Preaching to the converted in a consumer culture

What role does preaching have in a world shaped by advertising and consumption? This question could easily turn in to a debate about technique, but I wish instead to begin with a discussion about The MacDonaldisation of the Church  — the title of an important book by John Drane (1) that was reviewed by John Wolffe recently (2) . Drane, an evangelist and theologian, has a lively interest in new ways of being church for a culture in which (as sociologist Grace Davie has observed) the overall correlation between popular religious belief and belonging to traditional religious institutions appears to have broken down (3).

Drane takes this argument further. He says that much church life is infected by a torpifying blend of individual apathy and (often un-named) corporate commercialism. The result is ‘a secular Church in a spiritual society’. The ideology of MacDonaldisation — standardisation, rationalisation and efficiency — is an important feature of this overall consumer consciousness. So even if ‘local branches’ of major denominations appear diverse to people who attend them, to those on the outside they seem ‘much the same’ — as someone said to me recently.

Drane says rather more than ‘what is wrong is not the product but the packaging’. He says we need a wide variety of ways of presenting a dynamic Gospel message in preaching and worship. Wolffe, however, points out that MacDonalds-style standardisation is actually hugely successful. After all, its golden arch logo is now more widely recognised than the Cross, according to recent surveys. And the most successful public projection of branded Christianity in recent years has been through the Alpha Course phenomenon. This is a clear example of MacDonaldisation, though with better pastoral follow-up. So maybe the church needs to be more, not less, MacDonaldised ‘if it is to rebuild its mass appeal’, suggests Wolffe.

Consumerism as spiritual formation

The issues here are complex. But what should really make all of us sit up and take notice is not the rightness or wrongness of a particular thesis, but the inescapable fact that, whether we think there should be more or less MacDonaldisation, this discussion remains wholly captive to the overwhelming power of consumerism. So do other debates about the future development of the Church, both inherited and emergent — especially when they are couched uncritically in terms of ‘growth’.

The difficulty is that when we talk like this we are trapped in limiting arguments about the pros and cons of ‘products’ (things that have to be standardised or differentiated) and ‘messages’ (ways of selling products that emphasise some suitable combination of sameness or difference, depending on whether it is thought the consumers want to stand in or apart from the crowd).

The key theological issue here is to recognise that consumerism and commercialism are the overwhelming spiritual forces of our age. Supermarkets are the cathedrals of this new religion, parking lots are the sites of its pilgrimages, call centres are its monasteries, and (most important of all) advertising agencies are the theological colleges of its arcane disciplines. They are the places where people are taught what to say and do — what to preach, how to accomplish ‘formation’. And they are much better at it than their ecclesial counterparts, not least because the ‘bottom line’ is clearer and the spirituality of wealth is totally manifest.

My point here is not to advocate simplistic anti-capitalism or turn the sermon into a crusade against commerce. I am far too implicated and compromised to be unaware of the benefits of consumerism, as is everyone reading this. There is also no Garden of Eden for any of us safely to retreat to. But we are surely in real spiritual danger if we cannot recognise that element of profound contradiction between the Gospel of Christ and consumer culture, and if we can speak of no other Way.

The problem with MacDonaldisation –v- anti-MacDonaldisation as a means of positing ‘strategic choices’ for the church is that it ends up representing two poles of a single ideology of ‘success’. But the Gospel is not about success, it is about faithfulness — which, in reality, is often much closer to what the world terms ‘failure’. The truth of God does not come to us as a corporate strategy. Rather, it ‘dwells among us’ (to use St John’s evocative phrase) in the vulnerable flesh of an insignificant Palestinian Jew caught up in the uncertainties of history as experienced by fallible human beings located on the powerless margins of a now-obsolete Empire. The only thing it indisputably guarantees, this side of eternity, is the Cross — an anti-logo logo.

Vulnerability, marginality, uncertainty, fallibility, insignificance, obsolescence: When we declare for Christ, as we are bound to do in our proclamation, we are saying that these are the materials that God chooses to use in showing us what really matters in (and about) the world. Try advertising that. The truth beyond selling that will set us free, if we want, is that with God we human beings are ‘mysteries to be loved’ (TS Eliot) not objects to be manipulated in a game of commercial convenience. Love and forgiveness, rather than possession and power, is what makes fulfilment possible. Relationship not ownership and communion rather than comparative market advantage are the basis of God’s economy of love.

Living beyond our means

Now all this ‘takes some believing’ as they say. Which is why we need the church. Only a community nourished by such vision, sustained by prayer and formed to resist absorption by what St Paul calls ‘principalities and powers’ can truly ‘live beyond its means’ (in defiance of standard commercial principles) in a consumer culture. And humble old preaching is a vital part of developing that process. (4)

I once asked a successful advertising executive who had, as she put it, ‘been forced to attend the local C of E to get my oldest kid into the church school’ what she made of the experience. ‘Boy, they come out with some nonsense,’ she replied, good suburban atheist that she is. ‘What’s the dumbest thing you’ve heard?’ I asked. ‘Oh, that’s easy,’ she answered. ‘The other day the vicar said that the church spends too much time “preaching to the converted”. He obviously hasn’t got the foggiest idea what good advertising is about.’

If you think about it you will see that she is quite right. Advertising takes people who are already consumers, confirms their faith in consumer goods, modifies and strengthens their choices, and subtly fights off the idea that non-consumption is possible. It moulds the way life is portrayed and enlarges the communication channels through which market permeation takes place.  It is, as I have said, all about spiritual formation (the formation of a people who will offer praise) — though it naturally has no place for sound bites such as ‘blessed are the poor’, or ‘those who seek to save their lives will lose them’.

Having said that, the increasing prominence of religious iconography and language in modern advertising is fascinating. ‘Loving your neighbour is useless’, says one finance company, helping us to see that we can only afford to spend time with family and friends once we have enough money set aside.  ‘Keep the faith’ in us, pleads a bank. ‘Now who do you believe?’ asks a mobile phone company, as a pretty nun tells us what a good talk-time deal she’s just got.

A medium message and fries to go?

So we need to understand that advertising, not the Bible, provides the nearest to a common, normative text in post-modern, consumer society. We may say we hate it or ignore it, but it pays. The reason it pays is that it works. And the reason it works is that it both creates and feeds on dominant assumptions about life, fulfilment and meaning. This is also why the Alpha Course is so successful. It uses the best media to get its message across, but it also makes sure that the message itself addresses none of the issues about Mammon that might make its City backers blush. Consumerism is about individual salvation. And so is Alpha. This is how the circle is squared. Provided you think that is an adequate Gospel, there is no problem. One-nil to St McDonalds.

Am I exaggerating all this?  Marshall McLuhan may be dated, but his aphorism that ‘the medium is the message’ still surely holds. For, as Naomi Klein’s provocative, best-selling No Logo (5) points out (note that even anti-commerce is commercial!), big companies are selling a way of life well before they are selling a product.

Let’s look at that life. With McDonalds the product is the same, but the people who consume it are portrayed as incredibly varied. With other companies samey people are differentiated only when they get to own something different. Viewed from a Gospel perspective the ideology here is enslaving choice, not free servanthood. Poor beleaguered Brian, the anti-hero of Monty Python’s controversial movie Life of Brian, discovers what this means pre-advertising. Desperate to fight off a crowd who crave a messiah (any messiah), Brian finally shouts exasperatedly: ‘Look, you don’t have to follow me, we’re all individuals!’  There is a silence. Then they cry back as one, ‘Yes! We’re all individuals!’  To which one awkward malcontent retorts, ‘I’m not!’

The delicious humour and irony in this profoundly theological film sums up the dilemma exactly. The true Gospel reminds us (not in an advert, a product or a campaign, but in a person, a community and an event) that we are not what we think we are. We are not at all free. But we can be — if we can be rescued from false freedoms, false promises, and false hopes. In short, the world as advertised.

The task of the preacher in this situation is to invite Christian people into a serious consideration of what it requires faithfully to live out the subversive message of the Gospel at a time when society is being collapsed into consumption, the self is being submerged into its material furnishing, and ‘the least of these my brothers and sisters’ are being branded losers. But whereas Karl Barth recommended Christians to pray with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, maybe what is also needed now is a critical encounter between the Word and the advert.

One final thought as I type this into my palmtop and sip coffee in a leading brand outlet. A marketing strategist once said that the aim of advertising is ‘to change the subject’. That is, to reshape a person’s way of seeing things by ‘inviting them into a new world’. What better definition of preaching could there be?  The difference, of course, is that the subject is an earthly citizen of heaven, not a consumer, and the ‘new world’ is the coming kingdom of God.

Simon Barrow is Secretary of the Churches’ Commission on Mission, part of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. He is writing in a personal capacity.


(1)  John Drane, The McDonaldisation of the Church: Spirituality, Creativity and the Future of the Church, Darton,
Longman and Todd, 2000.
(2) ‘Too like fast-food chain, or not enough?’ by John Wolffe, Church Times, 9 March 2001.
(3)  Grace Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing without Belonging, Blackwell, 1994.
(4)  See also: William Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptised, Eerdmans, 1992.
(5)  Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, Picador 2000.

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