Evangelical Churn: The Falling Away of the Young

Christian leaders grow more and more desperate to reverse their monumental churn problem. In their desperation, they turn to their young people. As the next generation in Christianity, young people have quite a burden to shoulder! And I don’t think they’re happy about shouldering it. Today, I’ll show you one denomination’s surreal responses to their looming disaster. Buckle up! It gets rocky.

(Steve Wainwright, CC-ND.) Empty Georgia Dome. It’s in another state, but still, it’s hard not to see this and think about the SBC’s little convention ending today.

The Unlikely Disciple.

Not long ago I was reading a Christian evaluation of the book The Unlikely Disciple. The book is about a non-Christian guy who enrolled in Liberty University. He wanted to get an idea of what fundagelical young people are really like. It sounds like a hell of a read. Kevin Roose, the non-Christian in question, lived incognito as a fundagelical for a year.

But this young reviewer reading about that experience came away with a very different impression.

Indeed, Greg Stier wrote an essay for Christian Post about how he totally doesn’t agree with Kevin Roose. I have trouble even remembering another Christian who has so completely missed the point of a criticism their religion.

But he does put a voice to a serious problem: how to mobilize their dwindling ranks of young people. The problem’s only gotten worse–and more pressing–since 2011. It’s just bizarre to see this essay, written as it was years before the Religious Right recognized that it had a problem at all.

Here is the problem: evangelical Christian groups are hemorrhaging young people.

The religion’s leaders still don’t appear to be capable of recognizing why it’s happening.

Fast Forward.

Fast forward with me now to 2018. Soon, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is going to unveil its 2017 numbers. And its leaders are going to have to figure out how to spin-doctor yet another year of failure to their flocks. It’s going to be hilarious, and I cannot wait. We’re gonna get drunk and review the whole thing and I hope you’ll join me when it happens.

Until then, we can enjoy a little amuse-bouche courtesy of Baptist21.

Baptist21 is a Southern Baptist group that focuses on the under-21 age set in the denomination. Their “About” page thoughtfully hints at the bottom that they are fully on board with SBC’s bigotry and misogyny, incidentally–can you spot how they do it?

(From B21’s Who We Are.) Weba Yayfoo!

Last week, Baptist21 put out a blog post seeking to convince young people to please oh god please, y’all, quit leaving the SBC please, pretty please forever. Its author, Nathan Akin, called it “An Open Letter To Younger Southern Baptists.” And he is gloriously off-base. He’s off-base to an extent that makes me wonder if he maybe doesn’t like the SBC.

Written in the wake of the firing of Paige Patterson, it attempts to explain why any young person would ever choose to remain affiliated with a denomination that openly sides with predators over victims consistently and without fail unless national-level public outcry is raised.

Why Indeed?

Nathan Akin lets his readers know right off the bat that he tooooootally understands:

First, I want to say I get it! I understand why many are frustrated and seriously considering their cooperative future with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Don’t ever trust a fundagelical trying to build false rapport. I think they must all learn this technique from the same book; none of them are very good at it. In reality, Akin doesn’t understand jack about why young people are walking away from the SBC, as we’ll soon discover. He demonstrates this point immediately:

The convention has always had flaws because it is made up of people who are flawed, and yet faithful brothers and sisters have labored faithfully in the midst of those flaws.

This technique is called moral leveling. In it, the manipulator tries to reduce all people or all offenses down to the same level. That way, one particular person or offense doesn’t stand up so clearly. And we see Christians attempting this form of manipulation constantly. Akin wants readers to see the huge tidal wave of scandals and hypocrisy erupting out of the SBC as part of a simple human “flaws.”

Their fervor is what matters, and he can’t fault their fervor. Therefore, nobody else is allowed to hold the SBC’s “flaws” against them.

We will be expected to forget, of course, that other organizations are made up of similarly flawed human beings who feel very fervent about whatever their group is organized around. Somehow they don’t produce this level of hypocrisy. Some of those groups are even Christian churches.

It’s grotesque to hear a Christian chirping about fervor canceling out hypocrisy.

“A People of the Book.”

Nathan Akin offers four reasons why young people should still remain in the SBC.

First, the SBC is all about that biblical inerrancy. We will be expected to forget that the harder a group strives for hardcore-ness, the worse its scandals seem to get. We’ll also need to forget that lots of other denominations go in for inerrancy. If a Christian wants inerrancy, Nathan Akin wants them to think that the only place to get it is the SBC.

Second, boy oh boy does the SBC have a lot of missionaries. Again, we must forget that lots of other denominations put a high premium on missionary work. Lots of other Christian groups plant churches, too. It doesn’t do any good to plant a church if the plant will wither away and die, but Akin won’t tell us how many die every single day. It also doesn’t do any good to send tons of missionaries everywhere if they’re not actually winning many converts.

Third, he reminds young people that their tithes help fund seminaries and other prep schools. I’m not sure why he thinks that this is a selling point, considering the Paige Patterson scandal. Oh yay, I can totally help fund seminaries where sex assault and abuse are constant dangers, but somehow are never dealt with adequately. Isn’t that the dream of young people everywhere?

Fourth, young people should stay with the SBC because quitting is for losers. I’m not kidding. That’s his reason.

Finally, I think the consideration of potential and stewardship should encourage you to stay involved. . . In addition, I think to have been in this convention with all of its massive resources and then to just walk away would be a poor stewardship of the financial resources that have been poured into her.

He’s literally using the sunk cost fallacy to try to hold people in the pews! This fallacy tries to convince people to remain in a bad group or situation by appealing to how much money or time they’ve already spent there. Home renovators and those hanging around narcissists will definitely recognize this mindset. That’s how far Christian leaders have sunk. They can’t persuade with facts, so instead they appeal to how much money and time they’ve already cost adherents.

Now Here’s How to Become More Involved.

As you can tell, Nathan Akin has now totally and for realsies solved the whoooooooole problem of persuading young people to stay in the SBC. Now that he’s done that, he can skip right along to telling his audience how to get more involved in the organization. Here are his exhortations:

First, give more money. Obviously. He’s obviously trying to lead with the most cringeworthy demand imaginable.

Second, be “in the room.” By this he means that young people must go to the Annual Tight Ass Club Jamboree each year, so they can “vote on key issues.” Gang, Nathan Akin’s superiors would have Triple Crown heart attacks if young fundagelicals actually crashed these meetings in great numbers. The younger Southern Baptists are, the less likely they are to agree with the older ones. I’m guessing the top brass in the SBC would not exactly welcome the sight of a sea of young faces at their convention. (Coming soon: a post about why this exact suggestion is disingenuous at best. It’s a wild ride and deserved some time. So it’s getting it.)

Third, write “encouraging notes” to trustees and other SBC officials “with your thoughts.” LOLWUT?

Fourth, they “can” use social media, as long as it’s done in an SBC-approved way. He’s clutching his pearls hard at how he sees Christians using social media. FWIW, I agree with his concern; the last thing anybody thinks after tangling with Christians on social media is that their religion is worth checking out sometime. So he’s one for ten so far.

Fifth, “serve faithfully.” That means volunteering in churches and evangelizing.

Sixth, think super-hard at the ceiling. I just laugh when Christians earnestly suggest prayer as an action item. I’m only surprised it was #6 on the list.

A Principle of Power.

I’ll say this: If a young person did any of these things on Akin’s to-do list, they’d quickly observe one of the Principles of Power at work.

Power seeks to preserve itself.

That means that those in power will do everything possible to strip power from others in the group. They know what young people would do if allowed to have a real say in the direction of the SBC. So they make sure that no powerless people have a way to make changes to the structure that benefits themselves so well.

I can’t imagine that any young people will be able to bring about much change in the SBC. And it’s that feeling of helplessness that I see when they talk about their frustration with Christian culture. Getting more involved is not showing up as part of their solution set. Nor is excusing it away cuz gosh darn it these leaders are so adorably fervent, and besides, where would we ever find so much inerrancy?

Leaders in broken systems often push for followers to try to make changes from within. It’s one of the cruelest carrots they dangle. The marks almost never figure out that it’s just a scam to keep them dancing.

Solutions in Search of Problems.

Akin does not once actually address any reason why young people are leaving the SBC. Not once.

Instead, he’s offering four solutions in search of problems. Nobody is leaving the SBC because they’re not literalist enough, or not sending out enough missionaries, or not fully funding seminaries enough, or because they lack gumption.

But he really can’t address the real reasons why young people leave his group. It’s like this: people keep trying to tell him that his theme park is built atop a radioactive clean-up site, so they don’t want to visit it. In response, he tells them about how awesome the theme park’s concessions are, how cool their rides are, and how generous their operating hours are. But that’s not why people aren’t coming to his theme park. They avoid it because it’s radioactive.

He doesn’t want to fix the real problems with his park–they’re likely too vast for him even to contemplate. So instead, he comes up with reasons that he thinks should be drawing people in like whoa.

His entreaties will have the same effect. He’s pushing coins at his target audience that they won’t recognize as valid legal tender.

The Real Reasons People Leave the SBC.

Politicization and culture wars seem to be why young people are leaving the SBC. Any solution to the problem of decline must meaningfully and substantively address those two millstones around the denomination’s neck.

In the past, politicization and culture wars were how Christian leaders grew and weaponized (and yes: monetized) their flocks’ fervor. These two strategies have always been consistent cash cows. And they do work–for very particular right-wing nutjobs (RWNJs). They backfire hard on someone who doesn’t want to engage in culture wars–or to dabble in that unholy fusion of extremist politics with extremist religion. And if someone who once bought into those ideologies wises up to how toxic they are, then that person will leave.

So fundagelical leaders dance on a tightrope. They can’t just stop calling for politicization and culture wars. They’d enrage existing RWNJs. But they alienate tons of other people from their banner that way.

The strategy they’ve devised appears to involve trying to convince young people to stay for other reasons. But if politicization and culture wars are important to young people, as they do seem to be, then that other stuff won’t matter. All the inerrancy in the world, all the missionaries in the world, all the seminaries in the world won’t matter, if it manifests as a church that actively works against everything good about humanity.

We’re going to look more soon at the new(ish) rebranding strategies Christians are deploying. For now, I’ll just laugh at the mere idea that someone thought this essay was going to do anything but backfire.

We’ll Just Stay Out Of Their Way.

With all of the declines in younger members in particular, though, the SBC seems singularly incapable of doing anything but further angering this most sensitive of demographics.

In their big Annual Ignorant Tight Ass Club Jamboree this week, their big news currently is that they’ve resolved to continue abusing gay people. They love reparative therapy still, despite ALL reputable psychologists and pediatricians EVERYWHERE condemning it. They hate the label “homosexual.” And they want parents to be able to force their kids into reparative therapy. So they remain steadfast in bigotry, even knowing that bigotry alienates young people like almost nothing else.

Oh, and they allowed Paige Patterson to voluntarily step down from delivering a keynote address at this jamboree thing.

We should stay out of their way while they’re torpedoing their future, gang.

NEXT UP: Let’s visit the SBC Annual Tight Ass Club Jamboree–and see how it’s designed to keep a bunch of young people out of its stadium.


Endnotes.

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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--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 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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