Most people know that when they set foot in a grocery store they are being manipulated. Grocery store merchandising has become something of a science. The stores know exactly what you need and how to convince you that what you came to purchase is not enough. They know how to encourage you to leave a few more of your hard-earned dollars in their tills.
One way we know that stores do this is that the general layout for most big grocery stores is remarkably similar. In fact, the four stores I frequent in Oakville are nearly identical in layout. Produce is closest to the entrance and extends along one side of the store. The bakery is in the corner. Milk, eggs and meat are along the back, and one of them is always in the far corner, directly opposite the produce. The aisles contain an eclectic, seemingly-irrational collection of products - dog food is on the same aisle as storage solutions, soup is with the ketchup, and so on.
Stores are laid out both deliberately and predictably to ensure that the customer has to walk from one end to the other to purchase even a few basic items. The vast majority of shoppers will first walk the perimeter of the store, picking up the standard items, before beginning to walk up-and-down the aisles to purchase those items that are less common. A simple shopping list of potatoes, apples, bread, beef, eggs, milk and ice cream would take the person to the four corners of the store. Add crackers, cookies, chips and soft drinks and the customer will also have walked along most of the aisles.
It is important to have the customer walk this distance for one simple and obvious reason. The more items he walks past, the more likely he is to put one or two of them into his cart. We all know how easy it is to walk out of a store with far more items than we expected.
The people responsible for marketing within grocery stores know that consumers operate in predictable patterns. Because of this, we are exceedingly easy to manipulate. Most stores have several items which they consider “loss leaders” - items that are discounted to the point that the stores make no money from them or perhaps even lose a little bit. But these items are guaranteed to draw consumers to the store and not only that, but to draw them to a certain part of the store. Near these loss-leaders may be other products that are on sale - products which boast high profit margins. You see, stores do more than simply ensure that the customer is walking from end-to-end. They place items that are about to expire on the ends of aisles to encourage the consumer to help keep their shelves stocked with fresh food. Sometimes they offer these at a discount, while other times they simply make the customer believe that they are offering them at a discount. I have seen items marked as being on sale when they were actually cheaper the week before. High-priced brand name items are placed at eye level, while the cheaper generic ones are placed closer to the floor where they are less likely to be seen.
You get the idea. This is simple, entry-level marketing. More advanced marketing would include pricing, colors, advanced layouts and so on. And of course grocery stores are only one example of this type of marketing. Almost any store, and especially the chains, employ similar tactics. When I worked for Starbucks (many years ago) we had specific patterns we were to follow when placing the bags of prepackaged coffee on the shelves. The same was true of the travel mugs, chocolate-covered coffee beans, and nearly everything else. Members of the marketing team were known to randomly check stores to ensure employees were following these rules.
The fact is that when we walk into stores we are being manipulated. We know this, but usually are apathetic towards it. While we may spend a few dollars more than we had hoped to, it is simply one price we pay to live in a consumeristic society.
But how do we feel when we realize that many churches operate in a similar fashion?
As I stated earlier, the foundation of most marketing is that humans operate in predictable patterns. Marketers study these patterns and learn how they can use them to their advantage to convince us to buy their product. Essentially, they are trying to convince us to make an exchange with them - our money for their product or service.
The same patterns that drive marketing in grocery stores can be applied by churches. We see this most clearly in the Church Growth Movement (CGM). Church marketers have studied us and decided how they can convince us to become part of a church. They know that most people approach churches in a similar way to a grocery store - they are seeking a fair exchange. If the church can convince people that it offers enough, and that it will meet their needs, they will make an exchange of their time, talent and perhaps even their money. It would seem that this has been very successful, as many CGM-based churches have experienced incredible growth.
But there is something troublesome about this. There is something troublesome about manipulating people to become part of a church. Does this not discount the role of the Spirit? If humans are so predictable that they can be convinced of just about anything, what need to we have for the Holy Spirit? Are these people filling the pews of the mega-churches truly saved? Or have they been manipulated into feeling they are Christians when in reality they are simply consumers?
Christianity is not a faith based on exchange. We do not exchange anything with God in order to be saved. It is only the empty hand of faith to which God will extend His grace. I fear that when we allow exchange to become a foundation for our churches we are allowing a consumer mindset to creep in that will create churches filled not with true believers, but with customers, and pulpits that will be filled not by preachers, but by marketers.