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While the Bible offers a dazzling array of metaphors with which to think about the church, contemporary social scientists—informed no doubt by the influential Rational Choice Theory of Religion movement—often engage a market-based metaphor. With help from Gladys Ganiel’s Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, this article demonstrates why this is an attractive yet deficient frame for examining religious practice. An alternative proposal of imagining churches within a biome or eco-system is offered as potentially more fitting for the ways in which religious movements co-operate as well as compete. Kevin Hargaden is the Director and Social Theologian at the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice in Dublin, Ireland.

God is a rock, a shepherd, a potter, a mother hen, a loaf of bread, and a lamb waiting to be married. God is a vineyard, the vine, and even wine. He is a fortress, a lion, as well as being a sun and a shield. There is no possible theological thinking without metaphor. The Scriptures supply us with copious imaginative figures of speech through which we can grapple with what and who God is. As Janet Soskice reminds us, “early Christian theologians saw in this plenitude of divine titles a revelation of the manner in which God, while remaining one and holy mystery, is in diverse ways ‘God with us’.”1 But the metaphors that were vibrant and illuminating in one era can become dull and smooth in another.2 It is important for theologians to be vigilant and critical about the ways in which metaphors tempt us into confusion or actively encourage imprecision.

Locating metaphors to account for the changing role and presence of religion in Western societies is somewhat less fraught than describing the nature and attributes of divinity, but it requires precision nonetheless. In this essay I will consider the rise of the metaphor of a “marketplace” to describe how churches interact. Careful attention to the Scriptures and Christian history shows that this framing can be illuminating, but its contemporary expression inherently assumes a “rational choice” theory which renders it fundamentally deficient. By engaging an exemplary sociological work which trades on this metaphor—Gladys Ganiel’s Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland—the argument will be made that a guiding metaphor from ecology will function better, especially when seeking to account for churches that operate in a context of ecumenical or missional partnership.

Locating the Market Metaphor: Rational Choice Theories and the Study of Christianity

When thinking about religion in a sociological register, one of the most dominant metaphors in recent decades has been the marketplace. Any account of this imaginative domain must include discussion of Corry Azzi and Ronald Ehrenberg’s influential 1975 paper which sought to explore church attendance through the idea that a household’s allocation of time was shaped by opportunity cost.3 Azzi and Ehrenberg’s “rational choice” approach to religiosity is striking because they account straightforwardly for how ir-rational it is to practice a religion, considering it doesn’t pay off in this life. Leaving aside how their underlying assumptions about soteriology or even the anthropological attraction of religion are deeply problematic,4 Azzi and Ehrenberg’s concept of “afterlife consumption” allows them to explain participation in terms of a “salvation motive” (securing a positive afterlife outcome), a “consumption motive” (they enjoy church-esque activities), and a “social-pressure motive” (there can be societal factors at play in influencing church attendance).5 Their resulting model overlapped with various sociological and psychological explanations in interesting ways. For example, the drop-off that had been observed in religious participation between early-adulthood up to about the age of 35 could now be correlated to the fact that this period of life was optimal for capital accumulation and later in life was better suited to storing up treasures in heaven. Or, as they put it: “The forces which generate a monotonically declining human-capital-investment profile with age will also generate a monotonically increasing ‘religious-capital investment profile’ with age.”6

Azzi and Ehrenberg’s paper explicitly follows after breakthroughs made in 1965 by Gary Becker, who would go on to win the Nobel Memorial prize in 1992 for his career contributions to economics. In the paper, “A Theory of the Allocation of Time,” Becker offers a theoretical analysis that imagines how a person decides to spend time is analogous to a person making a market investment.7 There are costs and benefits to be weighed and measured, whether one is trading commodity copper, buying a kilo of rice, or deciding to take up knitting. Thus, households become “both producing units and utility maximisers” who seek to “combine time and market goods” to maximum effect.8 While Becker himself rarely applied his insights to the field of religion, a network of scholars did popularize this approach in subsequent decades.9

These early explorations operated on the level of the individual choosing a religious product. But such demand-side studies were quickly eclipsed by a burgeoning movement of social scientists who applied the idea of Rational Choice Theory to the supply-side of the religious equation. Figures like Laurence Iannaccone, Roger Finke, and Rodney Stark and those following them have crafted an extensive literature centered around the idea that religious adherence is stymied by State intervention and that the competition generated by religious pluralism offers a fitness function.10 In this account, when States remove their sponsorship of established religions and as the freedom of religious expression is valued and protected, religious adherence increases. At the heart of this idea is a particular neo-classical account of market intervention: “Simple deregulation lies at the root of numerous religious trends and events.”11 In that less regulated space, “pluralism forces religious plausibility structures to compete” and this competition functions “as a stimulus for religious growth and not an avenue for its demise.”12 Individuals are engaged in rational choices, as much when considering questions of religious participation as when they calculate whether to buy a new dishwasher or go back to washing their cutlery by hand. In Rational Choice Theories of Religion, humans “approach all actions in the same way, evaluating costs and benefits and acting so as to maximize their net benefits.”13 Stark and Finke nicely summarize this position when they propose: “To the degree that religious economies are unregulated and competitive, overall levels of religious commitment will be higher.”14

Describing the religious terrain in a society as a market is certainly a simile and it clearly functions as a metaphor. But in some places, it seems to be even more than that. Stark and Bainbridge propose that their work “does not settle for parading and pondering a metaphor or two” and instead represents a deductive theory.15 But they go on to grant that their system is not “fully rigorous or formal” and that it is beyond their capacities to develop it to that scale.16 Elsewhere, Stark and Roger Finke insist that their deployment of economic language in the study of religion is more than “a mere metaphor.”17 This matters because a metaphor only functions if it is a linguistic invitation to compare distinct things.18 When Romeo declares “Juliet is the sun!,” he is not claiming she is a mass of incandescent gas. The metaphor works to the extent that it compares things that are substantively not alike.

This rational choice approach to the sociology of religion garnered sufficient momentum that rebuttal and critiques were to be expected, even without such bold claims. Steve Bruce is one influential figure in the field to voice skepticism about whether such analyses were fitting. Without rejecting the approach entirely, Bruce argued that an investment-cost/yield-return interpretation of either individual religious belief or its social consequences could only “be viable in a thoroughly secular society.”19 The core of Bruce’s critique is the vague description of “pricing” in rational choice accounts of religion. The calculation about whether an investment in religious commitment is worthwhile requires some modelling of value but it is not at all clear what exactly serves as the pricing mechanism when people make such evaluations. After all, as Bruce summarizes, “even another religion is not an alternative to a religion in the sense that a Ford is an alternative to a Chrysler.”20 Mark Chaves offers critique from a different direction, concluding that each individual use of the methods should be taken on their own merits, since the advertised theoretical unity does not exist and that the assumption of maximizing decision-making from individuals is “ungenerative.”21

While far from universally received, the influence of the market metaphors and the assumptions of Rational Choice Theory have proliferated through sociological assessments of religion. We can think of the vast resources poured into surveying, measuring, and strategizing around church growth in terms of a religious market,22 or even Grace Davie’s influential account of the “public utilities” approach to religion in Europe as a legacy of establishment churches23 to see how this theoretical importation has spread widely within the field.

Thus, Rational Choice theorists have produced an impressive array of studies, initially from the demand-side and increasingly from the supply-side, which have offered normative, predictive, and explanatory analyses of religion,24 but their assumptions have spread across the field so that even scholars who do not intend to offer an economic assessment of religious life end up using economic instruments to populate their studies. A theological interest arises when we consider the basic question of whether this theoretical importation from economics has purchase on the reality of church life. By construing the relationships between churches in terms of markets, the logic of market competition takes precedence. This investment may not bear a yield. However, if the lived experience of religious people and the activities of their institutional form resist market-competitive descriptors, a more accurate metaphor may be required.

Locating the Bible’s Metaphors: The New Testaments Description of the Church

The search for a more accurate metaphor grants, inherently, that metaphors are required to describe the activity of churches.25 If the New Testament is (in jest) imagined as a marketplace, metaphors for the church are surely approaching saturation-point. In the Sermon the Mount we find that the disciples of Jesus are a lighthouse, a salt-bank, and an urban settlement (Matthew 5:13-16)! The church is also a temple dedicated to God, as we find in 1 Corinthians 3:11, 3:16-17, and 6:19, Ephesians 2:19-20 (sitting happily alongside the family of faith metaphor), and famously in 1 Peter 2:6-7. In 1 Corinthians 3:9, Paul tells the churches in Corinth that they are “God’s field” but that is not the most famous of agricultural metaphors. Jesus, after all, declared himself the vine and the community of disciples to be the branches (John 15:5).26

We can find extensive references to the church as some kind of “family of faith” or “household of God” (Ephesians 2:18-20, Galatians 6:9-10, 1 Peter 4:16-17, Hebrews 3:6, 1 Timothy 3:14-15 and 5:1), not the least of which is Jesus’ insistence that his disciples are in fact his true siblings (Matthew 12:29-50). The church is also a marriage between Jesus and humanity as we read in 2 Corinthians 11:12, Ephesians 5:31-32, and in Revelation 19:7-8 and 21:9. If we take the metaphors about family and marriage together, we should not be surprised that there is repeated allusion to the church as a child or a group of children (Galatians 4:19).Paul describes his ministry in terms of labor and in Romans 8:22-23 we find that all of Creation is groaning in childbirth as it (verse 19) “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”

Childbirth is messy and the New Testament does not offer exclusively pristine, or even particularly positive metaphors for the church. Paul declares the church a schmuck in Philippians 3:3 and the trash-heap of humanity, “the dregs of all things,” in 1 Corinthians 4:13. Such material metaphors are perhaps the most preached examples found in the New Testament. In numerous places we are informed that church is like the members of a body, in fact the specific body of Jesus Christ. We find such language in Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 10:17, Ephesians 5:23, Colossians 1:24, and most completely in 1 Corinthians 12 where we read Paul inform the wayward Christians of Corinth: “you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

This is not even close to an exhaustive account of the metaphors we can find in the New Testament to describe the life of the church.27 There is no indication that a grand systematization of this material is possible. Paul, especially, can commonly be found reaching for more than one metaphor in the same argumentative clause. It is fair to say that there is wide license granted for metaphorical representation of the church based on this material. It is also important to appreciate that many of these metaphors flirt with the profane. Paul does not equivocate when he compares the church to circumcised flesh. He says that is what the church is like. Having been called the “scum of the earth” (the Good News Translation rendering of 1 Corinthians 4:13), it would seem odd for Christians to bristle at the framing of the church’s life in economic terms.

This is doubly the case when we remember that the New Testament is replete with financial metaphors and argumentative allusion. While the church is not quite described as a business, the grand exchange at Easter is expressed in accounting terms. The “redemption” that Paul talks of in Romans 3:24 is not language from religion, but finance. Similarly, in Colossians 2:13-14, where we read that forgiveness consists of “erasing the record that stood against us,” what is being described is debt. In Philippians 4:17 Paul describes his hunger to see the Christians in Philippi mature like an investment growing a yield: “I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.” One of the most famous sermons in history is delivered by Paul in Athens, in the physical marketplace, and alluding to religious choice by representing the temple to the unknown God as a space that can be occupied by the God of the bible (Acts 17:22-31).

Thus, we can recognize that there is no a priori issue with recourse to a market metaphor to describe the activity of the church, especially from a sociological perspective which is not bound by any confessional commitments. To critically assess the use of market metaphors in describing the life of the church, we must carefully consult an example of such usage in a particular context. With that in mind, we now turn to the work of Gladys Ganiel, a Sociologist of Religion based at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Locating the Irish Church: Gladys Ganiel’s Market Metaphor

Gladys Ganiel’s Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland is a groundbreaking account of the state of religion in Ireland. Until very recently, Ireland was an outlier in the Western world for religious adherence. Ganiel herself charts this and the numbers are remarkable. More than ninety percent of people regularly attended mass in 1972. Across a range of surveys, that number is now firmly less than half, with some surveys suggesting the figure (in 2012) was as low as thirty-five percent.28 Clearly, Ireland is an important region for study for those interested in the sociology of religion or those invested in the public shape of Christianity in the Western world.

This decline is a challenge to Rational Choice theorists because at the same time, Ireland has seen the functional religious monopoly held by Roman Catholicism collapse29 and the range of active religious traditions expand dramatically.30 With greater pluralism and less regulation, we would anticipate that “church attendance rates, frequency of prayer, belief in God, and virtually every other measure of piety” to be higher.31 Ganiel’s book testifies both to the fact that this outcome has not materialized and that the decline nonetheless features fascinating areas of unexpected growth. John Simpson once quipped that Rational Choice Theory is “quintessentially American,”32 but it aspires to relevance across the globe. As a recent work by a leading European social scientist which both deploys the market metaphor while offering careful qualifications on rational choice theory, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland is interesting because of how it demonstrates the limits of the market metaphor.

The book was published soon after Ireland became the first country in the world to legislate for same-sex marriage by popular vote, in the face of strong opposition from the previously influential institutional churches.33 In the few short years since it was published, another popular referendum overturned the ban on abortion which had been a cornerstone expression of Ireland’s cultural and political commitment to the shared value of Christianity.34 Against this setting of dramatic societal change, Ganiel’s deep investigation of seven different varieties of evolving Irish Christianity describes how faith is practiced and understood on the local level. Among the groups she introduces us to are relatively-recently formed parish councils that are an expression of the Catholic church’s attempt to include the laity in leadership more deeply, a charismatic Pentecostal church that foregrounds the role of the immigrant in contemporary Irish Christianity, and a newly established monastic community dedicated to prayer and peacemaking. She surveys rural and urban communities, meeting the young and the old, the well-established and those who are struggling. She finds a widespread suspicion of the current institutional arrangements within Christianity. There is an appetite for a faith directed towards “significant personal transformations where people experience fulfilment, healing, and spiritual growth” as well as “contributing to wider religious, social, or political changes.”35

Ganiel’s case studies allow the voices of Christians and religious seekers (and through a penultimate chapter detailing an extensive online survey, the voices of sceptics and atheists) to describe their own experience of faith in contemporary Ireland. The sheer practicality of much of this conversation—the struggle to keep organizations afloat takes up at least as much space as mystical musing or theologizing—is in itself illuminating. No clear demarcations can be erected between the faith community and the wider community. We are left without hope if our intention is to neatly package what “Christian religion” is in contemporary Ireland.

One cannot fail to notice the tension between form and content in Ganiel’s book. The people she meets and listens to have a refreshing variety and flexibility as they put their own words on their experience of faith. But the guiding structure that drives the book is a quite rigid implementation of a market metaphor. The stage she sets for her research is the retreating monopoly of Catholicism, especially in the Republic of Ireland, which “had a strong relationship with state power, that elevated the status of the cleric to extraordinarily high levels, and that emphasized the evils of sexual sin.”36 This description fits the religious situation of Ireland up to the recent past and sits on top of important social scientific research from the previous generation, especially by Tom Inglis.37 Monopoly is a concept that naturally extends to market, and so Ganiel locates her research within that metaphor: “Ireland’s religious market is increasingly diverse.”38

Ganiel explicitly distances herself from the Rational Choice Theory approach to the sociology of religion,39 but maintains that market is an appropriate metaphor.40 While there is no extended argument for the selection of this metaphor, one gathers through the course of the volume that it functions to account for increased diversity of religious offerings in society and the growing role of choice and personal agency in terms of religious practice.41 The decision not to unpack how the metaphor is intended to function generates an ambiguity throughout the book. Arguably, no metaphor is self-revealing. It is a comparison that illuminates because of its partial, imaginative relationship with the topic of discussion. “Market” is a site of diversity for Ganiel, which is a legitimate and coherent aid to analysis. But it is a site of contestation when it is used in relation to ideas.42 It is a foundational aspect of anthropology when Adam Smith uses it.43Metaphor always runs the risk of being under- or over-read in ways that obscure rather than illuminate.

This is a point that warrants sustained reflection. Perhaps the most direct implication of any market metaphor is that it is a domain where goods are exchanged, typically through payment. This does not appear to apply to participation in mainstream Christian religious practices, which at least in theory seek to live out the call of Isaiah 55:1: “…everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” The metaphor of market might work if we imagine believers as consumers and religious institutions as producers. But this is a peculiar market that so idealizes free-riders!

Reflecting on the structure of markets reveals the ways in which they have always rested on some form of government regulation. Fernand Braudel writes about how the medieval market constituted by regal pronouncement persists today across Europe, marking city architecture with squares and piazzas where residents continue the ancient practice of “selling hand-to-hand, eyeball-to-eyeball.”44 The institutional underpinning of markets through legislation, a policing function to guarantee contract completion, and even the market-shaping activities of banks complicate the use of “market” as metaphor.45 We understand enough about markets to get what Ganiel means when she introduces the increased range of religious expression prevalent in Ireland in market terms. But we also have to understand enough about both religion and markets to leave aside the price-function of markets and the societal super-structure that clears space for markets to exist. When the religious organizations in a society are presented in terms of a market, the reader must know what to regard and what to disregard.

Locating the Problem: Why Market Metaphors Mislead on Religion

One of the most commonly accepted characteristics of a market is competition. One of the most striking aspects of Ganiel’s study is how the people she meets and the institutions she studies are free of competitive logic.46 Across the different extra-institutional expressions of Christianity that are featured, we find discussions of how the faithful understand their location in relation to other faith communities and there is little resemblance to the functioning of market competition.

In the market, we compete against other companies selling the same or similar products. This is predicated on the hope that such competition will grow the market generally so everyone is a winner, but it remains the case that Quiznos is set against Subway.47 In mainstream economic thinking, competition does not suggest any kind of personal rivalry; “the essence of a competitive market is its impersonal character.”48

Yet throughout Ganiel’s study we find her asking about ecumenism and the answers reveal that her interview subjects think about their religion with a logic distinct from the market. While few respondents enthusiastically adopted the category of “ecumenical” to describe their own faith approach—associating it more with a famous punchline from the sitcom Father Ted than contemporary Irish Christianity49—and church leaders do not have the time or inclination to make it a priority, there appears to be a baseline of warmth and awareness towards other Christian groups throughout the interviews.50 Leaders in Pentecostal churches are meeting and working with Catholic clergy,51 congregants in a church in the city of Waterford reject ecumenism as an out-of-date concept but their congregation is a merger between Methodism and Presbyterianism,52 and in one of the most moving sections of the book, an older Presbyterian woman from the border region recounts a moment of profound insight when she perceived the “holy ground” that characterizes unity between Christians as she and a Catholic neighbor prepared tea for an inter-church forum event.53 Even with strongly mission-focused churches, like the Redeemed Christian Church of God, which originated in Nigeria and now has scores of vibrant congregations across Ireland, they present themselves as complementary to longer-established expressions of Christianity on the island.54

One of Ganiel’s main conclusions is that the extra-institutional expressions of faith that she studies can effect a larger social impact, especially through reconciliatory activities.55 The non-competitive nature of these groups is integral to this potential. The practices of hospitality that Ganiel encountered as a social scientist descending with notepad and recorder on these groups is what gives rise to this possibility. It is an inextricably theological commitment. By resisting the temptation to think of others as opponents, they generate the opportunity to see enemies become friends.

The market metaphor is helpful to describe how individualization creates a much stronger sense of agency—even consumerism—within religious practice and identity,56 and how the religious landscape which had been stably defined by a number of well-established institutions is now a diverse array of potential options.57 But the metaphor obscures one of the most important insights garnered in Ganiel’s work. By construing the life of these Christian communities and churches in terms of a market metaphor, the non-competitive logic displayed in collaboration and social interaction with other groups is concealed.

Metaphors are intended to be descriptive, but descriptive communications cannot evade normative implications. Framing sociology of religion research in terms of the market metaphor tempts scholars and students to imagine the practices and structures of religion in terms compatible with consumer capitalism. There are ways in which this metaphor illuminates but it is sufficiently confusing around critical aspects of religious commitment—especially around competition—that it frustrates rather than encourages analytic precision. Market metaphors generate a number of other connotations that pose difficulties for application in relation to churches: the assumption of private property, the exchange for price, the overarching human institutions required for legitimation, goods that are tradable, excludable, and divisible.58 There is reason to suspect this metaphor might be misleading.59There are further theological perspectives that warrant consideration, though they do not present prominently in Ganiel’s work. We would want to challenge how Rational Choice theory “leaves no leeway for altruism.”60 This is a particular problem for Christians when we remember that Jesus’ summarizes the entirety of the Law in relation to our fellow creatures as “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:30).

We would want to explore the tension between the characterization of rational choice in terms of maximization when Christians seem bound to a more metaphysically robust account of rationality. When Paul exhorts the Christians in Rome to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2), what is at stake there is an epistemic commitment somewhat more demanding than a cost-benefit analysis.

Questions would also be raised from the interesting overlap between natural theology and political theology. Andrew McKinnon maintains that Rational Choice theorists “conceive of the market in decidedly neo-liberal terms, and then naturalize this conception, denying that their conception is in any way metaphorical; they argue that the market is built into human nature.”61 As McKinnon presents it, this represents a serious problem for Christians since the imaginative framework through which they consider the church is interwoven with a particular, passing political movement. But it also presents problems because of how it presents a truncated theological anthropology. In all likelihood, the method can be used without falling into this naturalizing error, but social science researchers, theologians, and ordinary Christians would need to be alert to the risk.

Granting these problems, the particular issue presented in Ganiel is about how the metaphor obscures instead of illuminates. Even when seeking a more refined usage than the Rational Choice theorists, Ganiel’s deployment of the market metaphor runs the risk of downplaying one of the remarkable trends discovered in her research. If even the finest research using these metaphors faces such challenges, it warrants taking the time to wonder what innovations might introduce some competitioninto the marketplace for metaphors.

Locating an Alternative: The Ecosystem as Metaphor

Using the market as the imaginative space in which to approach the study of religion presents problems. Even when used with care, the metaphor runs the risk of obscuring those parts of the phenomena being studied which are radically different from the grounding image. Like a cognitive propellant, metaphors can accelerate language’s flow in a certain direction, meaning important details along the way are missed. That which is meant to be an aid to imaginative freedom can end up as a constraint, as might be the case in Ganiel’s discovery of a collaborative trend within the Irish Christian communities she studied.

One way to analyze this problem is to consider how a metaphor loses its function if the tension between the two images is flattened. Metaphors are linguistic devices that use one thing to say something about another thing. But a critical aspect to this action is its creativity. Something new is added to understanding by means of this comparison. Metaphors taken as literal description no longer speak. In the words of the environmentalist, Gérald Hess, “the meaning expressed through it [a metaphor] is unexpected, new, and, consequently, unique.”62 The comparison reveals something about the object in question that would otherwise be obscured, often in an incongruous way. From this perspective we can see why the initial metaphor of market for the study of religion can serve a purpose because of the shocking juxtaposition of the austere ecclesiastics performing their sacred liturgies alongside cut-and-thrust Wall Street traders. But in a perceptive essay about the ways in which “industrial ecology” can function as a useful linguistic tool, Hess goes on to alert us to the ideological output that results when the metaphor—a creative representation—begins to function as a predictive objective account of a field of study.63

If scholars of religion are dissatisfied with the market metaphors, alternatives must be crafted and one potential source material is related to Hess’ field of study: religion can be considered within the metaphor of an ecosystem.64 The term was introduced in a 1935 paper by Sir Arthur Tansley, as an advancement on the term biome that accounted for how complex organisms are located within “habitat factors in the widest sense.”65 An ecosystem is a definable integrated and dynamic system made up of biological and physical factors or agents. Ecosystems can be considered “as energy transformers and nutrient processors composed of organisms within a food web that require continual input of energy to balance that lost during metabolism, growth, and reproduction.”66 Approaching the sociological setting of religious organizations in terms of an ecosystem metaphor offers a number of advances on the market metaphor. Pickett and Cadenasso outline that different ecosystems might be in different stages of equilibrium or in dramatic states of flux.67 This is a helpful imaginative framing for scholars seeking to explore religion in an era when old certainties are crumbling and differs from the aspirational equilibrium reached for by economists when they imagine markets. While markets imagine competition as the basic logic, within an ecosystem there is contention for shared resources but there can also be collaboration. Growth is normatively positive in a market setting, but population growth within an ecosystem can be maladaptive and distorting. A market is designed, but an ecosystem is emergent.68 The diversity that can exist, even within the same species within an ecosystem, has much more immediate application to contemporary religious settings than the quite clearly delineated legally defined corporations which populate a market. The list of ways in which the ecosystem offers imaginative hooks more agile than the market could continue at some length.

Pickett and Cadenasso helpfully distinguish between ecosystem as a meaning, a model, and a metaphor.69 They grant that when social scientists deploy the concept in their research, “the precision and narrow focus of technical terms is eschewed in favor of richness of connotation and in support of societally important, if sometimes controversial, values.”70 There are surely ways in which this metaphor will fit poorly or tempt the reader or researcher to overlook important data.71 In such settings, other metaphors—perhaps even of the market—could work better. On the market metaphor’s own terms, competition is always good and more options increases the consumer’s satisfaction!

The proposal to consider churches in terms of ecosystems is no innovation. Richard Cimino has usefully considered how the religious terrain of regions in Brooklyn were affected by gentrification in terms of ecology.72 Nancy Eiesland deploys the metaphor to great effect in her monograph, Particular Places. She defines religious ecology as the “patterns of relations, status, and interaction among organizations as they are embedded within a specific environment.”73 Participation in a given religious ecology is a function of “physical proximity and by virtue of common environmental factors, for example, economic, educational, or infrastructural changes.”74 Her study encompassed 24 churches in Gwinnett County, outside Atlanta. That city’s growth meant that the small, rural area had become a sprawling exurb centered around a town called Dacula. Eiesland demonstrates that tracking the changes and adaptations in the religious communities offers an insight into the broader changes affecting the region. But she is also clear that interpreting this terrain as a religious “market” would be to miss crucial developments. For example, “organizations new to the area sometimes were increasing cooperation rather than furthering competition.”75 When we consider the state of religion in a place through the lens of organizational ecology, “the focus shifts from individual organizations to the population of organizations and the contexts in which they are embedded.”76

A megachurch, Hebron Baptist, had emerged in the town. One might imagine that would be a textbook example where a marketplace analysis could function. And Eiesland does find some discussions framed in terms of competition.77 This is to be expected when using ecological metaphors, since there is always contention for limited resources. But were Eiesland to view that contention in market terms, she could easily overlook the vocalized frustration of other congregations; that the growth of Hebron reorganized the status relationships within the area. People did not resent the growth; rather, they largely welcomed it. What they found difficult was the turmoil, the changing sense of status and influence—goods not disconnected from the economic sphere but intangible in price-terms. Members of other congregations appreciated the effectiveness of the mega-church’s ministries and the qualities of their leader. Collaboration and neighborliness was the default baseline, as evidenced by how the critiques of the mega-church are framed in terms of a lack of consideration of other bodies in the area.78

Eiesland’s work with ecology is a suggestive example of how the ecosystem as metaphor has much to recommend it. Specifically, Eiesland’s refusal to commit to a market metaphor allowed her to see that the competitive dynamics operated in a way that is subtly different from the competition prevalent in a market and that this phenomenon was secondary to the assumption of collaboration. We might propose that a model that accounts for that will offer increased profit!

As Ganiel’s work shows, religious communities commonly show anti-competitive commitments to collaboration, which can be illuminated by the idea of biocenosis.79 Religious communities are often characterized by an attitude to “prices” which would be incoherent for corporations—almost as if they are not profit seeking. The ecosystem can account for transactions in which energy and waste are pillar dynamics, but they do not introduce confusing monetary connotations. But beyond these applied examples, when applied to Christian communities there is also a fittingness in terms of the relationship between the metaphor and the groups being studied. The ecosystem, as a (primarily) biological concept, has a resonance with some dominant New Testament metaphors for the life of Christian communities which warrants noting. There is a family resemblance between thinking of the church as a body and thinking of the church as a body within a larger system. This is of merit for sociologists—who formally are not bound by any confessional commitment—because finding metaphors to harmonize with the ways in which the groups being studied already describe themselves creates a fertile research environment. There is a clear transposition possible between the growth or decline of religious influence in wider society as populations in a particular ecosystem wax or wane, without the market metaphor’s necessary valorization of expansion and sanctioning of reduction.80

For too long the market has had the dominant share in metaphors used to describe the life of religious communities in the social sciences. It is high time to consider whether we find a clearer view of these groups when we locate them in ecosystems instead of market squares. This is not just a matter of interest to those who study religious practices in our society but is relevant to those who practice as well. If it is true that, as Stanley Hauerwas repeatedly argues, “you can only act in the world you can see, but you can only see by learning to say,”81 how we speak about the church will inevitably shape how we think about the church. Without vigilance against the ways that metaphors function as an imaginative provocation and not a statement of fact, “the metaphor begins to think for us.”82 The Rational Choice theorists are right in this: competition improves things. Encouraging alternative modes of seeing helps us speak with more precision and think with more clarity.


Metaphor is inescapable. There is no way to get a hold of concepts as nebulous as “religion” and “society” without recourse to simile, analogy, and direct metaphor. “To get a hold of a concept” slides into understanding without us needing to pause and think about the ways in which that understanding is or is not like grasping an object. That our language about complex things83 is invariably metaphorical lends credence to those who, following after the work of George Lindbeck, suggest that the appropriate metaphor for approaching religion is language.84

As we have seen, Scripture presents such a wide array of metaphors to describe the church that a license can be extended for further experimentation. The metaphor of the market composed of rational consumers has some utility for the study of religion. Perhaps this especially applies when our reflections concern missional questions (as suggested by Paul at the Areopagus). But our engagement with the concept in Gladys Ganiel’s work exposes the ways in which the metaphor tempts confusion in the reader. The market thrives on competition and there are certainly regions where religion is practiced in ways that subvert that logic.

An opening in the market for a new metaphor can be discerned and this essay proposes that an investment in the ecosystem might pay off. The biological form of the metaphor more clearly resonates with important Scriptural metaphors that are so significant in the self-understanding and practices of Christian communities. The benefit of the market metaphor around diversity is maintained and the description of how distinct organizations collude or contend for the same resources is sharpened. The mutuality and rivalry that can exist between religious organizations is accounted for. Just as a local ecosystem must be considered in its own peculiarity, religious practice in a society must pay closer attention to history and culture than economic metaphors tend to encourage.85

Most religious practice arises in a complexity that “rational choice” fails to describe. There are aspects of contemporary Christian practice that can be consumeristic. There are ways in which churches can be thought of as competitors in a market. But the work of sociologists like Gladys Ganiel give us access to such subtle and evocative accounts of the “what,” “why,” “how,” as well as the “I can’t even begin to put words on it” of religious experience that fail to fit the market metaphor.86 There is no way to talk of the Christian God without language like Father and Mother, Lion or Lamb. Perhaps a better way to discuss Christian communities is in terms of ecosystem, not marketplace? We regularly talk about planting churches, but we mean something else entirely when we speak of selling them.

Cite this article
Kevin Hargaden, “Planting Churches or Selling Them? New Competitors for the Metaphors We Use”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 51:2 , 171-188


  1. Janet Martin Soskice, The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1.
  2. Ibid., 68.
  3. Corry Azzi and Ronald Ehrenberg, “Household Allocation of Time and Church Attendance,” Journal of Political Economy 83.1 (February 1975): 27–56.
  4. Stephen Sharot has probed some of those issues already: Stephen Sharot, “Beyond Christianity: A Critique of the Rational Choice Theory of Religion from a Weberian and Comparative Religions Perspective,” Sociology of Religion 63.4 (2002): 427-454.
  5. Azzi and Ehrenberg, “Household Allocation of Time and Church Attendance,” 28, 32.
  6. Ibid., 35.
  7. Deirdre McCloskey is one notable figure within economics who delights in Becker’s abil-ity to make such counter-intuitive comparisons: “Becker is an economic poet.” Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 13. His greatest metaphorical deployment is surely his claim in a 1960 paper on fertility: “Children are viewed as a durable good, primarily a consumer’s durable, which yields income, primarily psychic income, to parents.” Gary S. Becker, “An Economic Analysis of Fertility,” in Demographic and Economic Change in Developed Countries (Columbia University Press, 1960), 231.
  8. Gary Becker, “A Theory of the Allocation of Time,” The Economic Journal 75.299 (1965): 495.
  9. In places, Becker does touch on religion. For example, early in A Treatise on the Family, he acknowledges that “Some scholars accept the premise that behavior in modern secular societies tends to be rational, but question whether family decisions in underdeveloped and religious countries are also rational.” One marvels at the clean distinction between secularity and religiosity and then is shocked by how carelessly the adjectives “underdeveloped” and “religious” are applied to societies that may not be “rational.” He moves on to discuss Ireland as a possible example! There, we find, “rational family responses to powerful economic and social changes have outweighed church teachings and the constitution.” This sociological shift is no mystery in the hands of Becker. He simply explains that “the growing importance to the economy of well-trained workers has persuaded parents to substitute fewer, better-educated children for the traditional large families.” As the fifth of six children born to Irish parents, I can anecdotally testify to how Becker’s account would be a paltry testimony to practices and values that shaped my parent’s attitudes to child-rearing. Gary S. Becker, A Treatise on the Family (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 17. See also, representatively, Accounting for Tastes, where he confesses that his research into addiction was inspired by considering the practices and commitments of religious people: Gary S. Becker, Accounting for Tastes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 50–76. Consider also, on a similar theme: Gary S. Becker and Kevin M. Murphy, Social Economics: Market Behavior in a Social Environment (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2000), 18–20.
  10. Religion is defined as “any shared set of beliefs, activities, and institutions premised upon faith in supernatural forces.” Laurence R. Iannaccone, “Introduction to the Economics of Religion,” Journal of Economic Literature 36.3 (1998): 1466.
  11. Laurence R Iannaccone, Roger Finke, and Rodney Stark, “Deregulating Religion: The Economics of Church and State,” Economic Inquiry 35.2 (April 1997): 351.
  12. Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, “Religious Economies and Sacred Canopies: Religious Mobilization in American Cities, 1906,” American Sociological Review 53.1 (February 1988): 42.
  13. Laurence R. Iannaccone, “Voodoo Economics? Reviewing the Rational Choice Approach to Religion,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34.1 (March 1995): 77.
  14. Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, “Religious Choice and Competition,” American Sociological Review 63.5 (October 1998): 762.
  15. Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 1987), 315.
  16. Ibid., 322–323.
  17. Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 36.
  18. Andrew M. McKinnon, “Metaphors in and for the Sociology of Religion: Towards a Theory after Nietzsche,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27.2 (May 2012): 209–210.
  19. Steve Bruce, “Religion and Rational Choice: A Critique of Economic Explanations of Religious Behavior,” Sociology of Religion 54.2 (1993): 194.
  20. Ibid., 202.
  21. Mark Chaves, “On the Rational Choice Approach to Religion,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34.1 (March 1995): 99.
  22. Laurence R. Iannaccone, Daniel V. A. Olson, and Rodney Stark, “Religious, Resources, and Church Growth,” Social Forces 74.2 (1995): 705–731.
  23. It is important to note that Davie makes this suggestion at the end of a long argument about the relative merits and weaknesses of Rational Choice approaches to religion in contradistinction from secularization theories. Grace Davie, The Sociology of Religion (London: Sage, 2007), 87.
  24. Regan Lance Reitsma, “God, Our Commodity in Heaven: Rational Choice Theory and Religion,” Christian Scholar’s Review 33.2 (2004): 214.
  25. In terms very appropriate for the argument presented in this article, David Tracy began his exploration of this topic by noting “that all major religions are grounded in certain root metaphors.” David Tracy, “Metaphor and Religion: The Test Case of Christian Texts,” Critical Inquiry 5.1 (October 1978): 91 (emphasis added).
  26. For a classic and edifying survey of these matters, consider: Paul Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960).
  27. Though I am indebted to Taido Chino, Claire Hargaden, Declan Kelly, and David Lilley for their help in considering the diversity of metaphors on offer in the New Testament.
  28. Gladys Ganiel, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 34–35.
  29. Derek Scally, The Best Catholics in the World (London: Penguin, 2021).
  30. Bradford A. Anderson, Gareth Byrne, and Sandra Cullen, “Religious Pluralism, Education, and Citizenship in Ireland,” in Islam, Religions, and Pluralism in Europe, eds. Ednan Aslan, Ranja Ebrahim, and Marcia Hermansen (Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, 2016), 161–172.
  31. Laurence R. Iannaccone, Roger Finke, and Rodney Stark, “Deregulating Religion: The Economics of Church and State,” in Differenz Und Integration: Die Zukunft Moderner Gesell-schaften, ed. Karl-Siegbert Rehberg (Opladen: Westdt. Verl., 1997), 462.
  32. John H. Simpson, “The Stark-Bainbridge Theory of Religion,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 29.3 (September 1990): 371.
  33. Formally entitled the Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland (Marriage Equality) Act 2015. The special spread in the newspaper of record, the Irish Times, testifies to the background role played by religion and the narrative of change. Headlines include: “Catholic Church needs to empower Laity” and “… does the Vatican just not get it?” As-sorted, “Same-Sex Referendum,” The Irish Times, May 22, 2015,
  34. Lisa Smyth, “Understanding the Transformed Moral Landscape in Ireland Following the ‘repeal the 8th’ Referendum,” Online resource, LSE European Politics and Policy (EUROPP) Blog (London School of Economics and Political Science, May 29, 2018),
  35. Ganiel, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, 229.
  36. Ibid., 3–4. Ganiel’s book accounts for faith on the island of Ireland, meaning she has to parse the important cultural and religious differences between the North and the Republic; a difficult task which she completes almost effortlessly.
  37. Tom Inglis, Moral Monopoly (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1998).
  38. Ganiel, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, 5.
  39. Another piece could be written about the challenge that contemporary Irish religion poses to Rational Choice Theories of Religion. There has been extensive “deregulation of the market,” an increase in pluralism (competition), and a massive reduction in adherence and practice.
  40. This is not uncommon. For example, consider the collection edited by Ammerman which clarifies that it should not be understood as a contribution to the Rational Choice Theory of Religion discourse, while granting the validity of the underlying assumptions. Nancy T. Ammerman, “Introduction,” in Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 8.
  41. “… the island of Ireland is developing a ‘mixed’ religious market. In these religious mar-kets, each unique to their context, historic state religions persist in varied forms and new religious actors emerge as more dynamic than the historic state churches. At the same time, those previous monopoly religions retain some cultural, social, and political privileges, such as greater recognition or legitimacy than other expressions of faith.” Ganiel, 15–17.
  42. Raymond Gozzi Jr, “The Metaphor of the Market,” ETC: A Review of General Semantics 47.4 (1990): 403–404.
  43. Brian Brock, “Globalisation, Eden and the Myth of Original Markets,” Studies in Christian Ethics 28.4 (2015): 404.
  44. Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life (London: William Collins & Sons, 1985), 28–29.
  45. There is a fertile field of economics which studies this institutional dynamic and they even argue that the most abstract forms of market conceptions implicitly rely on institutional structures to function. For example: Jan Kregel, “Financial Markets and Economic Devel-opment: Myth and Institutional Reality,” in The Evolution of Economic Institutions: A Critical Reader, ed. Geoffrey M. Hodgson (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2001), 145–159.
  46. Ganiel alludes to competition between religious traditions, but frames it as largely historical and on a weakening trajectory. Ganiel, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, 34.
  47. Another complicating factor between real markets and metaphorical markets is how very often the firms or brands apparently in competition with each other are, financially or institu-tionally, the same entity. In Quiznos you might be offered Tropicana and in Subway you might be offered Mountain Dew and both of these products are ultimately sourced within Pepsico.
  48. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 119.
  49. When the bishops visit the parish of Craggy Island, in an effort to avoid embarrassment, the parish priest, Ted, trains his lecherous, alcoholic colleague, Jack, to respond to all queries from the prelates with “That would be an ecumenical matter.” In the performance of this charade, he is mistaken as a profound sage by the visiting episcopal dignitaries. Ganiel, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, 76–77.
  50. Ibid., 77–78.
  51. Ibid., 128.
  52. Ibid., 146–149.
  53. Ibid., 198.
  54. Ibid., 168.
  55. Ibid., 253–255.
  56. Ibid., 250.
  57. Ibid., 2.
  58. Robert Sparrow and Robert E. Goodin, “The Competition of Ideas: Market or Garden?,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 4.2 (2001): 46–47.
  59. We have not even considered the ways in which such metaphors affect and distort the thinking of religious adherents themselves. It is not beyond doubt that the prevalence of the market metaphor in sociological study of religion contributes to the tendency of Christian leaders to think about their own work in business terms.
  60. Colin Jerolmack and Douglas Porpora, “Religion, Rationality, and Experience: A Response to the New Rational Choice Theory of Religion,” Sociological Theory 22.1 (March 2004): 146
  61. Andrew M. McKinnon, “Ideology and the Market Metaphor in Rational Choice Theory of Religion: A Rhetorical Critique of ‘Religious Economies,’” Critical Sociology 39.4 (July 2013): 2.
  62. Gérald Hess, “The Ecosystem: Model or Metaphor?: Epistemological Difficulties in Industrial Ecology,” Journal of Industrial Ecology 14.2 (2010): 272 (emphasis original).63Ibid., 280.
  63. Ibid., 280.
  64. Similar proposals have been made elsewhere, such as in the field of evolutionary religious studies where Sloan Wilson and his collaborators have proposed considering religion within a “cultural ecosystem” approach. David Sloan Wilson et al., “The Nature of Religious Diversity: A Cultural Ecosystem Approach,” Religion, Brain & Behavior 7.2 (2017): 134–153.
  65. A. G. Tansley, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms,” Ecology 16.3 (1935): 299.
  66. A. K. Salomon, “Ecosystems,” in Ecosystem Ecology, ed. Sven Erik Jørgensen (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2009), 17.
  67. S. T. A. Pickett and M. L. Cadenasso, “The Ecosystem as a Multidimensional Concept: Meaning, Model, and Metaphor,” Ecosystems 5.1 (2002): 2.
  68. If we grant that the default study of religions in their place is best indexed to a metaphor like ecosystem, that does not violate the specific contexts where market metaphors would apply. An example of the latter might be any study of transformations in membership or adherence. It is also important to remember that eco-systems which feature human agency are always complex in their own way and the distinction between designed and emergent can become almost impossible.
  69. If building some kind of cognitive firewall that would keep meaning functions from leaking into models or metaphors, what is required is reflective engagement with the metaphors we deploy. None on their own are entirely right, all of them communicate meaning, and many of them can be extended as models. For more, see Avery Dulles, Models of the Church (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2002) or consider the discussion of the “metonymy dove for Holy Spirit” in George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 40.
  70. Pickett and Cadenasso, “The Ecosystem as a Multidimensional Concept,” 6.
  71. Mars et al. lay out six obvious ways in which the ecosystem metaphor does not apply generically to organizations and many more can surely be found. Matthew M. Mars, Judith L. Bronstein, and Robert F. Lusch, “The Value of a Metaphor,” Organizational Dynamics 41.4 (October 2012): 277.
  72. Richard Cimino, “Neighborhoods, Niches, and Networks: The Religious Ecology of Gentrification,” City & Community 10.2 (June 2011): 157–181.
  73. Nancy Eiesland, A Particular Place: Urban Restructuring and Religious Ecology in a Southern Exurb (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 11.
  74. Ibid.
  75. Ibid., 12.
  76. Ibid., 16.
  77. Ibid., 63.
  78. Ibid., 82.
  79. Biocenosis here applies to the self-regulating stability that can arise between a community of organisms. It is worth noting—and I am grateful to my colleague Dr. Ciara Murphy for bringing this to my attention—that increased diversity within an ecosystem increases stabil-ity within that ecosystem. One way to transpose the market metaphor to the ecosystem is to recognize that organisms are often not in competition but rather occupy different niches. This metaphor would then apply so that increased diversity within a religious social con-text increases benefits to each tradition represented as the other groupings meet needs and provide services that benefit everyone. For the role of increased biodiversity in ecosystem stability, consider: Michel Loreau and Claire de Mazancourt, “Biodiversity and Ecosystem Stability: A Synthesis of Underlying Mechanisms,” Ecology Letters 16.1 (2013): 106–115.
  80. An ecosystem that is in flux may still be healthy. A particular species may appear to be in retreat but as the ecosystem stabilizes through transition—for example as it shifts from shrub land to forest—there remains space for flourishing in changed circumstances. Evolution does not mean extinction. Again, I am grateful to my colleague, Dr. Ciara Murphy, for helping me understand that external stressors and disturbances must be factored into any study of a particular ecosystem. Disturbances can create different environmental conditions which can change the ecosystem functioning. In this way it can be useful to look at changes in religion as a result of external factors as well as the inner functions of the ecosystem. In the neoliberal societies of the Western world, there is no outside beyond the reach of the market.
  81. For example: Brian Brock, Stanley Hauerwas, and Kevin Hargaden, Beginnings: Interrogating Stanley Hauerwas (London: T&T Clark, 2017), 117.
  82. Andrew M. McKinnon, “Ideology and the Market Metaphor in Rational Choice Theory of Religion: A Rhetorical Critique of ‘Religious Economies,’” Critical Sociology 39.4 (July 2013): 3.
  83. Perhaps about simpler things as well, but that question is too complex for this simple thinker to handle right now.
  84. George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984), 18.
  85. In Nancy Ammerman’s terms, we have to find “Waldo.” N. T. Ammerman, “Finding Religion in Everyday Life,” Sociology of Religion 75.2 (June 1, 2014): 189–207.
  86. Though it is important to remember, especially when thinking in terms of whether choices are rational, that “to experience is to cognize.” Colin Jerolmack and Douglas Porpora, “Religion, Rationality, and Experience: A Response to the New Rational Choice Theory of Religion,” Sociological Theory 22.1 (March 2004): 15

Kevin Hargaden

Kevin Hargaden is the Director and Social Theologian at the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice in Dublin, Ireland.