The Soft Sell 

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Escapism is at the heart of the American way, from the television we watch to the lawns we manicure to the cars we buy. Escape is entertainment — movies, video games, "Dancing With the Stars." It's as much a part of our psyche as capitalism or democracy, freedom and equal rights.

The United States was founded by people who were escaping persecution. In essence, escapism is the pursuit of happiness — Americans have the inalienable right to go after that house in the suburbs, a privacy fence, their little piece of land on which to raise a family. As our social status rises, we escape further. From the crowded suburb to the isolated exurb. From the three-bedroom house to the eight-bedroom McMansion. And finally, in retirement, to Florida's sun-kissed palms and alligator ponds.

In some capacity, we all live to escape. And the vast majority of us — most demographic studies cite more than 80 percent of the world's population — have eyes on the ultimate escape: away from this earth, to an afterlife free of worldly problems.

"Hey God," says Pastor Wynne Lankford, who's striding onto a platform to address a makeshift congregation while a trio of electric guitarists wrap their riffs.

Lankford, a barrel-chested man wearing khakis and a polo shirt, is leading the fourth service of Southside Church of the Nazarene's satellite branch at Bettie Weaver Elementary School off Robious Road in Midlothian, where the sermons are piped in digitally. There's a large screen, about 50 congregants, a cross painted over a canvas cityscape on an easel, and a table with several white candles. People come in a mix of casual attire. The pastors wear jeans and Hawaiian shirts; a few are in shorts and T-shirts.

After some rock-infused hymns, Lankford, the church's executive pastor, welcomes the new members and eases into a prayer, or what seems more like casual coffee talk with Jesus. "This is a God incident," he says, leading into an informal meet-and-greet. "We're going to stand, high-five one another."

In a world dominated by BlackBerrys and self-navigating SUVs, the 1,500-member Nazarene church is trying its best to take church to the people. Selling eternal life should be easy, but these days there's plenty of competition. It's a saturated market, where people are buying less and less of Lankford's product.

"We've done billboards, we've done movie ads. Our philosophy is we're a kind of church that meets people where they are," Lankford says before the service. "We believe we have the best product in the world."

Churches everywhere are playing a game of catch-up, attempting to digitize a message traditionally relegated to wooden pews and onionskin Bibles. Other religions may be struggling, but Western Christianity, which makes up 80 percent of the U.S. population, is the standard bearer. The U.S. economy depends on Christianity to move goods and services; the president cites religious obligation as partial justification for invading other countries; the world's largest retailers live and die on their performance during the Christmas season, which launches on "Black Friday."

The Christian church is also fighting 2,000 years of bad marketing. It's not really even marketing, but more like a gruesome threat. Essentially, "Buy this product or die, frolic in heaven's gardens or burn in hell." For many churches, the need for a new, easier-to-digest message has morphed into a new nondenominational Christianity. It's emerged over the last decade or so, and it's less threatening. Churches preach of a more congenial God, a Jesus who can be your personal trainer, your therapist, your pal at the coffee shop.

People are buying it. It's a product that does more than save you from eternal damnation. It has practical applications for the here and now.

Megachurches, whose congregation sizes number in the thousands, were the first to mass-market this new product. And just as big-box retailers have made mall department stores increasingly irrelevant, so too have the giant congregations and the self-help disciples hurt smaller churches, says James Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida and author of the recently published "Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From In Your Heart to In Your Face."

As for the traditional, smaller churches, "their growth has stalled, and they are seeing these mega-churches really apply marketing innovations and capture huge chunks of the market," Twitchell says. "The megachurches are doing this by paying incredible attention not to the content, but to the concerns of the consumer."

Across the country, membership at traditional mainline Christian churches is on the decline — old standbys, like the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists and Catholics. Increasingly, some studies have found, people are seemingly put off by the traditional Christian church. The American Religious Identification Survey 2001, conducted by the City University of New York, found the number of people willing to identify themselves as Christian declined 10 percent between 1990 and 2000, from 86 percent to 77 percent. Where it breaks down is tough to track. The U.S. census didn't include religious affiliation until 1990, and churches aren't required to release membership statistics.

But there are countless studies that confirm the trend, and it's affecting just about every region of the United States. That's including throughout metro Richmond, says the Rev. Ben Campbell, pastoral director of Richmond Hill, the retreat and former monastery overlooking the city in Church Hill.

"What is very clear," he says: "The traditional, mainline church franchises are having a hard time right now." He knows of at least a dozen city-based churches that are struggling with significantly declining membership, he says. The older churches are experiencing something of "a watershed moment," Campbell says. "You can't play the old music and get the new folks."

The number of consumers isn't exactly increasing, so what's left is a stagnating market, one in which churches that conform to the needs of the consumer — hence, the emergence of self-help disciples — are rewarded with new members, tithes and all-important growth.

"What's clear is that churches that forget to sell and forget to elbow each other, those churches are going down," says professor and author Twitchell. "If the Presbyterian Church continues to lose membership over the next four decades, they're in trouble. These churches have huge overhead; they have pensions to fund. Meanwhile, the churches that are really competing, they are eating the lunch of the old-timers and the old-line denominations."

Growth isn't their primary concern, the Southside Church's Lankford insists. Nonetheless, his church recently caused a stir when it launched its advertising campaign, "Midlothian's Dirty Little Secret." After several meetings of the church leadership, Southside concluded that it needed a new approach. For many living in the suburbs, the weekend trek to the main Courthouse Road campus was a bit much, so they decided to get smaller and focus on satellite branches deeper in the burbs.

"We felt this about six years ago. We've got to get out to where the people are," Lankford says, likening the approach to Wal-Mart, which has a strategy of trying to locate a store "within six minutes of everybody in America."

"Geographically, people commute to work. They don't want to commute on the weekend," Lankford says. "I really think the church needs to wake up to that."

To get the word out that it was opening a new branch at Bettie Weaver Elementary, his church went a step further. It commissioned a slick marketing campaign, organized by church members who also work in marketing, and came up with the "Dirty Little Secret" tag line. The church put up a Web site, sent a mailer to Midlothian residents and bought space on two roadside billboards emblazoned with the tag line. Beneath it is a family of four holding hands, looking out over a suburban landscape. Wisteria Lane meets National Enquirer, perhaps, but Lankford says the slogan intrigues.

"What are the people in the Midlothian area struggling with, what's going on with their lives?" Lankford asks rhetorically. "Everyone wants the perfect family, everyone wants the perfect house. … I think there are really two different markets. You have church people, and that's not our target. Our target is people who look at church and are disillusioned by it. They've tuned out the message."

Facing a cluttered media market — cable TV, the Internet, the proliferation of portable communication devices — Southside's aggressive advertising campaign is a natural extension of a broad effort among nondenominational churches to make their church services more contemporary.

A church in Houston partnered with McDonald's, which built a franchise on the church grounds. Other churches have partnered with Starbucks. That's not to mention churches with ATMs and those that offer some form of refreshment — coffee and doughnuts, fruit and bottled water. Gone are the hard, wooden benches and the suit and tie. Nowadays the seating is plush, the dress more casual, pipe organs replaced with synthetic drums and electric guitars. All this is fair game, proponents say, necessary to help the church compete in a crowded market.

"To be honest with you, nowadays faith communities have to compete with Wal-Mart; they have to compete with soccer games; they have to compete with television," says the Rev. Doug Smith, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center. "I think it's about churches trying to be relevant in people's lives. I don't see anything wrong with that."

Others say it's gone too far. That by becoming so consumed with what the church can do for the consumer, the contemporary church is fast becoming just another commodity, a service provided by like-minded businesses.

"It was a deliberate design in megachurches — to make them look like shopping malls. That was the whole point," says David G. Bromley, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. That effort's led many churches to naturally play down their denomination, he says: "Some of them have even taken their crosses down."

For years, the major mainline denominations have been struggling with declining membership, Bromley says, so to continue growing requires a change in strategy. And without growth, all businesses eventually die.

"Religious organizations are part of a capitalist culture," says Douglas Hicks, associate professor of leadership studies and religion at the University of Richmond. "We think everything's for sale, and so a lot of churches have no problem thinking of potential members as consumers of religion."

With the rise of the self-help gospel, popularized by the Rev. Rick Warren's best-selling book, "A Purpose Driven Life," evangelical Christians have shifted their message away from combating sin and hell's fury to one of coping, of reaching full potential, of mending relationships and broken marriages.

Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., has a school that's taught nearly half a million evangelical pastors this new self-help gospel. The Rev. Joel Osteen, the latest star in that flock, epitomizes the what-God-can-do-for-you movement. A handsome, smiling 44-year-old, Osteen has grown his Houston-based church into the largest in the country, with 47,000 members. It includes a potluck of Methodists, Baptists — even Jews. He refers to these denominations as "walls that are coming down" and recently published his second book, a surefire best seller, "Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day."

Warren and Osteen have plenty of critics who liken their messages to theological popcorn, a watered-down Gospel. But almost all of the fastest-growing churches have borrowed from the message. It's a message that sells.

"It's the business of coping, hardly the business of religion. It's the application of personal development to the church," Twitchell says. "We're not accustomed to churches using commercial speech. Second, we're not accustomed to competitive denominations. Both have been involved in American culture before, but not as obviously. … Essentially, this is a phenomenon that is all over the fast-moving consumer goods arena."

The consumerization of Christianity in the United States has been more prolific than in any other country in the world. The commercial Christian ideals began in earnest in the mid-1800s, with the rise of Protestant celebrity minister Henry Ward Beecher, who preached the virtue of Christianizing the marketplace. Beecher personified the idea that "the well-heeled Christian, by selecting for consumption what reflected refinement and good taste, made a contribution to the public welfare," writes religious scholar R. Laurence Moore in "Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture."

The message: God wants his flock to enjoy life and material possessions. Materialism, the desire for worldly possessions, wasn't the sin; it was "buying without feeling or taste," Moore writes. Beecher's message of, in essence, virtuous shopping — he had a particularly strong following of women — helped usher in the mass commercialization of Christmas.

Moore argues in "Selling God" that the Christian church had little choice but to embrace American consumerism:

Christians had the best product in the world with potentially a university set of buyers. They could not sit back and wait for consumers to come to them. They had to reach out to the many people who had not yet heard about Christian salvation. …

The critical thing was to get people's attention, to spark their curiosity so that they would try church, like a brand of soap. How? With slogans: "Know the handshake of St. Paul's." The primary goal was growth, presumably in the number of right-living Christians, but more measurably in the size of church buildings, the range of church facilities, the variety of special programs and the amount of money in the collection plates.

There are limits, of course. The aptly named Rev. Creflo Dollar, with his 25,000-member World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga., preaches the theology of prosperity, the essence of God wanting Christians to be "abundantly wealthy." Dollar reads financial statements during sermons, espouses the godliness of his Rolls-Royce and a fleet of private jets. Televangelists have for years preached some version of prosperity theology — Jim Bakker even built a Christian amusement park in South Carolina before the feds busted him for fraud and tax evasion — and such ministries have done much to stigmatize the capitalistic endeavors of Christianity.

Such experiences have tainted the waters of church advertising, critics say. It's certainly been a challenge before, but perhaps more so in the church's attempt to reach younger consumers, particularly those raised and inundated with media from an early age. Generations X and Y, unlike the baby boomers, are a particularly tough sell, marketers say, because they're well-equipped to sniff out the disingenuous.

"This is a consumerized, fairly cynical culture that really doesn't expect much," Richmond Hill's Campbell says. "It lives on 30-second spots, quick television things." Try as they might, the critical question is not how churches get people in the door, but "what's actually being delivered," he says. "McDonald's does great marketing, but is a hamburger all they are offering?"

At St. Matthew's Episcopal Church at the corner of Patterson and Forest avenues, the focus is on "friendship evangelism." While the church occasionally hangs a banner out front advertising a service and has a Web site, the Rev. Charles Alley eschews the aggressive, media-savvy tactics for a more personal, event-driven approach. There's a women's group that meets and invites new speakers. St. Matthew's partners with other churches to put on concerts and Bible readings, but no Madison Avenue stuff.

"Sometimes you try so hard to be relevant you become irrelevant," Alley says. "We've become so much a part of the culture. Rather than being different, people aren't making the sacrifice to show up."

Like Campbell, Alley worries that some churches may sacrifice too much in the rush to fill pews. "We live in the information age and we can't stick our head in the sand," Alley says. "It's more a content problem. Is it a bait-and-switch kind of thing? … Or do we lay out the Gospel?"

Those who study religion say the former is more likely, especially when churches so heavily push the growth marketing.

"The church becomes just another firm or company in a market-driven society, and it loses its core mission as a community that seeks to serve justice," says Hicks, the religious studies professor at UR. "We think of church as another provider of happiness, providers of instant gratification. You can't do a bait-and-switch, bring them in and do another. You've already sold out by saying that we're just another consumer provider. To challenge them on issues of justice, on issues of living in a non-selfish way, in a way that at least complements our American individualism with a sense of genuine community — it's hard to do when the message to get them in is 'Here's what we can do.'"

The go-go growth church is giving way to the "small group approach" at the Southside Church of the Nazarene. While the church is aggressive in its marketing, it's not exactly trying to pad the pews at its main church.

Pastor Lankford is essentially taking some of the contemporary tools deployed by the megachurch to make the church smaller, more personable. In the children's service, for those in kindergarten through fifth grade, new members are assigned computer bar codes to keep track of attendance. Pastor Andy Hardy, wearing a headset, oversees a candy-eating contest for about a dozen kids. Southside is pushing a new "small group" strategy that meets in nearby homes in the suburbs.

"Leaders like big, we like small," Lankford says. "We're not trying to build a bigger church. We're trying to get into someone's mind and heart." There is no charismatic Osteen leading the sermons; it's done by committee. On a recent Sunday, a local dentist was preaching the virtue of God in the workplace. The next week, another pastor, wearing short sleeves sans tie, opened the sermon with a message of God wanting his followers to "enjoy life right now."

The primary message is turning the members of the church into disciples, and Southside pushes its members to do missionary work. In terms of substance, the church's commitment to sending its missionaries to places like Honduras to build schools and homes and feed the poor is paramount.

At the West End Assembly of God in Henrico County, the church produces a glossy magazine, a knockoff called National WEAGraphic, to promote its outreach efforts. The church gives more than $25,000 a month to a whopping 100 ministries across the globe, in places like Guatemala, Slovakia, Tanzania, Russia and Nicaragua. The group also has 22 missions that are focused on Richmond too — something that Senior Pastor John Hershman says is just as important.

"I think it must start in my backyard," Hershman says. "It begins in our Jerusalem, our Henrico, our Richmond."

None of that would be possible if the church didn't bring in the masses. With some 2,200 members, West End Assembly of God qualifies as a megachurch, but Hershman says growth isn't the church's mission. It's making members into disciples.

That's illustrated by the church's annual Christmas production, a massive undertaking that sells out through the holidays, and its youth-oriented programs. He has a squadron of young, hip-looking pastors and members who launched a youth group called Exile a few years ago. It morphed into a second service in the gymnasium with rock music and a more casual sermon.

The younger members are more interested in a contemporary church, he says. Turns out it's also the younger members, the Gen-Xers in their late 20s and 30s, who also almost exclusively want to do local outreach, Hershman says. Other members enjoy the escape of international mission work, but the younger folks tend to see it differently.

They may be seeing the people of Richmond who have no escape. For them, the world is a very different place. It's harsh and cold, where open-air drug markets take over sidewalks, where crime is rampant, where children carry guns.

It's a place where only a select few have cars. Where public buses don't venture into the suburban shopping districts and employment centers. Concentrated poverty begets socialistic housing projects, where for many the only means of income is a government check that, as a prerequisite, requires unemployment — in other words, entrapment.

Certainly these things creep into the suburbs from time to time. But in the inner city it is status quo, an inescapable reality: Families without structure; underemployed single mothers raising four, five, six children; husbands, uncles and brothers who are more likely to be behind bars than climbing the corporate ladder.

So many are caught up in their own escape, the Rev. Campbell says, that they've forgotten about this reality. S

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