Shopping For God
James Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising, spent more than two years researching and writing his account of the USA’s recent rise in religiosity. He notes that consumerism is deeply ingrained in American culture and that American religion has not escaped its effects. In fact, as Twitchell demonstrates, American religion played a role in shaping American consumerism. Thus, the phrase “shopping for God” is literal as well as metaphorical. Twitchell visited dozens of churches and interviewed scores of pastors and churchgoers to discover what churches are selling and what religious consumers are buying. The result is an engaging book that offers substantial insights into both American religion and consumerism.
Twitchell opens by citing the intersections and interactions between American religion and popular culture. It was once the norm that celebrities said little about their religious beliefs. Nowadays, celebrities flaunt their faith. Few, if any, Americans are not aware of Mel Gibson’s Catholicism, or Tom Cruise’s Scientology, or Richard Gere’s Buddhism, or George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton’s Methodism. And religion pervades movies and television. Most Americans have viewed, repeatedly, such “sword and sandal” epics as The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. Throughout the 1990s, Touched By an Angel was one of the most popular shows on television. And TV news shows, such as Dateline, frequently do special features on religion. You can’t even escape from religion in your car, unless you keep the radio off, because most programming on the AM band is religious. And guess what subject ranks second only to pornography in Internet popularity? Religion is even ubiquitous in print media. In 2004, Americans spent $3.7 billion on Christian books and related merchandise (sometimes called “holy hardware” or “Jesus junk”). Is it any wonder that the subtitle of Twitchell’s book is: how Christianity went from in your heart to in your face? Religion is everywhere in America these days.
Twitchell devotes a fair portion of his book to examining the history of religion (primarily Protestant) in the USA, giving special attention to the “great awakenings” and evangelism. He contends that the “awakenings” were actually precipitated by the development of new “delivery systems” for religious content. Thus, one awakening began when evangelists stepped outside of their sanctuaries and preached in the “open air,” thereby winning new converts among those who had never entered a church, cathedral or synagogue. Another awakening occurred when itinerant preachers traveled from town to town and held camp meeting revival series. He credits the current religious awakening in the USA to the rise of the “megachurch,” in which a congregation consists of at least two thousand members and services are delivered by an array of professional, technical, volunteer and pastoral staff, and to new communications technologies.
Twitchell characterizes the American religious market as a “scramble market” in which the supply of a relatively homogenous product exceeds the demand for that product. In such situations, the suppliers need to find innovative ways to package their products, separate themselves from their competitors and appeal to prospective buyers. The traditional mainline denominations, by and large, are failing miserably at these tasks and are losing members. This failure can be measured, in part, by the fact that they are noticeably bereft of male members, a circumstance that Twitchell analyzes in some depth.
In contrast to the older mainline denominations, there are two sets of Protestant Christians that have set themselves apart from the others and are growing. The Mormon and Seventh Day Adventist churches are growing the old-fashioned way: by knocking on doors or buttonholing people on the street and talking to them one-on-one. The Southern Baptist Convention is doing it by radical decentralization that allows individual congregations to tailor themselves to fit niche markets in their communities. These are examples of denominations that are bucking the trend of most others. Their non-denominational rivals are the megachurches, the Christian equivalent of the big-box store.
What are the megachurches doing that most others aren’t? At least part of their success lies in the fact that they have changed the way the many people “do church.” Worship in a megachurch is more like a rock concert than a church service. Megachurch services feature lots of upbeat music, videos on JumboTron screens, audience participation and little preaching, which typically emphasizes empowerment rather than guilt. Megachurches stress community, casual friendliness, playgrounds, baseball fields, basketball courts and golf courses, web sites and podcasts. The latter two features deliver the ultimate in “designer religions” that allow folks to control the content of their religion, as well as the timing and manner of its delivery. Megachurches are very male friendly and, figuring that where the men go, the wives and children will follow, they have intentionally “branded” themselves to appeal to men.
The mainline denominations have not given up fighting. Several of them are waging multi-million dollar advertising campaigns in their own attempts to change their brands and appeal to new converts (and brand switchers, which nobody admits seeking deliberately, but accepts willingly nevertheless). Twitchell provides some interesting analyses of several of these efforts.
What does the diminution of denominations and the rise of megachurches portend for the future? Twitchell suspects that, as in the wake of previous religious awakenings, the current wave of religiosity will peak and the culture will settle into a period of relatively quiet equilibrium. After that, it’s anybody’s guess as to what will trigger the next spiritual awakening, but rest assured, it too will come.
(originally published on 13 Nov 2007)