Elevating the Meaningless Blather–I Mean, the Dialogue

Elevating the Meaningless Blather–I Mean, the Dialogue July 29, 2016

With their culture war drawing at last to a ragged and faltering close, even the most self-deceived and blinkered Christians are starting to notice that they have not exactly won here.

(Credit: Saint-Petersburg Theological Seminary, CC-ND license.)
Needs more talking points. (Credit: Saint-Petersburg Theological Seminary, CC-ND license.)

Oh, but not only have they lost, they have also decimated their religion’s integrity (what little it still had) and its credibility (what very little it could still claim). Their bigotry has cost them countless adherents as well–adherents who take with them when they leave an inestimable amount of money, time, and support.

Today I want to set our phasers to “deep-fat fry” and show you exactly why their newest tactic regarding LGBTQ outreach is nothing but a smokescreen meant to disguise how unpersuasive their essential message is.

Left Behind: Fundagelical Edition.

Christian bigots-for-Jesus want to feel like they’re making an effort at “elevating the dialogue,” as a Christian conference poster I’m looking at now promises. Another pastor whines about feeling “misunderstood” and “steamrolled” because Americans have largely rejected his efforts to smear and dehumanize LGBTQ people. And nominees for the presidency of the dwindling Southern Baptist Convention use the far-softer and nicer-sounding phrase “advocate for biblical marriage” to describe their position, which almost makes it sound like they’re simply passively maintaining their own little internal rules rather than what is actually occurring: an active, ongoing attempt to strip rights from people and legislate everyone’s private lives.

The language they use is conciliatory and gentle. The words sound sweet and kind. Examine what lurks behind it all, though, and you’ll find the same old blazing bigotry and fundagelical rage against fading dominance.

Something big has changed in our culture, and Christians haven’t fully reconciled themselves yet with that change.

People aren’t being fooled by their shows of niceness like we used to. There was a time when we gave Christians and their leaders quite a bit of benefit of the doubt, but that time is fast approaching its end.

What they can’t yet come to grips with is the fact that they are now reduced to the exact position of every other group seeking to persuade people to join up. They are salespeople, not the ambassadors they like to imagine they are, and they are competing in a global marketplace of ideas for people’s attention and resources. This is the ultimate zero-sum game, and only those groups with a truly compelling message will survive. Those with less compelling messages will eventually be crowded out of that marketplace by groups that more effectively sell their product.

I don’t think Christians like thinking of themselves that way, and they especially don’t like thinking that their message isn’t actually very compelling or persuasive to people outside their bubble. Combine the lack of a compelling product with their absolutely abysmal sales techniques, and you have a near-perfect storm of an industry that is doomed.

The Worst Salespeople in the World.

Successful salespeople know that to succeed in the world of business, one must either identify an existing need or create one in a target audience. Once the need has been either identified or created, then the salesperson can develop a product or pitch that will meet that need. At that point it’s simply a matter of credibly demonstrating to the target audience that a particular product can and will meet their need.

But that’s a lot easier said than done.

As Forbes puts it, the biggest reason why 80% of businesses fail is that the business owners don’t understand what their desired customers really need. Their expert suggests that genuine communication is required to ascertain customers’ needs, requiring a “deep dialogue” that can’t be forced.

Though one can find similar lists of factors involved with business failure all over the internet, the one on Forbes’ site sounds spot on: a business needs a product that people really want to purchase for the price being offered. It doesn’t matter if someone’s selling a religion, a phone service, a dog jacket, or a startlingly weird drug. If people don’t agree that they need to buy that product at the price on offer from the seller, then they won’t buy it.

The Power of Prayer, Part One.
The Power of Prayer, Part One.

And this simple truth is the one that conservative, right-wing Christians seem to bristle at the most. Oh, you could make a case for them hating the truth about the scientific method, or the total uselessness of prayer, or even the Bible’s decidedly non-divine nature. But the truth they seem to hate the most is the one about how their religion’s dominance has declined ever since participation in its rituals stopped being mandatory for first-world citizens. We’re starting to see that without coercion, their product simply isn’t very compelling on its own. It must be sold.

There was a time once when a belief in some form of Christianity was considered a requirement for all people in society. Christian leaders and groups didn’t need to sell their religion. Wherever folks happened to live, they attended the nearest church that held similar beliefs to their own. Churches themselves were hubs of social activity and charity distribution, so abstaining from fellowship could have very serious repercussions on someone’s social standing and ability to access help when needed (indeed, in very fundagelical-dominated areas in the US, this situation is still the case).

Because Christianity was mandatory, the idea of being good salespeople for the religion was for many years a totally alien one for most believers (and still is, for many of ’em). Revivals and other outreach methods in America even when I was a Christian were geared more toward poaching members from other denominations and revving up the faith of existing Christians because there really weren’t many non-believers. Even though the horrors of the Inquisition were long past, non-belief was stigmatized and only rarely encountered until recently.

Things are a lot different now.

Without their onetime power to force people to at least pretend to acquiesce to their demands, Christian groups and leaders are struggling to adapt to having to sell their beliefs to a culture that largely rejects even the most basic underpinnings of fundagelical doctrines. As even Russell Moore, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy agency, puts it: “People don’t have to be culturally identified with evangelical Christianity in order to be seen as good people, good neighbors or good Americans.” He’s totally right. And I don’t think his tribemates really know what to do with a culture that increasingly sees Christianity as either superfluous to being a good person or even actively antithetical to being one.

Christians might make a big deal out of evangelism, but they’re bad at it on a scale that starts looking suspiciously like strategic incompetence.

A Product Nobody Needs.

That conference I mentioned above is called “Elevating the Dialogue on LGBT Inclusion in the Church.” This sounds a lot like one of those typical “third way” circlejerk held by fundagelicals that claims it’s going to explore a way to reconcile anti-gay bigotry with love and inclusion only to come out with some new touchy-feely way to word the same old crap.

This conference fits in with what I’m seeing out of other evangelicals and their groups. That link about the SBC nominees uses similar wording: “This strategy of outreach will put us in touch with the many residents of our communities who are distant from us culturally and provide bridges for powerful witness.” It’s a very corporate-sounding chorus.

(Credit: Donald Lee Pardue, CC license.)
This is some of the writing on the wall. (Credit: Donald Lee Pardue, CC license.)

Preston Sprinkle has joined that chorus. Like many of his peers, he remains steadfastly convinced that the bigotry of anti-gay churches has nothing whatsoever to do with why LGBTQ people are leaving Christianity. No, no, far from it! They leave “because they were dehumanized, ridiculed, and treated like an ‘other'” (p. 14). Christians’ theology had nothing whatsoever to do with that awful treatment. Nope, nothing!

If he could only talk his tribe of Christians into loving LGBTQ people, his book argues, then nobody would ever want to leave. He’s totally sure that his tribe can accomplish this lofty goal without abandoning their opposition to LGBTQ rights, equality, and protections.

Like many business owners forget to do, however, these Christians never once thought to ask whether or not LGBTQ people–or anybody else, really–wanted their love, their bridges, or their elevated dialogue in the first place.

They just assumed that this rebranding would sell Christianity better, and then found people who’d tell them what they wanted to hear to confirm their echo chamber’s findings.

Nor did they ever seriously think outsiders to their faith would consider all their blather as nothing but clanging cymbals in the absence of serious changes in Christians’ beliefs and attitudes–as just another attempt to redefine love to give themselves permission to marginalize and mistreat others while claiming a moral high ground from which to campaign for Christian supremacy over everyone in sight.

Preston Sprinkle thinks that once he’s gotten his tribe on board with his innovative new way of saying “love the sinner, hate the sin,” then they can embark on a new period of revival and evangelism the likes of which the world has never known. They can shower this “scandalous grace” down on non-believers and gosh, their churches will barely be able to contain all the converts and apostates crowding in through the doors. He declares near the end of the book (p. 184) that now that the Christian culture war regarding marriage equality is “over, we can put down our guns and care for the wounded.” By this he means that his tribe can “love and minister to LGBT people.”

(Yes, seriously. The culture war is over, everyone! Aren’t you glad? Just don’t ask if this means he’ll vocally start supporting equal marriage and anti-discrimination laws.)

But he never stopped to ask if anybody wants his “scandalous grace.” Or his love. Or his grudging approval. Or his ministering. Or his self-righteous condemnation. Or his deceptive goddamned coffee dates.

Christians like him can’t engage with what people really want because they cannot or don’t want to do what would be required to fill that need. So they’ve created this whole slew of marketing techniques in service to a product that an ever-shrinking number of people actually want. For all their frantic attempts to sell their religion more effectively, I haven’t seen a single indication that any of those attempts are reversing any trends–or even slowing them down.

Even worse (for Christians), I don’t see a whole lot of LGBTQ people who seem impressed by any of their marketing efforts. Mostly one sees responses like this one from The Irish Atheist:

But our wholesale disapproval doesn’t really matter at this point. It’s about making themselves feel like they’re doing what “Jesus” wants. It’s about signaling their superiority and correctness. It’s about maintaining their own smug beliefs. And if some bright-eyed Christian starts doubting the religion’s claims because one too many of these talking-points get shot down in flames, then that loss is considered collateral damage–and the Christian, not the failed sales technique, will surely be blamed.

(Christians’ sales targets never seem to perform the marketing script correctly, do we?)

We’re going to talk next week about what people actually want from Christians–and why they can’t give us what we want. Coming up next, a short interlude about some other stuff Christians say that instantly makes folks check out. We’ll see you then!


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