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Lisa Napoli: What’s the difference between the shopping mall and this crop of megachurches led by preachers with big personalities?

A new book called “Shopping for God” says not all that much. Author James Twitchell says a seeming surge in religious interest in this country doesn’t have as much to do with spirituality as it has to do with marketing.

James Twitchell: When the product is very similar, then the marketing starts to take over. You take a product like water, which you can get out of the tap for nothing, somebody can come along and say, “Oh, this is Fiji water,” or “This is Dasani water.” And you can pay, you know, a buck 59 for 9 ounces of it. And it’s here in this world, where branding — something we do to soap and bottled water — we now are self-consciously doing to denominations.

Napoli: And we always have done that, but it just seems to have taken on a bigger life.

Twitchell: Well, it’s much more self-conscious now. The denominations actually have hired agencies, they have marketing campaigns, they understand all kinds of language that only marketers used to know. In other words, the world of Mammon is coming quite close to the world Jesus.

Napoli: Let’s talk a little bit about what a megachurch is, and how it can probably only have existed in the modern times.

Twitchell: Well, the easy definition of the megachurch is simply by size. It’s any church with 2,000 or more participants. But what really has made this exciting and eruptive is that these churches have essentially commandeered the rock concert. In other words, they’ve taken music and they’ve amped it up. They’ve removed the old 18th-century hymns, they have drop-down screens, and the pastor paneur very much resembles a rock star. I mean, it’s a . . . it’s a thrill — it’s not at all the church that you remember as a child. In fact, that’s one of the selling points: this is not your father’s church.

Napoli: In reading your book, I’m thinking a lot about what’s happened to the mom and pop hardware store — it got kind of shut out by the Home Depots of the world. That’s what you’re saying is what’s happening with small churches.

Twitchell: Small churches are dropping like flies. I mean, they disappear at the rate of about eight a day. Meanwhile, the Wal-Mart delivery system is sort of coming in and commandeering the market. And this new operation is incredibly efficient. No money is wasted, everything that happens in the megachurch stays in the megachurch.

Napoli: James Twitchell is the author of “Shopping for God.” In Los Angeles, I’m Lisa Napoli. Enjoy your day.

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