A Free Market of Faith

In her book, Brands of Faith, Mara Einstein argues that religion is a competing commodity in a larger marketplace.  James B. Twitchell takes this notion closely to heart and runs with it in his book, Shopping for God:  How Christianity Went From In Your Heart to In Your Face.  He argues that denominational differences have less to do with dogma and more to do with packaging and advertising…or lack thereof.  Throw non-denominational megachurches into the mix and the picture becomes even clearer.

Twitchell’s book might be more aptly titled Selling God rather than Shopping for God…but that title was already taken.  He pays much less attention to the consumer than he does the producer…or rather delivery method.  Though he makes some historical claims about past events like the Reformation and the Great Awakening, which are relevant to his focus, Twitchell is centered on changes in American Protestant Christianity since the 1950s.  He is especially interested in how and why this brand of Christianity moved form a more private, personal realm into a public, confrontational one.  He spends great attention on pastorpreneurs, the leaders of megachurches like Osteen and Warren and their market savvy techniques as well as the decline of the mainline denominations and their inability to capture a growing percentage of the market.  Twitchell is not a religious scholar by training and so some of his comments on Christianity or religion per se are a bit suspect, but there can be no doubting his insights into the advertising methods and business practices of the denominations and churches he analyzes.

Twitchell begins by providing an overview of the spiritual marketplace in contemporary American popular culture through television, radio, film, and publishing, all of which are big businesses that thrive on the free market of faith that a lack of state-sponsored religion allows.  He also confesses here that his is an apatheist, someone who has “‘a disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s'” (33).  As a result, he is clearly skeptical, highly cynical, and always hilarious.

The heart of Twitchell’s argument is that we have become more and more a nation of consumers and that we seek to consume spiritual experiences (enlightenment, transcendence, epiphany, etc.) the same way we consume iPads/Phones/Pods.  He recognizes that, for many, the two are inseparable.  Megachurches, by and large, have learned this and tailored the message and their presentation of it effectively.  Mainline denominations have not.  Twitchell’s argument is backed up by not only statistical research and a clear understanding of what numbers can and cannot convey and shrewed analysis of marketing techniques from both parties but lived experiences in both mainline and megachurch congregations as well.  He argues, “The majors forgot how to sell.  Or just don’t care” (133).  His analysis of the United Methodist Church’s Igniting Ministry campaign is simultaneously telling and heart-breaking.  He asks, “‘What makes this Methodist?’ […] These ads don’t condense anything about this particular denomination, don’t separate it from another supplier, don’t make it unique or compelling” (178).  He later worries, “Often a failure to sell reflects a deeper problem, a loss of faith in a sellable message” (180).

Megas on the other hand passionately believe in and market their particular message, which is, as Twitchell recognizes, often less theologically astute when compared to their mainline counterparts.  However, what megas lack in theology, they more than make up for in community.  Twitchell’s analysis of the gender aspect of megas and mega-marketing (and their historical precedent) is simply stunning.  He argues that the most successful megachurches have a wealth of ministries tailored to men, and, through their conservative notions of gender roles and family responsibilities, they bank on women and children following where men lead.  Twitchell sees many more problems with megas than benefits and worries that the laws of a market economy will ultimately have been equally responsible for their success and their (inevitable?) decline.

Shopping for God is an extremely compelling read, although it is not without its shortcomings.  He cites critics of a market analyses of religion and how they equally apply to his research.  This is not a heart-warming approach to religion in contemporary America, nor is it a particularly potent advocate for a life of faith.  Yet the blatant capitalist/consumerist practices that denominations and megachurches have embraced do not deserve anything less than the scolding they receive here.  If Twitchell’s analyses of (non)denominational religious life are even remotely close to the truth, then one must question why anyone would continue in faith anyway.  However, upon completion of Twitchell’s book, one will quickly realize, especially if she is persevering in a faith community, that the very things that Twitchell ignores make a life of faith worth living after all.

Satisfy your inner consumer here.