Over this past year, we’ve been focusing quite a bit on what I’ve come to call evangelical churn–the overwhelming losses of membership, influence, credibility, and power in right-wing Christianity. As one might expect, the leaders in the religion are doing their best to combat their groups’ losses with a public-relations and marketing blitz. Unfortunately for them, those efforts are doomed–thanks to the efforts of those selfsame leaders. Hobbled by constraints they’ve placed upon themselves, they struggle now to find a marketing angle that might actually work. More than ever, Christians are paying attention to the syntax of things in their religion.
Christian Marketing Sucks, by Design.
“Christian marketing” is done by Christian groups with the aim of attracting new members and retaining existing members to their specific groups. It takes forms as varied as the groups themselves do–from dour and outdated to hipster and oh-so-cool-it-hurts–as each group tries to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack and look as attractive as possible to the group’s chosen demographic.
Sometimes a group gets sensible and hires an official marketing firm to handle their advertising and media relations, but not often. Typically the group members themselves place the ads, set up the signage, and appoint door-knockers to go around and invite people to their functions and meetings. Christian marketing is a bit like a secular business’ marketing in that respect: you get what you pay for, for the most part, and it’s worth–at the most–every penny you pay for it.
The problem, of course, is that most Christian groups bristle at the idea that they are actually businesses. Fundagelicals in particular would never want to think of their operations in such brutally callous, worldly terms.* They do their level best to pretend that they are little volunteer charity clubs that just happen to have their own buildings (usually) and a very serious desire to meddle in politics. Thinking in terms of income lost and gained, profit/loss statements, ARPU, ROI, EBITA, and all that other alphabet soup and word salad just doesn’t feel terribly, well, Jesus-y.
A Christian looking at their church as a business would be like a person evaluating a marriage partner on the basis of whether or not the candidate has a lack of debt and all their teeth. It feels crass, base, even heartless. since feeling is first/who pays any attention/to the syntax of things/will never wholly kiss you and all that pleasantly discordant jazz.**
And Yet Christians Need That Syntax Now.
There was a time–a very long time at that–when Christians didn’t need to think about their groups being businesses. There were so many Christians, and therefore so much money coming into the coffers, that leaders could be downright profligate with resources and opaque to an extent that could only be called contemptuous of those donating their hard-earned money to be wasted. I guarantee you that most Christians didn’t even think about efficiency or even about exactly what percentage of donations went to charity or how much exactly the pastor took for himself.
That time is coming to a screeching halt. In many places in the country, that time is already nothing but a fading memory. Christian leaders have only themselves to thank for the loss of their gravy train–it was their decision to saddle their religion with a particularly noxious form of nationalism and xenophobia, enforced and glorified willful ignorance, idolatry of doctrines that are in and of themselves quite suspect, and of course stone-cold sexism and racism, after all.
As more Christians left their religion, fewer and fewer remained to keep the leaders in the lifestyles to which they had become well-accustomed. And those remaining Christians are feeling the pinch as their leaders begin to drill down harder than ever on the absolute necessity of donations. Often these demands are couched in terms of “reaching the lost souls of the world” or “helping the poor,” but way too often congregations discover to their chagrin that only a tiny fraction of their donations go to either of those causes; most of their money goes directly to the paychecks of their ministers and to the upkeep and payments of their buildings.
It actually makes me laugh to think of the outrage those pastors must feel at the idea of becoming accountable to people they feel are their divinely-appointed inferiors. One rather imagines King John felt that way when presented with Magna Carta, and for many of the same reasons!
Alas, Christian leaders are still stuck in pre-1215-CE mode and don’t realize that those heady days of uncontested, unilateral power has already evaporated and will never return, no matter how they rage and bluster and plead.
Exchanging Goods and Services.
Increasingly, it’s clear that Christians are seeing their church membership much like a gym membership or a library card. They sign up for this group, pay these dues, and get this-and-so amount of services and benefits for their time and money. They look for churches that more or less align with their own beliefs and which have the kinds of programs that their families need–perhaps a thriving youth group, or an active singles scene, or even free childcare or Vacation Bible School or a coffeeshop on the premises (so they can have six weeks of coffee dates to show their bigotry to an LGBTQ person). If they join a church that doesn’t have what they need, eventually they jump ship when they learn of a church elsewhere that does.
If they don’t feel that their money will be responsibly used, then they don’t tithe. They might volunteer, but then again probably won’t. They show up for the special events and whatnot, but probably won’t take a hand in making those events happen. They luxuriate in the glorious feeling of being among thousands of other people singing hymns, or they nestle into tiny little church plants to feel like they’ve finally found a substitute family, though if they get dissatisfied with internal politics or overreach then they will leave.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this model. It’s exactly what we expect people to do with other businesses.
But oh my stars and knickerbockers, fundagelical Christian leaders absofuckinglutely hate that conceptualization of church! They call this kind of Christian a “consumer Christian” and there are thousands upon thousands of admonitions to the flocks to never, ever, ever be like that.
Consumer Christians are “self-centered,” warns a writer with Christianity Today.
They are disloyal, uninvested, and disconnected from church culture, tut-tuts someone at Relevant Magazine.
They “ruin pastors and cheat the mission of God,” cries Ed Stetzer, clutching his pearls as always. (Incidentally, he’s recently quit his SBC gig for something hilarious–we’ll talk about it later though perhaps.)
And yet for all their finger-pointing and all their shaming and all their lecturing, those leaders’ flocks continue to seek out groups that suit their needs for as little expense as can be arranged. I’m positive that literally the only reason Christians weren’t always doing exactly this, besides the lower level of mobility before the Age of Automobiles, was that Christian leaders had altogether too much power culturally. Without being able to bring to bear that level of coercion, those leaders must lead their followers in the direction their followers wish to go–or they will be leading only themselves!
Without being able to literally force Christians to do exactly what they want, Christian leaders must settle instead for manipulating them into wanting to comply.
Increasingly, the main way they are doing it is to market themselves as something far greater than the sum of its parts: as something far more than a base, crass business that happens to sell Jesus Auras instead of candy bars, tickets to Heaven instead of 15-minute oil changes, and instant forgiveness instead of cell-phone plans. Perish the thought! No, they are far more than that, far better, and don’t need to follow any of the principles that preserve a business and ensure that its relationship with its customers is a smooth, mutually-beneficial, and amiable one!
And that strategy is doomed to fail right out of the gate. They want customers to spend lots of time and money with their group, but they don’t want to consider themselves beholden to render a worthwhile product back to those customers, like any other reputable business would. They want to take but not give, and they see nothing whatsoever wrong with that attitude.
That way of doing business only lasts for so many decades, as they’ve shown us.
A Chimera That Can’t Survive Outside the Womb.
A long time ago, when I was an admin for a very large and active online game (a MUD), I began noticing a serious flaw in how its social system was structured. I’d never seen a better coder in my life, but the owner of this game had never run a business or been involved in management at any level.
Somehow he’d gotten the idea that the best way to run his game was to treat it as if it were a huge corporation. He set up committee after committee, created a huge and elaborate set of rules complete with punishments for every level of infraction, set up formal chains of command and grievance protocols, devised an honest-to-dawg mission statement, instituted a formal admin-hiring process that involved candidates sending us gaming resumes with references, and more. It was as if he was trying to set up a multinational Fortune 500 company from scratch.
But his staffers (including me) were volunteers. The game was free to play. The dynamics of a volunteer game and a huge sprawling corporation are so different that it feels ridiculous even to point that fact out in this blog post. The only reason people put up with all those maddening levels of management and bureaucracy in the real world is because they get paid (usually poorly) to put up with it. Nobody sensible would ever put up with it otherwise. MUDs are supposed to be what someone does to get away from that world.
On a more practical level, though, big sprawling corporations have another key difference: they usually are staffed by people with some vague idea of how to conduct themselves in that kind of world. Granted, they might be really bad at it (which is why that Dilbert cartoonist has a career), but at least they’ve got a little bit of experience with it.
So the staffers quickly became too scared to do anything out of fear that they’d violate the chains of command–and quickly discovered why that exact metaphor is the one used. Topside progress on the game ground to a total halt. The owner’s response was to hire a raft of new admins. At one point the game literally had about twice as many admins as they had active players logged in at any given time, and still players’ requests went unanswered and plotlines went dead everywhere.
Mr. Captain and I had left their admin staff by then, returning briefly to our former levels to save their bacon during a huge, game-altering, absolutely critical quest day that not one single admin actually showed up to run.*** That’s about where we checked out of the game entirely. The game itself didn’t die then, but I could see the writing on the wall. It’d take another five years before it finally dribbled away, amid a long and tedious storm of reorganization and reinvention attempts, staff shuffles, firings and hirings, and increasingly-strident scandals and accusations.
Does any of this sound familiar? It totally should.
It took me a long time to suss out why that game had failed. It seemed to have so much going for it on paper that failure seemed impossible. And yet it had failed–and miserably.
Upside Down and Mirrored Backward.
Over time I began to understand what had happened. The owner had, unfortunately, tried to mix business with pleasure. He’d tried to run his game like a business, but that’s not how games work. Volunteers can’t be treated like wage-serfs. Players are not the same as customers. The more he tried to clamp down on the game’s social system to make it more corporate, the worse the game dissolved at the seams.
That’s exactly what Christian leaders are doing in a way. They’ve got a business that they’re trying to run like a kingdom, while they’re busy pretending that they’re really a support group.†
These groups are staffed with a great many people who patently should not be given unilateral power over others, all to run a system that doesn’t actually work either in large or small social groups unless every single person participating from the top of the pyramid to its base is totally on the same page.
Unfortunately, however, that is almost never the case in any Christian group–and the further right one travels along the arc of the religion, the less chance one has of encountering such a happy utopia, the less capable the leaders are of wielding power responsibly and compassionately, and the less any of it looks anything like a well-run business, peaceful kingdom, or nurturing support group.
A Necessary Rebalancing.
Small but cumulative changes are paring away the power of the people at the top of the Christian pyramid, distributing it a little more fairly. The people closer to the bottom of that pyramid are far less likely to simply accept their position as peasants, slaves, and foot-soldiers for their superiors. Worse, those people are starting to be more open about expecting churches to meet their needs and behave responsibly with the power, money, and other resources granted to them. If church leaders don’t perform according to expectations, then their onetime serfs will simply uproot themselves and leave–perhaps for another church, but perhaps to join the vastly-swelling ranks of Nones.
And literally the only thing those church leaders can do in response is try to shame their members into staying despite feeling taken-advantage-of and unserved by their leaders and groups.
See, a proper business owner who wasn’t a complete doofus would see dwindling numbers and take firm action to find out why. That owner would put together an action plan that adapted his or her business to what is very clearly a changing customer climate. Once the cause of the churn was discovered, then a plan could be established to fix the problem. Prices could be adjusted, the product could be beefed up somehow or reworked to remain profitable at the cost consumers were willing to pay, or whatever else had to happen. That kind of restructuring can be painful, but most businesses have to do it at some point or another–if they want to survive.
But Christian groups don’t like to acknowledge that they’re businesses. They’re still pretending that they’re something else, something grander, something that is immune to such earthly problems and demands, far above the tawdry banality of a customer/business relationship. Sometimes they might act like they’re deeply concerned about why they’re losing so many people, but I don’t think they really want to know–especially if the answer would mean accepting that at their heart, churches really are simply another business in the modern age–and not a very well-run one, nor one that is terribly adaptable or resilient, nor one offering a product worth anywhere near the cost they’ve set for it.
Their marketing, therefore, will be written by people who don’t like thinking of their churches as businesses. It’ll all be aimed at people who are very likely starting to get a weird and uncomfortable feeling about that exact question. The ads will be bright and attention-getting, the slogans top-notch, all trying to persuade people to check out this group instead of that one, or to return to the church the ex-member abandoned years ago to check out their new program (whatever it is).
Unspoken will be any mention of the demands that will be put upon that person should he or she join the group, much like a sex worker in a movie might dislike having to flat-out demand their pay from a visiting client–for fear that it’d wreck the illusion.
Of course, none of their strategies could exist without the fairy dust of magical thinking! We’ll take up there next time–please join me!
* I was going to say “sterile,” but if you look in the mirror and say that word three times in a row, bad things happen.
** My favorite poem of his, hands down.
*** We met on that game. KNEEL BEFORE MY NERD CRED. KNEEL
† Yes, exactly like that awesome Calvin & Hobbes strip where the kid and tiger are playing football and it slowly deteriorates into yet another game of Calvinball for them.