“Where Two or Three Are Gathered”: Prophetically Disrupting the New Religious Marketplace

“Where Two or Three Are Gathered”:

Prophetically Disrupting the New Religious Marketplace

by Jeremy Battle

image from igniter media

Church membership in the US has plummeted by over 20% in the last twenty years, and many attribute it to the rise in public distrust of the church, coupled with the overall changing landscape of belief and the practice of faith (Crary 2019).  Many church leaders are desperately trying to survive by becoming strategists of church growth and innovation, discipleship, and evangelism. These strategies have not worked for some and have thus led to many burnouts, church closures, and an overall undertone of despair among clergy as this new religious landscape takes no prisoners. People are increasingly critical and review/rating-oriented, especially in the rise of ecommerce and social media, and this has certainly had an impact on people’s already hypercritical view of the church. Growing churches today are often marked by their marketing, outreach and evangelism edge, in an increasingly judgmental society that expects to see innovation, web-presence and traffic, appeal, and resonance. As a response to this new landscape, I believe that a “New Religious Marketplace” (henceforth NRM) has been birthed and a church’s survival is based on their ability to adjust around the marketplace and to innovatively connect their message with their prospective audience.

I will discuss the NRM based on my experiences as an African-American pastor who grew up in the Post-Civil Rights Birmingham, Alabama. I have also served in ministry in various denominations and academic environments, which has influenced my analysis of the NRM and the disparities that exist in it. I also believe that churches should challenge the NRM as Jesus disrupted the marketplace culture of the temple (Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-16), and also as the Black Church has historically modeled operating outside of mainstream culture, church, and society.

New Religious Marketplace

image from igniter media

The NRM has developed new definitions and perceptions of God and goodness, where public opinion, reviews, and ratings seem to be God and the arbiter and judge of all things right.  People now consider churches and ministers options and products to choose from. The market ultimately ranks churches and clergy based on their perception of the quality of their goods and services, which equates to their perception of the church’s effectiveness. This marketplace culture holds that churches should wield a demonstrable qualitative and quantifiable impact on people through its web and physical traffic, and the church’s collection of ministries and overall programs and services. People now treat the diversity of churches like goods and services, as products and commodities in a shopping cart.

In the Market is God, Harvey Cox argues that people assign value and deify people and institutions strictly according to their monetary value (Cox 2016). I would like to further nuance this point by noting that when people articulate a desire to attend and participate in a “good” church, they often blindly reemphasize racial and wealth disparities. According to a 2016 Pew Research report, churchgoers have growing expectations from churches that span from good preaching, authentic hospitality and a welcoming atmosphere, to children’s programming (Pew 2016). What the general public might miss are the larger implications and problems that underlie “good” definitions of ministry. In fact, I am afraid that the body of Christ has now taken the poor, pan-African, Palestinian-Jew and co-opted Him to fit a larger narrative of status and wealth. With the contemporary Christian’s view of what a good church is, many Christians would probably walk right past Jesus and His disciples, and a good number of them may be doing this right now. They may ignore significant ministries in small, un-named, underdeveloped, and understaffed churches in order to find a “good” a.k.a. “big” church. Additionally, there are a number of societal and economic disparities at play when people simply rate a good church.

Looking Forward

My goal is not to diagnose or provide causal observations for these disparities in general, but rather to uplift a few of the underlying factors I have observed over the years, in conversations with other pastors, and in larger research of the modern day church. My observations also come from over twenty years of experience serving in churches of every size (large, medium, and small), across regions in the U.S. (South, Southwest, West, Northeast), with varying economic, racial, and denominational makeups. These experiences have coalesced and formed my deep appreciation for the church, and the specific challenges that are often unique to smaller churches. I do not want to disparage the significant work done in large ministries, but instead put into perspective the perceptions of small and medium sized churches who actually represent over 85% of churches around the world (Bradley 2017). Christian pastors and churchgoers alike, should exercise significant caution when drawing conclusions about “good” churches, because that distinction often disguises unnamed biases and privileges rooted in wealth and economic disparities. What is often missing from good church conversations are the undergirding disparities of power, privilege, race, and wealth (Edwards 2008, Rah 2016).

Enormous disparities stand behind  people’s perceptions of “good” churches. Concrete social realities are disguised and distorted in the NRM.  When someone articulates that a church is “good,” he or she is often making a value statement about the distribution and affluence of wealth in that community. There are significant disparities in the operations of congregations with significant financial means versus those with less means; this is heightened when you look at (a) full-time versus bi-vocational pastors, (b) hired vs. volunteer staff members,(c) the discretionary time of lay members and volunteers,  (d) and church buildings and space.  These lines of disparity, moreover, tend to follow what W.E.B. DuBois called “the color line.”  As I hope to show, what may seem to be solely a matter of money is actually a troubling combination of racial, class, gender, and ethnic factors – what ethicists call “intersectionality.”

I want to caution small churches neither to sell out in the NRM, nor to discredit their purpose. More pointedly, small churches should (i) understand what makes them distinct in the current marketplace and leverage those strengths; (ii) focus on the essential and core responsibilities of a church; (iii) capitalize on the benefits of a small church, and  (iv) stay on the wall, remaining encouraged in this NRM. I want to caution against confusing privilege with God and successful, fruitful ministry-as poor, under-resourced congregations in store-fronts and small buildings across the world are also doing powerful ministry that may not be reflected in the building itself.  If this were true, what might our ancestors who worshipped in tabernacles and tents say? They would not fit the bill of having a “good” house of worship according to this new paradigm.

Further Reading

Acitelli, Tom. Cambridge’s average apartment rent highest among small U.S. cities east of the Rockies, Report Says. Boston Curbed, 2019. https://boston.curbed.com/2019/7/18/20698302/cambridge-average-apartment-rent-july-2019

Bradley, Jayson. The Ultimate Guide to Understanding and Growing Church Attendance. PushPay 2017.  https://pushpay.com/blog/church-attendance/

Cox, Harvey. The Market as God. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. 

Crary, David. Poll: Church Membership in the US Plummets over Past 20 years. Associated Press, 2019. 

Ammerman, Nancy. Studying Congregations: A New Handbook. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.

Billingsley, Andrew. Mighty Like A River: The Black Church and Social Reform. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Byassee, Jason. The Gifts of the Small Church?. Nashville: Abington Press, 2010.

Chand, Samuel. Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

 Collins, Jim. and Jerry I. Poras. Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (Good to Great). New York City: Harper Business, 2004.

 D’Angelo,Matt. “How Small Businesses Must Adapt To the Amazon Effect.” Business News Daily, (November 21, 2018):  


Edwards, Korie L. The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

 Foohey, Pamela, “Lender Discrimination, Black Churches and Bankruptcy” (2017). Articles by Maurer Faculty. 2551. http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/facpub/2551

Gee, Michael. “Why Aren’t Black Employees Getting More White-Collar Jobs?” Harvard Business Review, (February 28, 2018): https://hbr.org/2018/02/why-arent-black-employees-getting-more-white-collar-jobs 

 Grant, Robert M. Augustus to Constantine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

 Haney, Keith. Warning: Transformation May Occur. A Light Breaks Through, 2018. https://alightbreaksthrough.org/warning-%E2%80%8Btransformation-may-occur/

Hamm, Richard L. Recreating the Church: Leadership for the Postmodern Age. Webster Groves: Christian Board of Publication, 2009.

Heifetz, Ronald. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

 Henry, Jacob, 2019. “The unspeakable whiteness of volunteer tourism,” Annals of Tourism Research, Elsevier, vol. 76(C), pages 326-327.

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.

 Hybels, Bill. The Volunteer Revolution: Unleashing the Power of Everybody. Zondervan, 2004. 

Idelman, Kyle. Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus. Zondervan, 2011. 

Kuehner-Hebert, Katie. “The Good Book; Churches aren’t necessarily pristine credits, especially in this economy. But some banks have found strategies for keeping church loans on track.” American Banker Magazine, 2012: 26.

Margolies, Jane. “The Church With the $6 Billion Portfolio.” New York Times, February 8, 2019.

Nixon, Paul. We Refused to Lead a Dying Church: Churches That Came Back Against All Odds. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2012.

Palmer, Chris. “How Small Retailers Can Succeed In The Age of Amazon.” Retail Info Systems: Powering Intelligent Commerce, (January 9, 2018): https://risnews.com/how-small-retailers-can-succeed-age-amazon 

 Pew Research Center. “Choosing A New Church Or House Of Worship.” Pew Research Center, (August 15, 2016): https://www.pewforum.org/2016/08/23/choosing-a-new-church-or-house-of-worship/pf_16-08-23_churchesreport_attendance640px/

 Putnam, Robert. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Rah, Soong-Chan. In Whose Image: The Emergence, Development, and Challenge of African-American Evangelicalism. Duke Divinity School (2016). https://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10161/12925/Rah_divinity.duke_0066A_10056.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Rainer, Thom. Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples. Nashville: B&H Books, 2011.

Rainer, Thom. An Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive. Nashville: B&H Books, 2014.

Rolfs, Scott. “Church Lending: The Boom, the Bust and the Future.” ABF Journal, 2017: 34.

Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Ada: Baker Books, 2012.

Shulman, Joel M. Getting Bigger by Growing Smaller. Upper Saddle River: FT Press, 2003

Zinsmeister, Karl. “What to Do With Empty Churches.” Wall Street Journal Opinion, January 31, 2019

Posted in Biblical Interpretation and Proclamation | 1 Reply

About Jeremy Battle

Jeremy Battle is from Brighton, Alabama and is a third-generation pastor. He completed his undergraduate studies in Political Science at Stanford University and Morehouse College. He earned a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School, where he serves as an instructor, field educator, and denominational counselor. He is also serves as pastor of Western Avenue Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was married to Jessica Parker-Battle in 2007, and they are proud parents of two beautiful children. Jeremy loves singing, teaching, and preaching in the Gospel Tradition

One Reply to ““Where Two or Three Are Gathered”: Prophetically Disrupting the New Religious Marketplace”

  1. Eric Sanford

    I appreciate your critique of the NRM and the way in which you compare what is happening in the consumerism Christianity culture in our world today with Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. I believe you are correct to encourage the work of small and medium sized churches in their ministry to see themselves as playing a vital and important role in the Church at large. However, I also think that many small and medium sized churches could learn a couple things from big churches as well. One thing is that all churches regardless of size should strive for is excellence. Excellence does not necessarily mean to have expensive sound equipment. But I feel that many small churches accept mediocrity. As Christians, we should give our best. I can accept someone who sings a little off key if I know they are giving their best. However, I know many who just show up and sing without any preparation. Another thing that can be learned is the importance of true discipleship. If a church is faithful in its discipleship, then there will be growth. Too many churches seem content to stay where they are. However, the Great Commission makes it clear that we should seek to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all people.
    One thing that I find interesting is that you call this paradigm the NRM. How do you think that other religions and even non-religious fit within this paradigm. To me, I think that our culture has become very averse to the Church. Not that it is completely antagonistic but there are many other groups competing for people’s attention and so I think this NRM is attempting to compete by adopting some of the patterns of the world. Thanks for your work here. I appreciate the time we have spent in this program the last three years and pray that God would continue to bless your ministry.
    Grace and peace,
    Eric Sanford


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