The cult of the Christian consumer


As a teenager in the 1980s, I was in the midst of the booming Evangelical movement in Florida. Just as I began to become more and more interested in music, the church that I was attending was often pressuring me to get rid of my “secular” music. Contemporary Christian music was just beginning to take off, so we were often told that for every band that we liked hearing on the radio, we could find one that sounded just like it in the Bible Bookstore.

In fact, when I would visit the bookstore, there were often buying guides, or comparison charts, instructing the customer that if she liked one certain band that got regular radio time, then she would love this particular Christian alternative.

That was the strange world of consumer-driven Christianity in which my faith was formed. I was taught that nothing spiritual could be found in the “world.” Everything needed to be marketed and packaged with a Christian label so it would be safe for Christian consumption. There was a deep dividing line between the secular and the sacred. The Christian musicians were encouraged to imitate the musical style of what they heard on the radio, but Evangelical teenagers were rallied to burn our “worldly” records and tapes.

I would go to concerts, and it was comforting to be there, alongside so many Christian teenagers who were just as excited as I was. The musicians often preached homilies between their songs, inviting us to ask Jesus into our hearts and encouraging us to buy more albums. Sometimes, if you responded to the “altar” call and accepted Jesus into your heart, you could go backstage, and have a polaroid take with a cardboard cutout of the Christian rock star. Then, you would tape it to the wall, next to all of the other teens who did the same.

If they were written down, we would have had volumes of urban legends dedicated to the evils of secular rock music. We were told about “backmasking,” how bands were trying to brainwash us with hidden messages, and if we played our records backwards, we could hear how they were subliminally encouraging us to worship Satan. Heavy metal bands were linked to Hitler.

And, there were a myriad of stories to scare us about AIDS (as if we needed anything else to scare us about AIDS!), usually by telling us about one of their fans who got carried away in romance, slept with a guy, and was greeted the next morning with a small black box, with a coffin charm and the words, “Welcome to the world of AIDS.”

Christians had alternative rock music, romance novels, business books, radio stations, television shows, children’s cartoons, women’s magazines, stationery sets, sport shirts, and breath mints. If there was any secular product, then it would have a Christian counterpart—a slightly sub-standard replica of the same item, which would most certainly be mutated with a pastel coating, and complete with a Scripture verse stamped on it somewhere.

It was not that Christian artists were all bad, but they were often laboring under extremely difficult constraints. Writers, musicians, and painters were not allowed much creativity in the process. They were under considerable pressure from the industry to keep their music or their writing trendy, but free from anything that might be questioned. They had to make sure that they always had a clear religious message. Songs about depression or even ordinary life were not tolerated unless they were quickly wrapped up with a “Jesus will make it all better” chorus. Musicians could easily be dropped from their labels if they did not play under the strict rules of the game.

As these bookstores were beginning to take up important and expensive real estate in our malls, the products were sometimes of higher price and lower quality. The rapidly expanding industry had to have a strong marketing strategy to build up their products among the competition, so they cultivated a clear message: the products of the world are bad and dangerous; they cannot be trusted. Christians must turn their backs on the secular and buy into the religious. Deep dividing lines between the secular and religious, the body and the soul, the material and the spiritual were set up. We were to shun the former and embrace the latter.

I wonder what effect all of this religious marketing will had on a new generation of Christians. I wonder what it did to us, to be told that cheap replicas are sacred. I guess as I look back, I’m not surprised that a new generation of young adults have left the church. But, I wonder how we can reach out to them now.

photo by Dan Lyle


11 thoughts on “The cult of the Christian consumer

  1. Well, Carol, as someone involved as a musician-songwriter since about 1976,I thought this post was interesting. As I went around from church coffeehouse to coffeehouse in the late 1970’s and 1980’s I saw wonderful things going on around music and ministry but I never quite understood this dichotomy. My experience is that this is simply an apologetics for a CCM industry that is every bit as commercial as the secular business. When you speak of “consumer driven Christianity” in which “Everything needed to be marketed and packaged with a Christian label so it would be safe for Christian consumption” you are quite on target- from the production end as well as from the consumption end of things. Of course Christian musicians’ work corresponds to the styles that are in the pop market. While many have sincerely Christian intentions their work is still ‘product’ – particularly to the companies that put this material out to the public. Some of the music got not only ‘trendy’ but somewhat empty and saccharine. The “Jesus will make it all better” chorus, unfortunately, became a cliche, rather than a daring message of life on a higher plane. Indeed, when you note “the game” you are close to the truth- at least in market terms. There are still some songs (including in the secular market) that are not “cheap replicas.” Thank God for the integrity of artists who can still give us that.

  2. oh, my favorite was an older guy named Sketch with an imposing gray beard that came to my Christian high school and played backmasked records and showed slides of rock bands, and then said in a deep, booming, and scary voice: “THAT’S NOT MY GOD. IS IT YOURS?”

    But you raise a great point. And I think that for me there has been both a deconstruction of the ways that the center of my faith was cheapened by consumer Christianity, and then from that, beginning to trust again that God can be present in the symbols and words of faith. This latter movement has required a lessening of cynicism and a willingness to trust God’s work in the world as well as an honesty that my experience in the subculture of 1980’s fundamentalism has certain unique baggage.

  3. Bob,

    Yeah… I have some close friends who were in the CCM business. It can be rough. Their intentions of making solid spiritual music often became questioned when they didn’t stick to the formula. It is a gift for us and for them when they have the freedom to do so.


    Sketch sounds fantastic! What a great name.

    I’m beginning to like my Eighties baggage. I think now that I’m healing from it… it’s looking a lot more eccentric. Maybe we can put the fun back in fundamentalism!

  4. Bob,

    Yeah… I have some close friends who were in the CCM business. It can be rough. Their intentions of making solid spiritual music often became questioned when they didn’t stick to the formula. It is a gift for us and for them when they have the freedom to do so.


    Sketch sounds fantastic! What a great name.

    I’m beginning to like my Eighties baggage. I think now that I’m healing from it… it’s looking a lot more eccentric. Maybe we can put the fun back in fundamentalism!

  5. Meanwhile I was in the old basement of my liberal Methodist church with two friends in our “youth group” drinking root beer floats wondering where all the action was.

  6. I, too was a teenager of the ’80s and very much a practicing lapsed Catholic living quite happily in Southern California. While not a “bad girl” – I certainly wasn’t one of Rick’s buddies in the basement with root beer floats.

    When I moved to Dallas in the ’90s with my new husband we joined a Southern Baptist (Affiliated) Evangelical church (sounds like an oxymoron, huh?)

    …and the Christian bubble enveloped us. Music, books, sermon tapes. Greeting cards, bumper stickers, yard art, wall hangings. Home parties to sell what couldn’t be bought at the local Christian Bookstore. The pressure was intense to be a star bellied Sneetch.

    I finally snapped back to reality when my kids wanted to watch Snow White one day and they were labeled outcasts at the church preschool because Disney – in all forms – was “satan’s little helper”. Yup, that’s a quote. None of the kids could play at my clean, safe, well-lit, properly snack-stocked home. Now, mind you, I respected their wishes and wouldn’t show anything but Veggie-Tales to their children – but yes, I did have the Lion King in my video case and that, Dear friends, was worse than porn.

    I wish I could say that there was room for polite disagreement, or even civilized discussion. There was not. And so, despite my love for my church family and their genuine love for me, we made the painful decision to move.

    I do not regret the time we spent there. We left out the front door with love and tears. It just wasn’t a good fit. I left more convinced than ever that a faith journey is just that – a journey, and a very personal one at that.

  7. I was into the “heavenly metal” during the 1980s. Barren Cross, White Cross, Neon Cross, Saint, Bloodgood, and Messiah Prophet were my favorites. It seemsed all you needed was a good drummer, a good scream, and say Jesus at some point in the song, and you could get a record deal. (And of course you needed the hair).

    Great blog post…as always.

  8. I am reminded of my time in “Gods Army.” I grew up amid the badass hair bands of sunset strip and remember that to be a Christian you had to sell out to Jesus and only listen to “Christian music.” I did so and got rid of all that evil music. [I am sorry Maiden, I did get you back.]

    It makes me wonder what tactic is going on today with the same hoped effect. Why did “Christian” become a label of change and sweep across the nation?

    I am not sure how to answer this, but I draw a parallel to what is going on with the “emergent” label.

  9. How can we leave out Stryper from this conversation? ha ha

    I would say that they (whoever they are in the Christian community) are hoping for a similar effect when they copycat “worldly” things today. For instance there is Godtube, renamed Tangle. There is now a Godwitter. There are replicas that put up those barriers between us and the world and ultimately Christ followers are mocked for it.

    At the same time, it is important to heed the words of the Apostle Paul in Php. 4:8- “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable – if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise – dwell on these things.” We do have to work through that, but not at the expense of complete segregating ourselves from the very ones we are trying to reach.

  10. My parents raised us in a manner rather different. I was allowed to read anything I wanted, because they were pretty sure I wouldn’t put my hands on something nasty. My favorite authors were Isaac Asimov and C.S. Lewis, in that order.

    I hadn’t seen any PG-13 films until after I was 13, nor R films until I could drive myself to them. Certain television shows met with disapproval; the only show I regret being told not to watch was The Simpsons, and I quickly learned why once I was allowed.

    My parents rarely spoke about God in the home, but we were in church every Sunday, for Sunday School and the service in the morning, and for the evening service at 6pm.

    They tried to avoid the corrupting influence of the world while raising us in American culture; I think they did a good job.

  11. Pingback: Daily Digest for July 16th | Half-baked

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