Most Americans have heard the Burger King advertising slogan for years. It simply says: "Have It Your Way." The idea behind the slogan is clear–Burger King stores will prepare a hamburger just the way you like them. If you want mustard, pickles and lettuce, without the tomatoes, just ask. If you want ketchup, and no mustard, all you have to do is make your wish known. And this additional promise is made clear: "Special orders don’t upset us." Fast and efficient delivery of your meal is always the goal, thus the promise to you the customer.
Sometimes the promises of ad agencies parallel the promises churches make. When we buy into marketing deeply we can begin to believe that the real key to reaching the unchurched is to allow the seeker (customer) to have things his/her way. You can come to our church, we promise you, and here you will get what you were looking for in real religion. And if you make a special request we will bend heaven and hell to meet it. You are the goal, your wish is our command.
My friend Wilbur Ellsworth has an apt phrase to describe this modern evangelical church practice. He calls it the "church of the personal preference." We encourage people to pick a church based upon what they want and how they want it served. This approach says to the shopper that this church is "all about you." One very real problem is that a church built on "personal preferences" has a huge back door. There is an old saying that went something like this: "What you win them with is what you will keep them with." If you market this way to win them you must then keep marketing in similar ways to retain them. Give them lots of preferences coming into the church and you must keep giving them lots of preferences to keep them there. This mind set, joined with a gnostic type of privatized pietism, inevitably results in the "church of the personal preference." It also builds churches that make it their goal to keep people "happy" with the products and services rendered. I am convinced this cannot build a truly missional church, or at least it cannot build one that has a healthy balance of sacramental and servant-oriented life. The invitation to the kingdom of Christ always calls upon saint and sinner alike to "take up the cross and follow" Jesus to one’s death. This message cannot be marketed in terms of preferences. To suggest that it can is quite ludicrous if you think about this at all.
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As always, thanks for the reflections John. Social scientists examine what you talk about through the lens of “religious economy.” From this point of view the dynamics of a religious marketplace are thus: churches are religious firms that offer goods and services to spiritual seekers and religious consumers. Polling and marketing data determine what is marketed and how it is packaged. The “bottom line” drives the competition.
While religious economy is a great explanatory tool to use in order to understand how a religious marketplace functions, as you indicate rarely does one find churches that offer religious goods and services to the poor, widows and orphans. Furthermore, absent from sleek marketing are programs designed to enhance one’s ability to serve one’s neighbor, and other incarnational activities. As I’m sure many have seen, the May 23 Business Week (on-line) recently had a great series of articles on the business of evangelicalism. For a more sophisticated study, see Andrew Chesnut, _Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy_ (Oxford University Press, 2003). Much of Rodney Stark’s (now at Baylor) uses religious economy to explain America’s religious marketplace.