Classic JM: Christian Identity and Consumer Choice

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : December 24, 2007

The following was originally posted on February 13, 2007:

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has an excellent news service that I read daily. Today they shared an excellent article on how religious identity is no longer a given. Instead, Americans are increasingly exercising their freedom of choice to switch their religious identity. Gone are the days when ethnic identity or religious heritage determined one’s own spiritual path.

According to the pew study, 8% of Americans had no religious identity at all in 1990. By 2001, that number had risen to 14%. During that time, twice as many Americans left Catholicism as joined, and three times as many people joined “evangelical” Christianity as left.

The article states:

While religious switching may bring satisfaction to individual seekers, the phenomenon can be unnerving for religious leaders, who are vying for “customers” ever more aware of new options, according to Kosmin.

“We have a supply-side religious market with more competing firms each year,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. Megachurches are successful in part because they actively reach out to “potential” members, of which there are many in high-mobility suburbs and exurbs, Kosmin wrote.

But success in attracting new members doesn’t necessarily translate into success at keeping them, according to Daniel Olson, a sociologist at Indiana University South Bend who studies religious competition.

“There is a strong relationship between rates of leaving and rates of joining, both for congregations and whole denominations,” Olson wrote in an e-mail response to questions. The 2001 survey found, for example, that while the Mormons welcomed a relatively large number of converts, an equal number left the faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Buddhists displayed similarly high levels of turnover.

If things continue to move in this direction…with each individual shopping for his/her own faith, what does it mean for the Church in America. Obviously, many who read this article are drooling…for example, the seeker church crowd stands to gain by this trend. Mainliners are probably upset by this article, because their strength has come from ethnic and regional ties.

This is happening to congregations as well. Within the Baptist General Conference there has been talk of “rebranding”–clearly motivated by the bad baggage of the word “Baptist.” The BGC is clearly trying to identify itself more and more as a movement of seeker churches rather than a Baptist denomination. This push is part of the larger trend of trying to trade in an old religious identity for a new one.

This is also happening with congregations…I hear stories of many churches leaving their denomination to become non-denominational or to opt into a different denomination. My church, Missio Dei, is trying to opt into the Mennonite Church USA (though we aren’t going to break ties with our existing denomination).

The trend disturbs me, as a whole, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of theological reflection or any sort of spiritual “revival” pushing the trend. Instead, we see people easily breaking ties with their past (which seems like a flighty consumer thing to do) to jump in bed with a new church–usually one that spends a lot of money or energy marketing to them (whether it is the marketing campaign of the mega-church or the evangelistic tactics of the Mormons). In other words, the church has pretty much conformed to free-market capitalism. The products that are being bought are the ones that are being heavily marketed.

And all the while, religious identity is becoming almost purely a matter of individual choice, rather than something formed in a community with a tradition and a way of understanding the world. This growing phenomenon is the big reason I don’t buy it when folks say that postmodernism has emerged and people are looking for a community in which to belong and find identity. American Consumer Capitalism is too seductive as a metanarrative, and everyone from Somali refugees to suburban goth kids are begining to see themselves, their world, and their faith through the lense given to them by Consumer Capitalism.

The BIG question is: What do we do about it? We can either 1) jump into the fray and start marketing to religious consumers (evangelical seeker church 2.0), 2) bitch about the phenomenon but do nothing (the Mainline approach), or 3) try to foster deeper Christian identity with the Christians we know (the monastic impulse).


for further reading . . .

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10 Responses to “Classic JM: Christian Identity and Consumer Choice”

  1. Anna on February 13th, 2007 12:18 pm

    Curtain Number 3, please.

    Seriously, I think there is major Kingdom work to be done not only in exposing the Consumer Capitalist metanarrative [sooo liberal arts degree---I like] but also in living as a bridge from one side to the other. Youth tend to know they are being sold to something, gripe about it, but then join in for the kicks.

    The most difficult part is branding Lent. Perhaps we can do a Maker’s Diet approach?? “50 days to a new you, inside and out! Celebrate Easter in your new bikini!”

    Completely tongue in cheek. ~I’ll go be theologically silly on my own blog…

  2. Geoff Holsclaw on February 13th, 2007 3:18 pm


    many times i feel the emerging church is really just a version of seekers church 2.0 under the guise of being ‘missional’ etc. ( a candle and coffee aesthetic change w/o any real critique).

    but option 3 can be a real pain in the butt. everytime I think we are making progress with the families at our church, new things come up that make it hard (impossible) to form identity around Christ.

    i’m trying form a contemplative approach to youth ministry while one family lets their children be PS2s to church. how can I compete with that?

  3. Nate on February 13th, 2007 5:56 pm

    I agree that there is a big dilemma with these questions. I’m not sure right now how to turn that huge ship around. And it really is a big ship. If we are dealing with something that has become the norm, per se, of American culture, how do we help Christians realize that?

    I suppose there needs to be an increase in raising awareness of what is happening. There needs to be a prophetic voice in the Christian communities (might as well be us) who will deliberately address the issue. It is a small start and long process…

    Should be a good convo on Thurs.

  4. Richard Daley on February 14th, 2007 7:06 am

    You know, I may be coming at this from the wrong angle (and it may be a cultural thing) but I read the first paragraph and think that it’s a failure of Christian parents to instill the values they believe to be true in their children. It’s great that children (young and adult) should have the choice to change churches/denominations, but part of me says that they shouldn’t feel the need.

    The other thought that I’m having is that we may need to do a combination of one and three. I think that those who are spiritually hungry (and not committed to a faith) may not know a different way of searching for it except through capitalist consumer ways. We do need people to be able to find our doors, but once they get in, it should be a different world.

    There’s the oft-used but pretty cool illustration of the church as an ark in the waters of the world. I think if we want to rescue those that are drowning, we have to figure out how much we are willing to get the boat wet to do so and how are we going to pump out the water that’s inevitably come in over the sides and leak through the bottom.

  5. Cullen on February 15th, 2007 7:15 am

    Mark, you know that I’m just as cynical as you, but I’m not sure you can draw a 1:1 correlation between the trend of church-hopping and a consumerism ethos. The thing that makes consumerism go is a multiplicity of companies in competition, offering basically the same product with variations in quality and marketing. The problem with attaching this analogically to the church is that some churches simply offer a different product than others.

    Now step into my church-hopper’s confessional: I speak as one who left a mainstream denominational church, having never heard the heart of the gospel, for loftier climbs as a youth. Not long after this, I returned to the church of my childhood to try and stir things up. It isn’t that the gospel in that church was of lesser quality or that it wasn’t marketed well enough, it was just buried underneath all the other things that broken people like me decide that church is about.

    I certainly agree that far too many elements of consumerism have invaded Christianity in the US, but to say that recent trends in fluctuation of attendance are solely the result of consumerism is too broad of a generalization.

  6. markvans on February 15th, 2007 9:32 am


    I don’t think I said that these fluctuations are solely a result of consumerism. However, I think you underestimate the scope and effect of consumerism on our lives. Sure, there isn’t a 1:1 correspondence here, but so many of the cogs in the machine of consumer capitalism are also driving the machine of consumer religion. One could say that consumerism and the rise of religious choice are separate phenomenon. But so many of the same things are driving them that it makes one wonder if they aren’t a part of the same phenomenon.

    What I think is happening is that we in the West have been socialized by our consumer culture into certain ways of seeing the world and have adopted certain habits. We can’t help but see religion as fundamentally an issue of personal choice that one acquires or discards based upon their own choice. Religion isn’t therefore something to submit to, but something to be evaluated by the experience one has of it…in other words, if it doesn’t taste good, we discard it and look for another one.

    For further reading, I direct you to Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion, Tom Beaudoin’s Consuming Faith, and J. Carrette’s Selling Religion.

  7. Cullen on February 15th, 2007 5:23 pm

    I’m sorry if I misinterpreted your concept of the source of church-hopping trends.

    But what if the religion one submits to is false or shallow?

    The most fundamental issue going on here is that the thing we call ‘church’ is so rarely an authentic community, that to come and go from one to another actually says very little about our spiritual allegiance.

    If religious identity is supposed to be “something formed in a community with a tradition and a way of understanding the world” (and I believe that it is), then most of our ‘churches’ are not doing their job. Rather, they offer a list of ’services’ which we, being good consumers, select from the menu, or move on to the next store that offers something more to our liking. When I did my church hopping, I did not abandon one community for another. I abandoned a set of concepts and a musical preference for something more gripping. I didn’t interact with relationships that added meaning to my religious identity in either locale.

    I guess that for me, the problem of consumerism is at its ugliest not within individuals or between traditions, but among the communities themselves — the communities that fail to offer the kind of connection to God and one another that Christ envisioned for us.

  8. dlw on February 17th, 2007 12:07 pm


    I don’t have a problem with people changing denominations, for me the bottom line are the sorts of disciplines we undertake as Christians, with deliberating on/questioning the meaning of our faith in a tradition being a critical sort of discipline. For me, it’s not the choice or market aspects that are the problem, but rather what’s not going on.

    The turn towards hyper-individualism in the past thirty-plus years in US culture is toxic for our Christianities and it seems that Christians who are intentionally committed to work thoughtfully from within given traditions have done a better job in resisting these general cultural changes, but not necessarily a good job in reaching out to others(via marketing).

    I am not against Christian marketing, this has been an important part of keeping a more Bible-centered Christianity alive in the US and I’d guess that the power of the Bible was what helped us attract people who were creative marketers and innovators.

    The market metaphor isn’t “bad”, per se. What is bad is the omission of the fact that markets are a metaphor whose metaphorical status has been forgotten and that “markets” are, in fact, products of institutions, including the sorts of disciplines people undertake in making their critical life choices.


  9. Ariah Fine on February 18th, 2007 12:22 am

    Definitely an interesting take. I’ve been peeking at the Missio Dei stuff and found your conference on consumption recently. Looking forward to more.

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