The other day we were talking about how various flavors of Christianity have become irredeemably tainted. Well, I got a pointed reminder of that fact the other day in the form of a junk-mail flyer. It’s hilarious all by itself, but it’s just the first few steps down one of those wackadoodle rabbit holes that seem to come out of religious fervor all too often. Today I’ll take you on a brief tour of one of the failed advertising tactics coming out of one of the most tainted brands of Christianity there are.
The AMAZING PROPHECIES Seminar Series.
This flyer I got is quite an expensive affair, considering that it’s junk mail: 11×17, four-color, two-sided, all-edges bleed, coated glossy paper with lots of photo reproductions, with fold, ooh la la!
Back when I was a newly-minted ex-Christian working in a busy print shop in Portland, the very suggestion that a church would get something like this printed up as junk mail would have made me just aghast at such a waste of money on advertising. (Here’s one basic layout of cost just for printing–and then there’s postage!)
The flyer is a very large, splashy invitation to interested guests to come attend a “Prophecy Seminar” to learn about the end of the world.
On the front page we see fantastic beasts and where to find them: a winged lion, some winged probably-jaguars, and, um, a bear. No wings, just a big ole grizzly bear. Huge text tells us that “Revelation’s symbols hold the key to your future” and that the seminar will feature “State-of-the-art Large Screen Graphics.” The red box across the bottom listed the date of the seminar.
Isn’t it all just so attention-grabbing? Isn’t it? Isn’t it?
The Excitement Might Just Kill Us.
Inside, we discover that this is a week-long seminar, with each night devoted to a different Christian conspiracy theory.
The hilarious thing is that nothing here even vaguely relates to providing evidence that anything involved in these conspiracy theories is real. In order to care about “Armageddon,” one must first believe that the weirdly shoehorned faux-prophecies in the Bible about the end of the world have merit and are credible predictions. If someone thinks the Bible’s just an accounting of one particular Ancient Near Eastern tribe fumbling toward civilization and making its way in a crowded and hostile milieu, then nothing here is going to make anybody sensible sign away the family cow for magic beans.
But it’s all just so breathless-sounding.
(I can’t help but think that Christian leaders would benefit greatly from a formal education in marketing and advertising. Maybe it’s best for us all that they are so ignorant about these topics.)
Creating Tension and Urgency Through Advertising.
We’re supposed to see headlines like these and suddenly wonder if some ancient prophecies from yet another made-up religion might “hold the key to [our] future.” We’re supposed to be just dazzled by that potential offer. If we already have a good idea of where we’re going and how we’ll get there, obvious come-ons like that won’t appeal much to us.
But if we’re a typical ideal mark for a con artist, we don’t know what we want. If we do have some vague notion of what we want then we haven’t got a single clue how to get from Point A to Point B.
If we indulge ourselves with magical thinking, then we might well wonder if there’s some angle involved in achieving the life we want that we just don’t know about yet, and then we might wonder if groups like the one producing this flyer know that angle and share it with us.1
That’s what these folks are hoping we’ll do, anyway.
In reality, people increasingly judge these come-ons in the exact same way that we judge the come-ons of any other pie-in-the-sky offers (such as the ones made by multi-level marketing scams).
Unfortunately for these folks, I didn’t see the flyer in my junk-mail karma corner until yesterday–and the festivities began on January 12.
Now I’ll never find out about what really matters:
- Angels from Heaven
- Mark of the Beast
- The Mystery of Death
- The Return of Christ
- 666 and the Antichrist
Or….. I could just open a search engine and type in the terms and get six kazillion different answers from over 40,000 flavors of Christianity, or use common sense, since explanations exist for all of those bullet points. They’re just not ones that work to these hucksters’ advantage, is all.
(Not So) Strange Omissions.
I am 99% sure that this flyer (and the nearly-identical ones I receive regularly in junk mail) comes from this group or one very similar to it. If you look at their site, you’ll notice something very quickly, too, probably as quickly as I noticed it!
There’s no denominational affiliation listed anywhere on their site.
The funny thing is, there’s no affiliation listed on this flyer, either. As with most mass-mailing materials, there’s a square on the back where a local group can personalize their flyer with a stamp with their group name and address.
Mine contains that blank square, and it’s filled in with just an address. A line map is cryptically labelled “Church Hall.” It doesn’t say what the “Church” is, and there’s no phone number or website listed where visitors can scope the place out before visiting. And though it repeatedly offers free childcare for the littles, there’s no information at all about what safety precautions are in place for workers–and no way to contact this place ahead of time to obtain that information.
I don’t think any of these omissions are oversights.
Through a Glass, Darkly.
There are definitely ways to find out just what these folks are so ashamed of revealing.
On the website of the business selling those flyers and seminar materials, we notice that their listed “core ministry beliefs” look very consistent with Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) Christianity, as does their logo.The presenter listed in the flyer, Jason Morgan, doesn’t list a denominational affiliation. I found paydirt in this biography page for him on an SDA church site that specifically links him to the SDA: he “currently works for the North Pacific Union of Seventh-Day Adventists and has traveled the world presenting the Amazing Prophecies Series to thousands of people.” (I also noticed he does a lot of work with various SDA churches.)
Lastly, a quick Google search in Maps revealed that the address listed on my flyer does indeed belong to a Seventh-Day Adventist church.
So this is advertising for a specifically SDA series created and advertised by SDA churches to draw visitors to SDA events to hear SDA conspiracy theories.
It’s not hard to guess why Seventh-Day Adventists are engaging in all these coy disguises.
I don’t think most folks getting this flyer would miss making that connection, either. I knew immediately that this had to be one of the really tainted brands of Christianity. I didn’t realize it was one of the most tainted brands of the religion, but I knew it had to be one of ’em!
Churn, Churn, Churn.
The 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study might give someone the feeling that the SDA isn’t doing too badly. Their market share went from a teeny-tiny fraction of the American population (.4%) to a slightly-larger teeny-tiny fraction (.5%) from 2007 to 2014.
But that glimmer of hope gets stomped hard by the stark Winter behind those numbers.
On page 121 of the same report, we see that the SDA is facing a demographic disaster. They’re skewing further female over the report’s past seven years just as other denominations are, going from 46/54 male/female to 40/60. On page 127, we see that they’ve got way fewer young people, proportionally, than they did in 2007. On page 133, we notice that their members are skewing less-educated than in years past, with more members never completing college. And most devastatingly, on page 139 we see that SDA families are skewing poorer, too.
These figures reveal some seismic shifts happening behind the scenes. If I were asked to guess, I’d say that the SDA is probably doing pretty well in poaching the very most desperate Christians from other groups–but they’re not keepin’ ’em for beans.
The only reason Pew didn’t really do much to figure out their switching/poaching rates was that the SDA just doesn’t hold enough of a market share in the religious marketplace to get a good enough sample size. And what little research there is on the topic of churn in the SDA is pretty out-of-date–here’s a 1999 paper on it, but in 1999, Christian groups in general still had quite a lot of clout. Things have changed so incredibly much in just the past 5-10 years that I don’t think any conclusions from the 1990s are still ironclad.
So we can look at what the SDA–and its ex-members–have to say on the subject, and thereby get at least some vague idea of what’s going on.
And when we do that, we’d better get ready with the plastic ponchos in the front row.
A Predictable Response.
In 2005, at the very beginning of evangelicals’ own nose-dive in numbers, the SDA was starting to notice some serious problems as well: they’d added 5 million people to their rolls over the previous five years, but they’d lost 1.4 million members over those years. In some areas, their “drop rate” exceeded 100%! (In call centers, that rate just means that people weren’t even lasting one year before leaving.)
In 2013, SDA leaders were talking about their “church exodus” problem: of every 100 converts the SDA attracted, 43 of them would be leaving. Their conclusions based on their research are, unfortunately, as WTF as one might expect–as are their responses.
A report issued shortly afterward in 2014 listed some more statistics of SDA deconversions; it’s worth reading if you’re as interested in the topic as I am. Essentially, the same things that drive other fundagelicals away from their groups drive SDA members from theirs.
As one “armchair theologian” points out, their leaders’ solutions to this “exodus” are not going to help. And even he doesn’t clearly see where the problem is or how to solve it!
Instead of fixing the endemic issues in their religion, they’re sending out whizbang gee-whillikers fancy-tootin’ seminar invitations to try to bring in new blood–and if they actually get enough new converts to make the advertising campaigns worth the cost, it sounds like those converts won’t last very long.
All of these swirling numbers lead me to conclude that the SDA itself is a completely tainted brand. Its salespeople know perfectly well that people who have a choice in the matter do not often choose to hang around their groups, and it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon long to figure out why so many people walk away from them. All it takes is just hearing their denomination’s name and we do that Kitty Teleportation thing that startled cats do.
It’s almost hilarious that the SDA’s response to the total crisis lumbering their way is to spend who-knows-how-much-money on these expensive flyers and set up these huge seminars and fly in these presenter dudes to wow and shock visitors–instead of meaningfully concentrating on their churn rate.
The number of people willing to go near a group like the SDA is getting smaller every year, so their best bet is to do their best to retain the members they already have. But that’s the solution that Christian leaders in general seem the least likely to pursue (for what are probably obvious reasons).
So… good news all the way around, I reckon.
Next time we’re looking at compartmentalization–see you then!
1 The irony, of course, is that there IS an angle–it’s just one that most of us will never, ever be able to access. It’s being born to wealthy parents and having decent connections in one’s youth. Wealthy people tend not to like to dwell on just how little of their success comes from hard work, intelligence, or inspiration.
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Yesterday was supposed to be a LSP and I forgot, so if you want to go offtopic here, that’s okay! Semi-LSP!