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Church of the Nabisco Man

Church of the Nabisco Man

In the Magazine this month we’re featuring posts that explore the changing norms and future of the Episcopal Church.  In this essay, Bernard Owens reflects on how the church reflected mid-twentieth century American ideals; ideal that it clings to, perhaps at its peril.


by Bernard Owens


To consider the church 50 years in the future, we might look 50 or so years in the past.

Consider Bill; Bill died early this summer at age 85.  He came from humble beginnings and found a solid middle-class life through hard work, thrift and commitment to family. His wife, who also died this summer, was often by his side as she had been for 64 years of marriage.

Any pastor of an American church knows a story like this.  Bill grew up helping at his dad’s grocery store and came to admire “the Nabisco man” who made rounds to the family store. He admired that salesman so much that after he started working Bill took a pay cut to work as a salesman for Nabisco. He eventually got promoted, managing other salesmen and overseeing an office in Greensboro. A true Nabisco Man, Bill stayed with the company his whole career. His granddaughter gave a moving eulogy for Bill that included a story about an endless stack of plastic Nabisco cups that he would fill with Coca-Cola whenever the grandchildren came by their home.

This summer we’ve told a similar story three times: Bill with Nabisco, Bob with Sears, Ralph with AT&T. Each followed a company career path that allowed their families to take root in communities and churches. For half a century, these folks have been faithful, generous and steady.

The church of the past 50 years has relied heavily upon the Nabisco Man in all its manifestations. Churches were planted and built on the foundation of Nabisco Men and their families, pews and committees were filled, budgets were fulfilled by their pledges. As the economy rolled, so went the Church.

This is hardly news. What I wonder is this: do we realize just how much we still expect the church of the Nabisco Man to come back?

I look at these company men of the 50’s and beyond and I see an out-of-balance worship of growth. Not on their part, of course. The economy is supposed to be about growth, and it just so happens that economic progress is usually good for the local church as well.

Somewhere along the way, though, the church took on the American language of growth and turned it into both the new plumb-line and the new gospel.  Growth is important: trust me, as a rector I very much want the Church to grow. But often what we refer to as church growth has little or nothing to do with evangelism, which is a little weird when you stop and think about it.

In 1983 Arlin J. Rothauge wrote that church size (family, program, resource, etc.) will determine how a church behaves. We ignore these insights at our peril. And yet, we don’t do enough to see how our attention to “church size” (which usually means asking how much we are or are not growing) is really just another way of being wedded to the American economy.

We don’t do enough to question why churches align so consistently with standards that are rooted more in culture than in discipleship or transformation. If we were more differentiated from the wider culture and economy, perhaps the church-size categories would feel less like straightjackets.  The typology gives a brilliant snapshot of the church, but it may not sufficiently account for the fact that this snapshot was taken 30 years into the age of the Nabisco Man, perhaps even at Peak Nabisco. Even as we update that model, we don’t do enough to question the seductiveness of growth for its own sake.

I’m sure Rothauge accounted for that. The problem is that we don’t much account for it. To some extent, church size typology is still very much about how many Nabisco Men and Women we’ve got filling out our rolls. And we always want more. We still want to grow at all times and judge ourselves harshly when we don’t. A church, however, isn’t just about growing young families and having a larger potluck every year. We are most faithful when we pay equal attention to loss, joy, sacrifice, depth, transition, generosity, hardship, reconciliation, justice, and yes, growth.

Change is especially hard today as we lose the stability of the Nabisco Man and all he brings.  But the instability, which I find to be about as much fun as a root canal, may help shake us loose from the hardened identities of church-size-types. I think that’s beginning to happen in some places, so I am quite hopeful for the church 20, 30 and even 50 years in the future. Joy in ministry doesn’t come from counting beans or bottoms, even if those things are necessary. It comes from connecting to real life, from all the ways that we live as the Body of Christ.


BJ Owens is the rector of St. Andrew’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. He blogs at


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Trawin Malone

Good article and I concur. I will point out, having studied with Routhage, that the typology is about the “emotional ” system more than a linear path. Paying attention to the emotional system will ease the anxiety of the need to be the Nabisco church. I think the parochial report, capitalism and the consumer culture has been a major influence in how we do church. Pushing against this culture will bring about the change suggested in the article.

Philip B. Spivey

There’s wisdom in your approach and I will tell you why I think so: We aren’t characterized as the ‘frozen chosen’ for nothing. There is no routine reading of a parish’s ’emotional system’ unless there’s a crisis; an earlier assessment of it may, in fact, prevent a crisis. As you (and Arlin Rothauge; thanks for this citation.) suggest, human dynamics play differently depending on, among other factors, the member size of the parish. Accurately reading the emotional health and needs of a parish should come before the business of church. I’ve maintained for a long time that the first business of parish leadership (clergy and lay) is ministering to its parishioners. An effective spiritual leader and pastor will ensure that this remains the top priority.

In a similar way, the adequate assessment of a parish’s ’emotional system’ lays the ground work for better matches between clergy leadership and parish needs.

Anand Gnanadesikan

Two things struck me reading this article. The first was this sentence

“This summer we’ve told a similar story three times: Bill with Nabisco, Bob with Sears, Ralph with AT&T. ”

We’ve changed as a culture from one in which people are loyal to institutions because the institutions are perceived as being loyal to them to one in which few of us trust that institutions will put the needs of those they serve above the interests of those in charge. Some of this is because the institutions themselves have changed (the growth of the management class has been in my view a net negative). But some of this is also a change in access to information. If I think my pastor is making a heretical argument, I no longer have to schlep down to the local theological seminary… I can google the counterargument. It strikes me that many in the church (not just the mainline but evangelical churches as well) have failed to understand this change.

The other change is the challenge of transformation. I agree with Greg Orloff, that what folks yearn for is to be redeemed. But if you have come from a deprived background, the bourgeois respectability of the Nabisco man may represent genuine transformation. Not living so close to the edge financially may make it easier to make the good choices that pay off both in life and spiritually. How we do that for the next generation has always been harder. And the question of how to do that in an economy that may not be growing is a question to which nobody seems to have an answer.

Jos. S. Laughon

When I think of the term Nabisco man I think of Eliot’s “We are the hollow men…”

There were moments Christ spoke the Truth and the Church shrank. It had proved a stumbling block to them. There are times the Church spoke Truth and She grew exponentially. The key here is objective, Biblical Truth.

Gregory Orloff

Actually, Jos. S. Laughon, for Christians, the key is Christ Jesus, not “the Bible” or “objective, Biblical Truth.”

Jesus told the Bible thumpers of his day: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” (John 5:39-40)

Now you may disagree with the conclusions the Episcopal Church draws from Jesus’ words and example.

But that does not mean the Episcopal Church isn’t doing its best to follow Jesus and do as he would do.

JoS. S. Laughon

That is actually untrue. Christ is described as the Word. Christ furthermore affirms the objective truth of the Scriptures.

But the fact you paint your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as “Bible thumpers” says quite a lot.

Leslie Marshall

TEC has thrown in the towel, and now chalk it up to ‘changing times’ & the end of ‘job security’ . To me, that would be a reason that MORE people would run to the Church.

Gregory Orloff

Well, Leslie Marshall, “changing times” and “end of job security” are hardly reasons why more people would run to church, because most people are sensible enough to realize that the church can’t do a darn thing to shield one from changing times or keep one’s job secure.

The only real reason to run to church is because one feels a deep-seated need to change oneself.

And that is the apparently missed crux of this article: that for too long, discipleship and transformation have ceased to be a priority in popular Christianity, and “evangelism” has been reduced to a “membership drive” to “boost numbers” (and thus revenue — “more members = more money” — as though increasing income were all there was to “stewardship”).

But evangelism has little to do with numbers: the Greek roots of the word simply mean “announcing the good news,” announcing in word, deed and personal example that God so loves (not hates) this world and everyone in it, which was Christ Jesus’ message, after all.

And stewardship is about far more than “keeping the coffers full” — it’s really about learning a way of “life management” in which we put our time, talent and treasure to the service of making God’s love felt in this world, in ways big and small, on a daily basis.

From what I’ve seen of the Episcopal Church, it can hardly be accused of “throwing in the towel” on those accounts.

Philip B. Spivey

“Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ ”
~Jeremiah 6:16 (NRSV)

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