Free Markets, Church, and Faith
By Joseph Ellis
I live in a small town in the state of Utah. I’m talking small, about 10,000 people. It’s called Heber, named after the Mormon apostle Heber Kimball; and its located east of the Salt Lake valley in a small cozy valley behind the Wasatch Mountains. It’s a nice town, the people are hard working and religious. I was unable to find an official number (at least published), but if I had to guess, I would venture to say the Mormon (LDS) population would be a little higher than the rest of the state, which is about 67 percent. We’ll say Heber is probably around 77 percent Mormon while another 15 percent of the population is Latino and largely Catholic. That leaves roughly 8 percent of the population as identifying themselves with another religion, Protestant faith, or not religious.
This leaves a very small number of Christians who would find themselves going to one of the other churches located in the valley, or the neighboring city (about 20 minutes away). It may be surprising, then, how many people have tried to start churches in this community. There are five churches that are neither Mormon or Catholic, all of them are under 50 people, and three of them are under 20 most Sundays. Many regular attenders of these churches have regularly attended each of the other churches at some point; and each new church has mostly comprised of people from these congregations (the exceptions being those who are Fundamentalist or Jehovah Witnesses, they typically stay within their groups). For the most part, each church is a mixture of the same people who have cycled through all the others.
What is striking to me is how representative my town is of the rest of the United States. Sure, most other places don’t have a Mormon population representing the majority of the state; but there is always a segment (often massive) of any community that a church does not market towards. The reasons are not maniacal or malicious in nature. It simply has to do with market forces. Yes, market forces.
Every church knows there are segments of the community that will be easier to reach in terms of time and money; and since every church has limited resources, it makes sense for them to focus on groups that will be cost effective. Furthermore, because the majority of church start-ups tend to be Evangelical or Baptist (or a non-denominational mixture), many churches tend to market towards the same group of people.
This creates several problems for churches (and any religion) that engage in marketing strategies and free market systems (as well as churches that don’t, but are in close proximity to those that do). The first problem that arises is it puts churches in competition with one another. Churches can no longer afford to rely on theology and practice to draw congregants. They must provide a product people want. This has created many of the ever evolving churches and start-ups that seek to find the stylistic sweet spots that captures the majority of the market share. In this way, church becomes a consumer driven product. This leads to other problems and dysfunction that I will not discuss here.
The second problem that arises coincides with the first, and it is the cannibalization of the market. Since the population of any given community has a finite number of people who will be attracted to this kind of church and be willing to fiscally support the model, many churches are after the same people. I know this will be contested by some, but I know a great number of pastors, and I also know very few who don’t look at other churches and pastors as competition. Most churches rely on a small critical mass to support the vast majority of the budget. These people are difficult to come by, and churches will bend over backwards to retain them. When a new church is started, it is not primarily attracting people who don’t go to church. They are attracting people who attend other nearby churches.
In the case of my little town, these conditions have lead to ups and downs for each congregation and the demise of many others. This leads us to some other questions as well. As a friend of mine (Erica Monge) wrote, ” in regards to religion, the very idea of marketing religion is inherently attached to the debatable concept of whether religion can truly survive in a capitalistic nation.” That is, when church is forced to compete for consumers, can it retain the fundamental elements that defined it as “church” to begin with? If another organization can offer a more fulfilling, more spiritually narcissistic, and more favorable experience than another, what, if anything, will keep people from abandoning religious ideology of old in favor of a more compelling flavor? And if the trend of market driven faith continues, at what point does it cease being religion? Lastly, and perhaps more apt, when will we see a church with “Trump” displayed in large gold letters?