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Mega Churches and Marketing: A Meandering Discussion on the Commodification of Christianity
I've always had a problem with the dichotomy of a church being a body of believers as well as an institution. To myself, the heart of any church is the congregation, not the programs offered or the image portrayed.
Lately, I have been reading more and more about the transition from church being about community to becoming a self-serve service or commodity. Think about the regularity of church "shopping", something that I am guilty of myself. Or maybe think of how we expect churches to provide us with services such as Vacation Bible Schools, Youth Groups, Child Care, Multimedia departments, Kids Clubs, Seniors Luncheons... the list goes on.
All of these programs are good things which God uses to bless people. I have no qualms whatsoever with any of them. What I have a problem with is how what church one chooses to attend has a lot to do with the quality of services that it offers. Since when did a community become a commodity that one shopped for?
Maybe this isn't the biggest deal. Maybe it is my alienated post modernist sociology winer side of me coming out again. However, taking a look at the Church Marketing Sucks weblog offers a lot of fodder for discussion.
The aim of the blog is admirable and extremely valid - to help fill the void in effective church communication. However, somehow applying traditional market techniques to churches doesn't sit well with me. "Source of large churches' growth: Faith or Marketing" reads one of the latest headlines. The article outlines how the large churches who are weary of their "target audience" and cater to them are the ones who are prospering. The large size allows for one to slip in to the institution easily and large budgets allow the offering of a plethora of services.
This brings me to Lakewood Church, which is so big that it houses it's services 16,000 people at a time in a hockey arena. The message is tailored to be non offensive and "uplifting", the pastor looks picture perfect and is a celebrity in his own right. The church is marketing its self as a self-serve object of mass consumption - the McDonalds of religion. Quick easy and happy, in the same way people market any business. There seems to be little community or shared purpose, just a church congregation larger than my town of 25,000.
Related to these market driven churches is advertising. See the picture above featuring a perfect father, 2 cute boys and even a white picket fence. Notice the Leave It To Beaver world that is being implied and sold. Is someone coming to church via this advertising coming for spirituality or the promise of a picture perfect life? Another interesting article on the Church Marketing Sucks website is about Christian Imitation of Popular Brands. What do copy cat T-Shirts say about the church and the arts other than it is unoriginal, tasteless and has cheap wit. It looks like I'm not the only one who agrees. Here are two quick examples of what I am talking about here:
The Downright Ugly
While I'm on the topic, the only T-Shirts that are worse are some of the "original" T-Shirts designed by extremist Christians. Nothing enforces negative stereotypes more than Christians wear clothes on their bodies that tastelessly and proudly proclaim their own hard headedness. The collection below is taken from ChristianShirts.net, the worst offender that I have ever seen:
What's The Point of All of This?
I know what you are thinking, I'm saying the same thing: where is all of this going? How is the commodification of church, mega-churches, brand copying and horribly offensive Christian T-Shirts all connected? I didn't realize it until reflecting on it now, but these are all things that I am not looking for in a church.
I feel like there are a lot of phone who would agree with me on this one as well. The most attractive church is one that when stripped away from it's glossy exterior is following closely the heart of the Creator. Personally, this is being fulfilled in my life through the starting of New Community, the little House Church experiment who could. I'm definitely not against traditional church structure in principal, I just feel that the house church is so focused on "being real" that it has ended up looking a lot different and has avoided these pitfalls.
I think that this is the end of my rant for now. Thanks for bearing with me. I have a feeling that this will be a theme popping up quite a bit in the next while...