Satisfaction Guaranteed

by David Stark

Stark0 Lights dimmed, spotlights, stroboscopic effects, and loud rock music. The camera on a large boom arm swings toward the audience who can now see themselves, clapping and cheering, displayed on one of the enormous screens above the stage. The warmup act is over and the headline performer bounds onto the set amidst frenzied applause. We are at VictoryChurch.tv, one of several megachurches that I have been studying in Oklahoma City.

In 1904, German sociologist Max Weber traveled to Oklahoma where he conducted field research, leading to an article, “Church and Sect in North America,” and his most influential book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A century later, the megachurches of Oklahoma City seemed an appropriate setting to witness recent developments in the relationship between religious experience and contemporary capitalism.

Evangelical, non-denominational “megachurches” (defined as congregations with more than 2,000 members) are the fastest growing segment of religious affiliation in the United States. VictoryChurch.tv and LifeChurch.tv are two such Oklahoma City megachurches. Indeed, these are their official names, inscribed on large signs (complete with logos resembling the Nike swoosh or dot.com startups) reaching high above gargantuan parking lots. Each began in the mid-1990s with a handful of members. VictoryChurch, for example, first worshipped in the cafeteria of a public high school. Within a decade, weekly attendance had grown to over 6,000 (at VictoryChurch) and over 13,000 on five “campuses” (LifeChurch). They achieved such growth through an innovative recombination of the cultures of church and commerce.

The architecture of these churches is the first signal of such recombination. There are no steeples, in fact, from the street one sees no crosses or other religious symbols. After outgrowing the high school cafeteria, VictoryChurch leased space in a declining shopping center, one of the familiar “strip malls” that line the thoroughfares of most American cities. From these still modest operations (the suburban equivalent of an urban “storefront” mission church), it quickly expanded to acquire the entire retail property (80,000 square feet) just two blocks from old Route 66. From the parking lot, one sees the signage of its various facilities: a bookstore (at which one can purchase CDs, DVDs, and other materials produced by the church’s audio-visual department), a coffee shop (serving Starbuck’s registered coffee), an arts and crafts studio, and its own religiously themed “Toys ‘R Us” (with a logo that must come just short of trademark infringement). Unlike some of the other, even larger, Oklahoma City megachurch campuses, VictoryChurch does not have a gym or fitness center.

Stark1 With its membership continuing to grow and, having exhausted all of the available space in the shopping center, VictoryChurch faced a moment of decision. It needed to build a new sanctuary (although that term is avoided in favor of “auditorium”). It had land and abundant resources to erect any kind of building for worship. Yet it eschewed the more conventional “church” architecture, opting instead for a minimalist structure that in almost every respect – from its vast scale to the undisguised ventilation units running along the ceiling – resembles a Wal-Mart retail center.

LifeChurch is a similar story of adopting the Wal-Mart “box” architecture. Like VictoryChurch, it has a reception area modeled after that of a megaplex cinema. At LifeChurch upcoming sermons (e.g., “Invasion”) are announced in glass-framed posters with a format identical to those greeting customers standing in line at a cinema box-office. Both megachurches have food courts and a smaller version of their retail store (cash registers at the ready) immediately adjacent to the auditorium. Don’t hesitate to take your mega-size Coca Cola into the service. And if you would like the youngsters to grab a bag of cookies or potato chips to munch on during the service, these are available in large bins, free for the taking. Need to find your way around the facilities? Here is the pastel color-coded map just like in any other mall.

I mentioned “service.” But this is not the term of art adopted in these megachurches. Whether on Sunday morning or Friday or Saturday evening, the preferred term is “experience.” These megachurches are fully-equipped to deliver that experience. Entering into the auditorium, we see that, whereas the basic architectural construction was inexpensive, no penny has been spared on audio-visual equipment. Here is the multi-channel (iDR-48 MixRack and iLive-T112 Control Surface) console for digital mixing of sound and video that would be the envy of any corporate media studio. At VictoryChurch the mixing console is square in the middle of the auditorium; at LifeChurch it is housed in the “Control Room” staffed by technicians and a producer who selects the media objects. There is much to display. Both churches have no less than five video cameras (two fixed and three hand-held mobile units deployed throughout the auditorium). VictoryChurch has a very large screen, but LifeChurch dwarfs this with three drive-in theatre-size screens on which are displayed a sometimes dizzying array of split-screen moving images.

In private conversation, the staff at LifeChurch refer to Senior Pastor Craig Groeschel as “the communicator.” “Craig really understands the camera,” one young staffer explained. “For an ordinary public speaker, when they get to that emotional high point, they’ll step forward and look into the eyes of audience. Not Craig. He turns and looks right into Camera Three because he knows it’s a dedicated close-up. It’s like, if it’s not on the screen, it’s not happening. Even people in the front rows. They’ll look up to the screen. We know. We’ve done the studies.”

Prayers are in PowerPoint. Sermons at VictoryChurch are repeatedly punctuated by two-minute video “messages” that bear uncanny resemblance to commercial interruptions, informing the worshippers about past or upcoming series of sermons available on DVD. But “experiences” vary. Those on weekend nights, catering to a younger set, tend to be louder. Typically, at least one of the experiences (offered in various time-slots) on Sunday morning tends to be a bit less enervating.

Stark2 The pastors of these megachurches are the heirs of the televangelists, first in radio and later on television. One of the true pioneers was the evangelist Oral Roberts (“put your hands on the radio”), operating from nearby Tulsa. This next generation of preachers are adopting new technologies. LifeChurch and VictoryChurch simulcast their services; each has a fully-elaborated website with deep categories, streaming video, and online payment systems (“click here to donate”); each proudly announces their “social networking” capabilities and their presence on Facebook and Twitter. The website of LifeChurch has a bar along the top announcing the “Next Online Experience In,” followed by a set of digital countdown boxes, e.g., 01 HR, 42 MIN, 15 SEC. Several years ago it launched a venue in SecondLife, where some visitors choose to have their avatar raise one hand in the “praise” posture, elevate above the digital floor, or even sport a halo.

But these megachurches are not just adept at using technologies. More significantly, they are media-savvy in the sense of being familiar with a wide variety of media genres and capable of repurposing them. That is, despite their differences, what the various “experiences” have in come is that they “quote” an established media genre. Some of these repurposings are so obvious as to need little interpretation: the youth minister, like the member of a “boy band” with shirt untucked and headset microphone, involving the crowd at a rock concert. But even the relatively more subdued Sunday experiences harken to some genre in the world of profane media. One “series” of sermons screened at the Sunday experiences, for example, has senior minister Craig Groeschel going out with a film crew, “invading” the homes of LifeChurch members: Reality TV. Because there is no altar or pulpit the megachurches have considerable flexibility in arranging the podium platform. Thereby, in a different genre, one encounters Pastor Craig sitting behind a kind of desk. To his right is a couch where he is joined first by a Christian celebrity, then by a regular church member, then by another celebrity each of whom Pastor Craig interviews, eliciting a mixture of light banter and emotional testimonials. Without doubt, a late-night talk show.

Two recent papers by German social scientists bear on the megachurch “experience.” (Each will be published in a volume, The Worth of Goods: Valuation and Pricing in Markets, Oxford University Press 2011). Starting with the definition that “a good promises performance, sociologist Jens Beckert distinguishes three dimensions of the performance of goods. A good’s physical performance refers to what it does in the physical world. Positional performance refers to the mode of valuation according to which a good locates its owner in a differentiated social world. Although he does not exploit the phrase, Beckert is here pointing to the ways in which our “belongings” signal our identities (of class, lifestyle, or group membership) – in short, where we belong in social space.

Most relevant is Beckert’s third category of goods: the imaginative performance of goods refers to a transformation of consciousness in the realm of one’s own imagination. Interpreting Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life as a treatise on valuation and drawing on Durkheim’s notion of the totem, Beckert argues that imaginative goods can perform like relics, allowing the owner to be in touch with intangible values or aesthetic ideals. They are a “bridge to the transcendental.” In this capacity to “transcend the here and now” (think, for example, of a bottle of wine which affords a material connection to the time of Hailey’s comet or to the year of one’s birth), imaginative goods are transportation systems. “Did you enjoy the opera?” a friend asks. “I was moved.”

Stark3 Beckert is attuned to the fact that a given object might have all three forms of value: a designer handbag (of a type shown to have been carried by a celebrity) can be used as an accessory, signal lifestyle membership, and – in its capacity as a second-hand relic – create for its owner an association with the charismatic personage.

Beckert goes on to note that whereas religious relics maintain distance, the purchase of the object of imaginative value brings it into the profane world. Actual use of the object sets in motion a dynamic of disenchantment, with disillusionment creating an unending demand for new products, the arousal of new hopes, and yet new disappointments in the search for “imaginative salvation.” Mick Jagger, too, observed this cycle of disappointment – of objects “tryin’ to fire my imagination. But I can’t get no satisfaction.”

If Jens Beckert examines performance values, Michael Hutter analyzes the value of performances. Focusing on the emotion of surprise, Hutter refers to goods which are desired for their ability to generate surprises as “experience goods.” Such goods can be theatrical or musical performances, books, fashion, movies, and TV series, but also electronic gadgets such as videogames – anything that evokes a “Wow,” indicating the users’ experience of amazement, whether profound or fleeting. A mobile phone might seem to be a piece of hardware – until one hears a colleague talking excitedly about its performance: “It’s just amazing!” The business models of Apple’s i-phone and Google’s Android are keyed to their performances as experience goods, with an endless stream of new “apps” generating opportunities for fresh surprises.

For Hutter, surprise is a function of expectations and uncertainties. The user of an experience good cannot be certain about the quality of the experience beforehand. Nonetheless, the concert goer or the purchaser of a new DVD does have expectations, and these can either be exceeded or disappointed. We experience surprise when expectations are overwhelmed. Because the management of expectations and uncertainties are so important for the “praise value” of experience goods, commercial products are carefully calibrated not to deviate too much from user expectations. They should be neither too boring nor too startling. “Familiar surprises, combining thrill with comfort,” Hutter concludes, “are the most frequent and successful commercial variety.”

Beckert’s model of imaginative performance does apply to the megachurches – but in reverse. Whereas Beckert directs our attention to how a profane object can transport the user, bringing her in touch with some idealized state, the megachurch preachers can be seen to be working in the opposite direction, repeatedly bringing us back in touch with the most mundane elements of entertainment culture, thoroughly suffusing the sacred with the profane. I do not write about theology; and I hesitate to speak of liturgy (whether megachurches are liturgical – even unconventionally – remains an open question in religious studies). But in their architectural as well as their dramaturgical forms these practices are decidedly “down to earth.”

They are also in accord with megachurch recruitment strategies. Life and Victory aim to attract “seekers” – those who might not know exactly what they are looking for and who sense that they are not finding it in their experiences in the established denominational forms. “Love God but hate Church?” announce their websites, “You can find a place with us.” In their competition with the mainline denominations, megachurches thus attempt to lower emotional transaction costs for these seekers. From the architecture to the food court to the structure of the experiences, the message is clear: If you are comfortable walking into a shopping mall in your cutoff jeans and 7-Eleven Slurpee, you can feel comfortable doing the same in your experience with us. Are these businesses disguised as churches? Perhaps. But in place of that denunciation, it is more telling to regard them as churches disguised as businesses.

Thus, in contrast to the earlier non-denominational “tent revivals,” megachurches do not practice “the call,” inviting walk-ons to “come to the front and accept the Lord” in a sudden and dramatic “conversion experience.” Instead, they recall Michael Hutter’s observations that familiar surprises of the “successful commercial variety” entail a careful calibration of expectations and uncertainties. Such management of expectations can be seen in this passage, featured prominently on the website of LifeChurch:

Not sure what to expect? We want your experience at LifeChurch.tv to be a great one, so we let you set the pace. Want to hang back and observe for a while? No problem. Want to meet a few people and learn more about us? There are lots of friendly faces ready to help. Either way, you'll be greeted by a warm environment, great music, and teaching that will make you think.”

We have come a long way from Max Weber. Whereas the work ethic of Weber’s protestant was motivated by the fact that salvation (atonement, satisfaction of the debt of sin) in the hereafter could not be known for certainty on this earth, here the religious entrepreneurs of commodified spirituality offer a different message. The experience goods of these megachurches seem to come with a promise: “Satisfaction Guaranteed.”

David Stark is chair of the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. All photo credits: Ben Stark.

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