For a while now we’ve been talking about what I call evangelical churn. It took Christian leaders some time to recognize that yes indeed, they were facing not just a temporary situation, but rather a serious and devastating long-term decline in membership and cultural clout. They’ve finally come to a widespread recognition of the problem. They still don’t quite know why it’s happening, though–much less what they can do to reverse it. I’ll show you their main stopgap solution today–and even better, I’ll show you why it absolutely will not work.
Some Basic Definitions.
Christian groups, churches, and denominations (all of which I lump together in the term “group”) are businesses like any other, though their adherents tend to bristle a bit at that comparison. It’s very natural for non-members like me to reach for business terminology, therefore, in describing their inner workings. Here are some of those terms:
Churn means the speed at which a business loses existing customers. High churn means that a lot of existing customers are leaving that business and heading instead for its competitors. Low churn means very few customers are leaving. Typically churn is measured in terms of percentage points, which are expressed as the business’ churn rate. Gaining new customers always costs a certain amount of money, typically spent in advertising and in the creation of new-customer promotions that existing customers don’t typically get.
Businesses fight churn by emphasizing retention. Retention means how effectively businesses keep their existing customers. Their retention rate depends on a number of factors: good customer service, reliable products, advertising to a certain extent, promotions for existing customers, and other such things. A business must weigh the costs of retention against the costs of churn. Sometimes a company thinks that the cost of retaining a given customer is far greater than the cost of attracting a new one, but most think the opposite is true.
So evangelical churn describes how Christian groups lose existing members, who leave to either join other groups or else withdraw entirely from all such groups. Retention therefore means keeping existing members where they are in the group so they don’t contribute to churn.
I began seeing churn rates increase for Christian groups years ago. Surveys were beginning to point to demographic time bombs looming over churches, and the leaders of these churches didn’t even seem aware of what was coming their way. That time bomb was young people, who were leaving their groups more and more often and not returning.
Ever since the 1980s at least and probably well before that, the conventional wisdom held that young people left their groups all the time–but later returned after they got married and had children. But even back then I was starting to see that wisdom challenged; not only were marriage rates seriously declining, but women were putting off childbearing later and later–or deciding against having kids altogether. That shift alone spelled disaster for leaders’ conceptualization of the life cycle of a Christian congregant.
More than that, though, I was starting to see Christian dominance challenged in a widespread way. Creationist teachers were coming under fire. Religious monuments and displays that had habitually been put on public property were getting taken down. Atheist groups were rising to prominence. But even then, Christians didn’t accept that their dominance was starting to wane.
The decline was due to both disengagement and deconversion. In disengagement, the Christian withdraws from all observances of Christianity–private prayer, Bible study, church attendance, tithing, and suchlike. In deconversion, the Christian rejects the religion entirely–either becoming a “None,” meaning “none of the above” with regard to religion, or else joining some other religion.1
Then we all saw that devastating Pew survey about the country’s changing religious landscape back in 2015, and suddenly Christian leaders swung into full crisis mode.
Immediately after that report was released, I began seeing a huge shift in how fundagelical Christians talked about churn. Though occasionally I saw a Christian layperson try to argue about the religion’s decline in numbers, often smugly pointing to possibly-illusory gains in Africa or East Asia, I didn’t see many leaders talking like that.
They’d seen the light–at last–about what was happening.
At first those leaders reacted to their growing losses by blaming it all on what they saw as fake Christians–or “cultural Christians,” as Ed Stetzer, who was then on the tail end of his time with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), termed them as far back as 2012. As the largest denomination in Protestantism, the SBC was affected the most by evangelical churn. The people leaving, Mr. Stetzer and other like-minded leaders insisted, had never been particularly fervent, and so their leaving was actually a great thing. Oh, for sure, they hadn’t minded these “cultural Christians” back when those folks’ butts were warming their pews, nor were they refusing anybody’s money! But I saw a lot of folks exulting about the losses of members they thought weren’t hardcore enough anyway–in effect advising the Christians who were leaving to make sure that the door didn’t hit ’em where the good Lord had split ’em.
This popular (if false) notion of “cultural Christians” in great part informed fundagelical Christian leaders’ response to the growing crisis. See, if only fake Christians were leaving, then if Christian leaders just made sure that all their members were super-pumped for Jesus, then nobody would want to leave! And once those fake Christians were gone, then the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ left would find themselves purified and free to wreak havoc without fear of in-house criticism.
It all sounds so grandly simple and elegant. Unfortunately, it was doomed from the start–
–Like most Christian endeavors are nowadays.
The Basic Problem Here.
The problem with this grand plan lay in Christians’ willingness to believe nonsense for no good reason. (Wait, wait, what?? Who’d’a ever thunk that such tendencies could ever, ever backfire? Well gosh, I never!)
These leaders’ working (and self-serving) assumptions about why people joined their groups in the first place weren’t actually true. It was just a flattering vision that those leaders wanted to believe. It wasn’t reality. So their response, which centered around increasing fervor to gain more engagement and commitment from members, thus raising retention rates, couldn’t possibly succeed. Even if their plans to increase fervor worked, which they absolutely did not for reasons I’ll outline shortly below, it was actually the more-fervent Christians who were usually the ones leaving their groups in the first place.
The people leaving were sometimes less engaged with the religion, yes, but many others were passionately fervent–and people in this latter group felt that they were being forced to make a choice between what they saw as following Jesus and belonging to their group. They had begun to see many Christian groups as antithetical to what they understood to be both the principle commands of Jesus and the traits of good Christians. And some of them chose to walk away from their various churches while remaining at heart very decidedly Christian (though some even rejected the label of Christian and calling themselves followers of Jesus or the like, their desire to be seen as completely and totally not like those people having become that powerful–even when they were more like those people than not).
Sometimes these Nones maintained that if they ever found a church that fit their idea of a good group, they’d happily become observant Christians again. Others followed their deep concerns with their groups to their logical conclusions, ultimately questioning the religion itself–and then they simply deconverted, never to return.
The Fundagelical Playbook.
The reason that Christian leaders can’t really engage with disengagement and deconversion is the same reason that they can’t engage with atheists or doubt or religious overreach: their working assumptions about what makes a person fervently Christian–and what makes someone reject Christian claims–are simply not true. So of course their solutions are going to sound surreally and hilariously out of touch with reality.
And I found a blog post a while ago that perfectly illustrates that truth.
Right around that big eclipse back in August, I ran across “The Eclipse of Evangelicalism: Repentance Upon the Death of a Movement.” In the post, archived here for ya, David Drury outlined what he saw as the reasons for evangelical churn–and the path he thought could lead his people out of their decline.
The reason the post caught my eye is that the author of it is as seriously out of touch with reality as one could ever dread to see in fundagelicalism (which is to say, evangelicalism and fundamentalism–I join the words together because there’s really no difference between the two groups these days)–and yet simultaneously about as high up the food chain as Protestants can get. He’s involved in the top-level leadership of the Wesleyan Church and he’s written books called stuff like God is for Real. The Wesleyan Church itself is described by La Wiki as being a “holiness Protestant Christian” group that is part of the fringe “holiness movement.” (My UPCI church would probably have been part of that too.) The group sounds as out-there as fundagelical groups can really get. The dean of the School of Theology at Indiana Wesleyan University said he thinks that Mr. Drury’s post about “the eclipse of evangelicalism” is “prophetic.”
So David Drury is not the podunk pastor of a little bitty church plant in the middle of nowhere, spewing hate speech every Sunday and gleefully making videos about soulwinning that get like 5 views tops. He’s one of the big names, and other big names in his denomination think he’s the bee’s knees.
He’s sure not the first evangelical to write these sad-sack predictions of the end of evangelicalism, though. Back in 2012 and even earlier, people just like him were making similar predictions in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and similar such publications. He’s one of a long line of leaders who think they’re saying something startling and new–even “prophetic.”
He’s just one of the funniest I’ve seen lately, is all. You’d think he’d have (I dunno) Googled to find out that the path he lays out has been used so often by his fellow thought leaders that it’s been trampled to death.
Anatomy of a Name-and-Blame Post.It’s a very typical motivational post. David Drury starts out with a typical shots fired proclamation: “As of this day, August 21, 2017, I believe that the evangelical movement is dead.”
OH NOES!!! ZOMG Y’ALL, WE’RE LITERALLY DYING! O.O
But then he sneaks in a modification: “At least, it appears to be dead.”
O.o WHAT? MAYBE THERE’S HOPE?!? o.O
Then he follows it with the usual slap of blame (notice the reprimand word used): “The movement has shirked its persistent values, and has quit practicing the core convictions that made it relevant and necessary.”
OH NOES!!!! WE SHIRKED! FRENZ & BRATHREN (& SISTREN), WHATEVER SHALL WE DO?!?
So the post is meant to assign blame to the flocks, who are totally to blame for the death of evangelicalism because they were not TRUE CHRISTIANS™. See, if they actually practiced their “persistent values” rather than shirking, then this catastrophe would not be happening. It’s all their fault.
Then he has to spell out these totally for-sure basic values in listicle form, as if otherwise nobody would know what they were. So in his view, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are “Conversion-oriented, Bible-following, Cross-focused, and Culture-transforming.”
Don’t you love how he managed to get them all to matchy-match like that with the hyphens? Dude’s next level, y’all.
Then he follows up with a paragraph about each one of those four values, contrasting them with “how they have been eclipsed.” (Expect to see that comparison a lot in his post. He was absolutely not gonna let a comparison-making opportunity like that slip past him.)
It’s ALL YOUR FAULT, Evangelicals.
First, instead of being “conversion-oriented,” evangelicals now just love “entertainment.” He laments that nobody cares about what he calls “discipleship” anymore–which sounds a lot like code for kids today don’t give their leaders slavish obedience anymore–and dammit they play dat dadgum vidya wayyyy too much. This point might also be a complaint that church attendance is very seriously declining, which, of course, has nothing to do with any Christian leaders.
Second, he’s upset that instead of “Bible-following,” evangelicals just show a “love of self.” That might be a reiteration of the first problem he identifies, but it also sounds a lot like a dogwhistle for you lot increasingly don’t care what your leaders think the Bible says about equal marriage:
More than merely Bible-believing, evangelicals were a Bible-living sort of people. They followed the Bible and obeyed its teachings. They gave scripture a higher authority over any other source. Some might have valued reason, tradition, and experience, but even those critical elements were subject to the witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ found in the Bible. The pietistic, revivalist, and holiness streams of evangelicalism ensured that the people called evangelical were not just evangelistic, but also discipled to live differently by obedience to this gospel.
Today the Bible-following lifestyle of evangelicals has been eclipsed by the love of self.
That sure sounds like he’s upset about totally losing his tribe’s culture war against LGBTQ people to me.
Third, he thinks that today’s evangelicals aren’t concerned with being “cross-focused,” which he identifies as “a potency and clarity in focus where all things began and ended with Jesus.” I’m really not sure why he thinks that evangelicals have replaced this “cross-focus” with “the love of power.” Does he think that the big problem with evangelicals is that they don’t try hard enough to push themselves at the rest of us and force us to live by their rules? Or did he need to pad out his listicle?
Fourth, he thinks that his tribe no longer cares about missionary work and agitating for regressive social policies and laws, a virtue he describes as “culture-transforming.”
YES. He actually says that his end of the religion once became “a home” for “abolitionists, suffragists, and pro-lifers.” He actually puts human rights movements like abolitionism, civil rights, and women’s suffrage on the same shelf as the Christian-initiated culture wars that are trying so hard to rip women’s and non-white people’s rights away from them right now in America and all over the world.
We aren’t even getting into how many pro-slavery, anti-civil rights, and anti-suffrage activists were quite deeply involved in his end of the religion and are still there now, eager to regain and flex that power once again. He’s either forgotten all about that, or never knew about it–which is not surprising given how much his end of the religion loves to revise history to flatter themselves and advance their Dominionist agendas.
Instead of this, he insists, evangelicals care about the “love of money” rather than trying to transform culture. Mm-hmm. Because yeah, there’s really no money at all in fighting against women’s rights or in trying to suppress the votes of people of color. And Christians need to do more of that stuff, according to Mr. Drury.
If you were wondering when he was going to whine that his tribe isn’t as bigoted, sexist, and racist enough these days, there’s your spot dabbed on the Bingo card!
The “More and Harder” School of Fundagelicalism.
David Drury’s big radical solution to his religion’s growing losses in membership and dominance is for the flocks to do the stuff they were already told to do, only more of it and harder.
Here is his set of demands for the first point, which he calls “the Eclipse of Conversion by Entertainment.”
Yes, he literally thinks that if his followers only did more of exactly what their leaders have been telling them to do for many years, then they would single-handedly reverse Christianity’s losses. The problem does not lie with the leaders or guiding principles of Christianity–but with the followers who aren’t obeying their commands well enough.
This thinking is everywhere in the leaders in fundagelicalism. And as always, there’s a reason for the popularity of it.
As Christian groups and leaders lose the power to punish dissenters and enforce compliance, it becomes more and more clear that what they believe, practice, and offer was never, in and of itself, enough to keep people in the pews and tithing. People attended, joined, and did what Christian leaders demanded largely because those leaders could force them to do so. Now that desire alone compels most folks to do Christian stuff, we’re seeing a veritable avalanche of people leaving the religion. I don’t think we’ve come anywhere close to hitting the bottom of those losses, either. We’ll know what that nadir looks like when fundagelicals have entirely lost the power to coerce anybody to play along with them against their will.
And I don’t think Christian leaders can engage with the reality of seriously-curtailed power over unconsenting people. I don’t think they really understand that if their demands don’t fall into line with what members are both willing and able to do, those members will ignore them–or simply leave.
The Real Problem.
If you asked most people what evangelicals stood for, even before Donald Trump had crawled out of the New York ooze to go into politics, I don’t think any of the four “values” on David Drury’s list would have made the cut. Evangelicalism itself has been socially regressive for decades now. Its core values are largely misogyny, science-denial, racism, and bigotry toward LGBTQ people.2
These real values have led evangelicals to become what they are today: a group that idolizes Donald Trump and propelled him to the Oval Office itself. Mr. Drury denounces both Trump and the evangelicals who single-handedly brought him to power, but he mistakes that cultural clout with sin–not with the inevitable outgrowth of the policies that he and his peers instituted in the religion they controlled.
Indeed, when we ask people why they disengaged and deconverted, we almost never hear “they were mad at me for not reading my Bible enough” or “gosh, they just weren’t bigoted enough.” Sometimes you hear about Christians heading to more extreme groups because of those reasons, but when people withdraw entirely, something else is going on. And it does not look like what David Drury is presenting.
Instead, people complain about the deep, entrenched racism of their groups. They express horror at sexual scandals, themselves directly caused by evangelical doctrines that trample women into the ground. They perceive that their TRUE CHRISTIAN™ leaders are actually complete hypocrites, greedy and grasping for money and power at members’ expense. They feel humiliated by the bigotry they see in their neighbors in the pews. They learn real science and are rightly aghast at how evangelicals lie to children about this important subject.
Those regressive “values” are what Christian leaders must change. No amount of Bible reading and prayer will fix the endemic problems within this religion–and demanding yet more Bible reading and prayer will only result in alienating more Christians from their groups. These are systemic problems, not individual laypeople’s problems. And the only people who can really make changes at the systemic level are the leaders. The leaders are the ones who (in this case) engineered a system that did not reward the values they claim to hold, but rewarded instead the hidden values I’ve highlighted directly above–the ones that elected Donald Trump.
But the leaders in this case literally cannot engage with changing those values–even if they perceive them as problems at all, which most do not. If they ever were to start the long, slow, and torturous process to rewrite all their doctrines and customs, all they would do is enrage their super-polarized current adherents who buy totally into the current system–and most of them would then leave for more extremist churches.
Churches have been torn apart by schism for far less than those changes. Worse, there is no promise at all that the people who were already turned off to evangelicals’ message would join up after these reforms, much less join in enough numbers to offset those who left.
These leaders must take into account retention and churn when they consider how to lead their flocks. They’ve spent the last 40 or 50 years leading evangelicals through increasingly regressive messages and platforms–in the clear certainty that this increased polarization would attract members and keep them in the pews. And for decades, these leaders’ power to coerce held firm despite their regressive stances–until the number of people leaving and loudly dissenting finally hit a tipping point that began to dissolve those leaders’ power.
Instead of making serious changes in their leadership philosophies and makeup, these leaders instead blame the troops under them and demand the troops do more. These suggestions are nothing but a distraction–they won’t fix anything and arguably will only make the situation worse, but it’ll feel like they’re working hard to accomplish their goals.
If you’ve ever seen a college student rearrange their desk, alphabetize their DVD collection, and create a color-coordinated study schedule, then you know exactly what David Drury’s doing with this post of his, is basically what I’m saying here.
When you see evangelical leaders engaging with their tribe’s real problems, then you’ll know they’ve finally gotten past that stage of distractions and busy-work. Me myself, though, I don’t think they’ll start engaging with their real problems until it’s way too late.
So… it’s good news all the way around, gang!
1 Important note: some people disengage but never deconvert. Other people deconvert but never disengage–meaning they attend church and do some outward shows of Christianity while not believing in any of it. Still others are Clancy.