Professor’s book examines the rise of marketing God, megachurches
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Time was when a religion was something people were born into, grew old with in comfort and died with in glory.
Move over, pastor. Make room for “pastorpreneur.” The Old School church of days gone by has given way to marketing magic. In his latest book, “Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from In Your Heart to In Your Face,” University of Florida English professor James B. Twitchell explains not only how and why it happened but also what it means for America’s churchgoers.
In his book, scheduled for publication Sept. 18, Twitchell examines today’s megachurch movement as well as how today’s religious leaders have used media — from books and movies to radio and blogs — to build a competitive marketplace that rivals the cream of corporate America.
The book, Twitchell says, “has nothing to do with belief. It has to do with the people who deliver the service structure of religion. It’s not surprising that these churches seek ways to differentiate themselves, because what they’re selling are very similar products.”
Church, Twitchell writes, has become something people simply try on for size – and it fits only as long as the pastor keeps them happy.
The most visible manifestation of religious marketing phenomenon is the megachurch.
“Inside church proper there are all the technologies men appreciate: the sound system, the JumboTron screens and the comfy seats,” he writes. “Best yet, there are none of those grayhairs of Route 21 threatening to pray for this and that, including you.”
Leading people in worship, he says, has taken a back seat to giving people a reason to come and, in turn, grow church membership.
Today, he writes, “Successful churches have one thing in common: They are entertaining. Fun! … Not only is God alive, He rocks.”
While churches recruiting new members is hardly new, Twitchell writes, the concept of religious marketing is a relatively recent event that can be traced back to the mid-1950s. He recounts the story of Pennsylvania entrepreneur Mel Stewart, who built a business out of making and selling the now-familiar lighted signs with changeable plastic letters and pithy sayings so common in front of houses of worship.
From those humble roots, Twitchell writes, come religious blogs and other modern forms of religious marketing. But rather than promoting ways to address pressing problems such as poverty and world hunger, church blogs have become vehicles to advance political agendas with “hot-button” issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
So what does the future hold? For the megachurches, Twitchell predicts an implosion that already shows signs of being under way. For one thing, megachurches, by virtue of their expansion, are becoming part of the very thing they started out trying to avoid: the mainstream.
For another, he says, they have become too involved in politics, which can backfire when politics go awry. Then there’s the matter of celebrity pastors falling by the wayside either by scandal or retirement.
Finally, he writes, the biggest threat is market saturation. When a church ties its value to growth, sooner or later it will hit a brick wall. “In old-time denominations, growth was not proof of value; stability was,” he writes. “But the megachurch has no cushion to absorb that inevitable day when they have reached the last available seeker, and the balloon deflates.”
Incidentally, Twitchell considers himself a “cold Christian” or an “apathiest,” a term he borrowed from Atlantic Monthly. It means, in Twitchell’s words, someone who thinks religion has an important place in every culture but if its members believe they should proselytize, they should do so “very quietly and politely. Knock first.”