Marketing to the faithful

Marketing to the faithful June 10, 2011

Last night I read to my son from an illustrated book called New Testament Stories. The book fell open to the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, and my impulse was to skip over it to avoid having to explain the image of Jesus using a whip. But my son wanted to hear the story, so I relented. I told him the basic outline of the story and conveyed the message that temples and the churches are houses of God, places where the Holy Ghost can be. That makes them special, and we don’t do everyday things in them like buy stuff. I hope it was a good enough explanation for a 4 year old.

However, I didn’t talk to him about another facet of the story, which is the morality of making money in the context of worshiping God. In the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, sellers were exploiting the fact that temple worshipers needed an animal to sacrifice, setting up shop right there in the temple and probably overcharging people the same way movie theaters and airports have rip-off concessions. Jesus called it a den of thieves.

We Mormons can be quick to condemn people who make a living working for a church. I’ve heard lots of Sunday School comments about how our model of lay ministry is superior to other churches whose priests and pastors are paid – the implication being that their pay cheapens their work (it’s not sacrificing, like ours is…), that they’re not all that principled about doctrines (it’s just a job for them), or that they have an easy life of free support (they preach on Sundays and get to just kick it the rest of the week). Anyone who’d make those assumptions has obviously never seen a priest or pastor on the job. It’s seriously hard work, and it’s not that well paid compared to other professions where you need a graduate degree. Imagine being the bishop, the Relief Society president, the Sunday School president, and everyone’s home teacher simultaneously and you kind of get the picture. No one could possibly do all that and maintain another job, which is why these people must be paid.

The same goes for church musicians. My husband is the music director at a non-denominational protestant church and when I tell some Mormons what he does I’m sometimes asked if he gets paid for his work. Um, yes. We are not in the financial position for him to spend his days doing volunteer work. The next question is whether it is a full time job, as many people seem unable to imagine how running a church’s music program could possibly consume 40 hours a week. Without going into details, I’ll just say it usually takes more than 40 hours a week.

So, given that half the bread in my home comes from a church, I have no problem with people making money in the context of worshiping God. Except that I do.

Let me give you an example. One of my husband’s colleagues recently gave him a CD with music by a Christian contemporary musician. I wasn’t impressed. All the songs sounded the same, her lyrics were unoriginal, the backup music was bland and repetitive, and her singing voice wasn’t very good. Then we learned what her fee is for doing one service at a church – almost a month’s worth of my husband’s salary – and I was disgusted. But this isn’t just a case of sour grapes. There are reasons why I’d judge her services not worth what she’s charging for them. For one, church music directors have to compile a new musical program every single week, gather and rehearse groups of volunteers, and learn new repertoire – not just play the same musical sets again and again. And they very often have graduate degrees in music and are quite skillful musicians. Compare this to a traveling “contemporary” artist doing several dozen gigs a year and playing the same set of (dare I say it) drivel every time, and you can see why their fees rankle me.

I also can’t stomach poorly written novels and banal visual art which are marketed to a religious audience and solid at a tidy profit because consumers apparently think that because of its “Christian” or “LDS” label this stuff must be worth their money. Honestly, I have a lot of suspicion and even some contempt for music, books, and art marketed as “Christian.” But contempt isn’t a Christian virtue, and I’m trying to analyze why I have it. What is it about this stuff that feels so wrong to me?

It’s not the fact that it’s spiritual or religious content presented in a genre typically reserved for the secular. Garth Brooks can sing “Unanswered Prayers” and Allison Krause can sing “In the Palm of Your Hand” and I love it. It’s not the fact that artists, authors, and musicians whose work is on religious themes are making money (even a lot of money) from their work. It’s using religion as a marketing device that I can’t stand. It’s OK with me if Six Pence None the Richer makes money on their album titled “The Dawn of Grace,” because they’re good musicians who’ve made their reputation by creating good music, not B, C, or D-grade musicians who create sub-par music and rely on a Christian label to make it sell.

With so much content out there, and much of it offensive, I can understand why people are looking for music, art, and literature that is in tune with their religious and moral sensibilities. And in the era of Google, I guess calling something “Christian” can help sort through the mounds and mounds of possibilities. But on the other hand, people’s religious and moral beliefs are not something to be exploited, and I truly hate to see low-quality work be given a boost because it appeals to those beliefs. But on the other-other hand, it’s a free market and no one is forcing anyone to buy D-grade Christian contemporary music. I guess some people actually like that stuff, and maybe I’m just a musical snob eating sour grapes.

What do you think? Is it OK to make money while worshiping? Is it OK to sell to the faithful at the highest price the market will bear?

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