by Scott Bessenecker
Will Rogers once said that we have the best politicians money can buy. Rogers, who made this remark in the era of the Great Depression, would be appalled at the amount of money spent on elections today. During the 2012 election cycle, more than $6 billion was spent to convince the American public to vote for various candidates. I would not be surprised if the money spent on campaigns in 2016 significantly outstrips the 2012 election year.
We live in a generation of marketing driven by corporate entities. Corporate-styled capitalism has come to have dominance in both the business and political spheres of life in America. I would argue, in fact, that the corporate capitalist worldview, with its gravitational center of marketing and money, has become the prevailing worldview in the spheres of education, healthcare, and even the life of faith. We have the best Christianity money can buy.
Here’s what I mean by that.
In seventeenth-century America, the introduction of a second church in a town proved a great dilemma. Before that time, it was assumed that a townsperson would worship at whatever Christian church had been established, regardless of the denomination. Neighbors and workmates would share the Communion table, no matter their theological differences. But a second church meant there was a choice. James Hudnut-Beumler, professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University, notes that a second church in town “was traumatic because it represented a breakdown in a prior and cherished communal form of life. It introduced the market and choice to a place (religious life) where most would have thought it undesirable, even unnatural.”[i]
Later, the great American revivals (beginning in the 1720s) increased the emphasis on decisional evangelism and the prominance of using oratory skill to convince another person to make a profession of faith. Rather than the evangelism of a life well-lived, or belonging first to a community before believing, or even simply asking the question Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” evangelism become more like a sales pitch.
As the influence of consumerism and corporate capitalism increased, evangelism and church growth became more about specialized marketing than about a spiritual movement. The American Church, like American politics and American businesses, has become increasingly centered on money and marketing.
American missions in the late 1920s went through a financial crisis. Giving to missions was plummeting and nobody quite knew why, so a study was undertaken to find out. The study revealed that American Protestant Christianity had gone on a building spree and had financed their structures with debt. Building churches became a bit of a craze; owning a building became an apparition of success. “In the Methodist Episcopal Church alone, $4 million in interest was being paid each year out of receipts of roughly $100 million. Methodists were paying more interest to banks each year in the late 1920s than they were giving their Board of Foreign Missions.”[ii]
The American congregation had moved out of the schoolhouse or town meeting hall and had constructed competing institutional churches as behemoths from which to run their Sunday gatherings and ministries. The church had chosen a mortgage over a mission.
In too many ways the American Church has been reduced to a business. Success has become mostly about numbers rather than establishing organic communities of believers in all kinds of configurations and contexts. Quickly-reproducing businesses have become the templates for our churches and nonprofits, and we mimic and implement whatever tactics work in hatching a business empire or hustling a product. One church in Texas gave away cars, televisions and other products to those who attended an Easter service. And today, it’s nearly impossible to go to popular Christian websites or attend Christian conferences without being inundated by advertisements.
Bringing this over-marketed, consumer-minded generation into relationship with Jesus must involve more than building a great edifice (complete with Starbucks-like coffee shop), contracting with a consultant, hiring an attractive and charismatic preacher, and building a great contemporary worship band. Like every generation, it must be about living life the way it was meant to be lived.
In the early 13th century, Francis and Clare faced a similar disenfranchisement with a wealth-saturated Church and a society hungry for true spirituality. Rather than dismantling the existing structures, they simply lived an alternative to what the world and the Church was offering at the time.
Let us offer the good life to this generation of Americans, not through slick ad campaigns or contemporary marketing methodologies, but by living lives free of consumptive covetousness, full of hope, and serving others with gladness.
[i] James Hudnut-Beumler, In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), p. 138.
[ii] Ibid, p. 98
Scott Bessenecker (@Bessenecker) is associate director of mission forInterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Each year, he helps to mobilize thousands of students to high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods in the U.S. and to dozens of nations around the world. He is author or editor of five books, including his new release Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex. Scott also blogs at www.OverturningTables.net.