Engaging Culture

What Harold Camping Got Right

As I write this, it’s 5:30am, the morning of the apocalypse.  According to radio preacher Harold Camping, Jesus should be returning by 6pm California time, and the whole thing should start with a big earthquake (not entirely new to us LA people.)  All other mainstream, orthodox Christians disagree (including myself) with Mr. Camping’s prediction.  We believe that the Bible is right when it says that only the Father knows the day and time of His return.  By 6pm, we should all see that once again Harold Camping got it wrong.

But let me tell you what he got right:

Getting the message out there.

Over the last few months, a remarkably tiny group of people have done a brilliant job sharing their message with the world.  Inaccurate, wrong, or wacky – they have told their story far better than major Christian denominations, mega-churches, and supposed “media” ministries have done.  I travel more than most people, and I’ve seen their billboard campaign in cities like Los Angeles, the full page ads in major newspapers like USA Today, people handing out handbills outside subway stations in New York, mobile advertising, personal word of mouth, and more.  It may not be the most creative or brilliantly designed, but at least it’s unified and strategic.

All from a fringe radio preacher that 99% of Americans had never heard of six months ago.

In the meantime, what has the rest of the Christian world been doing to get their THEIR message out?

The Methodist’s seem to be trying to redefine church itself.  Their advertising campaign “Re-Think Church” (can’t remember that one, huh?) was more interested in social justice, in a vain attempt to appear relevant.

It’s tough to find anything from the Episcopal Church, even though they’ve had a denomination-wide ad project since 1979 that seems to have resulted in an “advertising collaborative.”  They did try their warm and fuzzy “I am Episcopalian” series, but you don’t remember that one either, right?  At least on YouTube you can find a video of an Episcopal Bishop talking about “honoring your spiritual journey” – whatever that means.

The Presbyterians haven’t been sharing their message much lately, because they seem to be far more interested in making sure we all know that they’re ordaining a handful of gay, lesbian, and transgender pastors.  Apparently, appearing inclusive is more important than actually sharing a message of salvation.

Catholics seem to be more intent on just bringing back their lapsed members with their “Catholics Come Home” campaign.

The Baptists? Forget it.  They can’t even decide on a logo.  After all, how are you going to agree on a common message nationally, when you can’t get two Baptist churches in the same town to agree on what it should be?

The bottom line is that most of these anemic efforts are so focused on trying to convince us that Christians are “just like you” that they’ve completely lost any unique, compelling, or provocative message about the life-changing experience of following Jesus Christ.

So when it comes to telling his story and getting that story heard, fringe radio preacher Harold Camping and his small band of followers have embarrassed the largest denominations, churches, and Christian ministries in America.

This morning, his story was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times – and most likely every other major paper in America.  His story leads CNN and other news networks today.  His story is being talked about on Twitter hashtags, blogs, social media sites, and on the street.

Why?  Because Harold Camping and his followers really believe their message. When that happens, you’re not afraid to spend money, creativity, passion, and energy to make sure your story impacts people’s lives.

It’s just a shame that it’s the wrong message.

And even more of a shame the rest of us have done such a poor job of getting the right one out.

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61 Comments

  1. Posted on FB. Great twist on this story and sad pointed observations about the church Phil. Your article turns this subject back to the church and asks a relevant question here about getting a unified message out. However, there’s difference between the religious and the follower’s of Christ. Without the Spirit of God, religion will always have its own agendas that don’t include Christ being the center of their message. 
    Regarding the Christian media, if we could just stop promoting the weirdness, the gimmicks, the manipulations, the time warp mentality of how things used to be done, we could get tell THE story more effectively….. creating more impact and influence resulting in change. Changed thinking has to come first before you can see change in the culture. What the heck are we communicating to the world through Christian media?!  I’m frustrated every day working in Christian media… the potential is so great and potential is being wasted, overlooked and misguided backwards and into small corners…. I have little influence; corporate and mgmt actually work against me whether   I’m compliant in their old ways or introducing something new. Harold Camping’s message is so outrageous to Christians because we know the truth. It’s a provoking message to non-believers because they don’t know what the truth is. Now, how can we do better to get the message out more effectively? Unite, change, learn from mistakes, pay attention to where things are going and stop thinking so small….. easier said than done for some. 

  2. Well actually the prediction for 6pm was for the earliest time zone in
    the world which roughly is New Zealand.  That being said American’s
    should of seen the end of the world starting at 3am eastern standard
    time early Saturday morning.   Lord help us. 

  3. Hard to disagree they got the word out. However the media, who loves anything that is labeled Christian and is clearly crazy, has helped.

    But to your point, the Church does a terrible job in marketing the Message. We preach to the choir because the choir pays the bills.

    Meanwhile the culture keeps sliding further and further away from principles this nation was founded upon.

    One day we will be held accountable as the generation of the Church who had it all and did so little.

  4.  Phil, great post.  I couldn’t agree more that their focused, intentionality got the word of their heresy out there, but could it also be that the “kook-factor” helped propagate their message in the main stream?

    1. There’s no question that the wacky factor played a part.  But that would have never generated the huge coverage without it being very strategic, unified, and multi-platform.

  5.  Well put Phil!  He (Jesus) might come tonight, or tomorrow, or next week.  I pray that my heart is ready whenever He comes.  And as a Christian, I pray that this world is ready.  I/we (all Christians) need to as soon as possible, as simply as possible, and as much as we can get this message of eternal salvation to all creation.  Praise God for that opportunity!   Gotta go- I’ve got a lot of work to do!!!

  6. Phil, can’t disagree more.  This guy is a one-off.  This is his 15 minutes.  He is getting out a one-time message.   i guarantee that if you ran around buck naked in Times Square, spending much less that Harold Camping, you could get the same one-time attention.  although the LA Times might not publish your photo.

    what the Church and Christians have been doing quietly for centuries, and what Jesus taught, is a longer term message. “They will know us by our love”.  the transformative love of Christ is not merely a one time event, but a journey.  Even Jesus refused to boil the Good News down to a sound bite.  The institutional church will never get this right.  and i recognize and understand this post is talking about branding and messages to the public.

    and what message did Camping get out there?  i heard about the 21sters from folks on the studio lot.  the message they heard beyond the wackiness?  that if you say the right words in the right order, in the presence of other christians, you are saved.  what sense does that make to a non-follower? does the meaning of life and eternity boil down to that?

    Jesus promoted a guerilla movement, loving and giving himself away, changing people from the inside, one by one.  that “campaign” began with 12, and has lasted two thousand years.

    if you want to applaud how devoted people get their message out, there are unfortunately many other radical groups around the world who develop passionate followers, who give all their resources.  You would have to widen your list.  Look how little OBL spent on his wackiness, and he became the most wanted person in the world.

    i refuse to applaud Camping for getting his message out.  Applauding the fringe who out maneuver the 99%, but with what result?  Wrong message.  Wrong tactic.  Wrong result long term.  he will now be a footnote and joke fodder for the late night shows.  And Christians will spend more effort explaining how we are different.  We should spend our time loving and giving ourselves away.

    With great respect my friend,

      1. so i read this am that Camping spent some $100MM on this ad campaign.  seems to fit the “one-off event” thinking of this guy.  it also makes an unfair comparison of your article with other churches who have spent no where near that amount…not sure it is about their passion or commitment – it is about their resources….

        1. it would just be driven by the resources ONLY if these people were PAID to be the “hands and feet” on the street.  but they were volunteers spreading a unified message.

          for too long the church has been known for what its against (signs of hate at parades, porn conventions, concerts, etc.).  Like Camping, we need to start being know for what we DO believe in … in unified and bold ways!  In our case, though, get the correct message across.

  7. Why are the false teachers always better marketers?  Check out how the Mormons are using YouTube testimonies and ad buys there to get their message out

  8. The greatest irony would be if Jesus DID return at 6pm, but just by coincidence. What I find most disturbing about this, and so many other modern Christian idiocies is that so many people are so easily lead into believing that there is some kind of hidden message in the Bible that will only be revealed to a select few. (The Mormons have done pretty well with this. The Jehovah’s Witnesses got a head start, but weren’t as good with fundraising, or architecture.) 

    I find the whole idea that we have to somehow “rediscover” God’s message a little suspect, and that He made His message obscure and confusing, an interesting modern psychology. Christ’s teachings are remarkably simple and concise: truly living them is nearly impossible, and usually quite uncomfortable. We know what God said, and we still can’t get it right, and so, we desperately look for some heretofore unknown or unknowable obstacle to serve as our excuse. 

    Belief in “Rapture” is the ultimate escape from the hard work of living a Christlike life in a hostile world. People are getting impatient, and these poor souls, deluded by Camping, and others, have now lost everything: their faith, their hope, and too many, their homes and savings; they will be devastated. And who will make them whole?

    Your perspective that he was an effective communicator is an interesting one, and certainly relevant to your focus, and really quite acute. However, it under-appreciates how evil, hurtful and un-Christian his message and “ministry” have been.

    I saw a bumper sticker which read: “In case of Rapture, can I have your car?” That about sums it up for me. I’m going to be here either way.

    You are never dull, my friend. Thanks.

    1. the “evil and hurtful” aspects were not the focus of the piece … unified communication was.  if you wanted to fully pick this article apart you should have also stated that Phil didn’t mention, in detail, the horrible job Camping did at interpreting Scripture.

  9. That they were able to mobilize so many people also shows that people CARE. They are concerned about whether they live right. Even if most of the comments were in joke, people have BEEN preoccupied with this for a while now.

  10. The “Church” has lost its sense of urgency. Camping and his crew got it back when they placed an end date on the world. They suddenly realized they needed to get going.

    What’s sad is that Jesus could come back at any time. It could be tonight at 6PM PST. Or 5PM or next year, or 20 years from now. The reality is that people die every day without being reconciled to God through Jesus. 

    And my faith isn’t just about what happens at the end, but about how I live each day.

    We need to find our urgency again.

  11. I think their add campaign was very weak. Maybe it was strong in LA, but it was non existent in the Midwest (certainly here in the Chicago area). It appears to me that the reason it’s getting coverage is because it strikes closer to what the modern 24/7 “news” coverage enjoys – the bizarre. That’s the reason people know about it, and so much other worthless oddities peddled as “news.”
    I also have to ask if we SHOULD be selling the message of Christ like a new model of automobile. I think not.

  12.  From CNN to CMS to RE:creative we’ve all been noticing the same thing. Marketing was key to this rapture’s “success.” Social media steroids made this thing blow up in a big way! Thanks for your post on the marketing of the mayhem, I invite y’all to read more on the sometimes uncomfortable relationship between religion and marketing media – http://ubuntuspirit.wordpress.com  

  13. I had already thought of this prior to reading this story but I do have to ask, is Camping going to man up, apologize to his followers that he was wrong, and pay them back all their life savings that they spent on his false cause?  Yes, they may have been weak and followed him a little to earnestly but it also showed their deep need to believe this.  In some instances it may have saved the lives of a few, but the overall picture is that he harmed more people than he did good in my opinion.

    1. As president of a network of stations, he certainly has the financial influence to pay them back. The real question is does he have the integrity to do so. Unfortunately, the answer is already known: NO. If he did, he would have dissuaded his followers from doing it in the first place, and instead, encouraged them to spread the real gospel. 🙁

      Of course, media salesmen probably wouldn’t have sold the space for a message of God’s love and forgiveness.

  14. I think he got attention because everybody likes to sit and watch a train wreak.  i.e. all reality TV.   He also has anesthetized many to take seriously the reality that, in fact, one day Christ will return (while we don’t know the day), it is a reality to come.  Preaching that message will be harder because of the extremes of Camping.  But, you are right … it is possible to create a marketing campaign that can be focused and effective.

  15.  Unfortunately Phil, religion in general and Christianity in particular is no more true than Harold Camping’s hallucinations.  Analyze them side by side – both are preposterous claims with neither evidence nor reason to support them.  Useful and enriching tools of the priests and the powerful, nothing else.

  16. I think that if I worked for Pepsi or Sony, I’d look at this guy with admiration for getting his word out but from a Christian perspective, it is very sad. Such a stupid, bone-headed interpretation of Scripture when we all know that Christ told us NOT to be concerned about stuff like this.
    In my area of the country, the growth churches are the ones who have responded to the needs of people with love. No condemnation, no fire and damnation – LOVE. People who were helped through storms and other disasters by churches were so blown away by the love and committment of the people that they joined the church. You are not going to convince an agnostic that religion is relavent by preaching to him or handing out booklets or running ads on the side of a bus. God so loved the world that He gave His own Son to die for my sin (and your sin). We can never repay Him but we should be making big efforts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked as well as visit and love those in prison. As a matter of fact, the only thing that Jesus condems us for is failing to do these tasks.  Anyhting else is only fluff and if that is what you are really concerned with, you might as well quit the church andf work for Pepsi. The error of the Fundamentalist is that he thinks this fluff is important and forgets about love.
    There will be no Fundamentalists in Heaven because they do not love, whether they are Muslim, Jewish, Christian or whatever.

  17.  It is easy to fund a multi-million dollar ad campaign on the backs of the poor souls that he suckered into selling their homes and donating all their money to him. To stand here and applaud his admittedly misguided efforts is disgusting.  

    1. Actually CBS reports that his radio network is worth $117 million and that was most of his funding for the campaign.  Yes – anyone who sold everything for the cause was misguided – and I would think stupid – but the truth is, no one held a gun to their head.

      1. So out of one side of his mouth, he claims to be a business, but the other, he claims to be a ministry and takes donations. He not only sells advertising on a media outlet with which he used to deceive believers, but also accepted donations from them when according to you, he didnt need them. So now the church is to not only look up to what he accomplished, but the way he used people to add to his already hefty bank account while running commerce in the name of Christ while doing so with highly flawed doctrine. Problem #1 with the church- greed 
        Problem #2-people who dont think about what they are saying when they say it. Please be mindful of the ramifications of what you say when you say it. This man drove more people away from the church and Christ(believers and non believers) than we can imagine. And it goes deeper than what he said, it’s how he said it, and how he came by the means to say it. 

  18. Are you serious?  I keep thinking about all the people who might have been interested in Christianity who are walking away right now because they think it’s all about people like Camping. I think his ridiculous campaign has done immeasurable damage, both to the Christian church and to families and friendships (see this article from the New York Times: http://nyti.ms/iXb1oL).  By the way, I’m a Buddhist with a lot of Christian friends and family members.  This whole affair has made me very sad. 

  19. Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Son of the living God, the rock of ages, Lilly of the valley, my Lord, my Savior, and my friend meets with me daily and He will RETURN as He departed until then we will keep in communication – If He should tarry to long then I’ll go meet Him rather than He coming to get me.

  20.  He said it would start at 6pm in NZ then follow the time zones around the world so at 6pm in each time zone the earthquake and rapture would happen.  Not all at the same time

  21. Bravo. Well expressed. (This week even the newspapers and nightly news in secularized Vienna, Austria had picked up Camping´s statements.) – Joe

  22. Christ followers (myself included) tended to just poke fun at this whole thing because it was so wrong.   Unbelievers have had a field day with it too and it has confirmed their skewed ideas about “Christians”.  But your take on it is the needed kick in the pants for believers like me, Phil.  thanks.

  23. Marketing? Here is a question to all individual Christians; Have you told anyone the Gospel in the past week by the way you conduct yourself or by word? 

    Too many times have I read the comments of Christians MOCKING these folks for following some dude’s misinterpretation. Where is the compassion?

    Much of that money was raised by these folks selling all they had and now I hear some are homeless! Are any of us going to them to minister truth and pick them up out of the mire of their shame?

    Following Christ Jesus is not about money or marketing, we are NOT salesmen, we are servants, of whom I am the least. Where you are there are people decieved all around you what are you showing them by your choices and attitudes? Do we look any different from the world? Saddly the answer is no.

    I have read many article about the problems yet none of them give solutions, well here is the solution: “LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.” That is the command that we are supposed to obey. Where is the compassion for these folks?

  24. If you were afraid yesterday, your life needs change. If you were disappointed yesterday because now you still have a credit card that needs payed, your life needs change. The whole world doesn’t have to change for YOUR world to have change. Whoever you are, Jesus knows you! So try something new, get to getting to know who Jesus is!

  25. Phil… Great observation and you are correct about the state of the church.  It is sad that the different denominations are more interested in gaining members, being politically correct, watering down God’s word that reaching the lost and lonely.  One thing the Camping movement did was make me more determined to spread the message of salvation and to work harder to be a shining example of my Messiah to those who need to hear the Good News. 

  26. I think the only solid way to evaluate a marketing campaign is to ask yourself, would I buy something from this person? Has their marketing campaign made me think about something in a new way? Am I now inclined to join their cause? Donate money? No, no, no, no. Like the Charlie Sheen situation, the word about May 21 spread because of the freak factor. People wanted to see the train wreck, not hop on board. (Not to mention, the campaign destroyed his own brand and damaged the “industry.”)

  27. The media will always play to the “wacky” side of the story whenever “Christians” are involved…would this story have gotten the same play if it was another religion? I don’t think so.

    Yet…God can still get the glory out of any situation, even a freak show…I’m just glad no followers were taken down a dark road of destruction drinking kool-aid or injesting some drug. 

    One-time-only media events no matter what their size have significant costs and do come and go…but what is the ROI? They can be efffective (especially for evangelism) but this will likely all be a vauge memory a year from now. 15 mins of fame won’t sustain us over the next 20-30 years.

    So that leaves you and me, doesn’t it… to keep the fires burning day to day with a Message of hope and a real future to come…..onward.     

  28. One factor not mentioned is the media’s readiness to make religious folk look like lunatics.  The subliminal message, quite often, is that others may not always be THIS crazy, but if you subscribe to anything like this you must be approached with caution and disbelief.    

  29. I am coming here based on an acquaintance having posted this article on Facebook. I will simply repeat most of what I said there…

    I personally think that many things in this article are terrible. I’m referring mainly to the article stereotyping each denomination into its worst parts. (e.g., Presbyterians hiring gay pastors, Methodists trying to re-define church, etc.) Those are some pretty sweeping, unjust statements to make, and the middle of this article just seems like it’s an opportunity to make stabs at denominations. I personally go to a Presbyterian church, and they do not condone homosexuality, nor any gay pastors. Saying “the Presbyterians” is completely uncalled for, as well as every other denomination listed here.

    It’s also ironic that you doesn’t get “the message” out in the very article you wrote. I really don’t understand what point you’re making other than that Harold Camping was able to get a message out. I could say the same thing about Apple promoting the next iPhone model. Yes, HC is good at getting messages out. So are other people. Many other GOOD messages are spread much more than Harold Camping. We don’t hear about them because the vast majority of humanity finds the Gospel uninteresting and boring.

    The bottom line is this: Using the sinful world’s response as a kind of gauge to see whether or not a message is getting out there is a completely WRONG thing to do. If it we measured that way, then we should say that Elijah was wrong in his preaching, because no one was heeding it.

  30. the media coverage has nothing to do with being impressed by people of faith — it’s just a good laugh. any idiot can make Jesus into a laughing-stock

  31. I am impressed by this article- and also by the comments posted here as well. It is refreshing to read opinions which are thoughtful and respectful- from believers and non-believers alike. This proves that it is possible to disagree with an article or its associated comments without resorting to mud-slinging and insults. That happens so often when people write about religion.

    Who knows….maybe Jesus did come back to earth on the 21st; He was just quiet about it!

  32. Here’s a question: would Camping have generated such publicity pre-Internet? I’m thinking those billboards helped generate internet traffic. It would be interesting to study the media impact of his previous failed predictions with this one. How many outlets covered the first failed predictions, let alone knew about them? My gut tells me that not only did the internet play a role in Camping becoming a household topic of discussion this time around, but the internet is also playing a role in the still-developing backlash.

    Not only is the internet a factor this time around… what about our society morphing into more of an infotainment culture? Post-O.J. trial, Camping’s money and message fit the profile for what attracts the colony of satellite trucks traversing the country.

    So… can any of us remember what we were doing on the previous dates?  And to Phil’s point… how’s the church doing in mastering social media as a tool for the gospel message?

  33.  Jesus said if they were not against you, they were for you., He did not allow them to silence people. Much of what you say is probably true; it is very easy to go group by group and criticize us all. But your almost total disapproval is mean-spirited. We stumble, but brother, we do not fall. I know church groups you disparaged as strong witnessing believers. But then, you are attacking organizations, I hope and not the body of Christ. That body is hard at work trying to be faithful servants, making disciples and teaching all that Christ commanded .

  34. Amen. It’s unfortunate that we, as Christ Followers, have to take ques on how to carry out The Great Commission from some one who is
    missinformed, missguided, & ascriptural, however well intentioned they may be. Satan must use his own counterfits to oppose the Plan of Salvation. Even in our information age speaking through false prophecy is still one of his favorite srategies.

  35. I have been reflecting a lot on how just one seemingly simple Scripture (in this case Matt. 24:36) carries such weight for good or chaos if it is misapplied. All this has made Holy Writ more weighty to me. I’m grieving the places I have misapplied Truth. 

    I have been strengthened at this time by this quote from Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter: ” We should live our lives as though Christ was coming this afternoon.”  I believe this is true. 

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