Instant Cool: Explaining the Diffusion of "Contemporary" Church Culture ~ Praxis Habitus - On Race Religion & Culture

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Instant Cool: Explaining the Diffusion of "Contemporary" Church Culture

Church Marketing Sucks, a website concerned with the use of contemporary marketing techniques by church leaders, recently provided a list of great media resources for churches freely available online. Through sites like these, we have a privileged window into American religion. Why? Because understanding the circulation of these media materials gives us an alternative means for understanding the widespread diffusion of "contemporary" church culture.

The Fields Church - Newspaper AdImage by mufan96 via Flickr

We know contemporary churches use rented facilities. Not just movie theaters and high school auditoriums--churches are using bars and coffeehouses, community centers and warehouses, even lake shores and parking lots. How do these church leaders focus spiritual attention in these architecturally challenging sites?

Well, what's happening is that even churches who do not have specially-designed or "megachurch" aesthetics are adopting sharp media imagery to promote an exciting "vibe" that directs devotional attention and speaks to quality (and money) even when the church is just starting out.

Take a look through the free resource sites listed by Church Marketing Sucks below. Each of these congregational ministries have longtime experience producing entire suites of visual materials that compliment and accentuate message series:Clicking and exploring these sites, you get a sense of what non-high liturgy, "contemporary" churches are bringing into their services.

(For church-researcher types, these materials provide fodder for understanding seeker churches, new paradigm churches, and emerging adult spirituality.)

But, I'm writing this post to make a particular point: The availability of these materials points out an aspect of the modern diffusion of church culture. Here's what I see.

The internet is allowing more easy accessibility to media resources. Churches which have produced these materials (and are frequently asked by scores of other church leaders who literally salivate over obtaining such things) are seeing the extension of their local church ministry as giving away these resources--at zero cost.

See, churches that produce these materials are well aware of the money and time invested in the creation of media materials that have an inherent disposability to them. They'll never be used again in their church (since churches don't "repeat" sermon series). So they are happy to have them used by others and see their investment put to good use by others.

In other words, providing media resources to other churches (after they have been used in the base church) is understood to be part of the missional outreach of the congregation.Graphic materials are viewed as tools (modern, necessary, missionary tools) that can be easily adapted by like-minded ministries who are perceived to be essentially partnering with them to spread a message they already believe should be widely promoted.

Because these media items are used in many different churches across the nation (perhaps the anglophone world), and because church attenders are highly unlikely to know the materials they see were originally used somewhere else, there is an unacknowledged yet powerful diffusion of Christian visual culture -- at last a type of Christian culture.

And because we have not studied this, I speculate that the diffusion of style, ambiance, and ethos of religion embedded within these media materials is reinforcing particular boundaries of similarity and identity.

In the research literature, this is a type of "institutional isomorphism." But I won't go into all that now. It's enough to say that researchers DiMaggio and Powell* defined imitating or "Mimetic Processes" as coming from similar external conditions. In particular:

Uncertainty encourages imitation.

What does this mean for how "contemporary" church culture is widely reproduced?

Let's look at how this works. Using DiMaggio and Powell's framework, predictors of similarity (or "isomorphism") are based on premises like this:

Principle 1: The greater the centralization of resource supply, the more it will change to resemble the organizations it is dependent upon.

1: There are only a few churches willing to give away these media materials, so the dependency on these few churches raises their influence as models for how to "do church."

Principle 2: The more uncertainty, the more an organization will model it's structure after successful firms.

2: The means to growing new (and struggling) churches is highly uncertain, so leaders look to the successes of other, usually much larger and media-rich, churches.

Principle 3: The more ambiguous the goals, the more an organization will mimic a successful one to establish legitimacy.

A mission statement like "Reaching our community with the gospel" is quite ambiguous, so church leaders quickly become alerted to widely accepted models of ministry and absorb their media practices.
These are not exhaustive, and certainly the principles are not directed soley toward understanding the use of media. Nevertheless, these principles provide a quick peek into the dynamics of isomorphism that can be applied.

Other important aspects are how organizational models can be diffused is through employee migration, which in the case of churches would include the movement of clergy, lay leaders, as well as members between churches. Larger churches with well-institutionalized media ministries more quickly diffuse their media-intelligent people in comparison with smaller churches which are not likely to have as extensive of media practices.

Also, organizational models are spread by consulting firms, which in the case of leaders is usually accomplished through church leader conferences. Highlighting and discussing the use of media is a common aspect of "contemporary" church conferences.

I've come a long way in this post, something I thought I'd shoot off much more quickly than I did. Here's my main point.

In short, I've come to think that the accessibility and wide-spread use of church media materials gives us an alternative pathway to grasping how the cultures of "contemporary" churches can be understood. For me, this highlights that the occurrence of "contemporary" churches are not isolated phenomena--and most of us know this.

Further, it also suggests that "contemporary" churches are more tightly networked with each other than we usually think, specifically around assisting one another to reach similar goals with similar methods. Media materials provides a tangible means to enact those networks.

*P. J. DiMaggio & W. Powell, "The iron cage revisited" institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields", American Sociological Review, 48 (1983), 147-60.

1 comment:

paulvk said...

Your point about what this says about network and presentation is correct, but I think about it in terms of shaping our view of the gospel itself in this culture. I pastor a church that has near zero “instant cool” and I am troubled by the implicit associations created by this vocabulary of images. I’m really not so sure how far it is from some sort of a health and wealth gospel not of money but of hip and chic. As often happens I browsed this while musing over Revelation 13, that dramatic chapter about the unholy trinity of the dragon and his two beasts. On one hand it is clear that these churches are producing a sort of art, something powerful and evocative whose power these churches are generously sharing with church plants and smaller groups that via see this power and hope to leverage it into their desperate desire for attendance, mindshare and coolness. Everyone knows marketing is all about the control and manipulation of expectations. An Ipod may not sound any better another mp3 player at a fraction of its cost, but what you purchase with your Apple tax is participation in cult of the white headphones, black turtlenecks and bars that serve up geniuses. You want to create an undertow that draws people in, part of it is connecting to legitimate longings all of which are powered by the God-shaped vacuums of our hearts, yet the marketing images are so deeply associated with our present idols of youth and the accoutrements of the now. I fear a whiplash inducing “bait and switch” moment when the chicness-seeking spiritual consumer discovers that the Christian life is no walk in the mall (or glowy world-saving sojourn into multi-identity, greenish self-expression) but rather a relentless crushing of all idolatrous dreams into a life of simultaneous suffering and joy.