Modern day Christians consume religion—that is, they buy and sell the religious experience. And modern day church leaders, noting this tendency among Christian consumers, have mastered the art of selling religion.
In Shopping for God, James B. Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, examines the effect of the free market on religious beliefs. Perhaps no other aspect of American culture has had a more profound impact on the American religious experience than the free market economy.
The history of Christianity since the Protestant Reformation is, in a sense, the history of marketing itself, the development of self-conscious branding as a competitive device in an oversupplied market. In fact, selling God, the activity known as proselytizing, is a uniquely Christian/capitalist concept. And it depends on competitive suppliers. Religions exchange sensations for some investment by the believer. That’s the brand promise. A story told, a feeling felt, and for this sensation the believer sacrifices something. That’s the quid pro quo without which no religion can get up and going. (100)
Twitchell argues that the reason religion is doing so well in the United States (in contrast to Europe) is because Americans do a better job of selling religion: “The free market in religious choice has increased the levels of religiosity. That’s because in highly competitive markets suppliers have to stay on their toes, be innovative, be resilient, and always be selling” (29).
It is the combination of the flexibility of new or young churches, the entrepreneurship of creative leaders, and the attraction of novelty that creates the perfect environment for marketing religion.
The truth that few are willing to admit is that it is not necessarily a rise in spiritual reflection or religious commitment that is at the heart of many successful new churches (although, of course, these qualities are surely not completely absent). Instead, it is clear that new innovations create renewed interest in religion.
Something happens—a camp meeting, a new venue, competitive prayer, a new musical instrument (organ first, now synthesizer), a new minister who does something different like going outside or holding a praise and worship dance, Pentecostal permission. Whatever it is, a new way of “doing religion” happens. Church becomes fun. Yes, fun. Attendance surges. And an increase in religiosity follows. (45-46)
Because of the power of innovation, Twitchell argues that the current level of interest in religion in America is not primarily the result of a “spiritual awakening,” but is instead, the consequence of living in a time that offers so many new innovations to worship.
In many ways, the past few years have been a perfect storm of supply. Winds of new media, low pressure systems of new client-centered psychology, bursts of new technology like the internet, and especially the adaptation of entertainment devices like huge projection screens and amplified music inside church have made going to church something that it has not been for a while.
In fact, a case could be made that the most important influence on modern megachurch delivery is the rock concert. Successful churches have one thing in common: They are entertaining. Fun! And in an entertainment economy, the most successful product is the one with predictable sensation delivery. Religion has become, since the dour 1966 Time magazine cover asked, “Is God Dead?” nothing if not entertaining. Not only is God alive, He rocks. (46)
Just ask yourself: Are successful American churches really more devout than their competition, or do they simply market the religious experience better?
In a crowded market that consists of many similar items, it is necessary to create “brand loyalty” in order to gain the largest market share. Twitchell illustrates the importance of branding:
My favorite explanation of what happens to valuing choice in a world of plenitude is this conversation from the BBC sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Edwina receives a gift of earrings from her daughter. “Are they Lacroix?” Edwina asks eagerly. “Do you like them?” asks her daughter. “I do if they’re Lacroix,” replies Edwina. (73)
All marketers know that the similarity of products calls for creating difference through the use of story. Twitchel explains that “the only way to distinguish an interchangeable product is to tell a story about it, and the stories themselves become the repositories of value. But why are stories so important? For a very simple reason: as opposed to most fungible objects, humans respond emotionally to stories” (73). Creating value-stories is at the heart of the strategy of top advertisers: “Coke, Nokia, Duracell, Nike, FedEx, Intel, and McDonald’s separate themselves from the almost perfect substitutes by fostering the story, the brand, because brand-meisters know that you can ‘own’ specific feelings, whereas you can’t own unique ingredients” (74).
By creating an emotional response to a story, a product is perceived as more valuable than its competition. Sometimes this story is created by focusing on the success or happiness of consumers. Sometimes it is created by focusing on who’s buying the product. Crowds tend to follow spokespeople they consider important or informed – whether family, friends, or celebrities. When consumption reaches critical mass, a consumer fad is created and “brand loyalty” is achieved. And, as all advertisers know, “[b]rand loyalty is really adspeak for story effect” (74).
Like most products, the difference between one church and another is relatively small. Using marketing principles, churches “brand” themselves in order to create “brand loyalty” and gain greater market share.
Consumers: All Rights and No Responsibilities
The danger of creating religious consumers lies not only in the cheapening of holy things, but in the diminishment of long-term commitment.
Citizens have rights and responsibilities, but consumers have only rights, with virtually no responsibilities. Gimme. Feed me. Save me. To be a shopper/seeker is to be privileged, exempt from duties. After all, the shopper/seeker has a mission. Nowhere is this clearer than in the rise of a new kind of church that ministers not only to spiritual issues but to the feel-good entitlement of brand-shifting shoppers. It’s a ministry of what are called “felt needs.” It’s a ministry of experiences, and a direct function of supply surplus. (90-91)
Twitchell notes that the current craze for “spirituality” may be nothing more than the relinquishment of any corporate responsibility: “The mantra ‘I’m into spirituality, not religion’ often means, I want the feelings without the overhead. … It’s about feeling good, not necessarily about being good” (139).
Placing too great a weight on marketing religion may backfire when something new or more exciting comes along. In a consumer society, people find “brands,” “franchises,” or “generic” experiences that they become loyal to – at least until the next big thing comes around. Ultimate loyalty usually lies not with the “brand” (brands can always be changed), but with how the product benefits the consumer. The fact that “consumers” move from one “brand” to another with ease is evidence that consumption rather than commitment drives many religious people.
Twitchell is not completely against the advertising and marketing of religion. He argues that “it’s time to admit that materialism and spiritualism—consumerism and religion—are not in opposition but simply part of the complex meaning-making equipment of being human” (94). He notes that “many wits have observed that religion and advertising have a commonality—namely, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” (142).
Twitchell suggests that our problem is not that we are materialistic, but not materialistic enough: “Americans are criticized for being too materialistic. Often this criticism comes from the pulpit. Yet, ironically, we are not materialistic enough. If we knew how to value the world of stuff, we would not need stories to serve as the markers of value. Things would just mean. Instead we have to install meaning, tell a story” (73). If we could learn to separate the story from the product – the “sell-job” from reality – we would become more sophisticated consumers. We would not be at the mercy of materialism and marketing, but would learn to put things (and nothing more than things) in their proper place.
Learning from the Market
It is in vogue to condemn capitalism. It is also in vogue to condemn churches that incorporate marketing principles in order to grow. Both conventional responses are, in my opinion, simplistic and naïve.
Though laissez-faire capitalism can be destructive and dehumanizing and selling church solely as a religious product can distort the message of the gospel, there are positive principles we can learn from the marketing of religion.
At the end of the day, everyone is trying to sell something. Every person with a product or message hopes to communicate in a way that is compelling, persuasive, and convincing. In other words, they hope to influence another person. They package their message or product in such a way that it is most effective. Though we do not have to sell our souls to the gods of advertising in order to grow a church, we should certainly not shy away from the attempt to “get our message out.”
We can learn from growing churches: “Certain churches get to be megas because they know how to sell what people want to buy” (283). Obviously, at times, what people want is not what they need. Obviously, not all who are “seeking” are truly seeking the Christ who calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. But, in some way, megachurches are able to tap into aspects of religion that may be obstacles to hearing and responding to the message of Christ.
Perhaps the most important point that Twitchell makes about growing, innovative churches is that they make sure to market to males. For many men, religion seems like an activity primarily for ladies and children (and the numbers bear out that many more women than men participate regularly in church worship). Most men do not like to sing, read or study books, participate in group discussions, or be told what to do. Additionally, Jesus can be presented in a wimpy effeminate way that simply does not connect to the daily grind of men’s lives. Twitchell notes that in every growing church he observed, men are intentionally included.
Brand Names vs. Generics
There is no doubt that the older Mainline denominations are in decline while the growing churches are primarily Independent and Evangelical churches. Twitchell uses this fact to support his thesis, namely, that the growth in religiosity has more to do with marketing new, creative, and fresh experiences than any other factor.
He likens denominations to franchises. Each is a delivery system of the gospel with a slightly different narrative. Applying this metaphor, the Mainline denominations are the “big name brands” or religion. Like Sears and J.C. Penney they have a long history. Independent Evangelical churches are “mom and pop shops” or “generic” stores. Some may even have “big stores” but they do not have the history (and baggage) of the “big name brands.”
Like their business counterparts, Mainline denominations are less likely to make big changes in their style or story. This lack of flexibility has resulted in the decline of every major Mainline denomination. Conversely, Independent Evangelicals are free to innovate, restructure, redesign. For this reason, these churches continue to gain the larger market of religious consumers.
Twitchell has nothing but bad news for churches attempting to grow through ecumenical unification (and in this regard, he is speaking primarily to the Mainline churches). Every group that has done this quickly declines in numbers. The reason, according to Twitchell, lies in the principles of the marketplace: “As we’ve already discovered, an open marketplace results in division, not unification. Although there is always much talk of ecumenicalism, the natural process is division. As a general rule. Protestant churches split by nature and unify in desperation. When a church joins another, or when a denomination links up with another, weakness—not strength—is usually the reason” (98). (Obviously, this is not to suggest that ecumenism is theologically wrong, but it does clearly evidence that ecumenical unification is usually the last gasp of a dying “brand.”)
Twitchell’s big idea is simply this: Growth may have little to do with the respective piety of a church, but more to do with the excitement that arises from novel, fresh ways of doing church. This excitement results in greater interest in one’s religious movement.
The problem of course is simple: Novelty eventually wears off. Endless innovation is wearying. Continually reinventing a church’s message may work for awhile, but if this is all a church has going for itself, it is assured that some other church will eventually do it better, faster, fresher. There is always – and I mean always – some pastor, worship team, or church that can do it better!
For this reason, marketing must be put in its place. Innovation must be done with care and consideration for the past. There is a reason that almost all innovative churches are either new church plants or relatively new churches. It is easy to go “outside the box” when one does not have a box to begin with. It is much more difficult to go “outside the box” while also respecting the box, and seeking to preserve and maintain its best features.
Church growth is important. Learning from those who market religion may give fresh insights. But we must not completely sell our souls to “church growth” as understood solely in a numerical sense. Sure, healthy congregations will most likely grow numerically, but numerical growth can never be the ultimate prize. It is the spiritual growth and maturity of parishioners that is most important. Along with this growth comes a commitment to one’s community through thick and thin in both good and bad times. As Twitchell notes: “In old-time denominations, growth was not proof of value; stability was. Hence they could ride out the ups and downs of membership” (282).
Endless innovation and reinvention may be exciting, but never lasting. One cannot rest in novelty. It may be, in the end, after all the buzz has died down and all the smoke clears, that churches that have kept one foot in the past and the other in the future, may best experience the full fruit of lasting spiritual growth, which includes not only new expressions, but new expressions grounded in the ancient faith once for all delivered to the saints.
Quotes excerpted from Shopping for God: How Christianity When From In Your Heart To In Your Face by James B. Twitchell
© Richard J. Vincent, 2007