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A Case Study of the Evangelical “Business” …

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This is based on a recent Business Week article, “Earthly Empires:”

The evangelical sector is growing rapidly while overall church attendance in the U.S. is fairly stable. Leaders of many of these churches have read the social and cultural trends well enough to gather those feeling alienated by traditional churches, and the formerly uncommitted, with their prosperity gospel and entertainment-oriented services.

They are beginning to flex their muscles as a very conservative voting bloc. They are well-positioned for an aging America, since spirituality generally increases with age. On the religious side, their “theological flexibility” and the absence of any central coordinating force may allow some to compromise religious principle for “production values.”

Business models, core business

The core business of many of these churches seems to be making people feel good about themselves. The business model is to offer upbeat messages of hope and self-help programs with a positive message. They serve consumer needs, such as counseling and advising on a wide range of topics, including a Christian approach to personal finances, for which their “clients” should be willing to tithe.

Corporate strategies

Many churches hire MBAs for their business offices, practice niche marketing (cowboy churches, biker churches, “Bible-zines”), build brand loyalty, and franchise proven concepts. They use professional market research (e.g., pinpointing Phoenix as underserved by effective churches), and keep their fingers on the pulse of contemporary culture.

Business / competitive strategy

These churches target “untapped masses” who have never belonged to churches or are drifting away from the “mainlines,” satisfy demands not met by traditional churches, and make services more positive and stimulating. They work across media to build awareness by advertising, televising services, and writing books. They actively recruit membership, pursuing rapid growth.

State of the industry, attractiveness

Generally, barrier to entry is low. Without belonging to any world-wide headquarters, they can open when and where they wish and practice a “flexible” theology. A new mega-church is formed in the U.S. every two days. Once they begin to get significant economies of scale, profits can be huge.

It is a very attractive industry. One very telling statistic is that where the traditional church has less than 200 members and a budget of around $100,000, mega-churches, defined as 2000-plus weekly worshipers, on average, work with budgets on the order of $4.8 million.

Ethical conundrum

I suppose the IRS will tell us when a mega-church is more a business than a religion and is to be taxed as such. The BW article mentioned one “preacher” who drives a Rolls-Royce while many of his congregants are struggling to give him their tithe. If the income is that far out of proportion to the services provided in that “business,” it should mean that more good works can be done.

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About John Vinturella

Retired businessman and professor.
  • John

    I find the movement of watered down mega-business-church a gross misrepresentation of the body of Christ and of true Evangelicalism (as defined by Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones)… So in this I agree with the sentiment that the meg-church is an unhealthy movement. To lump all forms of organized religion together in a blanket cynicism is truly misinformed at best. I would dare say that it might even be a hint malicious… The depths of humanity cannot be plumbed alone or apart from a transcendent reality. The meta-narrative of a naturalistic humanism is empty, narcissistic, and vain. We all need Christ… together … I just don’t think it needs to be surrounded by 2000 people … in my case 150 will do. Thank you for the well written article!

  • Nancy

    One more excellent bedrock reason why NO church or religious organization should be tax exempt.

    Making a business out of organized religion is hardly new, however. The protestant sects were cashing in big well before Oral Roberts used a 900-ft Jesus to blackmail his followers for million$, or the writing of Elmer Gantry. The first thing the various protestant sects did during the Reformation was to set up tithing counsels to ensure members (and some non-members, as in Geneva, Switz.) paid their full share & then some to ‘support’ the cause – & the ministry, who always live very well. In England, of course, Henry VIII of unlamented memory set up the Church of England to squeeze the public dry in place of the papacy – and he being the head, of course, most of it was for himself anyway. Before that, the r.c. church set the standard for grand-scale panhandling, selling titles, kingdoms, forgiveness of sins, and anything else they could get away with. They’ve had to change their business tactics, but they still rake in billions, penny by penny & dollar by dollar from the poor who believe in them, in untaxed, unaudited, unregulated coin of Ceasar’s realm to keep the heirarchy in luxurious comfort in golden cathedrals, and maintain the enormous secret reserves of investments & property the vatican controls. One of the first orders of business, we read in Acts in the New Testament of the christian bible, is the disciples immediately setting up a commune, with all assets being ‘held in common’ – and controlled by the disciples – as they shook down all would-be believers, relieving them of their assets, and cursing to death any who didn’t cough up every last bit of it. Hmmm…christianity already showing its true face, & JC barely risen out of the grave?

    Ah, but christianity didn’t start it, either. They were merely carrying on a grand old tradition. The Greek temples made a nice profit on visitors, especially to the Oracles, but no one made out like bandits on as grand a scale as the Egyptian priesthood, at least until the R.C. church came along. In ancient Egypt, what the pharoh didn’t own, the temples did. One almost gets the impression the pharoh had to make do with the leftovers after the priests got done. And they were very jealous of their graft, indeed, visiting not just vilification but outright obliteration on the one pharoh who dared to try to wrest Egypt from their iron grasp, Ankhanaten. They almost got away with it, too. Of course, they still weren’t the first: the Sumerians & folks in the neolithic mid-east crescent were the earliest known shakedown artists in the name of organized religion, requiring a tithing of all goods, crops, & herds to support the usual idle & controlling priesthood, over & above what was needed to actually run the state. Ancient China & the sites of Mohenjo Daro & the Indus valley likewise have records of the ‘business’ of organized religion, although (especially in China) it never really took root in the far east the way it did in the west. The orient was too amenable to an amalgam of dieties to support religion in a major way, just as they supported a maze of kingdoms. Besides, the rulers of said kingdoms were smart enough to recognize the population couldn’t support religion & them, too, so they set themselves up as the religion, via the teachings of K’ung Fu Tze.

    There is truly nothing new under the sun, except the eternal greed & grasping of those peddling orgainzed religion, and the eternal gullibility of those idiots who believe them.