Throughout most of the history of Christianity, brand loyalty has been strong. Whatever brand of church you were born into, that’s where you stayed. Of course changing brands wasn’t that simple back in the day—there were no options. First, there was just the Church. Then, there was the Coptic Church, which split away from everyone else, and the Church. Then there was the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which went their separate way. But even then a person didn’t really have a choice, given that these churches were geographically—and therefore socially—restricted. If you were a Christian in Egypt you went to the Coptic Church; if you lived in Greece or Eastern Europe, you went to the Orthodox Church; in Western Europe, the Roman Catholic Church. A Christian living in Gaul really didn’t have the choice to go to the Orthodox Church down the road—unless by “down the road” you meant a few thousand miles down the road.
In the West, the Protestant Reformation brought new brands of Christianity, and choices somewhat increased. In Germany, for instance, your choices were the Catholic Church or the Lutheran Church, and that’s pretty much it. But after a generation or two of the Reformation there really wasn’t that much crossover, if any. If you were born Catholic, which meant your entire family was Catholic, you stayed Catholic. To change would cut you off , not only from your family, but your entire social structure. Same if you were born Lutheran.
This is an over-simplification to a degree, but not by much, and certainly not by comparison to what followed as religious groups, seeking religious freedom, came to the New World. Within a few generations you had Congregationalists, Baptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Catholics living in the same state, same city, same township. You may have been a Lutheran farmer whose nearest neighbor a mile or so away was a Mennonite.
But while all these different brands came in close proximity to each other in the United States, brand loyalty was still extremely strong. People just didn’t switch brands that often, and there was a high cost for doing so. Then came television, and with TV came advertising to an extent not seen before, even in the days of radio. As the years went by marketing became more and more sophisticated. Consumers began having more choices of cars, toothpaste, laundry detergent, etc. The shopping mall came along and it flourished, giving people choices of stores and products under one large, climate-controlled roof. Brand loyalty was still high. Among the WWII generation you would still hear men call themselves Ford men or Chevy men. And Baptists were always Baptists, Lutherans were always Lutherans, etc.
Not so for their children. This generation, the Baby Boomers, came of age alongside the television, and they were the first generation that grew up marketed to. Brand loyalty began eroding. If the toothpaste they were using didn’t include fluoride, brand loyalty didn’t keep them from switching to a new brand that did. Or that promised whiter teeth and fresher breath. Companies could no longer rely on brand loyalty to keep their customers; they had to always be better than the rest. And the bar kept rising.
So it shouldn’t be any surprise that when the Boomers came of age and started having children and returning to church in the 1970’s and 1980’s we began seeing the erosion of brand loyalty in church life as well. If a husband and wife who grew up Baptist moved to a new town with their kids (or because they had kids decided to go back to church after a long-layoff that started in college), the Baptist church or churches might be the first churches they visit, but they likely visited other brands as well. And the determining factor of where they eventually joined probably had little to do with the brand—it was almost solely based on the quality of the children’s and youth programs.
The result in this shift in mentality to a consumerist approach to church shopping is a marketing culture it created in churches that sought to gain the greatest numbers of religious consumers. And while this is not new, and the weaknesses and flaws are apparent, what is new is that some very positive trends are coming out of this consumerist/marketing culture in church life. I’ll explore some of those exciting trends in the next few posts.