Bargain hunting for religion

First the Obamas had the country in a tizzy over what dog they were going to pick.  Now they’re looking for a church. 

You better believe that’s getting press coverage. 

But amid the clamor and hype about the first couple “church shopping,” a fundamental truth about American life is being brought into focus:  people really do “shop” for their places of worship today in a way that they never did 50 years ago. 

The very idea that selecting a family church could be viewed through the same lens as selecting the family dog is a difficult one for many places of worship to swallow:  it puts them in a “marketplace,” a competitive, sell-or-die, environment where their parishioners are “customers” – and they can’t count on customer loyalty.  In fact, 44 percent of American adults have switched churches and even religions, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life. 

“Constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace,” their survey says.

Lois Koteen, a Saybrook student getting her PhD in Organizational Systems, is familiar with these trends:  her consulting work specializes in helping synagogues change their governance structures and staff approaches to better serve and attract congregants.  In her experience, places of worship greet these with a sense of panic.

“It’s a balancing act, and there are any number of people who don’t find that comfortable,” she says.  “The changes they’re trying to make are extremely difficult, because you’re asking an organization to change its culture.  You’re asking the people who have been in the synagogue for 50 years to think differently.”

But there’s also a sense of opportunity:  the knowledge that many of them HAVE to try something new is an excuse to do so. 

Sometimes this means new music, sometimes this means new service times, or approaches to appeal to children, and sometimes this results in changes that can seem a little … bizarre. 

The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted the growing practice of membership drive intense churches hiring “Mystery Shoppers” to come and evaluate how friendly their churches are to potential new congregants. 

“(They belong) to a new breed of church consultants aiming to equip pastors with modern marketing practices,” the article notes.  “In an increasingly diverse and fluid religious landscape, churches competing for souls are turning to corporate marketing strategies such as focus groups, customer-satisfaction surveys and product giveaways.  At least half a dozen consulting companies have introduced secret-church-shopper services in recent years.”

Ruth Richards, a Saybrook Psychology faculty member who studies creativity and spirituality, laughed when she heard about “Mystery Worshippers.”

While Richards thinks that the shake-up in the American spiritual landscape does offer religious institutions real opportunities, there’s also a real danger.

“The offerings that help us see more, and be more, that open something special to us in the present moment, are surely going to attract people,” Richards says.  “To the extent that these changes help them find new ways of offering that and expressing it, it’s a real opportunity.  We have had ministers at Saybrook precisely interested in a new look at spirituality today.  But it shouldn’t be a ‘stretch’:  attempts to be ‘hip’ will miss the mark.  People respond to something authentic that moves them in their lives.”

Koteen agrees.  The key to her work, she says, is not helping synagogues reinvent Judaism, but to keep Judaism whole as it adapts to a new world.

“Exactly the concern is: how do you maintain the authentic spiritual experience while you’re trying new things?” she says.  “Getting people through the doors is only the start of the process:  if that’s all you focus on, they’re not going to find something worth staying for once they’re there.

Difficult as that can be, she says, “many of them are doing it, and many of them are doing it successfully.”

One of the most significant developments she’s noted are “independent services.”

“They’re lay led, they use traditional services and traditional tunes, but they have a lot more spirit to them, and they seem to be getting some nice numbers.  200 – 300 people on a Saturday morning,” Koteen says.  “They rent space in a building, they don’t have religious education, so it’s just people coming together to worship.”

In many ways, then, the successful places of worship are going through more of a reformation – a new way of thinking about how they’re organized and the good they can do in the world – than they are a marketing campaign.  That means, Koteen and Richards agree, that while they’ll never go back to the way things were in the 1950s, they can remain healthy, vital, and useful, in the 21st century. 



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