Are consumer-driven churches betraying the American soul?

The tacit mission of many Christian churches today is to attract and entertain as large a congregation as possible. What happens when religion turns itself into a marketplace commodity?
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The tacit mission of many Christian churches today is to attract and entertain as large a congregation as possible. What happens when religion turns itself into a marketplace commodity?

The Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona, exemplified the successful church of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In 2002 the congregation had 12,000 members. Church operations filled a sprawling 187-acre campus. Community Church of Joy was known as a place where people could enjoy worship experiences that were fun and upbeat, with high production values.

But the pastor who had built this successful church had second thoughts. Walt Kallestad began to wonder what it all amounted to. If Community Church of Joy were to suddenly disappear, would anyone in the larger Phoenix metropolitan area notice or care? Had the Church made any real difference?

Kallestad confessed his disquiet to his congregation. He told them the Church was little more than "a dispenser of religious goods and services." People hadn't been asked to make sacrifices, or involve themselves with their neighbor's needs or trials, nor did they welcome challenges to grow and mature. A third of the membership left.

A similar "come-to-Jesus" moment recently occurred at the granddaddy of the modern megachurches, Willow Creek Community Church. Located in the suburbs of Chicago, Willow Creek was founded in 1977. But in 2006, after an extensive church self-study, Pastor Bill Hybels said that Willow Creek, though it boasted 20,000 members, had "failed." It offered a cornucopia of attractions and programs, but had not made much headway when it came to members' spiritual development or character formation. Many were only waiting for the next exciting program.

Over the last 40 years, the marketplace, with its competition for consumer interest and allegiance, has steadily infiltrated the world of religion. As recently as in the mid-20th century, religion in America featured three options: Protestant, Catholic, or Jew. All that has changed. Religion, like banks, airlines, and the media, has been (in a sense) deregulated. Competition is fierce, and church shopping and hopping have become the new norm. Long-established churches began to look like the legacy carriers in the airlines business with large overhead and little flexibility. Meanwhile, other spiritual and religious options, more nimble and lower in cost, have proliferated.

Certainly the advent of new spiritualities as well as new forms of church have brought some things that are positive. But for G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a religion reporter with Religion News Service and The Christian Science Monitor, the overall effect of turning religion, and specifically the Christian Church, into part of the larger culture of consumerism has been disastrous.

"Faith has become a consumer commodity in America. People shop for congregations that make them feel comfortable rather than spiritually challenged," writes MacDonald in Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010). MacDonald sees this as a disaster not only for the church but for American society.

"Today's religious marketplace obscures a basic truth," according to MacDonald: "the Church isn't a business. Unlike commercial enterprises . . . the Church doesn't exist to satisfy the wants of customers. The Church needs to serve higher purposes of transforming what its 'customers' want, of diminishing certain primitive desires while cultivating holier ones.

"People need the Church to help them rise above their lower natures and come to care deeply about higher things, such as the well-being of the stranger or the redemption of the hardened criminal. Our society depends on this elevating force to produce people who offer a conscientious moral compass in public discourse."

That'ꀙs a tough assignment in a buyer's market. It's a hard role to fulfill when people feel free to change churches (or religions) if something or someone challenges them, or asks them to grow or to grow up.

According to MacDonald, churches bear considerable blame for the situation. Too many have honed the arts of competing for customers and market share, while forgetting the real business of spiritual and character formation. If the so-called megachurches are the most egregious examples of such trends, it is not limited to them. Many historic churches have been more concerned with what will get people in the door than with what happens once they are there. In recent decades, "prosperity gospel" churches, like Joel Osteen'ꀙs Lakewood Church in Houston, link faith to health, wealth, and worldly success.

A sign of these trends may be the phrase now so common as to be a cliché: "I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious." While this self-identifier is not without positive aspects, MacDonald might see it as the mantra of the spiritual consumer, the person who has found a way to sanctify his or her own resistance to challenge and commitment, or to dealing with anything that fails to "meet my personal needs."

As a journalist, MacDonald finds fault with his own tribe as well. For the most part, the media have missed the real story. They have reported on which religious groups grow and which decline, as well as what all this might mean for electoral politics.

But the central question for MacDonald is, What happens when people and institutions entrusted with the responsibility for moral formation and character development forget their mission in favor of attracting and entertaining spiritual consumers? "Can churches that are aiming to please still mold people of high caliber?" asks MacDonald.

While MacDonald focuses on religious institutions, similar issues confront other institutions charged with character formation and moral development, including journalism and media, schools, the arts, and the family.

Parents who wither in the face of children's complaints that they are "bored" are feeling consumerism's imperative: Children must be constantly entertained. Newspapers also pander, dropping hard news in favor of soft stories and celebrity news that are the journalistic equivalent of junk food. Schools face rising demands but find it difficult to ask students to grow and be better people.

MacDonald doubts that the clock can be turned back on consumerism or even that it should be. Consumers are, in a sense, empowered people who can make a difference with their choices. What can be reasonably expected, as MacDonald sees it, are consumers who make better and more conscientious choices.

As in the world of food, consumers can demand more nutritious fare. MacDonald hopes that consumers will demand churches that really do help people become stronger and better human beings. He devotes his final chapters to several case studies along these lines.

As someone who has observed the trends of which MacDonald writes, I think he's correct in much of his assessment. Moreover, he's right in saying that by paying attention only to which churches and religions are growing in numbers and market share, the media have missed the real story. That story is that the church in America has defaulted on its historic and critical task, the work of spiritual growth and moral formation. We can see the disturbing consequences all around us.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.