Evangelical Churn: Evangelicals Struggle With a Tainted Brand

Today we have a quick detour because of an important meeting that evangelical leaders are having soon. They want to discuss a growing problem in their ranks: their completely tainted brand and how it’s affecting recruitment and retention rates. Here I’ll show you their struggle to get on top of the problem–and why they absolutely cannot fix it. Strap in, because this whole situation is magically delicious.

evangelical churn - the combat plan
Evangelical leaders’ plans regarding their decline. (Marcio Okabe, CC.)

Yet Another Meeting.

On Monday and Tuesday next week, about 50 evangelical leaders will be meeting up at Wheaton College, near Chicago. The biggest names in that whole end of the religion will be there: Tim Keller, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Ed Stetzer, and many others. Almost all of ’em support Donald Trump.

The meeting covers evangelicals’ tainted brand. We’ve talked about that concept a few times. In essence, people increasingly see evangelicalism as toxic, foul, harmful, and all kinds of awful. This perception began to pick up steam right after the 2016 elections. Now it’s really starting to affect Christianity’s numbers: both recruitment (evangelism, soulwinning) and retention rates.

It’s been a problem for years, and at this meeting these evangelical leaders hope to start addressing it.

And for what it’s worth, they will be addressing it.

They’re just going to be doing it in their usual surreal, otherworldly, Bizarro-world way.

The Real Problem Here.

Evangelicals’ “elephant in the room,” as one of them put it, is Donald Trump and what he represents to them. Evangelicals’ unholy alliance with ultra-conservative politics came home to roost with Trump’s election. In one night, a lot of people finally saw just how deeply politicized, delusional, cruel, and power-hungry this tribe is. And it horrified us.

Tidal waves of evangelicals left their churches after that night. Many fully deconverted from the religion entirely. Others simply disengaged, which means they stopped attending and supporting their churches or performing devotions.

The Washington Post (WaPo) discovered that fully 14% of surveyed Christians last year left their churches in mid-November 2016. They were distributed across the religion–11% of Catholics had left, 18% of mainline Protestants, and 10% of evangelicals. They named the election as their reason for leaving.

A serious mismatch between the adherent’s political opinions and those of the church’s pastor turned out to be key. Christians who felt a mismatch with their pastors about Donald Trump were more likely to leave. If they weren’t strong churchgoers in the first place, the likelihood of leaving shot right up.

Growing Politicization.

These Christians left their churches because perceived over-politicization was overtaking their feelings of belonging in these groups. That same WaPo writer has a paper out as well in which he discusses this growing trend in fundagelicalism in particular. In it, he points to research indicating that the growing politicization of the Christian Right began driving away people in the 1990s–which fits with my experience and perceptions.

As I suspected, this paper’s research discovered that serious churn for evangelicals began around 2006, but rose to disastrous levels in a follow-up 2012 survey. Now we’re into nosebleed numbers.

Even in a megachurch, a drop like we’re describing here would be profound. But the vast majority of churches aren’t huge. They’re generally under 100-200 people. And in those churches, a drop like that can quickly become catastrophic. A smaller church already has a way smaller cushion financially; its obligations and needs are spread through a comparatively smaller pool of people. One tithing member can be the difference between comfort and downsizing.

The paper’s writers discovered that the greatest number of people leaving, of course, are young–which creates a whole other demographic time bomb waiting to go off. Since young people are as a group more liberal than older folks, they’re at a much greater risk of being mismatched to their pastors anyway. And often they’re not strong churchgoers, so will be more quickly alienated by a mismatch like that.

We’re not even getting into the recruitment aspects of that politicization, either. It’s bad enough just from a retention standpoint.

The Backfire They Can’t Face Yet.

The problem I’ve outlined is huge. And it is not something evangelical leaders are ready to face yet, much less fix. I can see why. They took almost ten years to finally admit they had a serious problem with retention and recruitment. It might take another ten years for them to find the strength to look at exactly why.

Nothing will get easier even when they reach that point. This whole situation started in the Cold War. It’s only gotten worse in the decades since. Problems that big don’t lend themselves to quick fixes.

They’re trying to deal with the effects of a well-entrenched culture-war mentality.

For decades, Christians were trained to see themselves as the masters of society, the arbiters, the judges. Their leaders (many of them showing up in that WaPo piece!) used cynically-engineered culture-wars to create a constant mindset of embattlement and self-pity, entitlement and petulance, belligerence and overreach, fear and greed.

The culture wars’ objectives hardly even mattered. What mattered was that Christian flocks waged them through countless undignified public displays–and voted in the correct directions.

And as clumsy as these leaders’ tactics were, they got exactly what they wanted. They can’t change that politicization now. They can’t avoid waging culture wars. It’s all too far enmeshed with everything else, especially when they’re claiming a real live god told them to do all of it.

Here’s the Problem They’re Discussing Instead.

So these big-name leaders will most certainly not be discussing their worship of Donald Trump.

They just want to change how people perceive them for worshiping Donald Trump.

This meeting will be talking about how they can change people’s perceptions of evangelicals as racist, lying bigots and hypocrites through a renewed emphasis on their various doctrinal stances. They think that people will excuse them for being racist, lying bigots and hypocrites if they just phrase perfectly their reasons for doing it.

WaPo tells us:

“When you Google evangelicals, you get Trump,” [meeting organizer Doug] Birdsall said. “When people say what does it mean to be an evangelical, people don’t say evangelism or the gospel. There’s a grotesque caricature of what it means to be an evangelical.”

Oh noes! But is it?

Is it really?

It’s not a “grotesque caricature.” It’s a portrait painted completely true to life, and it’s been this way since I myself was a Christian. Birdsall just doesn’t like it because it’s not flattering. He–in his privilege–is used to being flattered, not shown reality.

Oh Yay, This “Posture Problem” BS Again.

For the last few years, I’ve noticed that Christian leaders–be they pastors or awful bloggers–have been trying to escape real change.

The problem is never their message. Since the message is always perfect in a broken system like Christianity, it cannot be questioned–much less substantially changed.

Instead, many of these leaders say their problem lies in how the message is being communicated.

That’s beyond ridiculous, of course, since the message itself really is the problem.

Other leaders decide that the problem lies in how the message is being interpreted by those receiving it. They’re almost as hilariously wrong.

Both of these groups think they can find a magical way to word their “Good News” of hatred, racism, sexism, bigotry, xenophobia, control-lust, overreach, and willful ignorance that will get them off the hook for being that way and end their religion’s decline.

In other words, they think they can trick people into thinking they’ve really changed.

Tim Keller, one of the worst-of-the-worst apologists out there, thinks this shell game is totally possible:

“We need to be wiser and better in the way we do ministry,” said Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. “Faith and God and sin and grace and idolatry are about fundamental human reality, and everything else is a way of dealing with those issues. It is a complete terrible reversal when [people believe] religion is about politics when it’s the other way around.”

Yeah. Good luck with that. Nothing can change as long as politics entwines around his tribe’s religious ideology. HIs deepity simply meant We’re not dropping our culture wars.

The Road Never Traveled.

If these leaders could engage with the real reasons behind their religion’s decline, all they’d do is enrage their current adherents. They’d create a mismatch, all right, just in another direction.

Those folks would stomp away muttering and badmouthing their former pastors: they’re watering down the gospel! And they’d blame their tribal enemies for all of it. They’d find an extremist church that accepted them and their hatred and xenophobia and control-lust. And they’d be happy again.

The problem gets worse, though. Not only would real change drive away existing Christian culture-warriors, already-alienated people wouldn’t suddenly start returning to their former churches. Once someone lives for a little while without religion, its irrelevance and superfluity start becoming too glaringly obvious to miss.

Failure Scenario Two.

Instead, these leaders will keep doing the same stuff they’re doing. They’ll reword a few key doctrinal statements. They’ll issue slightly different new slogans for evangelists. But otherwise, nothing whatsoever will change.

This approach is the one we have been seeing out of these selfsame leaders for decades. They’ve done this before. They know how effective it is at staving off real change.

They know that their tribe will feel like finally someone’s doing something.

And nothing will change in any tangible way.

Meanwhile, they’ll continue to hemorrhage people who feel a mismatch politically with their churches. And yes, of course they’ll continue to repel and alienate prospective recruits. This’ll happen at an ever-accelerating rate until they finally hit a bottom and find a stagnation point. Then they’ll declare that their proposed pseudo-changes worked and that Jesus is happy with everything again. Sure, their dominance will be ended, but they’ve always been good at reframing things.

Yay Team Jesus!

Good News, Everybody!

So in other words, this whole meeting thingie is great news.

This whole story tells us that evangelicals still can’t engage with why they’re tanking members. They’re still blaming everything under the sun except for themselves! And that means they’re nowhere near fixing their sinking ship. They won’t be circling the drain forever, clinging to life with Skeksis claws and prolonging the inevitable.

I’m not saying things will be better on Wednesday. I’m just saying that there’s an end in sight. We just have to hold strong for a little while longer.

Hang in there, friends.

NEXT UP: The scandal of sexual scandals in fundagelicalism. See you then!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then she brought it all to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was almost 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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