America's megachurches: What do they sell, and why do faithful buy?

Review Religion

October 28, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,[Special to The Sun]

Shopping for God

How Christianity Went From In Your Heart To In Your Face

By James B. Twitchell

Simon & Schuster / 324 pages / $26

Since houses of worship "don't offer back-to-church specials or package deals to heaven," advertising executive John Follis admits, many Americans may think it "strange to market a church like a box of Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats." But even with "all the product attributes, God is still a tough sell. That's why it's critical that the church have a kick-ass Web site."

These days, according to James Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, more and more churches use marketing techniques to "position and pitch" religious "products." In Shopping for God, Twitchell provides a lively and informative account of the "scramble market" of the early 21st century - and less persuasive arguments about the roles of consumers and beliefs in the "Great Awakening."

In the last 30 years, Twitchell emphasizes, there has been no overall increase in religious faith. In fact, the number of Americans who indicate they attend church every week has dropped. At the same time, main-line churches are in free-fall and, thanks to intermarriage, residential mobility and a fluid class structure, 50 percent of Americans no longer belong to their parents' church. These men and women, Twitchell writes, view their next church and denominational affiliation as "just another purchase decision."

"Pastorpreneurs" reach many of these "seekers" with a religion of sensation. They are more accommodating than demanding. In megachurches (with over 2,000 congregants), they "ditch the doctrine, cue the percussion, turn up the volume, and run the video." Often located in places with large, transient populations, megachurches offer a "preformatted community" and a sense of belonging. Unlike traditional institutions, which encourage quiet introspection, modern "big box" megachurches are public places, open 24/7, with rock concert audiovisual systems, kiddie playgrounds, karaoke, golf courses, and gift shops. They've even begun to attract men, by providing "rough camaraderie" with flag football, Ultimate Frisbee, and motorcycle ministries. They don't ask them to sing or pray out loud.

Hailing consumption as "one of the most creative activities in the modern world," Twitchell insists that megachurches are "putting over nothing on their parishioners." They're selling what people want to buy. Bringing baby boomers who left the church when they were young back into the fold, they're delivering on their "brand promise" to make people feel better. Megachurches generate content, but consumers "determine the time and place" - and drop money in the collection plate only when they "turn on, tune in, and feel connected."

A self-proclaimed "apatheist" who believes that religion has an important role in culture but is himself indifferent to it, Twitchell has it both ways in Shopping for God. He crowns churchly consumers as kings, then condescends to them. Pastorpreneurs, he maintains, are not "sleazeballs in sharkskin," but Rick Warren's "purpose-driven life" is just "a catchphrase for fitting in;" Joel Osteen "carries providentialism to the level of parody;" and Ted Haggard is a hypocritical narcissist, obsessively orchestrating the way people behave. The megas, Twitchell believes, are "mass-produced, shallow, self-centered, corporatized, ahistorical, sensational, predictable, ceaselessly energetic, and a little paranoid."

Why then, one wonders, does he think critics "miss the point" when they call them "Wal-Mart churches"? Nor does Twitchell adequately address the role of doctrine in the "purchase decision." In predicting that the future of traditional denomination-based churches "isn't very rosy," he suggests that marketing won't help: "The only thing that great advertising does for a mediocre brand is let it go out of business quicker by spending more money." With megachurches, Twitchell asserts, contradictorily, that social adaptation is more important than theological rigor; the Baptist belief in Biblical inerrancy - "my way or the highway" - is a ten-strike, "from a marketing point of view;" and "these churches generally do hold beliefs, have a clear mission and purpose, and have high expectations for scriptural study, prayer and tithing."

Absent from Shopping for God, which focuses exclusively on white, Protestant churches, is a substantive explanation of the rise of fundamentalism in the United States and around the world. With and without the techniques of modern marketing, Muslims, Catholics, and Jews, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and millions of whites call themselves "born-again." Their evangelical affiliation has something to do with social and cultural issues like abortion, school prayer, homosexuality, and pornography.

Pastorpreneurs certainly have learned how to respond to popular tastes. More than Twitchell recognizes, they have shaped them as well, for better and (mostly) for worse. As the historian R. Laurence Moore has written, it's increasingly difficult for "real religious prophets" to be heard "in a country whose self-image rests on fast, friendly, and guiltless consumption." Or scare shoppers for God with apocalyptic visions of a fire sale on an increasingly uninhabitable planet.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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