Death of a Pastoral Salesman

In a curiously titled (“Congregations Gone Wild“) op-ed piece for the New York Times, pastor Jeffrey MacDonald bemoans the pressures that now assail the American clergy.  What are these pressures?  Entertaining the flock.  Selling religion as a commodity for comfortable consumers-parishioners.

Despite the title tease alluding to a sophomoric video series in which college-aged women bare their chests for a camera, MacDonald nowhere suggests that parishioners are seeking anything remotely lascivious at church.  It does, however, sound competitive out there:

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them.  It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.   As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

This entertainment trend apparently includes liturgy and giant puppets that bizarrely manage to make Where the Wild Things Grow into a Men Without Hats production.  It’s all a bit creepy but you really should watch the puppet videos over at Religion News Service.

All of this was predicted by Peter Berger in his 1967 classic, The Sacred Canopy:

To repeat, the crucial sociological and social-psychological characteristic of the pluralistic situation is that religion can no longer be imposed but must be marketed.  It is impossible…to market a commodity to a population of uncoerced consumers without taking their wishes concerning the commodity into consideration.

I would like to sympathize with MacDonald, but this declaration disallows it:  “Pastors believe they’re called to shape lives for the better, and that involves helping people learn to do what’s right in life, even when what’s right is also difficult.”

Pastors may believe this, but it simply is not hard to learn or do right.  The historically and socially constructed assumption otherwise — that learning and doing right is hard — is precisely the thing that keeps fear-based religions in business.

This is a fiction foisted upon people who generally are inclined to do good.  It appears, therefore, that MacDonald has already internalized the first and most important business lesson; he just needs to learn a few sales tricks.

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