The Victory in Christ Multi-Level Marketing Scam

Today I attended the 9 AM service at the Victory in Christ Christian Center in Westville, NJ. The VICCC opened up across the street from my apartment complex not long ago, and I drive past it every time I leave the house. I was curious, and since I hadn’t been to any kind of church in about ten years, I decided I should check it out and see what kind of place it was.

I also decided to live-tweet the experience under the hashtag #JasonTweetsChurch.

I was raised Catholic, and while I’ve never been entirely fond of Catholic views or the long, boring sermons they hold, I still tend to expect a certain piety from any religious institution. I’m familiar with the more passionate and musical style of churches seen in movies filled with vibrant gospel songs and loud praise for Jesus. I’m familiar with the more community-based churches that treat everyone in attendance as family. I’ve even attended a Greek Orthodox ceremony during my cousin’s wedding. None of these prepared me for what I experienced at the VICCC.

I arrived at 8:30 when the doors opened and found live music playing in the “sanctuary,” their name for the main room where the sermon would be held. A group of people were singing very loudly and praising Jesus and shouting Hallelujah so many times that the word began to lose all meaning. The music was so loud my ears started to ring. Instead of an organ or other type of more traditional music, there was a band with a drummer, keyboard, and electric guitar. There were spotlights flashing in various bright colors throughout the room. It felt more like a concert hall or a night club than a religious experience.

The music got more serious when the official start time arrived. There was about a half hour where the band played and the lyrics to the songs were displayed on the two widescreen TVs hanging on either side of the front wall. I found it interesting to see that one of the songs was a blend of English and Spanish lyrics, asking me to embrace Jesus en mi corazon.

When the music was over, I expected the sermon to begin. But instead, I was greeted with the sales pitches.

The pastor began by making promises about free gifts for newcomers if they stayed after the sermon. We were told we’d be taken back to a private session to get to know them and their church. I couldn’t help thinking about my studies into the science of influence and persuasion when I read Robert B. Cialdini’s book Influence, Science and Practice in a class at Rowan University. The book warns readers to become attuned to the methods used by salespeople, marketers, con artists, and others who will try to persuade you to part with your money. One of the common tricks used relies on the principle of reciprocity: by giving someone a “free gift,” you make them feel obligated to you so that they’ll be more likely to fall for your sales pitch. It’s a common technique used by marketers trying to sell timeshares and vacation packages. In the class we also learned that many businesses like gyms will invite you into a private room in order to isolate you and make you vulnerable to the sales pitch. The idea of being stuck in a room in the back of the church while they pressed me for a donation or commitment to volunteer made me certain that I did not want to accept this free gift.

We were then subjected to a series of video advertisements on the TVs, using the kind of graphics you normally see in marketing-based PowerPoint presentations. Pitches were made about various classes we could sign up for, for DVDs preaching the Word of God, and for the Kingdom Korner Store located near the exit on our way out after the sermon. I remember what I learned about amusement parks and museums being designed so that you need to exit through the gift shop, and I tried to figure out what kind of church had a gift shop inside the church.

Greed:

The pastor then started talking about how one of the churchgoers was about to open his own church in a neighboring town. The entire exchange sounded like some kind of multi-level marketing scheme designed to get newcomers to sign up and become salespeople who then recruit more salespeople to continue the process, layer after layer. There was also a great deal of praise for the VICCC and their divine mission. At one point the pastor went so far as to call it, and I quote, “One of the greatest churches on the planet.”

Greed:
Pride:

By the time they started citing the church’s website, email address, and the name of their mobile app, I was itching to leave. The worst part may have been when they told me I could text “Victory1” to 71441 to learn more about the free gifts, get text alerts from the church and make donations with my mobile device. I’m all about progress and keeping up with the advancements of the times, but by this point we were nearly an hour into the “sermon” and no one had talked about the bible yet.

When the “real” sermon was finally ready to begin. We were asked to hold up our bibles and declare “This is my bible!” We were asked to pledge our commitment. A few people raised up their Kindles or mobile devices instead. I imagined them sleeping with their bibles and chanting, “This is my bible. There are many like it but this one is mine. My bible is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.”

Most of the sermon was about achieving “victory.” Considering it was the Victory in Christ Christian Center, this seemed to be something of  theme. I was on board with the ideas the pastor presented about not giving up, having the strength to pursue your goals, and holding your faith through the difficulties you faced. Things got really weird, however, when he started citing the example of how he got together with his wife. He told us about how she had another boyfriend when he first met her, but he didn’t let that stop him. He actually used the phrase, “I was in the shadows, waiting.” He told us how while she was out on dates with her boyfriend, he was home with a picture of her on his mirror, thinking about how she’d one day be his.

Greed:
Pride:
Envy:
Lust:
Coveting thy neighbor’s wife:

Near the end of the sermon the pastor asked any newcomers who weren’t “born again” to raise their hands so we could pray for them. I kept my hand firmly in my lap. After the prayers, the pastor preached about how these newcomers shouldn’t be ashamed to stand up and show their declaration. He asked them to raise their hands again and not to hide, because he’d seen them the first time and he’d know who they were. I thought again of Cialdini, and one of the other persuasion techniques he described: commitment. By getting someone to make a public declaration that they’ll do something, you can double the chances that they’ll follow through. The people who’d first raised their hands were trapped now. They couldn’t back down from the declarations they’d made without fearing the guilt and possible ridicule they’d face for going back on their commitment. That’s in addition to Cialdini’s principle of “social proof,” the idea that seeing other people commit to something makes it more likely that you’ll commit to it as well. Once the first few people stepped up and agreed to this trap, it made it harder for the others to back down.

They were asked to come forward and meet the pastor, and told to bring their stuff with them because they’d be going to another room and they wouldn’t be coming back. I started to fear for those people, wondering what they’d be subjected to in those back rooms. I imagined sales pitches, pleas for donations, and pressure to get them to commit to becoming official members of the church. There had even been mention of “connection cards” they could fill out. Another persuasion technique cited by Cialdini is getting people to fill out a written commitment to a cause.

The “newly reborn” souls were taken away, perhaps never to be seen again. Then the pastor was in a rush to finish, saying he was “out of time.” Because he had to hand the mic back over to the other pastor who had to deliver more sales pitches for the life insurance company being sponsored by the VICCC this week. Apparently the pastor couldn’t spare more time talking to us about Jesus and the actual bible scripture because there were more important matters to get to.

Greed:
Pride:
Envy:
Lust:
Sloth:
Coveting thy neighbor’s wife:

The collection buckets were passed around. But apparently this church doesn’t accept it if you can only afford to make your own little sign. No, we were given a ten minute lecture about “tithing” and how the “proper” way to tithe was to give 10% of your income to the church. Quite a difference from the baskets that were passed around at the church I went to when I was younger, where they’d tell you to just pass the basket along if you didn’t want or couldn’t afford to make a donation. I’d never been to a church before that went so far as to practically demand a specific amount from their flock’s pockets. Which was on top of being told we could text a donation by texting “victory” to 71441 or make a donation through the church’s website. The audience watching the live-streaming video at home through the cameras mounted around the church were even encouraged to donate online.

But I suppose they needed the money to pay for the widescreen TVs, video cameras, the line of computers at the back of the room where the visual effects team controlled the graphics overlayed on the pastor’s image, the stereo surround-sound for the live gospel band, the spotlights, and the IT for their website with live-streaming video, email prayer requests, and online video gallery.

Greed:
Pride:
Envy:
Lust:
Sloth:
Gluttony:
Coveting thy neighbor’s wife:

I hurried out as soon as the “sermon” was over, avoiding the gift shop. I got cornered by one of the church’s sponsored life insurance salespeople and handed a pamphlet that I threw out as soon as I got off the premises (not wanting to litter on “holy” grounds. I didn’t know how to feel about the experience I just had, but I certainly didn’t feel righteous, enlightened, or saved.

If anything, I felt pretty pissed off that this place passes for a church.

Wrath:

Advertisements

31 thoughts on “The Victory in Christ Multi-Level Marketing Scam”

  1. This makes me really sad, and I am sorry you wasted your time at this “church.” I mean, there are a lot of churches that simply have bad theology, but what you’ve described is just plain silly.
    A true church is based on biblical teaching. A true church seeks to glorify God and not themselves or their businesses or life insurance or whatever.
    I trust you know the difference between real Christianity and playing church as an excuse to sell stuff. Here’s the link to other churches in New Jersey. http://www.tms.edu/AlumniByCityState.aspx?StateCode=NJ I don’t personally know much or anything about them, except that their pastors are graduates of decent and biblical seminary.
    Hope you can enjoy the rest of your Sunday anyway. 🙂

    1. I consider it to have been a worthwhile experience if for no other reason than that I got an interesting bit of writing out of it.

      Though hopefully the next church I go to will be different.

      1. You got more than that. That story idea is terrific. If you don’t mind, I would like to write that one down. I won’t be going paranormal, but I needed one more antagonist to round out a set.

  2. I loved your live tweeting and this post is just so brilliant in exposing the ridiculousness of this “church” along with its hypocrisy. I love your checklist for the 7 deadly sins and not forgetting one of the commandments thrown in for good measure! I know I shouldn’t laugh, because it’s often vulnerable people who get sucked in to these things, but Oh My God! (excuse the blasphemy and breaking of a commandment there,) I wouldn’t have believed in the existence of this place had it not been for your tweets and this post.

    Really well illustrated Jason, especially linking to points from Influence, Science and Practice. Great stuff.

    1. The Influence book was on my mind the entire time I was in there. A key point in that book is learning to recognize the signs of a scam or sales pitch so you can defend yourself. So I had my guard up the entire time.

  3. It is sad that such “churches” exist. I have been raised in a strongly church-going, Baptist home where we were there every time the door was open. It’s a small church, though, and I was the only single young adult and had nowhere that I really felt I fit in, so I went looking for a new church. I was shocked and saddened to find several “churches” that were similar to this. I have come to expect a sermon that is strongly scripture based, not just one where they talk about nice ideas and throw in a scripture reference once or twice to make it sound holy. I never went back to any of those places again.

    Anyway, enough about my experience. Thanks for sharing. Your tweets were irreverent, yet amusing and poignant. I was entertained and horrified (by the behavior of this “church”) all at the same time. I hope you have better luck, next time you give a church a try!

  4. Wow. What kind of church did you stumble upon? It isn’t a type of church I recognize, at all. (I admit, I chuckle/snorted through this post.)
    I love how you analyzed and documented your experience.

      1. That would be the wisest choice.. This church kind of reminded me of a Simpsons episode, when the only way the church could get financial help is if they allowed corporate sponsorship to help rebuild it. All flash and sales pitches, jumbo screens and billboards advertising businesses too.

  5. I have a very conflicted relationship with organized churches in general. I grew up in the church, and often saw the dirty underbelly of churches. I appreciated the way you pointed out the seven deadly sins, and how this church in particular epitomized them. I think many churches don’t do it quite so overtly, but it’s there, because we’re all human. I don’t currently attend church because of these issues, though my relationship with God is strong.

    That said, while many of the things that happened were, indeed, creepy, not all of them needed to be seen that way. (Though I am all for keeping your guard up.) Many churches do give gifts to newcomers and visitors, not to get something out of them, but to make them feel welcome and thank them for stopping by. It’s the old idea of hospitality, but we have come to a point in our society where we can’t trust that anything is free. And maybe it wasn’t in this case, but in many churches, they really do just want to bless you with a gift, no commitment necessary.

    Inviting newcomers to join for a meal and a talk after church is another form of that hospitality. If someone is truly looking for a church, they want to know what they’re getting into. It’s a chance to talk to a real person about what the church believes. There isn’t often a sales pitch. When I was church shopping, I really appreciated the opportunity to talk to a real person, rather than being directed toward various brochures, like I was at one mega-church in the area.

    In the same way, those connection cards give you the option to find out more in a more impersonal way. Usually they just send you a postcard. My dad’s last church (he is no longer in the ministry, another story for another day that contributes to my church issues) sent every visitor a little bag of popcorn. No obligation. Just a hello and thanks for “popping” by.

    Small churches are dying all the time. My last church closed a year ago, and I haven’t felt at home anyplace since. I think that is a fear for churches, that they will keep losing people, and many overcompensate with extra effects and fancy videos and extra classes, all of which can be nice, but sometimes they forget the human aspect of church, that it’s not just a building to collect people, but should be a place for people to go and feel at home and feel like family.They try so hard to be “relevant” to the new generation that they lose what has kept people coming for generations. Connection.

    So yeah, this church sounded all kinds of sketch, but not everything they did was totally off the wall.

    But seriously, dude stalked his wife? That’s straight-up Edward/Bella crap right there.

    1. There’s probably plenty of ways the individual things this church did would have been okay. Some of it was more the presentation and tone than the act itself. Such as how the pastor spoke like a used car salesman spent more time on the “sales pitch” than the sermon.

      I doubt my hackles would have gone up if someone offered me a gift, had they used a different tone and given me a less aggressive vibe. Lots if this behavior could have been perfectly fine if I hadn’t been so creeped out by the way it happened.

      Kinda like how the difference between a stalker and a romantic is all in perception. Both might leave surprise flowers on your doorstep. If a charming beau who you like and find attractive does it, it’s sweet and romantic. If the creepy dude you wish would leave you alone does it, you consider a restraining order.

  6. Oomph, sorry you encountered a church like this. Some of the bigger/more contemporary/more ‘active’ churches do this and do it quite well, but… yeah, when you have a sponsored life insurance company, I think you are quite literally serving Mammon more than Christ. *laughs*

    I would echo a lot of what Rena said, though. For example, my former church (which is smaller but by no means a small church) often would have people who came forward moved off to the side, but the primary reason for that is so that they can speak to someone without a lot of noise making it impossible, and also so there’s no pressure for them to ‘hurry it up’ so everyone else can leave. Anyone who’s had to sit through twenty verses of Just As I Am while the pastor had to talk with someone in the front knows what I’m talking about.

    Putting all of those points aside, though, I think you really put your finger on a problem I see with some churches. There really is this feeling that the church must be “successful.” It must have donations, it must have commitments, it must have “decisions,” and so forth and so on. There was a shift, over the past few decades, to churches offering more of a polished ‘experience,’ the idea being that by so doing, they’d better engage the audience and be more effective in what they’re doing. Which is all well and good, to a point, but then you get churches like VICCC, where there seems to be a nigh-obsessive focus on the tangible results and not, as you said, a focus on the Bible, on Jesus. Didn’t surprise me at all to hear what the sermon was about, since sermons that sound like self-help books are also popular for the same reason, and are equally not a good idea, long term.

    So yeah… I would say that I’m sorry you went through that, but it sounds like you got some great story ideas, so I can’t apologize for that! I will say, though, on a personal level, that I’m glad you’re looking for a church and that you have an eye for what you’re looking for. I certainly hope you find one that fits you. 🙂

  7. Just so you know not all churches are like this… it’s one of the things that I really like about the church we’ve found… first of all they were raising money on like the first time we attended but they made sure to let the new comers know that they didn’t need to feel obligated to give any because this was something that had been going on for a while… and we did get gifts at the end… every new comer gets a t-shirt which I actually wear a lot cause it’s comfy… and we were invited to a get together later on where they just introduced us to the different pastors and told us about different groups we could be a part of… like if you wanted to help out the children’s ministry or the be a part of the choir…

    I also grew up in a very conservative church and this church is a bit new age with people raising their hands and saying amen a lot… but I loved it in one sermon the pastor pointed out that just doing those things doesn’t make you more holy than the person who’s just sitting there quietly… that doing such can become routine and lose all meaning… I like that this church accepts all sorts of people and really has different sorts of worship in it… some sundays it’s a band, sometimes it’s a choir doing old hymns… and he goes through ways to live your everyday life good… even how to deal with people who may irritate you and realize at times you may be irritating others… they accept everyone and that’s how a church is supposed to be… but it’s sad cause there seem to be fewer and fewer that truly do and more that do seem more like a sales scheme…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s