Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Review of Shopping for God by James Twitchell

The tagline for this book is, "How Christianity Went From In Your Heart to In Your Face." I initially picked up this book as sort of a guilty pleasure, but some of this is truly eye-opening. Twitchell is not committed to any particular religion (he calls himself an "apatheist"), so he approaches this somewhat objectively.

Twitchell's book is part history, part analysis of our present situation. He uses a lot of examples from the course of the church's history to show different ways in which the church has tried to market itself. Of course, he notes that for most of its 2000-year existence, it hasn't really felt the need to compete as it was the only show in town. Still, he details the Catholic church's sale of indulgences and icons that led up to the Reformation, and notes that these sales were primarily sales of an experience. If people wanted to experience grace and forgiveness; to experience some kind of emotional high, this was how they could purchase it.

Twitchell also spends some time with more recent trends as he details his theory of selling an experience. He especially details the techniques of revivalist Charles Finney, who would purposefully seat his most exhuberant audience members up front (the "anxious bench") so that others would see them and be caught up in the moment. This was a technique that exploited herd mentality and emotionalism, but also employed the technique of urgency: implying that you don't want be the last to convert; that it's for a limited time only. All of these techniques, Twitchell argues, are used by many churches all over.

Twitchell spends a lot of time talking about church "branding." Essentially, he says, churches are trying to sell a story and an experience and less the message of salvation. That comes later, but first the experience has to rope people in and give people a sense that this experience is better than the experience they'll get elsewhere. Similar to Finney's revival tactics, Twitchell argues, people will first look for how good a particular church makes them feel. Is the congregation welcoming enough? Is the music moving enough? Is the sermon passionate enough?

That, he notes, is what branding is. He makes lots of comparisons to other products: you have a choice of half a dozen dish soaps and they're all essentially the's the brand that people are buying, not the product itself. So when churches try to "brand" themselves, they're trying to differentiate themselves from others. So they come up with slogans, they may emphasize how welcoming they are or how exciting they are, they may talk about how they aren't your father's church or that they're church for people who don't like church, and always with subtle or overt digs at other churches. Most of these churches are pretty much the same, he argues, so they need to emphasize their brand over others.

No one escapes scrutiny in this book. Twitchell analyzes the megachurch's mastery of being the Church That Feels Good and being the big box church that offers what the small Mom and Pop church can't. And in a bit of commentary on post-denominationalism, Twitchell notes that megachurches provide the "generic brand" of church. When people feel less of a tie to a brand (Methodism, Lutheranism, etc.), they'll "trade down" to the product that works just as well and makes them feel just as good, but maybe less expensive.

And mainliners get a lot of commentary, too. Twitchell's exploration of "church branding" maybe even comes down the heaviest on them, because in this new competitive marketplace, mainliners haven't done enough to differentiate themselves from the pack. He does note recent attempts by many mainline denominations to advertise and brand themselves. The UCC's "Still Speaking" ads are mentioned a few times as one example (alongside a critique that many UCC members have probably made or heard that as a congregational denomination may cause some confusion when people walk through the doors at the local level). His basic point with mainliners is that up until recently they haven't cared enough to compete, but their hemorraging of members has finally caused enough of a sense of urgency to do something. At the same time, he notes, national commercials haven't made much of a difference in terms of new members. SHOCKING~!

The book may come off as cynical and make people squirm, but it also details a harsh reality: that churches do compete as a byproduct of their existence as institutions, and the ones that don't fall by the wayside. Churches either try to offer an experience that speaks to members and visitors, or those members and visitors go elsewhere. We may not put it in terms of marketing and branding, but there's a reason why people fight over worship styles and being more welcoming and whatever else. They're fighting over an experience, either of existing members or potential members.

One not familiar with marketing jargon may have to spend some extra time with certain parts of the book, like I did. But this is eye-opening, if not a little disturbing. I should also note that this book is much more descriptive than prescriptive, and frequently re-states that the entire concept of church consumerism is very unique to the United States. Go figure.