Why does 'evangelical product' sell so well?

megachurchThe Wall Street Journal's opinion section has a solid review of what appears to be a solid book on the growth of evangelical, seeker-friendly megachurches. The growth of megachurches, along with the decline of the traditional mainline churches, is one of the biggest stories in religion these days, and this reviews highlights some important aspects. Naomi Schaefer Riley's review of James B. Twitchell's Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from In Your Heart to In Your Face looks at church attendance and participation from an economic perspective. Riley appropriately punts the question of whether religion should be different from any other capitalist brand war, because that answer is for another book. Here is the big question being asked in this story: Why do (not should) megachurches thrive in today's America?:

But what is it about the evangelical "product" that makes it so desirable? Any number of scholars have noted that, in recent years, it has been the churches that demand the most of people -- tithing, bowing to firm doctrines, observing strict rules of conduct -- that have grown the fastest. There seems to be something in our nature that requires from religion not just feel-good spirituality but strong moral direction. We are willing to make sacrifices to live by the dictates of a religiously grounded truth.

Mr. Twitchell manages to reduce this profound idea to the dictates of basic consumer theory. Sacrifice, he says -- not least, tithing -- signifies value. The more you sacrifice, the more you visibly value the product for which you are giving something up, and the more you show other people that you value it, too. "Why do true believers sometimes puncture themselves, walk on their knees until they bleed, fast until they are skeletal or join a monastery and go mum?" Mr. Twitchell asks. "Brand allegiance."

Oddly, this sacrificial principle doesn't easily apply to megachurches. As Mr. Twitchell acknowledges, most don't have "high barriers to entry" -- that is, they don't demand a lot of their congregants. They're often referred to as "seeker" churches because they appeal to nonbelievers -- and not always successfully. It's easy to get in; but it's also easy to get out.

So "pastorpreneurs," as Mr. Twitchell calls them, face a challenge: How do you get more people to join than quit? One way is by having current members proselytize. The fastest-growing denominations, Mr. Twitchell says, are "selling, selling, selling."

The theories in Shopping for God aren't exactly new, but Riley approaches them from a new perspective. One major aspect that goes unaddressed, at least in the review, is the social battle that challenges individuals' interest in attending or joining mainline congregations.

For reporters, there are theories worth pursuing out of this book. Do local megachurches (or just seeker-friendly churches) see themselves as marketing religion in a nonspiritual way? How do the leaders of these congregations feel and how does that compare with the average member or visitor? Why are people attending these seeker-friendly churches?

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