Posted by: dacalu | 25 June 2011

Market Christianity

For many years now I’ve noticed a rise in business terminology in the church. Increasingly, I hear of target demographics and market share with regard to congregations, professional training and entrepreneurial spirit with regard to church leaders. Recently I even heard someone advocate promoting competition between potential ideas (and thinkers) to generate the best product.

I hear this kind of talk fro people I know and respect and I firmly believe they have great theology going on in their heads that does not match the language. Nonetheless, using is type of language sends a particular message the people you speak with and I know that it also gradually worse it’s way into your ideology when you use it. I know; we’re smarter than that. Everyone thinks they are, but we are not. We are all conditioned by the words we use, The concepts and precepts. So I’d like to spell out some details of market Christianity.

The central notion behind market capitalism is a belief that individuals should be free to choose for themselves, in their own best interests. Let us leave aside for the moment questions of whether this promotes selfishness – I believe it does – and talk about what people want. Throughout the 20th century, religions have lost out, not to secularism, but to a commercial mentality (see Peter Berger’s book, The Sacred Canopy for details from a sociological perspective). They ceased to be monopolistic in their cultures and started to be options.

Now I’m generally a fan of options, but in this case we need to be particularly careful how we look at them. The move to an open market for religion is one thing, but the treatment of religion as a market commodity by religious institutions is another. Corporations have had great success at attracting customers, but churches cannot think in these terms. Here’s why.

Marketers have one of two choices: they can identify what people want and provide it or they can take something they have and make people want it. On a rare occasion, one simply has what people want (bread for example) and you can sell it without a fuss. These products sell themselves. No marketing is necessary. If this were the case with religion, we wouldn’t be looking for advice, so clearly we’re back to one of the two options presented above.

Take option one, identify a desire and provide for it. Mind you, we’ve ruled out the possibility that people simply want what we’re offering. Apparently we need to tweak the product, the problem is that people rarely desire what’s best for them. A friend recently sent me an article on people below the poverty line who prefer tasty food to nutritious food and television to either. There is a reason Taco Bell is so successful (even in my home town of Tucson, where nutritious inexpensive Mexican food is easy to find). People want fat, sugar, and salt. They want the pleasure of eating these things, and, given limited time and money, will often seek them out. Healthy food is an acquired taste. One can also look at television. There’s a reason Baywatch and beavis and butthead were an international success. People like watching attractive naked people run around. Despite the availability of great music, plays, and education, many people – most people prefer titillation and, apparently, fart jokes.

It’s not “the lowest common denominator” but a sensible strategy in biology to get immediate satisfaction. We like sugar and fat because they provide immediate satisfaction of desires – even though they don’t provide the best long term satisfaction of those same desires. I suspect pornography works the same way. The market economy has been most successful in providing for immediate satisfaction of desires.

I’m not paternalistic – I don’t want to take people’s choices away – but as a teacher I know how important it can be to show people that the quick solution is not always best. One has to demonstrate the satisfaction of long term desires and the market does not foster that. It’s far too influenced by short term profits and catering to the desires of the maximum number. Health food and liberal arts are a niche market.

So, for the church to move toward desires would be disastrous. What are we about if not long term benefits? We cannot sacrifice long term satisfaction for market share. Many churches have gone this route. I won’t name names, but I can say it would be blasphemy to say Christianity provides short term satisfaction (prosperity, certainty, superiority, …) when the Bible only offers long term answers (community, faith, love,…) explicitly at the expense of short term comfort. The prosperity gospel (believe and be rich) competes well in the market, but it’s not Christianity.

On the other hand, we could easily generate a desire to match our product, but that’s rather unchristian in another fashion. No matter how you spin it, this requires harming people. It means making them vulnerable where they were nit vulnerable before. We don’t need beanie babies, tickle me elmos, and iPhones. We may want them, but the desire is artificial. We want them because others have them or because they are rare, or because we think that another toy/gift/gadget will solve some emotional problem. How could that type of salesmanship be Christian? At best it means getting someone to pay for something they don’t want; at worst it means fostering dependence. I can’t tell you how many “churches” I’ve seen operate like drug dealers. “just try it once; you’ll like it.”. Only when you get there do they tell you you’re going to Hell if you stop listening/attending/behaving. Suddenly you’re afraid to quit. They’ve convinced you that you want what they have to offer, even though you never wanted it before.

Faith doesn’t sell. That doesn’t mean we can’t demonstrate the satisfaction faith brings and invite people to come along. It just means it can’t compete with pleasure in the open market. I’m willing to lose market share in order to have freedom of conscience and integrity; it may not be possible to have all three. The business model not only will not work, but it will destroy the church.

Here comes the hard bit. Over the last century most churches, led by the mainline protestants, followed by the Anglicans have fused the church and local businesses. Congregations now normatively have a professional leader, a budget, a bank account, buildings and grounds. They form non-profit corporations to do their ministry and increasingly use business and advertising language. To drop the market model will mean letting those corporations fail – in the business sense.

Just as being z prophet often leads to death, so being a true Christian community may lead to dissolution.

I don’t think this always the case, and I certainly don’t advocate simply letting churches fail. What I do think is that we desperately need to change the way we think about churches, communities, and ministers. Entrepreneurial thinking won’t get us out of our current dilemma, it only leads us deeper in.

We will need some serious creativity to move the church forward and I know that will mean trying 100 things, knowing only a few will succeed. It’s not that grim a picture, because the heart and the soul of the church is still there, the good news of Christ Jesus, faith, hope, and love the things that give long term satisfaction.

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Responses

  1. Lucas, I agree with all but your conclusion. I used to think church, or all religion for that matter, was marketing of God, but my experience (similar to yours) shows me this approach does not build Christians. I leads to decay, same as life in the world.

    However I don’t think the solution is to try a hundred things, knowing most will fail. This is just bad business. I would say the solution is to commit to the one thing we profess to believe in, take it more seriously, and place all our eggs in that basket knowing it will NOT sell. And see how God shows up to work in and through us as we rely less on business strategies or anything else. God is in control and He doesn’t need our strategies or marketing. But he does need/want people of faith to be in relationship with, to simply be his hands and feet.

    Good dressing of the topic.

    • Dear Andy,
      Thanks for the comment. It’s curious that you agree and then say “That’s just bad business.” As to the one thing we believe in, that works really well for individuals, but runs into problems as a church. It turns out there’s not ONE thing we believe in. Each of us has a different relationship with God. Experimentation is necessary to find out what we as a people of God can do together to the greater glory of God. OEL

  2. Lucas, It seems as though damnation for the unfaithful has always been part of most religions.
    Didn’t the major impetus in American churches toward money and power start with the Puritan ethic- if you are rich and famous it proves that God favors you more that a poor coal miner. The growth of sects not to be named, spit twice, seem a natural off-shoot of this reasoning.
    Although I am not a person of God, I do practice, in my flawed way, the tenets of early Christianity. I just can’t seem to trigger the belief gene that I have heard may be imperative for faith. I doubt one can have faith without a belief to tag it on to.


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