discouraging you from using shock to spread your message. My main point is not to debate whether or not it is right or wrong, good or bad, effective or ineffective.

I’m merely throwing up a warning sign.

Before you launch a campaign that will evoke strong emotional reactions, determine if you’re actually getting attention for your message. It would be terrible, at the end of the day, for people to be talking only about our methodology and not our core message.

Sometimes the risk is worth it. We who specialize in “church communications” have the burden of making that call. And sometimes, the outcome even affects eternity.

So, let’s get it right.

You can check out Brandon Cox here.



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8 thoughts on “The Risk of Using Shock to Spread a Message

  1. I agree, let's get it right. Shock for the sake of shock is not helpful. What we need to do is attract attention to the message not attention to the method – and there is a fine line. The challenge is to be so creative (which doesn't necessarily mean shocking) that people take notice so they see the message – which hopefully in a church's case points them to Jesus.

    • David, I agree. Attract people to a method instead of Jesus and you'll have a hard time keeping their attention after culture shifts again. But Jesus? Never changes.

  2. I have seen those kinds of tracks and I find them a huge turn off. I wouldn't give them out just for that reason. Because I think people are more drawn to a God who is kind and loving than cruel and brutal. While hell is a reality, the bigger picture is heaven and love. That's what the core human being longs for and that is where we should focus our intent.

    • Interesting take. Jude said to reach some with compassion and others with fear. Heaven and hell are both essential to the message. Circus performers… not so much.

  3. Information is absorbed different ways by different people, so a message which resonates for one will be worthless to another. Accordingly, our methods should vary: one person needs to hear love, another logic, another brokenness, and one of the people needs to hear "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". It is not a failure to scare someone into heaven, but if that is all we try to do, we will have given up on those who won't receive such messages. Therefore, we should speak the truth, speak it with excellence, vary the method without changing the message, and know full well that the message will be rejected by some because of the method. What a payback, however, when someone actually hears.

  4. This is great. branding and marketing exists to build a relationship with the people that interact with it. You wouldn't go on a first date and lead with "if you don't marry me I'll kill you." So in the same way, it's totally ineffective to use marketing that says "Come to my church and get to know God or you're going to hell."

    However, many churches use the total opposite of the "scare" tactic—God loves you, know jesus know peace and so on. This can be just as ineffective. I usually explain to church leaders that we don't want to fight the battle using marketing, let's get them into the sanctuary to begin diving into the deeper message. Let's use marketing to build awareness and begin to build a relationship and over time build trust. And through this trust, guide them to Jesus.

    • Man, I cracked up at the "if you don't marry me I'll kill you" thing. I lost many potential wives saying just that!!… Anyway, I also love your follow-up, that the opposite extreme can be just as harmful. You might liken it to being clingy, needy, and overcompensating on that first date.

      Maybe being real is a good idea.