The May 23, 2005 issue of BusinessWeek Magazine features a major section on evangelical churches in America. Geared to the business audience, the article is entitled, “Earthly Empires: How evangelical churches are borrowing from the business playbook.”
Here is a brief excerpt from one of the lead articles. To read the entire article, click here.
So successful are some evangelicals that they’re opening up branches like so many new Home Depots (HD ) or Subways. This year, the 16.4 million-member Southern Baptist Convention plans to “plant” 1,800 new churches using by-the-book niche-marketing tactics. “We have cowboy churches for people working on ranches, country music churches, even several motorcycle churches aimed at bikers,” says Martin King, a spokesman for the Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board.
Branding whizzes that they are, the new church leaders are spreading their ideas through every available outlet. A line of “Biblezines” packages the New Testament in glossy magazines aimed at different market segments — there’s a hip-hop version and one aimed at teen girls. Christian music appeals to millions of youths, some of whom otherwise might never give church a second thought, serving up everything from alternative rock to punk and even “screamo” (they scream religious lyrics). California megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s 2002 book, The Purpose-Driven Life, has become the fastest-selling nonfiction book of all time, with more than 23 million copies sold, in part through a novel “pyro marketing” strategy. Then there’s the Left Behind phenomenon, a series of action-packed, apocalyptic page-turners about those left on earth after Christ’s second coming, selling more than 60 million copies since 1995.
Evangelicals’ eager embrace of corporate-style growth strategies is giving them a tremendous advantage in the battle for religious market share, says Roger Finke, a Pennsylvania State University sociology professor and co-author of a new book, The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. A new Pope has given Catholicism a burst of global publicity, but its nominal membership growth in the U.S. stems largely from the influx of Mexican immigrants. Overall, the Catholic Church’s long-term decline in U.S. attendance accelerated after the recent sex-abuse scandals, there’s a severe priest shortage, and parish churches and schools are closing in the wake of a financial crisis.
Similarly, the so-called mainline Protestants who dominated 20th century America have become the religious equivalent of General Motors Corp. (GM ) The large denominations — including the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church — have been shrinking for decades and have lost more than 1 million members in the past 10 years alone. Today, mainline Protestants account for just 16% of the U.S. population, says University of Akron political scientist John C. Green.
In contrast, evangelicalism’s theological flexibility gives it the freedom to adapt to contemporary culture. With no overarching authority like the Vatican, leaders don’t need to wrestle with a bureaucratic hierarchy that dictates acceptable behavior. “If you have a vision for ministry, you just do it, which makes it far easier to respond to market demand,” says University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sociology professor Christian Smith.
With such low barriers to entry, the number of evangelical megachurches — defined as those that attract at least 2,000 weekly worshippers — has shot up to 880 from 50 in 1980, figures John N. Vaughan, founder of research outfit Church Growth Today in Bolivar, Mo. He calculates that a new megachurch emerges in the U.S. an average of every two days. Overall, white evangelicals make up more than a quarter of Americans today, experts estimate. The figures are fuzzy because there’s no common definition of evangelical, which typically refers to Christians who believe the Bible is the literal work of God. They may include many Southern Baptists, nondenominational churches, and some Lutherans and Methodists. There are also nearly 25 million black Protestants who consider themselves evangelicals but largely don’t share the conservative politics of most white ones. Says pollster George Gallup, who has studied religious trends for decades: “The evangelicals are the most vibrant branch of Christianity.”