The Church Search

Why American churchgoers like to shop around.

Barack Obama attends the presidential inaugural prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington

Since before Election Day, Washington pastors have been lining up to invite the first family into their flock, and outlets from PBS to the Wall Street Journal have taken their turn handicapping the many contending congregations. Despite all of this cajoling, the White House announced that the Obama family is still shopping for a church in Washington.

Except for the special invitations and the presidential-scale press coverage, the Obamas’ church search puts them in a situation a lot of American believers are well-acquainted with. One in seven adults changes churches each year, and another one in six attends a handful of churches on a rotating basis, according to the Barna Group, a marketing research firm that serves churches. Church shopping isn’t a matter of merely changing congregations: A survey by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life last year indicated that 44 percent of American adults have left their first religious affiliation for another. “Constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace,” a survey summary said.

Even if the American mania for shopping extends to our spiritual lives, church shopping still doesn’t get much respect. But while it may be frequently derided as an example of rampant spiritual consumerism, shopping around can be one of the good things about the way religion is practiced in America.

Part of the discomfort with church shopping has to do with the way growing churches attempt to attract spiritual shoppers. That simple marquee in front of a church with the cheerfully homely motto (“Prevent truth decay: Brush up on your Bible”) doesn’t suffice to recruit worshippers. Web sites stream audio and video of sermons and music to let prospective members shop from home, and consultants help congregations market themselves to the “unchurched” and the merely unsatisfied by deploying focus groups, surveys, product giveaways (free church-branded Frisbees, anyone?), and other tactics borrowed from the commercial realm. The Wall Street Journal reported recently on churches employing mystery worshippers, “a new breed of church consultant,” who covertly attend services and evaluate them (Were the bathrooms clean? Was the vibe friendly?) as if they were first-timers looking for a new church.

Marrying the sacred to the secular inevitably provokes criticism. In First Things,Anthony Sacramone called church shopping “potentially spiritually corrupting” and warned against the “ecclesiological chaos” of the religious marketplace. The practice is particularly troublesome for the more established churches that find themselves in competition with growth-minded, nondenominational congregations. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking at a World Youth Day Mass in 2005, noted “a new explosion of religion” but warned that “if it’s pushed too far, religion becomes almost a consumer product. People choose what they like and some are even able to make a profit from it.” His concern is understandable: About 10 percent of American adults describe themselves as ex-Catholics—a figure that, if ex-Catholicism were its own religion, would make it one of the nation’s largest religious groups—and they are a huge target market for growing churches.

Church shopping, marketing, and the not-so-sanctified practices that go with them make easy targets for criticism. But competition among churches for worshippers has always been fierce in the United States, to the benefit of American religion and individual churchgoers. The prohibition against establishing an official state religion helped give us the shoppers’ paradise that is our religious marketplace. Disestablishment (Massachusetts was the last state to cut ties to its official church, in 1833) meant that preachers had to learn to get along without support from the state. It made the ability to recruit and keep a flock—and get them to give generously—crucial to a church’s survival. In 1992, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark argued in The Churching of America, 1776-1990 that this produced a ministry modeled on capitalism, with pastors acting as the church’s sales force.

Salesmanship sometimes degenerates into telling people what they want to hear and, in the case of religion, into a faith that never comes down too hard on the faithful. But competition among churches should be considered a good thing, at least if you are a fan of religiosity. The sheer number and variety of churches that sprang up in the American free market in religion ended up increasing the consumption of religion. In 1776, Stark and Finke write, fewer than one in five Americans belonged to a local church. Today, the figure is more like 67 percent.

American faith comes in lots of flavors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that today’s church shoppers are buying into a superficial, strip-mall faith. When the Barna Group studied what believers look for in a new church, doctrine and belief ranked at the top of the list of the most important factors, while more mundane or aesthetic concerns (music, parking, comfortable seating) were less important. And the free market in faith has been good for America’s religious life. All that hopping across denominational lines likely helped produce a less rigid, better informed, more ecumenical religious culture.

Even within denominations and churches, believers have room to choose. Pope Benedict XVI has made it easier for Catholic parishes to offer Latin Mass as an alternative to the conventional vernacular Mass. President Obama’s former denomination, the United Church of Christ, is famously diverse, including both flinty New England Congregationalism descended from the Pilgrims’ churches and the huge South Side Chicago ministry once led by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Obamas’ controversial former pastor. If believers need help keeping track of the many variations in style and substance, they can check out the Zagat-like reviews of church services at the Web site Ship of Fools.

Knowing that churchgoers have so many options should keep pastors and preachers on their toes. In that sense, church shopping transfers a bit of power from the pulpit to the pews. And keeping a check on the power of church leaders is never a bad idea.

So, the president shouldn’t feel any need to rush into committing to a new church. When you have so many options, it pays to shop around.