The Marketization of Christian Discipleship

Daniel Bell, in The Economy of Desire, is concerned with capitalism’s destructive effects, including its marketization and commodification of all of life.  That is, capitalism fosters in us habits of mind, shaping our imaginations so that we envision all aspects of our lives as consumers.

This includes how we participate in Christian communities:

 [T]he habits we learn as consumers in the market economy tend to carry over to other dimensions of life.  Thus we are conditioned to approach religion as a commodity, as just another consumer good alongside toothpaste and vacation homes.  Think, for instance, of the commonplace practice of “church shopping.”  This is to say, capitalism encourages a shallow, decontextualized engagement with religious beliefs.  Like the vast array of exotic cultural products from around the world that appear side by side on the shelves of the import franchise at the mall, in a consumer culture, believers tend to become free-floating cultural objects.  These objects do not require anything of me; they entail no particular commitment or engagement.  They do not bind me to any particular people or community.  Rather, they function only to serve the end(s) or purpose(s) I choose, which, in the case of religious choices, might include shoring up my self-image as “spiritual,” or providing meaning amid the stresses of my middle-class life or the right values for my children, and so on.  (Consider the popular standard for evaluating worship: “Does it meet my needs?”).  Reduced to a religious commodity, Christian beliefs can be held in the midst of a political economy that runs counter to those beliefs without any tension at all (p. 21).

The commodification of the imagination happens to church leaders, too.

In several contexts I’ve heard pastors and ministry leaders speak of their churches in terms of “giving units.”  Those in the pew aren’t people to whom I am intensely committed, humans with histories, hopes, fears, families, sorrows, and joys.  They’re “giving units,” manipulable by market forces in service to the bottom line–the church budget.

It seems to me that there’s something seriously sinister at work when caretakers of souls look at the people entrusted to them by the Lord of the church and see them in market terms.

10 thoughts on “The Marketization of Christian Discipleship

  1. Ryan M. Mahoney

    Preach it, brother! The sinister thing is that marketing works on the level of the heart and not the mind. It trains our desires, so we don’t even appreciate, at a cognitive level, that we are functioning as economic units with respect to the life of the church. Big box, megachurch “Christianity” plays right into the hands of this shaping of human desire/imagination. We don’t even realize that we are just batteries for the machines.

  2. Patrick

    DeToqueville noticed back in the early 19th century that we uniquely worship money. Americans worship money. Always have. That drives our thinking and our system, not the other way around.

  3. lauramanythings

    I feel like sometimes we treat people not only like ‘giving units’ but also ‘evangelistic units’. Sometimes it seems we can only justify doing something good in terms of its potential evangelistic output. Although this isn’t dealing with money, it still commodifies congregations, it treats them as a means to an ends.

  4. Simon Day

    Well, I know that I’ve heard (when discussing finances) our pastor refer to “giving units”.

    It seemed to be quite a good way of making the point that (on the church bank statement) they saw a certain number of regular payments per month (the giving units) but some of these represented couples giving together, some couples gave separately, some were single people.

    As a result (in giving an average – to show, for instance how much an extra staff member would cost each of us) it was a way of making clear that these amounts weren’t comparable – he could only see the number of payments, not the number of heads.

  5. Joe Rutherford

    This is a good article! The problem is even deeper than what you explained. Many people are merchandising the Church. Teachers sell thier knowledge at bible schools and seminaries. They can tell us all the greek behind Jesus saying, “freely you have recieved, freely give.” Then they will say with a smile, “It cost 10,000 $ per semester to be a student here.” People write books about the Bible and then put a price tag on it. They think they have done God a favor. God has done them a favor by letting them continue to breath.

  6. michaelbare

    This post was great. I’m really liking all the discussion this Bell book has brought out of you and your readers, man. Specifically, this concept has been rumbling around my head a lot lately, but I could never put it as meaningfully and succinctly as you and Bell have. Cheers.


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