Church shopping is nothing new

The Obama’s search for a new church home for their family has opened up a conversation in some quarters about the American phenomenon of “church shopping”. Every pastor and priest says they deplore it, but most of them do what they feel they need to do in response to it. It’s been a part of the American religious experience for generations.

Andrew Santella looks at why we do what we do:

Part of the discomfort with church shopping has to do with the way growing churches attempt to attract spiritual shoppers. That simple marquee in front of a church with the cheerfully homely motto (“Prevent truth decay: Brush up on your Bible”) doesn’t suffice to recruit worshippers. Web sites stream audio and video of sermons and music to let prospective members shop from home, and consultants help congregations market themselves to the “unchurched” and the merely unsatisfied by deploying focus groups, surveys, product giveaways (free church-branded Frisbees, anyone?), and other tactics borrowed from the commercial realm. The Wall Street Journal reported recently on churches employing mystery worshippers, “a new breed of church consultant,” who covertly attend services and evaluate them (Were the bathrooms clean? Was the vibe friendly?) as if they were first-timers looking for a new church.

Marrying the sacred to the secular inevitably provokes criticism. In First Things, Anthony Sacramone called church shopping “potentially spiritually corrupting” and warned against the “ecclesiological chaos” of the religious marketplace. The practice is particularly troublesome for the more established churches that find themselves in competition with growth-minded, nondenominational congregations. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking at a World Youth Day Mass in 2005, noted “a new explosion of religion” but warned that “if it’s pushed too far, religion becomes almost a consumer product. People choose what they like and some are even able to make a profit from it.” His concern is understandable: About 10 percent of American adults describe themselves as ex-Catholics—a figure that, if ex-Catholicism were its own religion, would make it one of the nation’s largest religious groups—and they are a huge target market for growing churches.

Church shopping, marketing, and the not-so-sanctified practices that go with them make easy targets for criticism. But competition among churches for worshippers has always been fierce in the United States, to the benefit of American religion and individual churchgoers. The prohibition against establishing an official state religion helped give us the shoppers’ paradise that is our religious marketplace. Disestablishment (Massachusetts was the last state to cut ties to its official church, in 1833) meant that preachers had to learn to get along without support from the state. It made the ability to recruit and keep a flock—and get them to give generously—crucial to a church’s survival. In 1992, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark argued in The Churching of America, 1776-1990 that this produced a ministry modeled on capitalism, with pastors acting as the church’s sales force.

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