Editor’s Note: Here’s a fascinating look at church marketing from the inside – as told by a seminary-trained former church musician. He eventually caught on to the scam, left and joined The Clergy Project. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Paul Adams
It will not surprise anyone paying the least bit of attention that churches in the United States have been experiencing a catastrophic slow-motion collapse in their funding since the 1960s. The only significant exception to this trend occurred in the late 1980s through the late 1990s, with “corporate church” models temporarily concentrating wealth in the hands of a few megachurches at the expense of the smallest and weakest congregations.
Although at the time megachurch leaders thought their success was the result of new converts to Christianity, subsequent research revealed that the overwhelming majority of their new funding and membership actually came from (temporary) transfers from other churches.
In my opinion, this context is the dominant narrative through which to understand the accelerating movement of Christians between churches during that decade, and the legacy of that impact ever since.
What this period taught American Christians was that their religious beliefs were a commodity – a product that could be bought and sold on the open market at will without regard to any factors other than their trade value at any given moment. Corporate church models, largely (but not exclusively) evangelical and conservative in their outlook, encouraged this attitude. They actively tried to get “traditional” Christians, who were primarily, but not exclusively, denominational and liberal, to leave those congregations and bring their money to the megachurches. The megachurches, in exchange, became providers of high-end services, e.g., worship-as-theater, rock concerts, comprehensive childcare, community groups of every kind, gym memberships, mission trips doubling as world travel adventures, etc.
Denominational churches desperately tried to embrace the same techniques, or to resist them with everything they had, depending on the particular attitudes present in each congregation. These varying responses led to massive internal fights in denominational churches. They had to choose between trying to compete with the megachurches (which seriously damaged most denominational congregations that tried, though a few did have great success), or fighting the change wholesale, which almost always led to the loss of some key young families. Still, it provided some semblance of stability in the short to medium term. In the long term, as current data now show, most of these congregations have been collapsing regardless of the strategy they chose. What seemed to be a life-or-death decision at the time has been shown to be a largely irrelevant fight, which has been rendered utterly pointless in the face of bigger changes in society.
It was into the midst of this chaotic mess that I was hired into the Christian faith as a young music school graduate. It was expected that my “contemporary” music stylings (whatever that meant) would be the magic sauce that would allow my religious employers to compete in an increasingly commercialized and threatening marketplace.
What I found were congregations in disarray – simultaneously dealing with groups of people walking out the door just as other groups were walking in. Both groups of people typically named theology as their reason for arriving or leaving, claiming that they were looking for a congregation and a preacher that “fit” them. (See the influence of the new language of the religious marketplace here?)
While a few were sincere about the centrality of theology in their desire for a community, most seemed to be motivated by other forces. What they really wanted was either a drum set – or no drum set –
and nothing else mattered one bit. None of these people came to see this preference as critical on their own. Marketing forces on both sides coached them into believing that this was the most critical decision in their faith life. Marketing, after all, is most effective when the mark doesn’t realize they’re being manipulated in the first place.
Whether congregation members were coming or going, they were treated with various levels of disdain by every clergyperson I knew, who condemned them for “church shopping”. You can see how the clergy, the original source of the manipulation, eventually became the victims of their own marketing language. They criticized their congregations for treating their faith as a commodity, even as these same clergy went to an endless series of training events and workshops that taught them how to commodify the faith of their congregations.
I learned that clergy believed the leavers weren’t to be trusted, because they were considered traitors who had abandoned their loyalty to the congregation. Even if they came back at a later date, they got the cold shoulder and were subtly – but powerfully – discouraged from holding any position of authority. This, of course, just encouraged them to move around between churches even more, thus perpetuating the forces at work.
But surprisingly, even the new arrivals weren’t to be trusted. They might bring disruptive new influences to the congregation, and these influences (not instigated or controlled by the clergy) could threaten the power base of the existing leadership. An eroding power base could mean a disruption in financial giving, just as clergy were realizing that a relatively easy paycheck for life might be under threat in an increasingly secular world.
The only exception to the distrust of new arrivals was – you guessed it – the ones that seemed to have a lot of money, because corporate church models required huge amounts of money to operate. The whole point of the operation, of course, was ultimately to secure money for the pastor and prevent them from having to find a new job when the funding from older givers inevitably dried up! Consequently, these rare rich fish were a major catch, and every church in the area went out of their way to reel them in.
I know one congregation in my town that attracted an incredibly wealthy former professional athlete to join. The entire congregation reorganized itself around catering to the athlete’s every whim in order to get the funding they desperately felt they needed to become a corporate church. Their budget and membership multiplied tenfold seemingly overnight, and their success was the talk of religious leaders throughout the area, who jealously tried to figure out how to secure their own rich patron. You don’t need me to tell you what happened next – the whole situation ended very badly when the athlete got annoyed about something and seemingly overnight the congregation lost virtually all of its money, staff and worship attendance.
What was very clear to me in my formative years of church music leadership in this bizarre context was that the whole church thing was simply an exercise in marketing.
(But, wait – there’s more! Order now and you get discounted childcare, a ticket to heaven, and a free set of steak knives! This offer won’t last forever – supplies are limited! Preachers who really, really want your money are standing by!)
My twisted sense of humor can’t help but think of Gil Gunderson, the desperate salesman from The Simpsons, and his doomed attempts to sell products he knows are worthless. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Wl4ZX4-ui8
Even though everyone coming through the church door claimed they wanted to find the right kind of theology, in hindsight, they were just being manipulated by marketing. I wonder why my younger self didn’t question the entire religious enterprise at the time. The response to that question isn’t flattering. I, too, was being constantly sold on the idea of how important I was, and that my contributions were critical to the functioning of the entire enterprise. It’s difficult to think skeptically and rationally when so many people are stroking your ego.
I somehow came to believe God existed even while the clear-thinking part of my brain saw the inherently sad and manipulative system I was helping to prop up. It took the death of the corporate church model, and me simply getting a little older and less marketable, for the praise to stop – and for me to finally ask just what the hell the entire thing was about anyway.
Ultimately, I got a small paycheck for a while for entertaining a few crowds, and I don’t think I personally did anything unethical along the way. But I was part of a system that convinced me and others that there was a great cosmic being in the sky that would grant me eternal life if I would only return a substantial percentage of my meager paycheck back to my employers. And I chose to do this out of my own free will.
Or did I? Was the marketing so strong, and my need for affirmation so great, that I never really had a chance?
***Editor’s Question: Have any readers here had experiences with mega-churches? If so, please tell us about them in the comments section. ***
Bio: Paul Adams converted to Christianity as an adult as a way to seek truth in the universe before finally coming to the conclusion that he was looking in the wrong place. He is a seminary graduate who worked in a number of church leadership roles for many years. Today, he happily works in non-profit leadership, and gratefully applies the lessons of his past to his current work.
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