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Monday, November 10, 2008

Shopping For God by James B. Twitchell

Shopping For God is written by James B. Twitchell who is a professor of English and Advertising at the University of Florida. He has written several books including, Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch.

Twitchell starts his book with, "This is not a book about God...This book is not about belief, or spirituality, or the yearning of transcendence. Don't get me wrong: those are truly important matters. Rather, Shopping for God is about how some humans - modern-day Christians, to be exact - go about the process of consuming - of buying and selling, if you will - the religious experience. This book is about what happens where there is a free market in religious products, more commonly called beliefs."

"Essentially, this book is about how religious sensation is currently being manufactured, branded, packaged, shipped out, and consumed. The competition is fierce. Some old-line suppliers (think Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran) are losing market share at an alarming rate. Some of them are barely able to fund their pensions without dipping into investment capital. For them, things are going to get worse, a lot worse. They can't change their product fast enough. For them, doing church is a two-hour Sunday affair, but for an increasing number of super-efficient big-box churches, it can last for days, even the whole week.

"These new churches, megachurches, are run by a very market-savvy class of speculators, whom I will call pastorpreneurs. By clever use of marketing techniques, they have been able to create what are essentially city-states of believers. They are the low-cost discounters of rapture that promise to shift the entire industry away from top-down denominationalism toward stand-alone communities. Small case in point: in the last few years, we all have learned a new common language. We use born-again, inerrancy, rapture, left behind, megachurch, and evangelical in ways that our parents never did. Some of us even use the word crusade."

In pages 31-34, Twitchell explains his beliefs, or lack thereof. "On religious subjects I'm a blank..." "I now think of myself as a cold Christian or, better yet, an 'apatheist.' I lift this coinage from a recent Atlantic Monthly article by Jonathan Rauch. It means 'a disinclination to care all that much about one's own religion and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people's.' This is not atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, secularism, and all the rest, because the apatheist believes that religion has an important place in every culture. And that place should be protected and made safe."

Taking into consideration that this book was not written by an insider, a Christian, a believer in God, a disciple and taking into consideration that non-believers are invariably hostile to Christianity and can never be objective...this book still gives us a wake-up call.

I am a Christian and have been one for my entire life. I never knew of a time that I didn't know and accept Jesus Christ as Savior and God as the creator and ruler of the universe. I made my profession of faith at 8 yrs old and was baptized. I wandered during 2 of my teen years but I never gave up my belief in God. I re-dedicated my life at 17 yrs old and was baptized in the Holy Spirit with my husband a year after we were married (I was 18). We have attended church, read the Bible, attended Bible studies, taught Sunday School, read Christian books, etc. Our faith is very integral to our lives and we believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and it is our standard that we measure everything by.

I have visited many churches and denominations and have been a long time member of a church (25 yrs) so I think I have a right to my point of view here. I have seen some churches become entertainment centers. I have seen things get out of kilter with "marketing" although they call it "witnessing". I have seen people who are spiritually immature (we give them room to grow spiritually); or insincere/dishonest; or even downright con artists. The church has taken people and the church has been taken by people, if you know what I mean.

The church is made up of people and people can be pretty rotten. It's our nature. Some are true Christians who have just gotten out of balance and have run offtrack. Some are baby Christians that don't know better. Some of calling themselves Christians but really aren't and some have a definite agenda of destruction and come in as wolves in sheep's clothing.

On the other hand, I have seen churches and believers who are wonderful, reaching out, helping their community, sincerely trying to witness and save the lost. They try their best to stay in balance and do as God would have them do. I know there are people who give their last dollar to help someone even though it's never made known publicly. Pastor who run themselves ragged to help their congregations. The church has done an awful lot of good in this world and we mustn't forget that when we see bad come out of people who label themselves Christian or out of organizations that label themselves Christian.

So, keeping all things in balance (I believe God is in the balance), this book should be a check. We should do a spiritual inventory and see if Twitchell's accusations apply to us and our church and make moves to humble ourselves and come back to God and His balance.

His hostility is evident in his very wording such as:

* "No wonder Europeans look at us and think we're nuts. Are we? We're consuming the stuff in bulk 24-7. Religion here is perpetually ripe."

* "While the upper tiers of cable television have been populated by the pant-blow preaching and money-grubbing chicanery of Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Peter Popoff, along with the deliciously wacky Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson..."

* "The believer not just overcomes the ambiguity of one God but many religions (of which only mine is the only true religion), and then steadfastly holds to supposed biblical predictions of the apocalypse. Blessedly innocent of history as well as the folkloric role of Chicken Little, prophetic Christians believe that every event leads to 'Now it's really going to happen!' Over on the extreme Christian right, brought forward into serious consideration by Bush crusaders, are the Taliban-like literalists or reconstructionists, who believe in a reversal of women's rights, who decribe the separation of church and state as a 'myth', and who call openly for a theocratic government shaped by Christian doctrine..."

* "We usually think of religion as the unfolding of a sacred truth, and hence it is usually surrounded by 'Shhh, please, don't be too picky.' Just take the leap of faith and forget about the contradictions."

* "In the 1730s and periodically until the Civil War, such clamors swept over different parts of the country. They were called revivals, but again the word choice is poor, because this implies a rebirth, a reawakening. It's not. It's just a spike in demand, almost always caused by innovations in supply. Very often these early revivals were the result of a new kind of charismatic preacher getting into or out of the pulpit with a new version of the product."

* "What I saw on Route 21 between the towns of Melrose and Keystone Heights in northern Florida was an almost perfect image of stagnant American Protestanism. There they were, side by side, offering services so similar that only an expert, if blindfolded, could tell which was which. It was like looking at the milk aisle in the supermarket - no product differentiation. Or worse, the water aisle.

"Many of the churches were small but not particularly cozy congregations of about a hundred mostly white-haired members in rooms designed for three times the population. Everyone spread out, which made the gaps more pronounced. From where I sat in the back, furtively taking notes, it seemed as though I was looking across a half empty box of Q-tips. This was the world the church Growth Management forgot. Or perhaps this is where the Church Growth Movement is getting its membership?"

* "Next was the First Baptist Church of Orlando, a monster of a junior college campus complete with its heavily advertised Payne Stewart Athletic Fields. Mr. Stewart, the golf pro, had been an active member of the church, and his death in a private jet crash was memorialized in many places around the church. It was a macabre yet apt analogy. He had God as his copilot en route to a far more important tournament.

"The parking lot was huge and had nifty signs like Goodness, Gentleness, and Faithfulness to help you get back safely to your car. In between the lots was a little sugarplum chapel that looked like something out of the Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was the only thing at First Baptist that looked like a church, and it was a confection, a folly - the wedding chapel in the dale. Doubtless, that was its use.

"Looming over it was the megachurch, all windowless brown stucco and crawling with couples who were attending a 'Song of Solomon' conference on marriage. I couldn't help but think that their wedding chapel was closed and the work-on-the-marriage part was beginning in earnest at the Big House. Everything inside the First Baptist Church of Orlando was hospital mauve. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that looked uplifting or aspirational or churchy. This place certainly didn't soar; it hunkered down. If architecture were the judge, its concerns were clearly of the here and now. Play it safe.

"We went into the sanctuary, a mix of high-school auditorium with cineplex seating, set deep underground. The pews were upholstered and rose up some fifty rows to ground level. The impression was that we were sunk in a bunker, with external light coming in only from the window slits above us. These windows could be curtained off so that the circus lighting could take effect. I could see all the strobes and spotlights hanging from the ceiling. Was that a disco ball light at the apex? It was.

"While we were padding around, Pastor Tommy Nelson from the Denton Bible Church in Texas was leading the not-inexpensive conference on introducing Jesus to your marriage. Everyone was looking a little glum. Up in the control booths, oddly enough at the ground level, I chatted up the lighting guy, who, along with the video crew and the sound guys, really put on the show. They had just come back from doing the son et lumiere at a Texas megachurch and were rightfully proud that the stuff here was exactly what they use in rock and roll shows. No, the lighting man said, even better..."

Twitchell makes sure the reader knows that he isn't conned, he isn't fooled, he isn't one of the poor illiterates that are being taken to the cleaners. His skeptical, smug, I'm-better-than-they-are attitude comes through in every sentence he writes. Somehow he is more intelligent than the millions of believers throughout the history of Christianity. That kind of pride and atheistic self righteousness makes for a very hardened heart.

Proverbs 6:16-19There are six or seven kinds of people the LORD doesn't like:
Those who are too proud or tell lies or murder,
those who make evil plans or are quick to do wrong,
those who tell lies in court or stir up trouble in a family.

But he has some points that we need to take seriously. We need to check ourselves and our churches to see if we are falling into these worldly ideas.

* "Are the religion dealers, if I may call them that, in any way like the car dealers on the dege of town?"

* "If denominations don't compete for consumers (and they say they are interested only in new believers or lapsed believers, not in brand switchers, or what they call transfer growth), why are almost all of them spending millions of parishioners' dollars on advertising campaigns? Why are they hiring so many marketing consultants?"

* "What a nifty irony that some Christian denominations don't care for the Darwinian model when applied to biology or social engineering, yet they themselves have to hustle, innovate, adapt, mutate, grow new appendages, or become the lunch of those who do."

* "Often what excites the (church market) is not increased demand but shifts in supply, innovations in packaging, new lingo, new sound system, new payment schedules, new pastorpreneurs. New signage."

* "In fact, a case could be made that the most important influence on modern megachurch delivery is the rock concert. Successful churches have on thing in common: They are entertaining. Fun! And in an entertainment economy, the most successful product is the one with the predictable sensation delivery...Not only is God alive, He rocks!"

* "As with sensation delivery systems elsewhere - like music, dance, reading, movies, and television - many people want to feel spirituality. They want to experience epiphany, ecstasy, and rapture, and currently they want it in quick-release form."

* "While Baptists may look as if their gaze is heavenward, they never take an eye off the gate. It's a key to their success. 'How could anything bad be growin' so good?'"

* "The megachurch (he defines megachurches as having 2,000+ members) is the most sophisticated user of new delivery techniques. Drop down JumboTron screens, accurate-enough amplification to hear the minister's breathing from the back of the auditorium (the new name for sanctuary), podcasts of specific sermons (called Godcasts), burst emailings on the subject du jour, services on your cell phone, the use of the internet and satellite technology for videoconferencing and linking to like-minded groups, sophisticated mood lighting and video to heighten sensations, electronic fund transfers, the replacement of 'pew Bibles' and hymnals with easy-reading screen projection and soon to be on handheld mobile devices, the elaborate transformation of Sunday school into interest-based and age-sorted groups - you name it, if it delivers sensation and cost efficiencies, the mega will be using it...They are not scary at all, and even though they bristle when called 'McChurch' or 'Christianity Lite,' they know what they are doing. With low barriers to entry and with no established hierarchy other than a charismatic pastorpreneur, they can be pleasurable - at least at the weekend services. They are incredibly cost effective, since they are not just open for two hours on Sunday but essentially all the time. They have no denominational overhead to support, no home office in some faraway town, so they really are your neighborhood church. In fact, for some members, they become the entire neighborhood."

* "The first supplier of religious knickknacks to the Western worrier was, of course, the Roman Church. Two products are worthy of mention: the indulgence and the relic. They are still being sold, albeit in different forms. The indulgence was a promissory note essentially promising not safe passage into heaven but a jump ahead of your colleagues on judgment day. Some of the first printed texts, even before the Gutenberg Bible were these indulgences. The relic was a bone, a fragment, a sliver of the cross - anything! - that had to do with the life and death of Christ, his disciples, and the saints. Why were relics so valuable that pilgrims would travel miles to observe and sometimes buy a smidgen for themselves? Because at the Rapture, proximity to this object was going to leapfrog the holder to the head of the line...American low-church Protestants...are now shopping at the indulgence and relic markets....Where once they enjoyed invoking the story of Christ throwing the money changers our of the temple, today the megachurches clearly welcome the merchants into their temples. The souvenir store is front and center, right next to the sanctuary, selling all kinds of logoed stuff."

* "What sense do you make of a talking Bible called the GodPod, diet books such as What Would Jesus Eat?, or a wristwatch with a solitary 11 on the face...Or what about a Christian boomerang ('Love always returns'), and a balm called Fragrance of Jesus? Is this wink-wink or what?...Wait wear - underwear with slogans like 'No Vows, No Sex,' 'I'm Saving It!' and 'Virginity Lane: Exit When Married'? Who's the intended reader?"

This is just in the first third of the book. He makes some shameful points and we need to rule ourselves better than this. Some things he is misunderstanding and seeing it through his skeptic, smug, anti-Christian bias. But there is a kernel of truth in a lot of what he is saying and I know that it's too easy for people to fall into error. We are human beings inclined to err. Thank God for his forgiveness. But we do need to repent when necessary and turn away from error.

In my personal life, I've been concerned over things I've seen. I don't like the stores in the church if they are there to make a profit. I don't have a problem if they are there for the convenience of the parishioners to provide materials for the classes with no profit or if profit is used for authentic charitable purposes. I don't see all of them as "souvenir shops".

I don't like going to a Christian book store and see Bibles as the most expensive books in the place. Bibles should be affordable for all. And I've never been comfortable with all the Christian merchandise with it's overinflated price tags. I can buy a framed picture of a vase of flowers at Walmart for $20 but add a scripture and put it in a Christian store and it sells for $95. That is not right! Having top-to-toe Christian merchandise in your house is too much. It's almost like a masquerade. I've seen so-called Christians driving vehicles with bumper stickers of fish and yet ripping people off while talking pious-ese. It's disgusting and gives real Christians a bad name. On the other hand, I'm not against having Christian items either. The crosses I have in my entrance hall are for 2 reasons: 1) It lets anyone know as they come in the door that we are Christians, it's a small witness and a statement, and 2) It is a reminder to us of our beloved Savior and His death on the cross for us, much like the photos I have of my beloved family members. And I have different Bible translations and I happen to have them scattered throughout the house for a very simple reason...to read! They aren't dusty coffeetable Bibles. I really read them and sometimes we get into discussions and I want to show someone a Bible verse. I tape Bible verses to the mirror in order to memorize them. But if Twitchell came into my house he would see the crosses and the Bibles and misunderstand.

I have seen churches pay consulting fees for fundraising. I think this is fleecing the flock and it's wrong! I have seen churches waste money on consultants in a lot of different subjects such as landscaping, parking lot arrangement, future growth arrangement, leadership, etc. Most of this is a waste of money and wasting God's money is shameful.

I have seen pastors attend seminars on how to build your church using the types of marketing ploys Twitchell mocks. They make up mission statements and make the congregation chant their mission statements. In one church I visited, you had to stand for 10 mins and shout the repeated phrases of the mission statement. This is a little too slick and may even be a type of brainwashing.

I've been to churches with the JumboTron screens and rock concert lighting. I was turned off too. Don't get me wrong...I'm baptized in the Holy Spirit and pentecostal as they come. But it seemed too much like a concert or an entertainment, rather than a worship service. I don't want entertainment, I want honest, sincere, authentic worship. I do like the Praise & Worship singers and musicians and the contemporary worship songs but it should lead and encourage people to get one-on-one with God. Your communion with God might bring a shout, a hand clap, a song, a message in tongues, silence, a whisper in tongues, kneeling, a face down, a walk, laughter, tears, etc. And it's all appropriate in your relationship with God. But if it's done because someone has pushed all your buttons and manipulated you, it's wrong! If anything is done to psyche people up, get them excited, manipulate them, con them, either for someone's ego or pride, or to get their money....it's very wrong! God wants us to love Him and to desire Him and enjoy being in His presence. He does not want any offering given under compulsion. It's not true worship. But, Twitchell is not a believer and therefore wouldn't know authentic worship if it bit him in the butt.

I have seen churches "build community" with "small groups", people with like minded interests or ages. This is a "repackaging". We used to call them Sunday School classes, Women's groups, Men's groups or Youth groups. Now you can have small groups of Christians who own and ride motorcycles, scrapbook together, or restaurant-tour, etc. All under their church. I see nothing wrong with this in general. It's natural for people with similar interests to get together and you meet people socially through church services and then pair off into groups. Sometimes it becomes an exclusive clique and that is wrong! But it's not unnatural or evil to get together based on shared interests. It happens all the time. You might meet someone at your local coffee shop reading a book you enjoyed and you talk together and you invite her to a book club you attend. It's the same type of thing. But, if it's sponsored by the church it should have Christ as the center and should be welcoming to anyone who wants to attend, no cold shoulders. And it should not be done in the place of Bible study but in additon to. We need a firm foundation in the Word.

I particularly like the use of technology in churches such as blogs, websites and podcasts. I enjoy getting an email to notify me of what's going on or prayer request emails to my cell phone. I like being able to hear the sermon if I was out sick one Sunday. I like a website which lets me know service times, directions to the church, statements of beliefs, a calendar of events, introduction to staff, etc. It's helped me a lot when looking for a church. I think these are useful ways churches can use technology. It's a lot cheaper to do a podcast or video from your website than it is to do TV shows.

I haven't found a single church service on TV that I like or trust. This is often a misuse of technology. The selling and calls for money are shameful. And because I don't know them personally, I cannot trust a word they say. If it's just normal preaching from a Sunday morning service without money pleas and no hoopla, then I guess it's OK but I don't see that very often. They are selling books, study Bibles, prayer cloths, DVDs, CDs, etc. and this is wrong. On the other hand if they have a phone # across the bottom of the screen to purchase a DVD of the service but don't otherwise advertise it, then I can understand. Because, sometimes a sermon is so good, you want to share it with someone. But the cost of the DVD shouldn't be more than actual cost and not inflated for profit.

My concerns have nothing to do with the size of the church although I'm not comfortable with megachurches. I prefer midsize churches because I think you can get lost in the crowd and it's easier for you to have your Christianity and your sins too (like having your cake and eating it too). You can't have the personal bonding between people in large churches and you need that for accountability and mentoring and discipling. An megachurches rely on megabucks and this can very easily lead to spiritual problems like pride, ego, fleecing the flock, wasting money, etc.

Anyway, these are my views as compared to Twitchell. The best thing is to regularly check your own motives and your church and keep yourself humble and true to God and in balance. Repent as necessary and don't be gullible and fall for con men and manipulators.

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