Religion is Media with a Terrible Business Model

Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post has set off a flurry of discussions about the media and its various business models.  So, I started thinking....

Religion has always been, at heart, a media operation.  It is a social organization to spread certain information and create a particular worldview a group of followers.  "Teach them (all the nations) to obey everything that I have told to you," said Jesus.  

The ancient Hebrews put their writings in the Temple where the priests could read it, refer to it, and presumedly teach it.  It was the best way they knew to preserve and spread the information.

Now, information is everywhere and it's free.  Nobody wants to pay a fifty cents for a daily newspaper.  The teachings of all religions are freely available.

At one point the social organization of the church was the means of disseminating the information.  The gathered community engaged in a ritual which communicated the teaching; even the architecture of the building communicated the teachings of the religion.  Now, gathering of the community is for the sake of the community itself.  And the people wonder if it's not all just a social club.

Say you had a really big, earthshaking idea, a new way of looking at everything.  How would you spread that information?  How would you evangelize your good news?

OK, first I would gather a few people together, form an organization, write some by-laws, build the most magnificent building we could afford, hire someone to teach my teachings once a week to the people who already accept it, in the hopes that they will tell their friends and neighbors when they are not too busy going to meetings to figure out how to keep the pigeons from pooping on the sidewalk on Sunday morning before everybody gets to the once a week explanation of the teachings, which, by the way, are free.

Buzz, wrong answer!

That's a terrible business model.  Way too much capital expenditure for the amount of information shared.  Your lead sales staff doesn't actually sell, but gives pep talks to the rest of the sales staff.   Your customer base is stagnant and pays an awful lot of money for what they get.  Your customers/distributors are more intent on socializing with each other than reaching any new recruits.  And when they finally reach a potential new recruit, they can get the same info for free, any time they want.  So, unless they happen to like the socializing, they are not interested.  

It's media.  Moses was the first Stone Tablet Media Mogul.  Jesus invented multi-level marketing and viral distribution, although that effort got shut down and crammed into a more conventional top-down information monopoly.  The early Protestants were book salesmen and the Radical Reformation took it one step further and spread the info in the Book through autonomous book clubs.  If I was really cynical and smart-alecky, I would say the UUism is a collection of book clubs which can never decide what book to read but still gather for the cookies, coffee and conversation.

Maybe that works, but it is a terrible business model, and it is hiding the light under a bushel basket.


  1. What a wonderful post!

    Should we do religion as performance art next? :)

  2. I've been writing about religion and media in the context of story theology. Good post, Tom.


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