December 22, 2006
Product Placement in the Pews—Part 2
Secular corporations have discovered churches are heaven sent, but can pastors serve both God and marketers?
The Wharton School of Business has posted an article on their online journal, Knowledge@Wharton, about the growing trend of marketing products through churches. In part 2 of the article we hear from some critics of linking business practices and ministry including Jim Collins, author of the business best-seller Good to Great.
The overlap between commerce and Christianity also leaves some churches vulnerable to purely commercial marketing, says Moore, director of the American Studies program at Cornell University. "When you have churches thinking along business lines, receptiveness to sales pitches is just the direction that things go." Megachurches are particularly vulnerable because they are so intent on growth. "Religious organizations actively seeking to grow and expand - raise money, reach new members - do things that are as much secular as religious," Moore notes. "When you have megachurches with huge auditoriums, and lots of stores and schools and gymnasiums inside, it begins to look less and less like a religious place."
Growth is key to megachurch success because large, enthusiastic congregations are what megachurches "sell" to potential members, according to James Twitchell, author of the forthcoming Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from In Your Heart to In Your Face.
The first thing you hear at a megachurch these days "is how many new members they have. Churches used to be politely non-competitive," says Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida. But since so many megachurches are now independent or quasi-independent of centralized denominations, they aggressively compete with other churches for members. Maintaining rapid growth is tough, and when churches falter, that's when corporations spot an entryway, Twitchell adds. "Advertisers can go to the heart of your mission - in the case of megachurches, that's evangelism - and underwrite it."
Even business guru Jim Collins, best-selling author of Good to Great and Built to Last, has an opinion on the topic. Growth for the sake of growth is potentially destructive, warns Collins, who spoke this summer to a megachurch leadership conference about his new publication applying Good to Great concepts to "social sector" organizations like churches. The key question for churches, he says, is, "Do they have the discipline to say 'no' to any resources that will drive them away from their fundamental mission?"
For some churches, using corporate sponsorships might be a great opportunity; for others it might lead them astray, Collins suggests. "It would be too broad a brush to say it's all good or bad for churches, just as it's too broad to say debt is all good or bad for companies. Churches need clarity to decide what's right for their financing."
But why is it many feel, instinctively, that the market and the church should inhabit distinct spheres? The Constitution mandates the separation of church and state, but the relationship between church and commerce is largely unregulated.
One answer may lie in the gospels themselves, where Jesus spoke frequently about the dangers of wealth, warning that "you cannot serve both God and mammon." More dramatically, he overturned the tables of businessmen inside the Jewish temple and drove them out with a whip, saying "Make not my Father's house a house of merchandise."
To some Christian critics, the analogy could not be more direct. Isn't having Chrysler or Chevrolet vehicles parked in the foyer of a church "a little too much like putting the tables back inside the temple?" asks Skye Jethani, associate editor of Leadership, a journal for church pastors published by Christianity Today.
The dangers of commerce intruding -- or being invited -- into churches are "infinite" from a religious point of view, says Jethani, who is one of two pastors at an "accessibly-sized" congregation of 400 in Wheaton, Ill. "Christianity comes to be viewed, not as submission to Christ and love of your neighbor, but an identity like any other, defined by what you buy, who you vote for, what entertainment you consume. Becoming so cozy with the methodology of business completely warps the message of the New Testament."
Ad experts like Twitchell, however, predict that advertising will increasingly appear "inside the frame" of church experience. Look next for corporate sponsorship advertisements in church bulletins or on walls and windows of church buildings, he says. Yet Caldwell, head of the massive Windsor Village church in Houston, cautions that churches should be thoughtful about when to partner with corporations. "At the end of the day, we don't want the church to become a prostitute of business."
You can find the full version of "Product Placement in the Pews" at the Knowledge@Wharton website.