For some time now I have sensed a living and vital linkage between the “gender wars” and the “worship wars” within Broadly Evangelical American Protestantism (BEAP). These controversies not only intersect, they seem to reinforce one another. The problem has been to figure out how and why. It’s puzzlement. I suspect many factors are at work.
A one clue may be found in two notices I ran across yesterday about a book by James B. Twitchell entitled Shopping for God. One notice popped up in a regional newspaper web site in Florida, another in the editorial pages of the online Wall Street Journal.
Naomi Riley, in the WSJ piece, summarizes Twitchell’s thesis as follows:
Choosing a religion, [Twitchell] argues, is much like choosing any other product–from breakfast food to beer. He sets out to determine why the “spiritual marketplace” in the U.S. seems so hot right now, and, more pointedly, why evangelical megachurches have become, well, so mega. His theme can be summed up in one of the book’s smug chapter titles: “Christian Consumers Are Consumers First.”
So far, Twitchell’s book appears to be the latest, and perhaps most thorough, analysis of a feature of BEAP’s adoption of commercial marketing as the starting point for advancing the Kingdom of God. Riley (reluctantly?) acknowledges that “… in fact there are churches out there self-consciously engaged in marketing. They hire consultants and public-relations experts to ‘grow’ their flock, and they obey a market discipline.” From my perspective, those churches that don’t hire consultants are avidly aping those that do. Why pay for what you can mimic for free?
But, then, Riley quotes Twitchell to a point that intrigues me:
Mr. Twitchell explains: “Men are the crucial adopters in religion. If they go over the tipping point, women follow, children in tow.” So now megachurches sponsor sports ministries and groups whose members ride motorcycles together. The language of prayers and sermons has moved away from a condescending lecture tone and taken up sports metaphors instead, asking congregants, for instance, to step up to the plate and help the team. In such a way are men induced to buy the megachurch product.
Twitchell, therefore, argues that there is (or, we should expect there to be) a “gender factor” in BEAP’s marketing of Christianity to the masses. Certainly there are some overt attempts at this as far as marketing Christianity to men are concerned. There is, for example, The Gospel in the Men’s Room, a deliberate attempt to make a church appealing to men by making a men’s toilet within it redolent of Harleys, Pennzoil, and NASCAR paraphrenalia. We think, also, of Church for Men and the virile fellows at God-men. All these latter are whining, plotting, and campaigning for men in church to get their fair share of the bennies.
But, consider … except for where individual congregations are big enough and rich enough to do niche-marketing to men (i.e. they’re mega churches already), Twitchell has given us a plausible reason for the female-friendly cache of contemporary Christianity of the BEAP variety, namely that every congregation you can find within BEAPdom is predominately female. Churches that want to maintain their size, much less grow, cannot afford to displease the majority of their market.
What is the chicken and what is the egg here? Who knows? But, if Twitchell is right about BEAP, its female-heavy demographics and its programmatic appeal to feminine tastes obviously reinforce one another.