Product Placement in the Pews—Part 2
Secular corporations have discovered churches are heaven sent, but can pastors serve both God and marketers?

The Wharton School of Business has posted an article on their online journal, Knowledge@Wharton, about the growing trend of marketing products through churches. In part 2 of the article we hear from some critics of linking business practices and ministry including Jim Collins, author of the business best-seller Good to Great.

The overlap between commerce and Christianity also leaves some churches vulnerable to purely commercial marketing, says Moore, director of the American Studies program at Cornell University. "When you have churches thinking along business lines, receptiveness to sales pitches is just the direction that things go." Megachurches are particularly vulnerable because they are so intent on growth. "Religious organizations actively seeking to grow and expand - raise money, reach new members - do things that are as much secular as religious," Moore notes. "When you have megachurches with huge auditoriums, and lots of stores and schools and gymnasiums inside, it begins to look less and less like a religious place."

Growth is key to megachurch success because large, enthusiastic congregations are what megachurches "sell" to potential members, according to James Twitchell, author of the forthcoming Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from In Your Heart to In Your Face.

The first thing you hear at a megachurch these days "is how many new members they have. Churches used to be politely non-competitive," says Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida. But since so many megachurches are now independent or quasi-independent of centralized denominations, they aggressively compete with other churches for members. Maintaining rapid growth is tough, and when churches falter, that's when corporations spot an entryway, Twitchell adds. "Advertisers can go to the heart of your mission - in the case of megachurches, that's evangelism - and underwrite it."

Even business guru Jim Collins, best-selling author of Good to Great and Built to Last, has an opinion on the topic. Growth for the sake of growth is potentially destructive, warns Collins, who spoke this summer to a megachurch leadership conference about his new publication applying Good to Great concepts to "social sector" organizations like churches. The key question for churches, he says, is, "Do they have the discipline to say 'no' to any resources that will drive them away from their fundamental mission?"

For some churches, using corporate sponsorships might be a great opportunity; for others it might lead them astray, Collins suggests. "It would be too broad a brush to say it's all good or bad for churches, just as it's too broad to say debt is all good or bad for companies. Churches need clarity to decide what's right for their financing."

December 22, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 13 comments

Christian David

December 28, 2006  9:08am

I couldn't agree more with Leoskeo's post. It's nice to hear someone who shares a concern about small, ineffective churches that trash mega churches on a wholesale level. My guess is that most people who do this have never been in a mega church. Ever since Cyrill and Methodius created a new alphabet and translated the Gospels, the Psalms, and Paul's letters for the people of Moravia in 863 a.d. - people who were starving to hear the word of God in their own language instead of sitting through worship services conducted in Latin - some have answered the call to present the word of God in relevant ways to the people of their time and place. You can look up the history of those two missionaries to see that the established church's reaction to their effective work still hasn't changed much. While I'm sure there are churches that sell cars in their lobbies, I don't think that's the norm. In fact, at our shrinking, self-centered, evangelistically-challenged, tradition-bound church near Orlando, many of our church members attend our service and then watch people like Bob Coy and James Kennedy on TV, listen to James MacDonald and Chuck Swindoll on the radio, and attend large churches like Joel Hunter's Northland on Sunday or Monday evening, in order to hear the word of God made relevant to their lives and to worship the Lord without all the constraints imposed by our traditions. These faithful members of our congregation hang in there hoping that some day our own church leaders may see the light before we lose all our members or can't pay the bills to keep the place open. Small churches and mega churches alike need to get beyond the debate about size and worship format and focus our energies on the Gospel. If we do that, it won't matter how large or how small the congregation is.

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December 27, 2006  1:39pm

What we are seeing in South Africa is smaller churches and older denominations falling apart because they are no longer trying to be relevant to people - essentially they are clubs with their own zealously guarded norms, plastic smiles and judgemental attitudes. After a while I feel that I do want to go to a bigger church which is actually trying to fulfil the Great Commission. I'm just tired.

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December 26, 2006  1:28am

Nate, I agree. But the question being asked applies to how many churches of the 400,000+ churches in this country? And, while I agree it is a valid question, is it the one being answered here? The point of my comment is that many responders here in this post and previous posts beat the heck out of the Mega church but keep their hands off the impotent little church, that reaches no one. Each year the average church reaches 1 person for Christ per 100 attendees. The average church size. 85. So less than one new Christian per church in this country per church. When a church hits 300 it will increase the ratio of conversions per 100 and the larger it gets the higher it goes. New churches have the highest per 100 attendees. The more common scenario is not some mega church partnering with a corporate entity for advertising but a small church failing to impact its community. Consider that the average church in America is 85 people. That means the bulk of people in this country who attend church attend a small church not a mega church. If the church does not figure out quickly how to take this amazing message, the always relevant message of Jesus Christ, and translate it into the language of this culture it will remain impotent to change lives on a mass scale and the stats above will get more discouraging. That is where my passion comes from.

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December 25, 2006  10:13pm

Leoskeo: It's fine to criticize small church for failing to reach the lost, but neither should megachurches consider it reaching the lost if they draw folks bored with their small church. In that regard, I suppose there a lot of churches, large or small, that are just trying to compete with each other, trying to get a bigger piece of a shrinking pie. Big or small, let's try to emulate those churches that are growing the pie. And I do think it's a valid question to ask if we're really growing the pie–calling people to follow Jesus–if we're partnering with commercial interests.

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Chen Huang

December 25, 2006  9:14am

It seems to me that discussion has been turned into how megachurches reach or attract members and not focus on the partnership of churches with corporation. I have no problem on that megachurches uses all wisdom to spread Gospel to unsaved. But, I do question if the majority of growth of megachurches is from switching membership from other churchee because membership transfer does not advance His kindom. I pray that by membership transfer, those brothers and sisters can be trained and become effective in evangelism; not just enjoy ammenities from megachurches. Fundamentally, churches sale products that are gifts of God. The sale, however, is not dependent on man's programming. It is by the power of God. Our responsibilities are to communicate the Gospel clearly and accurately using all wisdom. But, to stumble our brothers because of "using all wisdom", including partnership with corporations for profit, is the thing I always remind myself not to do. I do have concern that partnership with corporation will eventually leads some brothersand sisters to stumble on materialism. Whether megachurches or small churches, please be proud of yourselves on your witness of Jesus and not be ashamed of the size of your membership. All we can do is do our best and rest the other burdens to our Lord. Merry christmas to everyone.

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December 23, 2006  8:49pm

To Jay's question, I would say no to both questions. First of all, the only way to effectively express the unconditional love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion and eternal hope of the Gospel to anyone regardless of their culture is when said culture witnesses those things manifested in the collective lives of the body of Christ. These are the things everyone longs for in their soul no matter how badly their senses have become dulled by consumerism and pop culture. Of course these things take a back seat to buildings, bands and big light shows–not in the least to mention the Escalades and BMW's we've bought because they were advertised in our sanctuaries. I also agree with leoskeo that there is little fundamental difference between the coffee shop church, the mega church and the tiny, old, empty church. They're all missing the wonderful simplicity and blessing of being the hands and feet of Jesus to a world who desperately needs Him.

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jay woodham

December 23, 2006  3:44pm

I've been following the series of posts since Noble's post on experiential worship, and it seems people can't express the fundamental question at the heart of the disagreement here. That question, as I see it, is can the gospel be adequately expressed in the language and rituals of the consumer culture in which we live? Conversely, can you preach and teach the gospel without some call away from that consumer culture? As I get older I'm getting ever more inclined to say that the answer to both of those questions is yes. I apologize for occasional snarkiness on the board by those who share my opinion, but I'm with them that the megachurch (AKA church at the mall) crowd and the emergent movement (AKA church at the coffeehouse) both have something fundamentally wrong on this score.

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December 23, 2006  11:20am

Over 400 thousand churches in America. The average one reaches less than 2 people a year for Christ and this is what we get ourselves all worked up about. It seems that we are talking about less than 1-2% of churches this would actually impact, but it is what gets our eyes of the shameful ineffectiveness of the church. Not every small church is out of touch but most are. There are so many small churches that reach no one for Christ, do nothing to impact their community and trash the Mega-church for stealing their sheep, marketing and the likes. They sit around perfectly poised to make a difference for Christ is we ever time warp back to the 50's. Why aren't you upset that churches do not reach people for Christ? Why are you not scolding these churches like the 1-2% (I am sure it is less) who might market in their pulpit? How come you can beat up (the Perry Noble post) guys who passionately long for the Gospel to be communicated in the language of our culture but be okay with the church that was 100 people 20 years ago and is 80 people today? Shouldn't that bother us more than whether a few mega-churches advertise? If not more how about just as much? The reason the church is ineffective is not a few mega-churches selling advertising but because of the over 400,000 churches in America most do not reach people for Christ, have no plan to reach people for Christ and would rather complain about those who do than get on their knees and weep for lost people, confess they hid their lights under a bushel and beg God to give them his heart for people. If you wish to respond to this, try to do so without attacking the Mega-church. Is there a defense for the impotence of the average church in America (about 80 or so people)? I am not for commercial advertising in the church but since we are talking about a couple churches out of 400,000 lets focus on something a bit more relevant like how can we responsibly reach people for Christ, grow those people to maturity in Christ and help them become leaders within the body of Christ and their community

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December 22, 2006  8:44pm

Jim Collins says that "growth for the sake of growth is potentially destructive". I think the best illustration of that is a balloon imprinted with a message. Without air, it is lifeless... it won't go anywhere, and its message can't be seen. With optimum inflation, it will rise so that the message expands and is easily seen. The balloon actually becomes the message. An over-inflated balloon reaches beyond its message and bursts...destroying what it sought to elevate. The questions are, "What is optimum inflation?" and "Are we willing to trust God to gauge our growth?" Over 30 years ago, God allowed me to be part of a church that believed in reproduction, not unbridled growth. Our only "sponsor" was God Himself. He allowed us to grow, to purchase property without going into debt, and to outgrow that property in one year's time. Then He sent out seed families to grow another church 30 miles away. In each case, He allowed us to go through difficult times as congregations, but He always paid the bills. And He was faithful to be the Jehovah-Jireh of His Word. Both of those churches are still small in comparison to the mega's of the world, but both are faith-based. Today, I am in our third church plant. After six years, we are still struggling numerically, although not financially. We've got a web page so that we are visible to the community, but we aren't hi-tech. We take advantage of opportunities to let people know what our church believes, but we are not an "event-based" church, bringing in entertainment. God is doing a different kind of work of faith here. Our emphasis is on evangelism, both locally and through the four couples we have sent out and support as missionaries. Of those couples, three are members of our body. I think we are realizing that we are a "niche" church, ministering in ways that the big churches are not. We don't have a concierge in our lobby or a cafe in the sanctuary. We do have people who will invite you for lunch or give you a place to stay. They will rejoice with you when you rejoice and will grieve with you when you grieve. If people need a Starbucks, there's one just down the road. The coffee here is free. GOd is still Jehovah-Jireh.

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December 22, 2006  8:27pm

"And to the Angel of the church in Laodicea wtie "The words of the Amen the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation. I know your works.......For you say I am rich, I have prospered and need nothing, not realising that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked....Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold I stand at the door and knock.... He's waiting to be asked back into His church from which we have evicted him, in our pursuit of the gospel of success and worship at the altar of Mammon - let it start with you and me.

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