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The Walmart-ization of the Church – Part 1

November 28, 2006

In the spirit of the shopping season of our lives, I dedicate this blog entry to Wal-Mart, that great Marketeer and destroyer of certain types of culture. I say “certain types” because of course as long as there are people there is culture. But Wal-Mart has almost unilaterally contributed to the downfall of several cutural faceplates: mom-and-pop stores, small hardware stores, toy stores, and in some places, shoe stores.

You understand, of course, that this applies more to smaller and medium-sized towns than it does to large cities. Almost any economic venture can make it in a city, provided they have a good location and knowledge of their niche market. But as the size of a center’s population gets smaller, the impact of Wal-Mart’s presence increases. I don’t have hard data to back that up, but I’m sure that Wal-Mart Watch does somewhere. But these conclusions feel intuitively correct and unless we go against “the gut” on this one, let’s just assume this is true.

I begin by stating I have a philosophical and moral abhorrence of what Wal-Mart is and does. That said, I see parallels with what is happening with today’s Megachurches. Except in this case, the impact that the Megachurch has may be more dramatic in the larger cities than in the smaller towns. I see many parallels between today’s Wal-Mart and today’s megachurch. I only want to comment on three of them. These do not apply to the Wal-Marts of Sam Walton’s day and the Megachurch of the past. These comments also do not apply to megachurches outside of North America, because these are primarily cell-based churches and do not display the features of America’s megachurch.

Without further background then, let me present my parallels between Wal-Mart and the American brand of Megachurch.

1. Lower Cost is the Key Draw: WM’s bouncing happy face tells the whole story: Wal-Mart is all about lowering prices. On the surface of things, I really don’t have an argument against lower prices. I am a grandfather and see my children struggling to stretch their spending dollar further and further. I don’t envy them having to pay the monthly bills now and a year from now. WM seems to be the answer to their limited income. But is the price really the only thing we need to be concerned about? First, lower price often (though not always, I admit) means a lower quality of product. A friend of mine bought a bicycle at WM a few years ago. It broke down about 10 times in the subsequent year. It had to be replaced, fixed, replaced, fixed, fixed and fixed again. By the time he was done with this debacle, the bicycle cost him more than he would have paid for a wonderful bike at a sporting goods store. In addition, WM’s strategy for obtaining those lower prices is heinous and cost other people in the long run (see Wal-Mart Watchh for more information). They approach a supplier with a short-term deal to produce a product. After taking over their operation, they then announce if the company wants to keep Wal-Mart’s business, they must lower their prices next year…and the year after. This results in lay-offs, lower quality and a lower standard of living for the community affected by this “deal”.The cost of these lower prices is too much for society to pay. The same thing happens with the Megachurch of today. Though there are several ‘draws’ that bring people to a Megachurch, the one that stands out above the rest is the small amount of responsibility expected of the average attender. I don’t say “member” because membership is not emphasized in Megachurches. People attend a Megachurch because they don’t want to go to five meetings a week, be on four committees, and have to listen to critical appeals for finances which doom the church’s demise. They want to go in quickly, have a church service, see the live Camels at the Christmas production (notice there are no “pageants” in megachurches…those are too pedestrian), hear a good worship band and go home to a frantic life. The Megachurch offers a small price to be part of a large happening. It shouldn’t surprise us that a generation that liked its music with 20,000 other people would want the same thing for church.

But, someone will remark, what is wrong with all of this? Our lives are already too frantic. We don’t have time for five church events a week. We don’t want to join an organization, we just want some religious flavor to our lives. We don’t want all the politics of a small or medium-sized church. We want to be left alone. Granted, we are busy. And granted, there are weaknesses in the smaller sized church. But, what the smaller church offers is community and commitment, two words that have been outsourced by the Wal-Mart philosophy. The Megachurch of yesteryear grew gradually, and thus maintained community at smaller levels. The small groups in the average Megachurch encompass less than 10% of their church population. I visited several Megachurches here in California this summer and added up the number of small groups they offered and divided it by the number of members. Unless there are 150 people in each small group, somewhere around 10% of the Megachurch population is involved in anything but Sunday morning show.

Low cost, low commitment.

That also applies to the sermon. I spent a greater part of the last two years listening to sermons preached by the pastors of Megachurches. With the exception of men like Francis Frangipane and Jack Hayford, whose Megachurches grew to those size over a long period of time, the rest of the Megachurch pastors preach the spiritual version of cotton candy: Tasty and full of nothing. Prosperity this, and feel better about that, and read your culture this way and enjoy your MTV that way. There is no prophetic nature to their ministries. There is hardly a pastoral element. It reads like Dr. Phil channeling Mary Tyler Moore. I can see you reading this and wondering if all I am saying is hyperbole. I am not going to back up my statements with statistics. This rant is all mine and it is meant to be prophetic. I will let others study this phenomenon after it produces its fruit. Then come back and read this and see if it isn’t true.

When you produce low-cost Christians, you can expect low-cost living. People going to churches based upon cost will not tolerate high cost from any part of their spiritual life. Prayer will become a nuisance, as will reading the Bible, worshiping and giving to the poor. I visited a church with about 10,000 members this summer. I was in the foyer area, enjoying the huge waterfall and the brilliant colors and textures of the building. I really did enjoy them. I wandered about the foyer looking at the approximately 2,000 people waiting for their chance to grab a good seat for the next showing. I attempted to start conversations with several people. One person just looked away from me, and talked to someone else. Another guy told me that he had to go pick up someone. Another guy told me that he didn’t like to talk to people. I tried with seven people and finally stopped. I talked to an usher about this and he said, “No one in this service likes to talk to people they don’t know. That’s what we have our home care groups for.” Well, for 10% of them anyways. I went over to the Internet Cafe on the second floor and noticed that people were watching the service on their laptops. I looked for several minutes and no one talked to each other. A pastor came out and greeted people and most of them did not look him in the eye. I stopped to chat and the entire time he was looking over his shoulder at someone else. I got 30 seconds.

I remember that happening to me last time I went to Wal-Mart.

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6 comments

  1. I love it Mike! Great great job. We just got done reading our last book here in the school. Descerning the spirits by Cornelis Plantinga Jr. & Sue A. Rozeboom. Good book makes you think about what is going on today in christian worship. It discusses a lot about what you worte about there. So yeah like i said that was great and agree sir, with what you are saying. The one big question we had at the end of the book, in our disscusion was how can “we” change what has happend in our churches today? It was a bit overwhelming cus who are we, you know to change something that has been going on for awhile. How do we go home to our churchs and somehow change it. Overwhelming! Thanks Mike for these great words.


  2. Hey I am no fan of Walmart but there is one positive fact about this giant retailer—they provide entry-level jobs to people who might be hard-pressed to find work anywhere else. Hey there’s a thought, perhaps Megachurches provide the same service that Walmart provides; they offer a church format for people who might not fit in other formats.

    But really Mike, your proposition that people are attracted to Megachurches because little is expected of them is flawed because most people in small to medium size churches feel the same way; that is, they don’t want to participate too much. I’ve gone to a small church and a Magachurch, and you definitely feel more pressure to participate in the small church, but that doesn’t mean the hearts of the majority in the small church are any more enthusiastic about adding numerous service opportunities to their plates. The bottom line is the fact that people in a Megachurch can participate as much or as little as they want without any pressure; they have an unencumbered choice.

    You mention how people go to Megachruches so they can get in quickly and go home to a frantic life. Yet I don’t see anything different in our small to medium sized church; once the service is over there is a mad rush to get out of the building. And you are kidding yourself if you believe the smaller church offers community and commitment. I know how the game is played; if a person attends a small group once or twice they are included in the stats as a small group member, and hey, presto, the percentage of people attending small groups in the small church goes up and we can claim that we have genuine community. But just like in the Magachurch, the reality is that people get interested in small groups for a season or two but eventually many will drop out. Even in the small churches, especially in California, our relationships are transient and throw-away. We have people who have stopped coming to church and nobody bothers to check on them. Others attend our small church for years but as soon as they move out of town the relationship is over. I am so weary of pretend Christian community I could scream. And I am not just pointing the finger at others; I am just as guilty as the next believer when it comes to a lack of commitment to fostering genuine relationships. I despise it in myself. I don’t have the answer; I just know it ain’t working in the small church or the Megachurch.

    And while I’m on a rant as well; the small church actually contributes to our frantic lives because of the pressure to serve in multiple ministries. Quite honestly I am tired of multi-tasking Christianity which seems to be found in all churches, regardless of size. There is enough of that misery in the secular world.

    And brother, I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to talk with you on Sunday mornings only to get the glassy-eyed stare as you looked over my shoulder for the next new “member” to connect with.

    Here’s some truth: we are all too busy trying to make money, improve our standard of living, attend classes, teach seminars, build homes, raise children, serve in the church, and take care of family members to have any time left over for Christian community and commitment. Which things should we give up?


  3. Theron: I will deal with what I think *will* change, not only what I think we need to do to change things.

    Anon: You bring up some good points. Let me address those first.

    You make a good point that people in smaller churches don’t necessarily want to be involved five days a week either. I am actually not proposing that. Later in this series, I will propose what I feel works, and it is not that. But I was only saying that this is what *attracts* people to the megachurch: The lower cost. I didn’t say that people in the smaller churches didn’t want that as well. But when you define your existence by the lowest common denominator, you’re immediately in trouble…or someone is.

    Not everyone in smaller or medium-sized churches finds community…I grant you that. And Sunday is not the best day to try and have community either…especially for me when I have 50 people trying to catch my eye. Not great for someone with ADD either. I have never had someone I have talked to in a one-on-one situation say I was looking over their shoulder.

    However, a few things I want to mention that may be helpful for you. First, about Wal-mart. When Sam Walton first started the company, it was the highest paying of all the Big-Box stores. They had the best benefits. That was when he balanced price and service. When his children took over, they trashed that concept. Right now, almost 40% of the employees of Walmart across this country also receive some sort of social assistance. This is because they cannot make a living there. Therefore, we taxpayers are subsidizing their low prices. Target, whose prices are only marginally higher, had only 8% of their employees accepting social assistance. And if Walmart succeeds in many towns in eliminating the stores that pay their employees more, then they will have succeeded in lowering the wages for the entire town.

    As to people moving out of town, that is inevitable that we lose touch with them. How can that be helped? However, I still get emails from people who moved five years ago, and I answer them. Most of us are “see you now, care for you now” kind of people.

    As to your questions in the last paragraph, I will deal with that later this week. Thanks for your comments.


  4. […] of people instead of the consumerist approach we buy into. In this, they are correct. As I wrote in this series on the Walmartization of the church, this trend will not stop as long as people desire little commitment to a local church. I am sorry […]


  5. […] of people instead of the consumerist approach we buy into. In this, they are correct. As I wrote in this series on the Walmartization of the church, this trend will not stop as long as people desire little commitment to a local church. I am sorry […]


  6. […] of people instead of the consumerist approach we buy into. In this, they are correct. As I wrote in this series on the Walmartization of the church, this trend will not stop as long as people desire little commitment to a local church. I am sorry […]



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