The Religion Racket
by Norman H. Wells
Former Pastor, Central Baptist Church, Cincinnati
Now With The Lord
© 2005 James H. Dearmore/Gospelweb.net

The Late Dr. Norman H. Wells

[GospelWeb.net Globe]

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Chapter 3

Hallelujah Hucksters

Since the average church goer is living in pretense and has no appetite for real religion it has been necessary to make some adjustments. Instead of dedicated worship and sacrificial service, we have what might be called ecclesiastical entertainment. Our religious services are dedicated to the amusement of the assembled adherents.

Today's sophisticated church goer can shop through the religious page of his Saturday paper and find out what will be playing in the various churches on Sunday. It will be noticed that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the religious page and the amusement page. On the religious page it can be noted what Gospel celebrities are in town and where they are appearing. A church is very fortunate to have a guest appearance by a Gospel celebrity. These celebrities usually appear in exchange for the privilege of plugging their latest record, books, or religious trinkets. Broken down entertainers who couldn't make it in show business have found that by giving their act a religious veneer they have a ready market in the churches. Everything from magicians to bronco busters are on the church circuit. The pay isn't good but it is getting better. Preachers have retaliated by entering the entertainment field with religious acts.

Every successful religious show must have a "name" attraction. These stars must be well traveled, well known, and have good reviews. These reviews are important because they reveal what kind of crowds the star has attracted, how many converts he has had, how much money he can raise, etc. A Gospel celebrity is very jealous about his reviews because they are his bread and butter. These reviews are important and since they are generally written by the performer himself there develops a slight tendency to exaggerate. These reviews will sometimes speak of crowds of several thousand attending services in an auditorium with less than eight hundred seats!

One review kept stating that the auditorium was always comfortably full whenever the star gave a performance. This was very impressive until someone found out that by comfortably full he meant everyone had room enough to He down.

Reading all these reviews together would convince anyone that all of America got converted last week ... twice!

To attend one of these meetings after reading the reviews telling of the tremendous crowds and glorious services can be a little disappointing. One gentleman after reading these great reviews found that every time he attended the services were dull and the crowd was small. He finally concluded he must be some kind of Jonah and it would be better for everyone if he didn't attend.

Sometimes when a church goer reads the reviews of meetings he has attended he is tempted to wonder where he was when all that happened.

The big demand today is for good singing groups. Family singing groups are particularly popular. These groups have successfully modernized the old time religion. They keep up with the latest trends, styles, and fashions of the entertainment world and add just enough religious flavor to get by. These groups have the same hair styles, dress, music, and manners of any other rock and roll group but they know how to sprinkle their songs with choice, standard, religious phrases.

Today's successful religious services has become a carefully produced theatrical production for the delight of the church audience. This entertainment might range from operatic arias to country and western hoedowns, from Shakespeare to cheap vaudeville acts, but entertainment it is ... nothing more. Audience participation shows are also popular. Fun and games for everyone. Prizes galore and everyone has a chance to win. Everybody sing. It's not raining on the inside. Game shows come in for a big play. Contests are always big. Participation and competition are tried and proven winners.

The Sunday morning floor show will regularly feature the same basic format ... a good musical program, guest celebrities, a stand-up comic, and a good master of ceremonies who must also excel in extracting money. A news commentator with religious overtones is always good. All this must run smoothly and fit neatly into the allotted time.

This association of religious truth with mere entertainment has so cheapened the truth that no one takes it any more seriously than he does the patter of a nightclub comic. If what we want is entertainment let's be honest enough to call it that and quit trying to disguise it as religion.

In general religion has become a big business with hallelujah hucksters peddling packaged piety and bargain blessings. Our ministers have become merchants of morality who spend their time promoting instead of preaching. The latest selling methods are employed and religion finds itself commercialized and dispensed in convenient, easy to take capsules.

Today's religion is a highly competitive business. In order to sell his particular brand the preacher must meet the demands of the public better than his competition. His program must be popular, his preaching painless, and there must be a constant presentation of coming attractions that will entice the people to return. He must constantly awaken the congregation with parties, pageants, and pep meetings. These sanctuary slumberers. become hypodermic saints living on shots of religious excitement. Religion has become a product that is peddled from our pulpits. All this has produced an almost carnival atmosphere in some of our churches. Competitive contests are held with prizes for those who can round up the largest number of reluctant sinners on any special day. Spiritual "specials" are common. Celebrity guests with Gospel glamour. Special speakers. Exmovie stars and ex-crooks. These are the "come-ons" that feature "giveaways." Balloons for the kids, ball-point pens for the adults and for the grand prize winner, a beautiful, red-letter Bible autographed by the pastor.

All the gimmicks and gadgets of modern merchandising and advertising are brought over into our religious business. No Sunday can be just a plain Sunday, a day of worship. It has to be a "special day." Never an ordinary Sunday but fifty two special days a year is the rule.

A Baptist gentleman who was not attending church was visited by the local pastor, who invited him to the church services on the next Sunday. The response was, "Why? What's going on?"

All this has produced religion with the spirituality of a vaudeville act playing in a shopping center. It evolves through various stages of polish and sophistication until it arrives at the dignity and decorum of a broker's office. The only thing that changes is the method of merchandising and advertising. Hardsell or softsell? Shout forth the sales pitch like a sidewalk vendor or give it scholarly over a mahogany desk. If the hallelujah huckster is successful he becomes an evangelical executive in a gray flannel suit. Some start out that way.

Most ministers fit somewhere between the hollering hallelujah huckster and the polite, polished pulpit politician. The hallelujah huckster comes on with the gusto of a used car salesman giving a commercial on television while the pulpit politician uses the approach of the local, friendly undertaker trying to convince the bereaved family to buy a higher priced casket.

The pulpit politician considers himself a divine diplomat. He is the poor man's philospher. He is a master at arranging words to have no meaning. He can always give a lengthy discussion of the good and bad of both sides of any question but never commits himself to either. He packages his product with rhetorical religious expressions and masks it in mystery. The consumer is never sure of what he has bought or if it has any use. He buys it to make sure he has it just in case a need arises.

Another type of hallelujah huckster that seems to meet with a great deal of success is what might be called a clerical comedian. His method is simply to deliver a brief, humorous, monologue once or twice a week in the manner of the nightclub stand-up comic. He gets everybody in a good humor and hopes they will buy. The clerical comedian takes a very small amount of truth and mixes it with a large amount of humor in order to make it palatable to the consumer.

Then there is the preacher who is nothing more than a master of ceremonies. His main task is simply to introduce the different acts that have been assembled for the entertainment of his congregation. He presents the Gospel in little one minute commercials given between the acts.

In our pulpits we also have the medicine man. He conducts services in the manner of the old time medicine shows. Come one, come all, and bring your aches and pains, stresses and strains. The miracle man will cure them all. Among the clergy are those who could only be described as glamour boys . . . real matinee idols. They keep up with the latest fashions in men's clothing and their cologne is always the latest scent. Their hair is styled, their fingernails glisten, and their cuff links flash. They are real dolls. These glamour boy preachers present themselves as the hero of every story they tell and every illustration they use reveals their magnificence. They generally gather a following of what might be described as "preacher worshipers." They transfer the religious loyalties of the people to themselves.

Hallelujah Hucksters. Merchants of Morality. Promoters. Evangelical Executives. Pulpit Politicians. Divine Diplomats. Clerical Comedians. Master of Ceremonies. Medicine Men. Spiritual Specialists. Glamour Boys. Who needs them?

We need to turn from vague vanities and listen for a victorious voice from God. We need preachers who will stand and proclaim what God has said without fear or favor. We need preachers who care not about comfortable careers but about the urgency of conveying communications from God to man. We need preachers, not pitchmen! Pastors, not peddlers!

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