Commercialism or Brand Loyalty?

First, some definitions. Consumerism: a term used to describe the effects of equating personal happiness with purchasing. “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” Brand Loyalty: The net effect of successful marketing. Buying a specific brand because of the brand regardless of quality or price.Am I guilty of this in regards to Apple? Possibly. However, I maintain that Apple is still a superior computer and that the price for the hardware is justified.

Recently I was involved in a discussion on the topic of church membership. My points were 1) the Bible says next to nothing about official church membership, 2) church membership does nothing to prevent church hopping/shopping, 3) non-members can still be afforded things like benevolence and pastoral visits, and 4) church discipline can be exercised against non-members.

I’m afraid that “high membership threshold” may simply be more marketing, this time employing brand loyalty. The “Levi’s” of church growth, if you will.

I was told that this was the “old” way of thinking about church membership. Missional churches have set a high threshold for church membership. There is a membership covenant that members are expected to live up to. Not everyone is a member because members expect more out of each other. I was referred to the book Shaped by God’s Heart by Milfred Minatrea. Minatrea surveyed missional churches and found that they tend to set very high expectations for membership. Frankly, I was surprised. I thought that with the post-modern attitude many of these churches have they would not have a formal membership at all! Amongst other reason, Minatrea lists:

A cultural reason: it is an antidote to our society. We live in an age where very frew want to be committed to anything–a job, a marriage, our country. This attitude has produced a generation of “church shoppers and hoppers.” Membership swims against the current of America’s consumer religion. It is an unselfish decision. Commitment always builds character. (p. 32)

One church, citing Minatrea, says (PDF) “Skeptics ask how does that church enforce those expectations. The answer is they don’t have to because those expectations are part of the culture of the church. When your church culture is shaped by God’s heart people want to participate, sacrifice, and get involved – not cut corners.” The pastor advocated revisiting the issue of a “membership covenant”.

That struck me as a word game. In the end, those who are committed are committed, those who are not are going to walk when they feel like it anyway. We can define membership however we want, in the end we have no way to enforce it. And that way my point. We live in a culture of consumerism. I don’t like this church or they discipline me? Great, I just walk down the block to Church X and start all over. This is the environment we live in! In the early Puritan days or in the Middle Ages, there was only one church in town. You didn’t go shopping, you didn’t have a choice. If that church exercised discipline on you, you were cut out of not just the church but a large portion of that society. Heck, in the Middle Ages they could execute you if it was bad enough! That doesn’t exist in our society today. So we can play word games with membership, in the end it comes down to commitment.

That is where the term “brand loyalty” comes in. On the way to work today I drove behind a pickup truck for a while and I noticed that in the window it had a big number 8 and a smaller italicized 3 (or the other way round, I don’t really remember). These were the numbers from NASCAR racers. This brought back to mind a piece I heard on NPR this summer which really helped me understand NASCAR better. NASCAR is all about brand loyalty. You get a favorite driver (somehow) and you watch them and root for them. You buy a flag for the front of your house. You buy Tide instead of Cheer because Tide is a sponsor and Cheer sponsors that other guy. You put a sticker on your car with their number to show your loyalty.

So these missional churches are trying to shun consumerism by embracing a high threshold for church membership. But instead might they not be embracing consumerism in its highest form? Might not this idea of church membership simply be an expression of brand loyalty? Here’s what I’m thinking. I hate consumerism/capitalism applied to the church as much as anyone. I fear that church growth can be an example of it when some things are sacrificed for the sake of “seeker”. I would rather have an effective church membership that would prevent someone under discipline walking up the block and carrying on. I’m just not sure that in our democratic/capitalist culture it is a possibility. Instead, why not teach about commitment and unity? Why not preach what the Bible says about being “members of the same body” (Eph 3:6) and “individually members one of another” (Rom 12:5)? In other words, tell them what the Bible says, expect them to live up to it and let the Holy Spirit convict them as to how to live that out in our culture? In the end, I don’t disagree with what that pastor I cited above had in mind. I think a church that is focused on Christ and treats him as holy and glorious will be a place people want to be at. I’m simply skeptical of playing games to gain commitment.

I’m not saying that we should abandon membership, I still support that. I’ve started working on a study of it. But I just don’t want us to expect too much out of a membership role or membership covenant. I’m afraid that “high membership threshold” may simply be more marketing, this time employing brand loyalty. The “Levi’s” of church growth, if you will.

See Part II

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One Comment

  • […] A little while ago, I lamented the notion of “high threshold membership” as possibly just an appeal to brand loyalty. What is the alternative? If the threshold for membership is set really low, it could be perceived as being as easy to leave as it was to come. My thought is that if you make it really easy for a person to join the message that is unintentionally communicated is that membership is not highly prized and it is a fairly disposable thing. Literally, “easy come, easy go.” This is typically the model of membership in church-growth oriented churches. While it is desirable for the front doors to be wide open to allow people in, they are also wide open to allow people out.1 […]

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