Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Big Box Churches Ring Pavlov's Bell

"Brand-obsessed shoppers have adopted an almost fetishistic approach to consumption
in which the brand name acquires a talismanic power."

--Naomi Klein, No Logo (Picador, 2002), p. 141.


Creating situations that provoke psychological, emotional or sensual reactions in people is a form of behavior modification. This can come through marketing, education and training, or group processes. Triggering reactions in people, particularly if they are unaware of the subtleties, is an attempt to change values, beliefs, attitudes, opinions or actions.

Behavior modification is a utilitarian form of manipulation which has gained tremendous ground in evangelical leadership training circles in recent years. It works. It is pragmatic. The ends justify the means.

Often this trigger is a relationship reaction. Which brand name of Christianity are you? To which church growth movement leader are you loyal? Which slogans foster a positive emotional response because of your prior experiences?

In order to understand how this works, we first have to step back and see how advertising in the corporate world functions. Naomi Klein, in a chapter entitled "Brand Bombing" describes the process:

"The branded multinationals may talk diversity, but the visible result of their actions is an army of teen clones marching -- in 'uniform,' as the marketers say, into the global mall. Despite the embrace of polyethnic imagery, market-driven globalization doesn't want diversity; quite the opposite. Its enemies are natural habits, local brands and distinctive regional tastes.

"Dazzled by the array of consumer choices, we may at first fail to notice the tremendous consolidation taking place in the boardrooms of the entertainment, media, and retail industries. Advertising floods us with the kaleidoscopic soothing images of of United Streets of Diversity and Microsoft's wide-open 'Where do you want to go today?' enticements. But in the pages of the business section, the world goes monochromatic and doors slam shut from all sides: every other story -- whether the announcement of a new buyout, an untimely bankruptcy, a colossal merger -- points directly to a loss of meaningful choices. the real question is not 'Where do you want to go today?' but 'How best can I steer you into the synergized maze of where I want you go to today?" (p. 129)

The ultimate goal, then, is to create a brand monopoly. Or at the least guarantee that the landscape of choices is "monochromatic." What is benignly called "synergy" in the new spirituality is, in reality, the narrowing down into a one-size-fits-all neoevangelicalism. Our recent series of posts on networking examined this process. Klein asks, "And what else is a monopoly, after all, but synergy taken to the extreme?" (p. 161)

Mega-churches may be the most effective at utilizing marketing devices because they artificially create a sense of "community" which replaces traditional families and church relationships. Not only do they build "big box" style churches, often prominently placed along major thoroughfares, but they also create micro-climates with artificial communities (small groups). Klein makes this precise point, when discussing the superstore Wal-Mart model: "Where the big boxes have swapped a sense of community values for a discount, the branded chains would re-create it and sell it back -- at a price" (p. 135).


One met
hod utilized by the mega-corporations to infuse brand loyalty is to make their "family of brands synonymous" with what they sell. You might ask for a "Kleenex" instead of a "tissue." Likewise Rick Warren's "purpose-driven," despite its trademark, has already come to have a greatly expanded generic application. This may be intentional. Klein explains:

"The idea is to make Gap's family of brands synonymous with clothing in the same way that McDonald's is synonymous with hamburgers and Coke is synonymous with soft drinks. . . . .

"Starbucks . . . is in the business of taking a much more generic product -- a cup of coffee -- and branding it so completely that it becomes a spiritual/designer object. So Starbucks doesn't want to be known as a blockbuster, it wants, as its marketing director Scott Bedbury says, to 'align ourselves with one of the greatest movements toward finding a connection with your soul.'" (p. 138)


The comment by Klein below could just as aptly be applied to mega-churches:

"'Creating a destination' is the key buzz-phrase for the superstore builder: these are places not only to shop but also visit, places to which tourists make ritualistic pilgrimages." (p. 151)

People are being driven by invoked images and feelings and illusions:

". . . [B]randed retail is about 'imprinting an experience on you as surely as the farmer's wife imprints good feelings in a clutch of baby geese when she feeds them a handful of grain every day.'" (p. 152)

This statement above is a description of behavior modification in its most rudimentary form.

The various streams of church transformation are all built upon this philosophy and freely use its mechanics. Oh, they may use different approaches and styles, slogans and logos, gurus and leaders, techniques and methods, images and illusions, experiences and activities -- but the net effect is still the same. Spirituality becomes something that is manufactured -- stimulus and response. Ring the bell, salivate.


The Truth:

"As soon as we remove the supernaturalness of the universe, all we have left is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which religion is to be simply a sociological tool for the future. In Julian Huxley's concept of romantic evolutionary humanism, religion has a place, not because there is any truth in it, but because in the strange evolutionary formation, man as he now is simply needs it. So it must be administered to him, because he needs it. With the supernatural gone we are merely shut up to anthropology, psychology, and sociology, and all that we say about religion in general and Christianity specifically falls to the ground except as it relates to a mere psychological mechanism. All of the reality of Christianity rests upon the reality of the existence of a personal God, and the reality of the supernatural view of the total universe." (p. 257)

"Well, let us think of Pavlov's bell. Pavlov's bell was the beginning of the experimentation of a mechanically conditioned reflex. He rang a bell in front of the dog before he fed him, and after proper conditioning, the saliva came to the dog's mouth any time the bell was rung. This is perfectly correct concerning dogs, for that is what dogs are and what God made them to be. But woe to man when he begins to act as though this is all there is to man, because we have not been made in this circle of creation. We have been made in the circle of creation in the image of God-- not only moral but rational.

"The understanding of a conditioned reflex in regard to man has its limited place. If I study my physical structure, mechanics has its place in regard to the tension of the muscles and so on. But this is not all there is to man. If you deal with a man merely as a structural machine, you miss the point; and if you deal with a man merely as a set of psychological conditionings, you miss the central point. Consequently, as Christians begin to deal with psychological problems, they must do so in the the realization of who man is. I am made in the image of God. This being so, I am
rational and I am moral; thus there will be a conscious and responsible behavior. We must not think we can simply trigger ourselves or others into mechanical reflexes and all will be well, If we begin acting this way, we will deny the doctrines which we say we believe. In action that comes anywhere near the heart of the psychological problems, there will be a conscious aspect, because God has made man this way." (pp. 329-330) [italics in original]
[Dr. Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality (A Christian Worldview, Volume Three, A Christian View of Spirituality {Crossway Books, 1982}) For additional reading on this topic, see especially Schaeffer's Back to Freedom and Dignity, which contains multi-faceted warnings about the dangers of B.F. Skinner behaviorism. For more information and documentation on this topic, see here and here.]

"For, lo, I will raise up a shepherd in the land, which shall not visit those that be cut off, neither shall seek the young one, nor heal that that is broken, nor feed that that standeth still" but he shall eat the flesh of the fat, and tear their claws in pieces. Woe to the idol shepherd that leaveth the flock!" (Zechariah 11:16, 17a)