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Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from In Your Heart to In Your Face Hardcover – Bargain Price, September 18, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Twitchell (Branded Nation) offers a provocative but uneven analysis of the nexus of consumerism and Christianity. Arguing that Americans live in a religious marketplace, where religious sensation is... manufactured, branded, packaged, shipped out, and consumed, he examines the cultural significance of marquee signs, the appeal and limitations of megachurches and the choreography of Franklin Graham's crusades. The most fascinating sections analyze the strengths and weaknesses of mainline denominations' print and television advertising campaigns. Twitchell helpfully contextualizes the marketing of religion in the larger story of American consumerism, and he intriguingly points out that some of our most important advertising gurus were the children of clergy. Although often incisive and insightful, Twitchell's analysis is marred by an annoyingly colloquial tone and an occasional ahistoricism. Although Twitchell is clearly familiar with other historical moments in which Christianity was marketed, he seems to imagine that in some bygone era, American religion was private. The claim that The old-style celeb kept his religion to himself overlooks the fact that many old-time celebs, such as Henry Ward Beecher, were preachers. Although he rehearses the history of the Great Awakening—when newspapers puffed revivalists—he suggests that religion's status as big news for journalists is a new development. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
James B. Twitchell is professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida. He is the author of several books on English literature, culture, marketing, and advertising, most recently Living It Up: America's Love Affair with Luxury. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Instead of expecting people to accept their practices, fast growing denominations have tailored their churches to meet the needs and desires of those they hope to serve. They define the church in a much more expansive way than traditional churches do. They attract people from a variety of religious backgrounds and center their preaching on the problems of daily life - the pain and problems that stem from a broken marriage financial trouble, aging, aloneness, substance abuse, etc. Attendees seek relief, as opposed to guilt; they want good news, not more bad news.
Essentially, this about how churches get you and others into church? How are the sensations of these beliefs generated, marketed, and consumed? Who pays? How much? And how come the markets are so roiled up right now in the United States? Or have they always been that way? Does the church on the corner operate like a gas station? What about the mega-church out thereby the interstate - is it like a big-box store? What about the denominations that they represent - do they compete? Why are they hiring so many marketing consultants? How do churches position themselves? How do they separate themselves from one another? How they break through the clutter of not just other religions but other denominations?
Author Twitchell, a professor of English and Advertising at the University of Florida, considers himself a cold Christian - a disinclination to care all that much about his own religion and an even stronger disinclination to care about other religions - and writes from this point-of-view. While some will be put off by "Selling" (it does not draw on empirical data), it is a good read and should generate discussion on several important observations Twitchell makes.
Twitchell also spends some time with more recent trends as he details his theory of selling an experience. He especially details the techniques of revivalist Charles Finney, who would purposefully seat his most exhuberant audience members up front (the "anxious bench") so that others would see them and be caught up in the moment. This was a technique that exploited herd mentality and emotionalism, but also employed the technique of urgency: implying that you don't want be the last to convert; that it's for a limited time only. All of these techniques, Twitchell argues, are used by many churches all over.
Twitchell spends a lot of time talking about church "branding." Essentially, he says, churches are trying to sell a story and an experience and less the message of salvation. That comes later, but first the experience has to rope people in and give people a sense that this experience is better than the experience they'll get elsewhere. Similar to Finney's revival tactics, Twitchell argues, people will first look for how good a particular church makes them feel. Is the congregation welcoming enough? Is the music moving enough? Is the sermon passionate enough?
That, he notes, is what branding is. He makes lots of comparisons to other products: you have a choice of half a dozen dish soaps and they're all essentially the same...it's the brand that people are buying, not the product itself. So when churches try to "brand" themselves, they're trying to differentiate themselves from others. So they come up with slogans, they may emphasize how welcoming they are or how exciting they are, they may talk about how they aren't your father's church or that they're church for people who don't like church, and always with subtle or overt digs at other churches. Most of these churches are pretty much the same, he argues, so they need to emphasize their brand over others.
No one escapes scrutiny in this book. Twitchell analyzes the megachurch's mastery of being the Church That Feels Good and being the big box church that offers what the small Mom and Pop church can't. And in a bit of commentary on post-denominationalism, Twitchell notes that megachurches provide the "generic brand" of church. When people feel less of a tie to a brand (Methodism, Lutheranism, etc.), they'll "trade down" to the product that works just as well and makes them feel just as good, but maybe less expensive.
And mainliners get a lot of commentary, too. Twitchell's exploration of "church branding" maybe even comes down the heaviest on them, because in this new competitive marketplace, mainliners haven't done enough to differentiate themselves from the pack. He does note recent attempts by many mainline denominations to advertise and brand themselves, such as commercial campaigns by the United Church of Christ and United Methodists. His basic point with mainliners is that up until recently they haven't cared enough to compete, but their hemorraging of members has finally caused enough of a sense of urgency to do something. At the same time, he notes, national commercials haven't made much of a difference in terms of new members.
The book may come off as cynical and make people squirm, but it also details a harsh reality: that churches do compete as a byproduct of their existence as institutions, and the ones that don't fall by the wayside. Churches either try to offer an experience that speaks to members and visitors, or those members and visitors go elsewhere. We may not put it in terms of marketing and branding, but there's a reason why people fight over worship styles and being more welcoming and whatever else. They're fighting over an experience, either of existing members or potential members.
One not familiar with marketing jargon may have to spend some extra time with certain parts of the book, like I did. But this is eye-opening, if not a little disturbing. I should also note that this book is much more descriptive than prescriptive, and frequently re-states that the entire concept of church consumerism is very unique to the United States. Go figure.