Church Growth: Survival of the Fittest – Marketing Religion

Posted: September 16, 2011 in Church Praise and Worship
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Survival of the Fittest – Marketing Religion

The idea of marketing was added to the church growth pot as a result of the work of sociologists Rodney Stark, Roger Finke, Laurence Lannaccone, R. Stephen Warner, and others. It was during the ‘80s that Stark and his collaborators began interpreting religious-affiliation data through the lens of neoliberal market theory. Neoliberal market theory contends that market forces alone will result in the just distribution resources or goods. Therefore, if the government, for example, would leave the economy alone, everything would go as it should and everyone would get what he or she should get. This theory is all about letting the national economy follow its course without government intervention. It is all about allowing market forces in an open economy to naturally take care of everything with regards to the distribution of wealth.

Neoliberalism proposes a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” view of the national economy where the weak are eliminated and only the strong survive. Supply and demand alone will determine the appropriate price of consumable products and services without the help of government regulation. Consumers choose which products or services they want to consume. Those business that do the best job of producing and marketing their products will be the ones who come out on top. The companies that win in the end will be the ones who were supposed to win. Because of the resultant competitive atmosphere between companies, there will be more choices to choose from as consumers have greater access to the products and services that they want at an affordable price.

Stark attempted to apply this theory to religion by viewing the church as a religious economy in which potential churchgoers or “seekers,” as they are called, roam around their communities as consumers looking for a religious product or service that best suits them. Thus, in the development of the religious economies, Stark determined that “it makes sense to model religion as the behavior of rational, well-informed actors who choose to ‘consume’ secular commodities.” He concluded that the choice of religious affiliation is made as the potential church member weighs the costs and benefits of each possible choice. While surrounded by an environment where churches compete with each other to see who can come up the most attractive products or services, the “seeker” chooses the church that maximizes the rewards. And because of the competitive atmosphere between churches within the context of the law of supply and demand, the “seeker” will have a whole lot of choices to choose from.

The religious economies viewpoint contends that “to the degree that a religious economy is competitive and pluralistic, overall levels of religious participation will tend to be high.” Using data from the U.S. Census on religious bodies collected in 1906, Finke and Stark concluded that religious adherence is higher in urban environments than in rural areas. This, they concluded, is due in large part to the greater availability of religious options in the city. “Thus,” it was argued, ”a natural consequence of an open religious economy is a religious pluralism that forces each religious body to appeal successfully to some segment of the religious market, or to slide into oblivion”.

Because individual churches are busily specializing in order to survive, it becomes easier for religious “consumers” to find the best product for them. And so we see the notion of potential churchgoers as consumers of goods who need to be attracted to particular congregations through “relate to the surrounding culture” marketing techniques. In order for the church to attract these people, it must take on the culture ofHollywoodand Madison Avenue and get into the business of marketing their wares. It must become “seeker friendly”. And unless a particular church adopts this pursuit, it will not be able to compete. It’s all about Darwinian evolution and who will be fit enough survive in this dog-eat-dog world.

Stay tuned for more!

The preceeding blog is an exerpt from Don Wigton’s book “Holy Wars.” Click here to purchase:

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