An associate professor Farish Noor is asking us to look at the phenomena of the growth of religious marketplaces through the lens of the marketplace, and not theology. This is the article entitled "When religion becomes a commodity" in the papers today.
He wrote: "On a daily basis, we see mundane examples of his: From the sale of "religious" symbols such as prayer beads to the phenomena of "religious" TV channels, fashion items, holiday tours and so on, promoted by a class of "religious entrepreneurs" who combine the skills of preachers and businessmen together."
He asks us to look "beyond scripture" when it comes to understanding the widespread appeal of extremist groups like ISIS "who have created a more radical narrative that competes against the other forms of mainstream Islam." He also urges us to "consider the socio-economic context that has made this radical and reactive narrative appealing to those who otherwise feel marginalized in wealthy societies."
Lesson? Is there anything the Church today can learn from this? Have we in this millennial generation commodified our belief so as to appeal to those who cannot imagine Sunday worship without the multi-sensorial rock-concert feel or the big-screen spectacle or the 30-strong-choir-with-dancers bedazzling campaign?
Have we created a pervasive professional ethic (mimicking the worldly business standards) that makes pastors into suit-and-tie executives concerned mostly with membership bottom line, investment profitability of church funds, marketing layout, brand consciousness, and smiley PR-like pastoral team that only tell their members what they want to hear?
Sometimes, when you step into a megachurch with soundtrack-like, surround-sound music and a formidable big-screen-sized preacher, hollering from a prominent platform, wow-ing thousands of members seated below him or her, you get the feeling that you have entered into a place of worship no doubt. However, it is the "object of worship" part that remains less than clear for the impartial observer. An alien observer - at first glance - might just think that they are worshipping their visible pastor rather than the less apparent God.
One commentator said that "much of our spiritual activities is nothing more than a cheap anesthetic to deaden the pain of an empty life."
Is there any truth in that? Are the signs of such empty spiritual activities manifested in the way pastors promote themselves on stage with announcements of how many lives are transformed through their ministry and teachings (no doubt credit still goes to God, but most times, in the frenzy, you can't really tell where the work of Christ starts and where the work of the pastor ends)? Or when the church plan a surprise celebration of his (or his spouse's or children's) birthday with an all-round collection of love gift that hits the millions?
Alas, we often forget that the cult of personality in today's religious institutions does not come to you with a neon-signboard, hollering, "Worship me!" It comes in the most nuanced form of "self-denying" public piousness.
It comes when a critical mass is reached. It comes when the pastor starts to promulgate a slightly different, but no less persuasive, gospel. It is often a self-therapeutic gospel. It comes when he says God appeared to him quite exclusively. It comes when his pastoral team rather blend in with his theology than face his implicit disapproval. It comes when he attributes all testimonies of healing and social victories to the brand of gospel that he is preaching on stage and in his books.
And most of all, it comes quite ironically when he makes it a public fact that he gives all glory to God in whatever personal and corporate successes he is reaping in so as to give the impression that his is a wholly dependent piousness, while at the same time, whether admitted or otherwise, sending a mixed signal of his own indispensability to the church growth.
So, looking at it with the lens of marketplace logic, there is really no spiritual epiphany in today's megachurch growth. It is all just part and parcel of the inevitability of the economics of a superior product and its winner-takes-all marketing strategy. Cheerz.