My mother-out-law (Carol and I aren’t married, so she’s an out-law, not an in-law) sent me a fascinating piece from the October 23 Wall Street Journal. In an article titled “A Congregation of Consumers,” Naomi Schaefer Riley reviews the book “Shopping for God,” by James B. Twitchell (Simon & Schuster). Riley says, in part:
Choosing a religion, [Twitchell] argues, is much like choosing any other product — from breakfast food to beer. He sets out to determine why the “spiritual marketplace” in the U.S. seems so hot right now, and, more pointedly, why evangelical megachurches have become, well, so mega. His theme can be summed up in one of the book’s smug chapter titles: “Christian Consumers Are Consumers First.”
Sociologists have long noted that religiously tolerant societies actually inspire greater religious allegiance than societies in which piety is imposed by government fiat. But “Shopping for God” adds a twist: “In a highly competitive market, suppliers have to stay on their toes. . . . Coke sells more going up against Pepsi. McDonald’s needs Burger King. When markets are supplying interchangeable products, selling can become frantic. Brand war! The complacent get killed.” The “complacent” are the mainline churches, according to Mr. Twitchell; they have basically dropped out of the competition. The evangelical churches, by contrast, are competing wildly and thriving even if, like Coke and Pepsi, they are are offering similar “products.”
So far, I basically agree with Twitchell. The mainline churches — Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and so on — have faced dwindling memberships for years, primarily because they are unwilling to get their hands dirty in marketing and publicity. Unitarian Universalists have been holding steady or slightly increasing, not because we have paid any attention to marketing, but because we have what Seth Goodin calls a “purple cow” product:– our “religious product” is so different, it advertises itself. But back to the main point of this post.
Naomi Riley does not like the idea that churches have to market themselves. She argues that churches have to answer to a higher calling than mere marketing:
If you can find a way of seeing religion primarily as a form of consumerism — skipping the (how to put it?) faith and truth part of religious belief — then Mr. Twitchell’s analysis makes some sense. And in fact there are churches out there self-consciously engaged in marketing. They hire consultants and public-relations experts to “grow” their flock, and they obey a market discipline. Mr. Twitchell notices a sign hanging in Mr. Hybels’s megachurch office that quotes Peter Drucker, the business guru.
But consultants can only do so much, and the point of church outreach surely has less to do with improving “brands” than with saving souls. Mr. Twitchell concludes by noting that, “in the Land of Plentitude, the customer is king.” Thus he asks: “Why should religion be different?” The answer to that question comes from another book.
So do you agree with Naomi Riley, or with James Twitchell? In a society that is dominated by marketing mentalities, how far may religious organizations accommodate themselves to market forces?
Let me make this question more pointed:– If your congregation is faced with declining membership, to what extent do you feel it is acceptable to employ marketing strategies to boost membership? Which specific marketing techniques are acceptable (ads in traditional media, Web and new media marketing, assisting current members to engage in word-of-mouth marketing, door-to-door solicitation, etc.), and which are not? I don’t have a firm answer myself, so consider this a brainstorming session where we’re all thinking out loud….