Faith in Focus

The Marketing of Religion


"In the 90s, even God is into niche-marketing." This was The Listener's conclusion after conducting a recent Heylen survey on religious experience in New Zealand. The results show that 31% are delighted and 62% are at least satisfied with their religious fulfilment. When compared with the figures of 1985, the "delighted" category shows a big jump of 12%.

What can account for this dramatic increase in spiritual fulfilment? For answer, The Listener consulted Rev. John Bluck, Dean of Christchurch Cathedral. Bluck puts it down to the rich variety of religious forums now available. From Maori spirituality through to new-age mysticism, - virtually everyone's spiritual needs can be catered for in New Zealand. In fact, traditional Christian churches must learn to adapt to the changing environment [market] if they want to survive. Only those churches that show a willingness to become pluralist in their outlook will stave off otherwise inevitable demise.

Says Bluck: "My experience is that when you do widen the variety of liturgy and music, in fact you halt the decline. There are even some modest signs of growth. Where mainline churches are willing to get into some real dialogue with the culture around them, in terms of respecting the forms of music, of meeting and group building and changes in language, then I think the decline in numbers can be stopped. And I think the figures bear that out." Bluck predicts that in the next 10 years the kind of variety that we are seeing now with increase massively.

They know all about niche-marketing at the Church of England congregation in Brompton, London. According to Time Magazine, so popular are the services at Holy Trinity that lines start forming outside an hour and a half beforehand. When the services begin, there is standing room only for 1,500 people. So what has produced this outstanding success when all the indicators suggest that we are going through a period of general spiritual depression? Laughter! No, don't laugh. I'm being deadly serious here. It is laughter that has produced this remarkable upturn. After the usual Scripture readings, prayers and singing, the chairs are all cleared away. Then someone prays that the Holy Spirit would come upon the congregation. Soon a member begins laughing. Then others join in with hearty belly laughs. Typically, a worshipper with then fall to the floor, hands twitching. Within half an hour there are bodies everywhere as supplicants sob, shake, roar like lions, and laugh uncontrollably. Could this mini-boom have originated in England, you ask intelligently? Of course not! It was begun in the home of free enterprise, the good ol' US of A, by a real entrepreneur named Rodney Howard-Browne. From America, the fervour spread to Toronto, Canada, where an ecclesiastical market leader, no fewer than six nights per week, offers this service to all.

You have to hand it to these people. Think of the advertising campaign they could run. "Feeling, tired, stressed out, depressed? Had too many hard days at the office? Come to the church for a no-obligation experience that will lift you out of the doldrums and enable you to face life's problems with renewed zeal. Phone this toll-free 0800 number now! Or, consult your local church directory for more details."

Sad to say, the idea of God being "into niche-marketing" is a concept at least implicitly adopted by many churches and church-goers today. No longer is public worship attended out of the conscious response of God's people to His call so that they can render service and praise to Him. No, the service has become the service rendered to the people by the congregation's leadership. People attend for what they get out of it, and if what they get out of it does not measure up to expectations, it's time to move on or stop attending church services altogether.

Church leaders have done their level best to respond to the changing market demands of a fickle buying public. If the people are not happy, it must be because there is something wrong with the liturgy (order of service, method of celebrating the sacraments, hymnody) or the sermons. Typically, a congregational survey is taken of the people's likes and dislikes and the data analysed by those with the necessary skills to do this. Then change is introduced to remove the dislikes and cater for as many desires as possible. Of course, not everyone can be satisfied at any given time, and the older folk, especially, will resist the changes because, after all, they're old. But a few creative readjustments can deal with this problem. We can run a traditional service for those who feel happy there, and a progressive service for those who want the innovations. And, if things really begin to boom, we can offer three services, with one of them catering in particular for new prospects. These latter services need to be as unchurch-like as possible so that non-church people will feel at home and satisfied in them. Again, the buzz word is relevance, which translated means: Give the people what they want.

Needless to say, these methods do not produce the desired result. As soon as marketing and entertainment become the motivating and dominating principles in church life, there are always other groups and churches that have the resources to offer a more captivating, exciting experience [product] so the trend towards local unfaithfulness and lack of commitment on the part of many church members continues. And ultimately, no church can compete with the world and the goods and services it has to offer. Very often, worshippers in search of entertainment, after racing down the beaten ecclesiastical track, eventually find their way back to their own living rooms and television screens or branch out into something exotic like new-age spiritualism.

Will this happen in those churches where "laughing for the Lord" is currently in vogue? Of course. But not to worry. When the inevitable decline sets in, the faithful remnant can begin a new fashion: Crying for the Lord. That's bound to bring the lost sheep flocking back.

Rev. Michael A. Flinn

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised November 96 / Copyright 1996