Why does ‘evangelical product’ sell so well?

megachurchThe Wall Street Journal‘s opinion section has a solid review of what appears to be a solid book on the growth of evangelical, seeker-friendly megachurches. The growth of megachurches, along with the decline of the traditional mainline churches, is one of the biggest stories in religion these days, and this reviews highlights some important aspects.

Naomi Schaefer Riley’s review of James B. Twitchell’s Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from In Your Heart to In Your Face looks at church attendance and participation from an economic perspective. Riley appropriately punts the question of whether religion should be different from any other capitalist brand war, because that answer is for another book. Here is the big question being asked in this story: Why do (not should) megachurches thrive in today’s America?:

But what is it about the evangelical “product” that makes it so desirable? Any number of scholars have noted that, in recent years, it has been the churches that demand the most of people — tithing, bowing to firm doctrines, observing strict rules of conduct — that have grown the fastest. There seems to be something in our nature that requires from religion not just feel-good spirituality but strong moral direction. We are willing to make sacrifices to live by the dictates of a religiously grounded truth.

Mr. Twitchell manages to reduce this profound idea to the dictates of basic consumer theory. Sacrifice, he says — not least, tithing — signifies value. The more you sacrifice, the more you visibly value the product for which you are giving something up, and the more you show other people that you value it, too. “Why do true believers sometimes puncture themselves, walk on their knees until they bleed, fast until they are skeletal or join a monastery and go mum?” Mr. Twitchell asks. “Brand allegiance.”

Oddly, this sacrificial principle doesn’t easily apply to megachurches. As Mr. Twitchell acknowledges, most don’t have “high barriers to entry” — that is, they don’t demand a lot of their congregants. They’re often referred to as “seeker” churches because they appeal to nonbelievers — and not always successfully. It’s easy to get in; but it’s also easy to get out.

So “pastorpreneurs,” as Mr. Twitchell calls them, face a challenge: How do you get more people to join than quit? One way is by having current members proselytize. The fastest-growing denominations, Mr. Twitchell says, are “selling, selling, selling.”

The theories in Shopping for God aren’t exactly new, but Riley approaches them from a new perspective. One major aspect that goes unaddressed, at least in the review, is the social battle that challenges individuals’ interest in attending or joining mainline congregations.

For reporters, there are theories worth pursuing out of this book. Do local megachurches (or just seeker-friendly churches) see themselves as marketing religion in a nonspiritual way? How do the leaders of these congregations feel and how does that compare with the average member or visitor? Why are people attending these seeker-friendly churches?

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  • Ivan Wolfe

    Where is that picture from?

    That doesn’t look like an “evangelical” picture. Instead, it looks like the Salt Lake City Conference Center run by the Mormon Church.

    If so, it doesn’t seem to fit very well, since it’s hardly a megachurch, unless you count the twice yearly “general conference.” If not, what is it?

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    You may be right Ivan. I’ve gone ahead and changed the image to one that I’m pretty sure is a megachurch.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    Yep, that definetely is a megachurch.

    As for the question in the post, Why are people attending these megachurches/seeker-friendly churches?

    I don’t really know. In my highly anecdotal experience, these churches have high turnover rates. I don’t know what the official stats say. My guess would be that they are looking for something – a sense of grandeur or a sense of belonging to something much bigger than themselves – that they can’t get in smaller congregations. Some people prefer small and intimate, others seem to like grand spectacles.

  • H. E. Baber

    (1) They allow customers to choose their level of participation: to participate anonymously and impersonally if they choose or to become more personally involved, join small groups, etc. if that’s what they want.

    (2) They put on a good, “escapist” show

    (3) They are seriously committed to growth and put their money where their mouth is.

    Liberal, mainline churches could do all these things if they wanted to but they don’t.

    (1)Committed to friendliness and “community-building,” many smaller churches make it difficult for “seekers” try out church anonymously or participate impersonally–without being noticed or making contact with others.

    (2)Many mainline churches are uncomfortable with the idea of religion as an escape from ordinary life and with grand spectacles.

    (3)Most mainline churches are not seriously committed to growth and don’t put their money and effort into advertising.

  • John M

    Do local megachurches (or just seeker-friendly churches) see themselves as marketing religion in a nonspiritual way?

    Probably not. But perhaps they are just kidding themselves. The use of the word ‘marketing’ is interesting. Eugene Peterson, in a frequently quoted passage in Working the Angles wrote “The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeepers’ concerns–how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.”

  • http://u2576270.wordpress.com Samuel Lim

    I know that many of you who read this blog are extremely disenchanted with the media’s treatment of religion generally. The misrepresentations and oversimplifications nauseate; the patronizing tone, employed when discussing the beliefs and activities of those poor misguided fools in dire need of enlightenment, grates. And yet we’re all just as susceptible to such tendencies ourselves when discussing the world views of others. I feel like I’m on the receiving end of a lot of misapprehension at the moment (no I don’t attend a mega church but being a member of the AOG, I’ve lots of interactions with mega churches both personally and corporately), but I know I’m just as able to dish out my fair share of self-righteous BS given the right topic thread.

    There is so much to object to that I’m not even sure where to start or if there is even much point in doing so. I guess the most important point to make is the fallacy in using ‘mega-ness’ as an overarching denominator for a whole other set of characteristics. It’s like saying that all churches under 400 members are (insert random generalization here). Granted that there might be some correlation but let’s not over or under state things if not the analysis will lose much its value.

    Being contemporary is not at all equivalent with pandering or marketing. Pandering is equivalent with pandering. Even without a drum kit and bass guitar, churches can ingratiate themselves with the sensitive seeker by compromising on strict beliefs. But notice that if a church chooses to relax its beliefs due to an actual change in the doctrinal views amongst the presiding clergy and the church consequently becomes more popular, the church hasn’t actually pandered.

    It’s a fine but important distinction to make.

    Similarly, there are indeed some mega churches that aggressively market themselves, that endeavor to be as contemporary, trendy and hip as possible because, hey, the truth of the Gospel by itself just ain’t enough for this latte sipping, i-pod carrying generation. If people are distracted long enough by the loud music, bright lights and smoke machine, they might actually die and get to heaven before they have a chance to read (and reject) the Bible.

    But not all churches (mega or just plain ol’ contemporary) actually give a rip whether the masses like our electric guitar rifts or fuchsia backdrops. I mean it’s nice if people appreciate them, but that’s really besides the point. Many of us believe (rightly or wrongly) that God isn’t so much interested in the form as He is in the substance of our worship. If banging away on a guitar allows me to best express my passion and devotion, I’ll give it all I got. As much I have a great respect for sacramental acts of worship, I’m not going to stop being a happy-clappy just to prove a point. Just like how I’m not going to give up kneeling down and raising my hands, and we all know how well that goes with the ladies.

    Some churches are mega today simply by starting out as small fellowships doing their thing. As a Christian, I actually believe that (horror of horrors) prayer and God’s favor has part a play in all this.

    But whatever the case may be, can I encourage all of us, myself especially, to be extremely careful of being presumptuous and overly reductionist. It might take a little longer to break things down and make qualifications, but it probably saves time in the long run if we take the effort to (more) accurately represent things right from the start.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Um, folks, I think that we’re supposed to focus on how the media reports on religion and not what we think of megachurches.

  • Gary

    The press has missed an important story. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek has hooked up with Brian McLaren of the emergent church movement. McLaren rejects Substitionary Atonement and Jesus’ Second Coming. So what does this mean for mega-churches?

  • Eric W

    The press has missed an important story. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek has hooked up with Brian McLaren of the emergent church movement. McLaren rejects Substitionary Atonement and Jesus’ Second Coming. So what does this mean for mega-churches?

    I suspect lots of Christians, newer and older, would be comfortable with a different take on Christ’s death than the Anselmian-derived penal substitution model, a model that apparently wasn’t the only or even the major one for the first millennium of the church, esp. if a Biblical and historical and theological case could be made for it. E.g., read ON THE INCARNATION by Athanasius. As for Jesus’s second coming, the Preterist viewpoint has begun to be preached and is being accepted – even Hank Hanagraaff of The Bible Answer Man radio show has come out as a Preterist (or partial-Preterist), which teaches that Christ did return in 70 A.D. when God judged the Jews/Jewish religious system. This doesn’t fully deny another coming, but it places the events of the Olivet Discourse and much of Revelation in the past, not in the future.

  • http://www.gotogeneration.com shawn beaty

    Gary said:

    Bill Hybels of Willow Creek has hooked up with Brian McLaren of the emergent church movement. McLaren rejects Substitionary Atonement and Jesus’ Second Coming. So what does this mean for mega-churches?

    Are you for real? With that logic I must conclude. I have friends that don’t believe in Jesus therefore I must not?

    Or Paul when he quotes non-Jewish non-Christian philosophers must have been a false teacher…. You might want to read a few books from Hybles and then McClaren and stop reading what other people think of them.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    In the end I think people are looking for a very serious Faith with genuine deep roots in the Truth.
    There are Catholic churches which are booming and are virtually mega-churches, but get no coverage. Our parish is a tiny urban parish, but this year, for some reason, we have had a lot of inquiries about joining the Catholic Church and will have our biggest convert class in decades. Yet our parish is in the archdiocese of Boston–the center of so many of the homosexual (not pedophile according to the John Jay school of justice who investigated) scandals in the priesthood.

  • Julia

    It seems that megachurch Willow Creek is having second thoughts about how it is selling itself after a big study on the effects of its programs. Christianity Today is on the story. Here’s some of their article. Go there for links to video on the subject.

    Not long ago Willow released its findings from a multiple year qualitative study of its ministry. Basically, they wanted to know what programs and activities of the church were actually helping people mature spiritually and which were not. The results were published in a book, Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek. Hybels called the findings “earth shaking,” “ground breaking,” and “mind blowing.”

    If you’d like to get a synopsis of the research you can watch a video with Greg Hawkins here. And Bill Hybels’ reactions, recorded at last summer’s Leadership Summit, can be seen here. Both videos are worth watching in their entirety, but below are few highlights.

    In the Hawkins’ video he says, “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.” This has been Willow’s philosophy of ministry in a nutshell. The church creates programs/activities. People participate in these activities. The outcome is spiritual maturity. In a moment of stinging honesty Hawkins says, “I know it might sound crazy but that’s how we do it in churches. We measure levels of participation.”

    Having put all of their eggs into the program-driven church basket you can understand their shock when the research revealed that “Increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more.”

    Source: http://blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur/archives/2007/10/willow_creek_re.html

  • Stephen A.

    It’s long overdue for religion reporters to do some thorough investigations into whether the “business model” of these mega-churches is creating spiritual mature Christians or simply “customers” who come for the atmosphere, the singing and the music, and perhaps the “emotional rush,” but nothing else.

    Julia’s Christianity Today posting above is a good start.

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  • William E. Jones

    The whole problem is that we are selling religion, without recognizing that selling is not value neutral. In selling you have to cater to the wants and desires of your audience as opposed to telling them what they need (but may not want to) hear.

    I wonder about the studies that tell us that Evangelicals live lives that are little different from those of their unsaved friends and neighbors. The better we are at selling the worse we are at living the Christian life.