“Consuming Religion”

LoftonThis is the title of Religious Studies scholar Kathryn Lofton‘s new book.  Over at Religion Dispatches, she answers a ten questions about it.  Here is a taste:

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

First, nobody evades being organized by something; second, if you’re being organized by something, it is worth learning the terms for that organization; third, if you learn one and two, you will be a part of the study of religion.

Every Goldman Sachs employee with whom I met was absolutely comfortable with the word religion applied to their community. Indeed, when I pressed them, saying how many scholars of religion found the term problematic for the following x or y reason, they got it, but they still didn’t care. They didn’t mind the word because they liked how it demonstrated the seriousness, the proud intensity, of their collectivity.

And this is what I want to emphasize in my study of consumer culture and religion: religion is a word for how people consciously organize themselves in the world and unconsciously are organized by the world. Insofar as ours is a world built by material and immaterial networks and grids, I think we’re missing out if we think of those networks and grids as secular or irreligious.

We are missing out insofar as we are missing what I have found as the archival intention of designers. Namely, to organize themselves (and us) into a world they get thereby to organize. The problem of collectivity is the danger of assimilating into any grid. The possibility of collectivity is the strength we have to rewrite our frames, together, to design different societies.

Read the entire interview here.

McMass

A group of entrepreneurs is trying to raise one million dollars to build a McDonald’s restaurant inside a church.  They are calling the project “McMass.” 


Here is the plan:

Churches in modern times suffer from a number of unique problems. In many places across America church attendance is in decline, and churches themselves are even closing down. Churches need to make sure they are financially stable, and need to engage with the larger community around them. A McDonald’s franchise represents an opportunity not only for revenue, but also to draw a wider audience to the church, reinforcing the church as a gathering point.

Churches are amazing buildings, and their power to add to a business is immense. Churches are often centrally located relative to their communities, enhancing a McDonald’s already considerable audience draw. Traditionally, the space has gravity, ambience, and architecture that make for highly desirable real estate.
The McMass group is in the process of finding a church willing to host its McDonald’s.  I have absolutely no doubt that they will be successful.  If history teaches us anything, it is that American Christians have never had a problem using capitalism to get people in the pews. Today’s megachurches have coffee shops that serve Starbucks coffee.  Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area has a food court.   So does First Baptist Church in Atlanta.  It serves food from Chick-fil-A, Papa John’s, and Boston Market. McDonald’s is the next logical step.  
Perhaps you are a Christian who does not like the idea of having a fast food restaurant in a church. Perhaps you believe church is not a place where people should go to satisfy their personal wants and desires for goods–in this case cheap burgers, fries, shakes, chicken nuggets, and hot apple pies. Maybe you think church should be a place of self-denial–a sacred space where these consumer desires for comfort food should be curbed so that the affections can be turned toward God and fellow believers rather than personal appetites.
Too late.  The train has already left the station.  

Why Do Evangelicals Have All the Religious Bestsellers?

Mickey Maudlin, who is VP for Bible Publishing at HarperOne, believes it has something to do with the fact that evangelicals have done a better job of accommodating to consumer culture than mainline Protestants and Catholics.  He writes:

Because the most important agent in this world is the individual consumer, and because of the sheer size of this demographic, books, music and programs are marketed to these individuals, which has allowed for the rise of mega-churches (guaranteed quality programming), a network of Christian bookstores and a panoply of media offerings (TV, radio, websites, DVDs, etc.) targeted to these believers. So when an unknown author catches on in some circles — such as happened with Sarah Young’s devotional “Jesus Calling” — there is a system in place to respond (Young’s book has sold more than 2 million copies). There are a variety of ways to market effectively to their audience. Yes, those bestsellers break out into the general market, rising in rankings on Amazon and sold in stacks at Barnes & Noble, but often half the sales of these blockbusters are from specifically evangelical distribution channels. This is a huge advantage.

Now imagine the Catholic consumer, who typically does not see himself or herself as the deciding agent. Spend time with Catholic customers and you will hear questions like, “Which one is approved by the church?” — or by “my bishop” or by “my priest.” This is why there are so few Catholic bookstores despite there being more Catholics (about 75 million) than any other one church group. The biggest players in this world are those Catholic publishers who sell directly to Catholic institutions — such as schools and parishes — not to individual Catholic consumers. And even if a Catholic author catches on with consumers, there is no real distribution system directly to Catholics except for mainstream bookstores. 

That leaves mainline Protestants, a still sizable group (around 53 million), characterized by their diversity, tolerance and commitment to social justice but also by their weakening institutional ties. Everyone recognizes the significant weakening of denominations’ ability to impose an agenda on its constituency, but these affiliations retain a significant pull in shaping their clergy’s and their churches’ time and energy. At the same time, the denominations have almost no direct relationship with their lay members. This is why so many denominational publishers have struggled financially and shrunk their lists. The largest mainline denomination, the United Methodists, has often done the best job of reaching out to consumers through its Cokesbury bookstores and website, but even they have announced the closing of their remaining 50-plus stores after April of this year. Because of the split, diverse interests of these churches, there is no one place online or physically where these Christians come together. Few leaders rise up and are known outside their denomination; no website or magazine can claim to draw significant numbers (though The Christian Century comes closest). If a publisher wants to reach out to this constituency, there is no direct way to reach the masses in the same way evangelicals can to their constituencies.

Evangelical print culture in the early nineteenth century was popular for the same reasons.  I seem to remember Nathan Hatch having something say about this in The Democratization of American Christianity.

Super-Sizing Church

Live Science is running an interesting piece about megachurches based on the research of a University of Washington graduate student in sociology.  Katie Corcoran, who presented some of her research on Sunday at the meeting of the American Sociological Association, is working on a book with religion professor James Wellman called High on God: How the Megachurch Conquered America.

Here is a taste of the article:

…a new study of 12 representative megachurches spread across the country finds that the size of these churches is a major part of their appeal. Members report that the experience of worshiping with thousands is intoxicating, the researchers find.

“It’s an addicting experience, it’s so large, it’s so huge,” said study researcher Katie Corcoran, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Washington. “One respondent said you can look up to the balcony and see the Holy Spirit go over the crowd like a wave in a football game…” 

Corcoran attributes the rise in megachurches to charismatic pastors, optimistic messages and activities for every interest. Small groups, often based around non-religious hobbies like knitting or fishing, give members a sense of belonging, she said.

“The main reason that people are gravitating towards these churches is because they do offer a wide variety of programs, and they have very enjoyable and entertaining services with messages that a lot of people feel comfortable with,” Corcoran said.

The researchers also found a new trend of people reporting that they regularly attend not only a megachurch, but another church as well. It’s not yet clear why people double up on their churches, but it’s likely that they’re getting something different from each church, Corcoran said.

I have a hard time reconciling the megachurch with the message my family heard in church this past Sunday. (I was sick).  The sermon came from the Matthew 7: 13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the
road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Just thinking…