Typically, the marketplace is where buying and selling takes place, and where money is exchanged for goods and services. To be successful in the marketplace requires the skill to get people to buy your product. You have to know how to lure customers your way. McDonalds has definitely mastered the marketplace, something I found out after we adopted our daughter. Faith is not able to read or write yet, since she is only two-years-old, but she has learned to recognize the golden arches. This fact is made clear every time we go through the drive through. The minute that we order the food, my daughter moans at the top of her lungs begging for French fries. They have reeled her in and created, what might be a lifelong customer at the ripe old age of two.
While there is marketplace in our everyday world, there is also a religious marketplace where goods and services are rendered and exchanged, and enticement is how you get people to come to church. Many people, however, perceive that the religious marketplace is a recent phenomenon, but the record of history doesn’t seem to want to cooperate. In this blog I will begin by analyzing American Christianity dating back from antiquity by utilizing an economic framework to further our understanding. The framework that I will use was developed by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark who reject the old way of analyzing religion stemming from the work of Peter Berger and others and, in its stead, advocates an economic model, one that understands religion in a market oriented framework.
The differing religious economies, then fall under the following categories: regulated, or deregulated, just like economies fall under one of the aforementioned headings in any country. In the American framework, as they shed the baggage of the state church in the early part of the eighteenth century, deregulation has reigned supreme. You see, regulation stifles religious commitment, whereas deregulation causes it to prosper. Finke and Stark opine, ‘The most significant feature of the religious economy is the degree to which it is deregulated and therefore market-driven as opposed to being regulated by the state in favor of monopoly.” Thus, “In keeping with supply and demand principles, to a degree that a religious economy is unregulated, pluralism will thrive.” This is why there are so many different kinds of churches and religions in America.
The religious marketplace idea explains, for the most part, how some churches are growing and why some churches are not. The reason why the church down the road from you might be growing might be because that church has learned how to be successful in the religious marketplace. They have successfully carved a portion of the market share.
A quick word, I believe, is in order at this point. I must point out that not every successful church that has seen great growth is because they have catered to the whims of the marketplace. Many churches have grown large, healthy churches while avoiding the aforementioned temptation. For example, Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota where John Piper pastors is a great example. Over the years, the church has enjoyed significant growth, while remaining faithful to God’s Word and remaining true to historic Protestantism.
To return to the point at hand, in understanding how the Church is affected by a deregulated economy one needs to use supply and demand principles. Recalling your high school or college econ class you probably remember the terms supply and demand which are essential ingredients in a market economy. When these terms are applied to religion, they refer to religion as being the supplier and people are the ones who set the demand. Consequently, consumer preference becomes the driving force. Therefore, for churches to be successful, it is reasoned, they must learn to appeal to the demand of the consumer. This calls for churches to “carve out a niche in the spiritual marketplace and distinguish their ministries by offering an array of spiritual goods and services that match the taste and desires of religious consumers.”
As the thinking goes, when the Church doesn’t, at least to some degree, appeal to the felt needs and demand of the people they will fail to be numerically successful. This idea can be seen in the Puritans of early America. Many people, particularly Christians, wax nostalgic when it comes to their perceived impact. The evidence, however, points to a modest impact at best. This is reflected by the fact that by the time of the Revolution, only “about 17% of Americans were churched.” Christian traditions like Puritanism, who was rich in tradition, refused to capitulate to the possibilities of the religious marketplace. They were determined to stay true, as it were, to their faith.
The Puritans overall ineffectiveness is also reflected in their relatively modest impact on the society around them. In New England “non-Puritan behavior abounded. From 1761 through 1800 a third (33.7%) of all first births in New England occurred after nine months of marriage despite harsh laws against fornication.” The picture that is often conveyed is usually points to the opposite result. Most people see the Puritans as regulating the behavior of most of society. Pictures of Hester Prynne, the woman who conceives out of wedlock, and is the main character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter remains fixed in our memory. However, “single women … were more likely to be sexually active than to belong to a church.” However, given these facts, this “does not necessarily mean that most were irreligious (although some clearly were), but it does mean that their faith lacked public expression and organized influence.” What this evidence shows is that most people during this period were not being reached.
During the emergence of Evangelicalism starting in the 1730’s began a shift in how people were drawn to the faith. With the dwindling influence of Puritanism and Anglicanism a religious marketplace began to emerge in a greater way given the fact of increasing deregulation. Indeed, the state church idea was on its way out due to the religious diversity that existed in the colonies and was being replaced by this new Evangelicalism. This new movement of Christianity would retain many of the Puritan ideas such as seeking after revival, an authoritative interpretation of Scripture, and the destiny of America being a Christian nation. They added to these faith commitments other influences such as pietism, with its emphasis on heart over head as well as high church Anglicanism with its organization focus on small groups.
The famed Jonathon Edwards would be the forerunner of the First Great Awakening, beginning in the fall of 1734. As a result of his ministry the fire of revival would fall bringing many to the faith. However, it would be during the spring of the following year that the “great itinerant” George Whitefield would arrive on the scene fresh from the Evangelical Awakening in Great Britain. This bright young Oxford graduate wasn’t the towering intellectual that Edwards was, but what he lacked in intellectual skills and he more made up for in oratory skills. He is what Harry S. Stout calls the Divine Dramatist. The theme of our chapter is the religious marketplace, but “before religion could become a marketplace phenomenon, however, it required an entrepreneur” and Whitefield would serve that role. He was equipped with the intangibles such as the ability to mesmerize an audience with his incredible capacity to connect with a crowd, a keen knack for promotion, and a leadership ability that was second to none. These skills enabled him to draw huge crowds and illicit media coverage that would cause him to be a household name making him a perfect fit for the American religious marketplace.
I must point out though our evaluation of Whitefield should not be construed as an overall negative estimate of his ministry. He was, after all, a true man of God who did great things for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom. Some of his strengths, however, will later become some of the weaknesses of the Evangelical church. Furthermore, his ministry took place during a period in American history where change was taking place rapidly. Old plausibility structures that had once shaped society’s thinking were now being replaced by new ones. Thus what Whitefield did was confront “a society in crisis. New social, political, and economic forces were rapidly reshaping religious institutions, and, in the process, redefined the rules by which ‘society’ existed and held together.” Since a new day was dawning, a new ministry paradigm was emerging. It would be one that was geared towards effective ministry in this newly formed religious marketplace.
Meeting the Demands of the Marketplace
To meet the demands of the marketplace, Whitefield used four avenues in which to do it, namely the power of his personality, the enticement of entertainment, the lure of a passion-based approach, and the draw of a consumer oriented strategy, strategies still used today. Whitfield was in the same dilemma that every pastor and every church in America finds themselves in today, which is how does someone effectively reach people in a religious marketplace oriented society? In the American system, people must be persuaded to attend church given the fact that there is no governmental system that commands a certain religious adherence, making enticement an integral part of the evangelistic and recruitment process.
The two winners in this newly formed religious marketplace, the Methodists and Baptists, had their numbers swell between the years of 1776-1850 while the losers, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians saw decline. The difference between the two groups is based on their effectiveness in the religious marketplace. The Congregationalists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians were steeped in tradition, maintained an educated clergy, and were supported by the state through tax dollars. This meant they were out of touch with the common man and saw no need to reach new people. These groups were used to the religious monopoly of the state church and never had to compete for congregants, representing the Motherland, mingling with the aristocracy, bringing them privilege and power.
It was during this period where the “mainline churches” began to decline in numbers. Given there privilege and education they did not relate to a society where 98% of the population did not have a high school education. Most people saw them as elites who were out of touch with the needs of the people. With such a disposition, it would be difficult to reach people in the religious marketplace. Besides, these denominations were offering a secularized faith, which didn’t resonate with the common folk. In contrast [to the Baptists and Methodists] … the colonial mainline [offered] a message that was literate and intellectual, which increasingly said little about salvation, hellfire, or the principal themes of the Baptist and Methodist sermons.”
The story of the Baptist and Methodists has a different ending. Their numbers swelled during those same years. For example, church rates as a whole went from 17% in 1776 to 34% in 1850. These numbers were galvanized not by the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, or Presbyterians, but the Baptists and Methodists. In 1776 55% belonged to the three aforementioned mainline churches, dropping significantly in 1850 to 19.1% of the total religious adherents. The Baptists and Methodists, on the other hand, went from 19.4% of the total amount of religious adherents to 57.7%, a whopping 28.3% increase. As a matter of fact, the Methodists reached a level at one time where there were more Methodist churches in America than post offices. With this kind of growth, the logical question would be how did this type of growth happen?
They did nothing more than continue the tradition of George Whitefield, which was to take advantage of the religious marketplace. When I say this, I don’t mean to demean them. After all, they were the ones, rather than the mainline churches, which were proclaiming the Gospel message and leading people to Christ. Rather, there were certain things they did that resonated with the people and the Baptist and Methodists intuitively knew what those things were. What took place, according to Phillip Luke Sinitiere, was “Baptist and Methodist upstarts benefited from this new unregulated economy and drew market share from mainliners who were less in touch with the needs and tastes of the masses….” Where Methodists used circuit riders to do this, Baptists used farmer preachers to proclaim their message and lead their perspective denominations forward. These were largely uneducated preachers who were willing to preach for next to nothing, but were able to communicate with the people on their level and in the vernacular they were used to. As a result of unregulated economy these upstarts were successful because such a circumstance allowed “these innovators to compete in the marketplace of ideas and draw market share from suppliers who [failed] to change with the times.” They were able to do what their “mainline” counterparts were not able to do, which was to meet the felt needs of the people.
Throughout the history of Evangelicalism in America, “Evangelical innovators have enjoyed cherished places in the religious economy by adjusting to each generation.” Names such as D. L. Moody and Billy Graham come to mind who the successful innovators of their time were. For instance, D. L. Moody met the needs of his generation and carved out a market niche by speaking in the common, ordinary language of the people. He didn’t resort to the flamboyant methods of a Charles Finney who preached decades before him. According to Geroge Marsden, “his message was simple. It involved the ‘Three R’s’: Ruin by Sin, Redemption by Christ, and Regeneration by the Holy Ghost. Saving Souls was the prominent goal.” He, together with his longtime friend Ira Sankley was able to wow audiences with their gifts of speaking and singing respectively. They were successful in designing worship services that attracted new people. Billy Graham, similarly, was able to accomplish the same results in a similar manner.
Church Growth Movement
Beginning in the 1950’s the church growth movement was born continuing the era of the religious marketplace, except now it was based on scientific research. The movement’s founder, Donald McGavran of Fuller Theological Seminary, sought to identity the causes of church growth as well as discovering the barriers that prevent churches from growing. This movement eventually morphed into a movement that advocated such things as marketing and management techniques to facilitate church growth, which resulted in leading the Church to embrace secularization. J B Watson Jr, Walter H Scalen Jr. offers insight into this movement while also drawing insight from Allen Wolfe. They state,
Adherents of the church growth movement seem to openly embrace this unique form of secularization, which is welcomed by church leaders as a formula for both short- and long-term growth. In The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (2003), Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, suggests that the modern church's intoxication with corporate business culture, self-improvement perspectives, and pop culture is part of a larger trend, namely, secularization.
Watson and Scalen go on to say that “the movement thus represents a unique form of secularization as evangelical leaders openly incorporate a business model in a local church context.” What the church growth movement did for pastors who were struggling for members was give them a vision for success provided they applied certain growth principles. There were many churches who were simply traditionalist utilizing the negative sense of the word. You may remember grandma’s church where there was no vitality, and where tradition was valued even more than God’s Word. Depending on the denomination, that traditionalism manifested itself in different forms. If you attended a Reformed church, Calvin was probably valued more than Christ. If her church was a Pentecostal church, possibly manifestations of the Spirit were acted out without the Spirit’s unction, attempting to recreate some sort of ecstatic experience that is supposed to be a sign of the Spirit’s moving. Perhaps grandma’s church was a holiness movement where sanctification was the result of hard work. My point here is that every denomination has their version of traditionalism. But there is one thing that traditionalist churches all have in common; no one is getting saved, rarely is anyone being disciplined and worst of all, God is probably not being glorified. The Saturday night live character - the Church Lady - would probably attend this church.
The Marketing Oriented Church
So it goes without saying that the traditionalist church is probably not the church you would want to emulate. After all, who wants to attend a church that is dying a slow death? There have been many responses to the traditionalist dilemma, and I would like to summarize three of them. The first is the marketing oriented church, which represents the American religious market place on steroids. This model was popularized by Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. He is a man that has a passion for the lost, and is probably the most influential pastor outside maybe Rick Warren in the nation. His church, which has mastered the religious marketplace, was a product of the high school ministry of South Park Church, located in Park Ridge, Illinois. The ministry combined bible teaching, drama, and contemporary music going from a few teenagers to about a thousand per night. Hybels, who was one of the youth leaders at the time, decided to start a new church with a few of his friends. They held their first service in a movie theater on October 12, 1975. In just two years attendance ballooned to about two thousand people. Today the church has a weekly attendance of over fifteen thousand worshipers every weekend, and has become a model for many Evangelical churches in America.
His key to success was to develop a marketing/corporate business model to do church. Hybels is thoroughly orthodox in his faith holding to essential teachings such as the Virgin Birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, the Second Coming of Christ, and the substitutionary atonement, all of which would make any evangelical proud and many liberal Protestants frown. So the problem is not his overall theology on the nature of the Bible, or his soteriology or Christology, etc. His beliefs are all evangelical in nature and congruent with historic Protestant understanding of these doctrines. What is problematic is his ecclesiology, or the doctrine that pertains to the nature and function of the church. Regarding this theological truth he takes the low road of liberal Protestantism.
Protestant liberalism was heavily influenced by a movement of modernists who fueled a debate in the early part of the 20th century that raged called the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. One of the controversy’s central issues was whether church should, in the name of relevance, adopt the Enlightenment oriented way of thinking where reason trumps over revelation. It what thought by modernists that, in lieu of scientific discoveries that were made which seemed to disprove parts of the Bible, one had to embrace a more enlightened naturalistic understanding of Christianity and her doctrines. Modernists thought that they were powerless to withstand the arguments mounted against a more literal interpretation of the Bible, and opted for a more rationalistic oriented approach. This made Scripture subject to human understanding, resulting in human reason trumping revelation when it came to how one understands key doctrines.
Similarly, Hybels builds his understanding of how to do church by looking primarily to the business world (reason), not first to God’s revealed Word, to shape his thinking on this subject. This is unfortunate. The over emphasis on business oriented approaches and techniques reveal the true nature regarding how the church should operate. This is evident during leadership conferences where he invites top leaders in the business world, some of which are not believers, to inform pastors on how to do church. Rarely is God’s word ever consulted and expounded upon for its truths. Given the influence that Willow Creek has had on tens of thousands of pastors, this thinking represents how many in the evangelical world view how they are to do church. After all, we live in a world that is permeated with corporate business practices, so the church needs to follow suit. Many evangelicals have bought in to this misconception, David Wells being one of them. He points out that, in many ways, evangelicals have traded sola Scriptura for sola cultura, meaning that culture and not the Scriptures defines how church should be done.
What product has such an understanding of how to do church produced? The Hybels/seeker sensitive model rests on a few false assumptions, the first of which is that unbelievers seek after God. The idea runs contrary to Scripture. The Apostle Paul declares, “None is righteous, no, not one; 11no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12). What the seeker is looking for is happiness, worth, and fear, which are all results of life without God. What the seeker needs is truth, coming from Christians who are full of grace, love and compassion. The only ones that seek after God are the ones God regenerates first.
The second false assumption is we should design the worship service to reach the seeker, an idea not rooted in Scripture. God wants His church to tailor the services to instruct the believer. Yet, the seeker sensitive model has sought to design their worship service to reach the seeker instead; the idea is to market the gospel to unbelievers, and this becomes the main thrust of the worship service. Thus, the music has to be entertaining, the lighting just right, and the sermon must be positive, uplifting, sprinkled with the occasional dose of humor. However, the worship service is supposed to be designed around the people of God. Moreover, a proper view of how church is to be done focuses on what pleases God, and not man. Everything we do needs to center on glorifying God.
Often times the quest to be seeker sensitive stems from the conviction that the Church should to engage the culture, which is a noble quest. This requires a real understanding of the culture. Yet, the quest for cultural understanding is often times superficial, and not a serious one. When seeker churches want to learn about culture, they primarily want to find out “the trends and fashions that ruffle the surface of contemporary life.” In other words, what they hope to learn about culture is what will help them better market the Christian message more efficiently. Too often, the worship service is geared towards entertaining the congregation resulting in a more man centered focus. I will never forget what a friend said, who was a pastor’s wife and worship leader at her church, that worship is to be a production. The often quoted phrase by those within this movement is that churches should change the method but not the message, which is true. But when does changing the method begin to change the message? My aforementioned friend the pastor’s wife serves as an example.
 Quote obtained from International Journal of Law in Context, 2,1 pp. 49–65 (2006) Cambridge University Press
 Rodger Finke; Stark, Rodney. The Churching of America 1776-1990. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992) 18
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 Fisk and Stark, 15
 Ibid. 22
 Ibid. 22-23
 Harry S. Stout. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991)
 Harry S. Stout. xvi
 Finke and Stark 72
 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion How the Upstart Sects Won America: 1776-1850 1989, 28 (1) 27-44
 Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace. New York: NYU Press short, 2009 Kindle Book
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 George Marsden. Understanding Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991) 21.
 Ibid. Kindle
 David Wells. The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World [Kindle Edition]