The Ongoing Panic Over Evangelical Churn

The Ongoing Panic Over Evangelical Churn April 21, 2020

Hi and welcome back! A couple of years ago, I wrote a lot about what I called evangelical churn. That’s the stunning inability of evangelical leaders to retain their groups’ members, especially the younger ones. Well, that trend hasn’t ended. Today, let me show you some stuff from evangelicals that indicates that they’re still panicking about their utter inability to recruit and keep young adults as members, but not enough to do anything meaningful about it yet.

apples in an orchard
(Ana Essentiels.)

(Related posts about evangelical churn: They DO Actually Depart From It; Possibly the Worst Possible Reaction to Churn; Evangelical Idolatry; Imminent Dominance Failure; Yes – They’re In Decline; A Defection Observed; The Same Thing Ed Stetzer Does Every Night; A Coldly-Furnished Table; Why The Orders Never Change; The Tainted Brand. Also check out the tag!)

Teen and Young Adult Churn Continues.

“Churn rate” is a business term; it refers to the number of regular customers (or subscribers) who leave a business. A business wants to keep this rate as low as possible. A high churn can indicate some serious problems — poor customer service, shoddy products or practices, and more. Reducing a high churn rate, then, becomes an absolute necessity for any company that wants to do well.

I know that evangelicals themselves bristle when I talk about their religion being a business. Despite their bristling, the truth remains: it is in fact a business. Evangelical leaders run it very poorly, but that fact doesn’t change anything.

These Dear Leaders need customers. More to the point, they want customers who’ll pay them regularly and stick around for years. So they go to extremes to recruit those customers. (See: Beach Reach.) However, they’re not very good at retaining them. For many years, Christians counted on cultural coercion to find and keep their businesses’ customers. They’ve largely lost that power in most areas, but they act like they still have it.

Since about 2015, when the groundbreaking Pew Research Religious Landscape Survey came out, evangelicals have recognized that they have a retention problem. The problem worsens considerably when we look at their youngest members: high school and college-age young adults, the age group that evangelicals often call young people (which they pronounce as if it’s all one word).

Well, people in this age group are leaving evangelicalism in droves, often as soon as they get out from under the control of their often-very-authoritarian parents. Once they have left, they only very rarely return.

The SBC’s Panic Intensifies.

Recently, I showed you some choice observations from Ronnie Floyd and some other Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders. Those observations centered on the still-declining rate of baptism for teenagers in their denomination.

In fact, teen baptisms have been declining for decades…

… And the SBC has turned out to be utterly incapable of reversing that trend.

I strongly suspect that all evangelical denominations face the same struggle and the same worries, not just the SBC. After all, they all tend to operate in the same ways, structure leadership the same way, and treat customers the same way. The SBC’s just the biggest evangelical denomination, and they’re almost the only one that offers statistics and metrics to analyze.

Evangelicals across the board are losing people in all age groups, but it’s those youngest defectors who worry them most. Young adult members become older adults; they have a lifetime ahead of them of donating money and time to the business. They also usually have children, who the business owners can then indoctrinate. As their older members die, those younger ones age into their places to keep the business’ customer-base stable.

So if young adults are leaving in large numbers, that leaves a big huge hole in the business’ ledgers that does not easily refill again.

How, you might ask, are the leaders of evangelical businesses dealing with this trend?

These leaders are drilling down harder than ever on blaming parents for their own inability to offer anything appealing to this age group.

“What Did I Do Wrong?”

Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) doesn’t date their “Family Advice” columns, but I spotted this doozy there not long ago: “My Devout Child No Longer Believes in God. What Did I Do Wrong?”

Parents blame themselves when their kids leave evangelicalism. And why not? For years, evangelical leaders have subtly taught them that yes indeed, it’s all their fault if their kids leave church culture or Christianity (called, respectively, disengagement and deconversion; often you find both situations lumped under the term disaffiliation).

In the CBN story, the writer (Alex McFarland) says he’s heard the same stories from Christian parents over many years:

The conversation has been raised with me many times, but it still hits me like a dagger in the heart. What story am I talking about? I’m talking about anxious parents, tearfully sharing about their kids who now reject the Christianity they once embraced.

McFarland has heard so many of these parents sharing the same heartbreak that he’s “struck by the similarities of these accounts.” After their adult children disaffiliate, parents “grapple with the gnawing question: ‘What did we do wrong?'”

Decades of Bad Business Practices.

Strikingly, McFarland’s post might be titled to make readers think he has insight to offer to parents anguished over their kids’ defections, but the post itself contains nothing of the sort. He offers no advice at all to anybody, and not a single word of encouragement to lift parents’ heartache and ease their self-blame.

Instead, he simply offers the statistics most of us know already about young-adult defections from the tribe and ends with a punt to mystery: if everyone Jesuses super-hard, that’ll fix everything — somehow! He writes:

The key to ministry today is to focus on relationship building by investing time and personal commitment. Credibility, prayer, and patience will enable you to be heard above the incessant noise of culture. These are keys to ministry that we all need in order to make a difference in any context or generation.

In other news, rain falls from the sky and water is wet, and if Christians would only Jesus hard enough then everything would be great again. If things aren’t great yet, then obviously they aren’t Jesus-ing hard enough yet.

And the Usual Blame.

But McFarland’s ending also contains the usual blame that we expect to see out of these failures at leadership: if young adults are leaving evangelicalism, then obviously whoever was responsible for them failed to “focus on relationship building.” Those responsible adults did not “[invest] time and personal commitment.” They did not practice enough “credibility, prayer, and patience,” so were not able to be “heard above the incessant noise of culture.”

How much “credibility, prayer, and patience” is required to retain young adults? Obviously, enough, DUH. If young adults leave, then those adults didn’t do enough. And this is what evangelical leaders have offered up for years as their excuses for young-adult defections. No wonder parents blame themselves.

You’d think I’d be used to this sort of bait-and-switch by now, but here we are with me all amazed at the smarmy dishonesty and thoughtless, casual cruelty on display here.

The salespeople and CEOs of this business have convinced these weeping parents that it’s their responsibility to train up future customers for them. Alex McFarland is one of those salespeople: he affiliates himself with Focus on the Bigotry Family and calls himself an apologist and an evangelist!

If Amazon tried these tactics, these same parents would be up in arms. But it’s Christianity, so nobody even notices the naked, opportunistic self-interest behind these pious-sounding guilt trips. 

Overstepping Boundaries, Evangelical-Style.

A Focus on the Bigotry Family post works parents over using the same tactics. It’s titled “Steering Your Young Adult Back to the Faith.” In the post, the writer (Catherine Wilson) draws upon what must be impressively-shoddy faux-research from evangelical groups to draw a picture of Millennials that doesn’t even remotely sound accurate.

This false picture depicts young adults who desperately want their parents’ input to their personal religious choices, and who would welcome dialogue from parents seeking to “steer” them “back to the faith.” In reality, it’s hard to imagine a topic a disaffiliated Millennial would welcome less than parental overreach into their personal lives, but fundies gonna fundie, I guess.

Alex McFarland pops up here too; in this post, the salesman-for-evangelicalism tells parents they need to “leverage” their power over their adult children to recapture them for his business.

His pal Jason Jimenez, who’s authored books and appeared on podcasts with him, shows up as well to declare that Millennials “are very spiritual,” just “misguided.”

So it’s up to parents to guide these young adults by intruding on their privacy and stomping on their boundaries! Do it for Jesus! Don’t stop to wonder what these two hucksters are getting out of it all!

A Wild Listicle Appears!

Interestingly, the pair offer up four statements about why Millennials reject Christianity and church that actually sound accurate. The problem, of course, is that evangelical leaders can’t address any of those problems in a good way. All they have is apologetics hand-waving, reframing games, and emotional manipulation.

Here’s the listicle of those four reasons along with their (non-)solutions to them:

  1. Millennials seek a “real experience with God” that they didn’t find in Christianity.
    Evangelicals’ non-solution: Lots of apologetics! Also, disaffiliated kids are just mad at “God” cuz they didn’t get the pony they prayed for.
    (Mr. Captain: “I was waitin’ for the blame-the-kids.” Me: “That didn’t take long.”)
  2. They expect believers to make a difference in their local communities.
    Evangelicals’ non-solution: Help them find “edgy,” hip, cool churches focusing on charity work. Jimenez helpfully explains, “‘Edgy’ appeals to Millennials.”
  3. They need their doubts to be addressed.
    Evangelicals’ non-solution: APOLOGETICS! MOAR APOLOGETICS! These two hucksters shamelessly suggest two of the most intellectually-dishonest apologetics shills around, Josh McDowell and Ravi Zacharias, as persuasive influences. Parents should “casually drop ideas into your conversation,” with “ideas” meaning apologetics talking points. LOL WUT?
  4. Obviously, Millennials are super-upset about the bigotry thing.
    Evangelicals’ non-solution: Assume the kids are just upset because they wanna have off-limits sex. Reframe the standard-issue culture war talking points to sound less inhumanly cruel.

None of this will work. It will all backfire, guaranteed.

I admit, I’m shocked that this listicle didn’t include prayer. Usually, hucksters lead with that non-solution — or end the listicle with a “but most of all” demand for it. Not this time!

Time to Panic.

The SBC tracks their decline, though they don’t normally share exact numbers without a lot of spin-doctoring. Their annual reports are damning as it is even with a lot of massaging. Last year, they released a graph showing that evangelicals’ decline mirrors closely that of mainline denominations.

That link also provides information about yet another study showing marked declines for the ailing denomination. The study, the Congressional Cooperative Election Study (CCES), revealed that very few people convert into the SBC — and those who do tend to come in from other flavors of Christianity. They don’t capture many customers from the growing group of Nones in America.

Another study cited, “Are the Faithful Becoming Less Fruitful,” reveals that evangelical Christians are becoming less and less fertile as the years go past. Once upon a time, they had a lot more kids than other types of Christians. But now, they’re largely indistinguishable from other Christians — and might even become less fertile than other Christians in the near future.

That’s big news. If evangelicals are failing to attract new members, and they’re having trouble keeping existing members, then their main growth comes from members having lots of children and indoctrinating them.

Sure, only about half of those children stick around once they reach adulthood, but that only means that having more children would offset those losses. If they’re having fewer children, and a great many of those children leave, that’s some huge losses in membership coming their way and soon.

Evangelicals really are their own worst problem. Unfortunately for them, it’s a self-correcting problem.

Analysis: What the Blame Game Reveals.

In the face of growing losses, all evangelicals have in response are the same old tactics they’ve used for decades. Those tactics relied upon cultural dominance to succeed, however.

Evangelicals lack the dominance they once held, so obviously the tactics will fail.

Changing the course of their future will require many great and systemic organizational changes. I don’t think they’re up to that task. Evangelicals join and stick around these groups precisely because they hate and fear change. More to the point, evangelical customers join their various groups as customers themselves.

Evangelicals have never been salespeople at heart. I’d go so far as to say they deeply resent the idea that they even should learn and use those skills to attract and retain customers.

Current evangelicals didn’t sign up to do work, especially work that jeopardizes their social capital. They signed up to enjoy being flattered and served — and to gain the various rewards of group membership. They like where they are and get a lot out of their membership. To a great extent, they probably feel very put out by young adults’ implication that membership alone just isn’t enough for them, that it just doesn’t provide enough of a value for them.

It says a lot that an evangelical huckster smugly declares that an “edgy” congregation might do the trick for such people. None of it’s good, but yeah, it says a lot. “Edgy” has never been anything but a pejorative for people who try too hard to be cool, and it’d be doubly so coming from ultra-conservative evangelicals.

Really, I’m surprised the guy didn’t go whole-hog and call Millennials “snowflakes” or “degenerates.” I suspect both these posts come from a few years ago before those became big dogwhistle terms for the Christian Right movement.

Success Through Magic.

There was a time when I thought evangelicals might possibly be able to turn things around, but I don’t think that anymore. Neither does any reputable survey house or study creator.

Here’s why:

Evangelicals want to reverse their decline, yes, but they want that success without actually doing anything that would lead them there.

I can see why. Evangelicals love the idea of their big wizard friend using magic to help them succeed against all the odds, even when failure is logically the only outcome of one of their bees-headed plans.

Their inability to take the business side of their groups seriously is going to spell their fall into utter irrelevance. As much political power as they wield, those groups will falter if they can’t force people to join and stick around. Buying political power requires two things: the delivery of sympathetic votes and a lot of money.

Well, recruitment requires much the same ingredients: delivery of manpower and gobs and gobs of money.

If membership in churches continues to fall, evangelicals will find all of these ingredients in short supply.

These two needs vie with the group’s need to retain members, which itself requires money and other finite resources — in evangelicals’ case, that would mean stuff like church upkeep, staff salaries, volunteer acquisition and deployment, and amenities for the congregation. Eventually, evangelical groups won’t be able to offer enough to retain what members remain, and those members will gravitate out to other groups — or they’ll just disaffiliate.

With apologies to T.S. Eliot,

This is the way their world ends

Not with a bang but with a whimper.

Good News, Everybody!

So I see these trends as more evidence of good news.

As I said, this is a self-correcting problem. If they can’t regain the power they once held, then they will continue to bleed members. It’s really that simple. Eventually, they’ll bottom out in membership. Where they’ll land, I cannot say yet. Right now SBC membership hovers around 5% of the American population, but they’re still in free fall.

However low evangelicals’ numbers fall, even then count on this: they will be grimly, snottily declaring themselves to be the Remnant. And you can bet they will still blame everyone but themselves for their failure.

The grasping involved here is almost comical in scope, and I hope parents push back on it.

Evangelical parents aren’t doing anything wrong, after all. They just belong to really bad groups with really bad business practices, all to offer a product people increasingly don’t want and benefits to membership that in no way justify the resources being demanded.

There’s just really not much these parents can do to induce their kids to remain customers of such shoddy businesses.

Hey, maybe in time evangelical parents will understand why their kids refuse to stick around! Maybe they’ll realize that disaffiliation does not happen because of “anger at God,” need for EDGINESS, resentment over un-provided ponies, or illicit desires.

And then where might that realization lead them? The mind just boggles.

There’s hope, friends. Hang in there.

NEXT UP: Sourdough in the time of coronavirus. Nom nom! See you tomorrow! Come hungry and stay late!


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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 volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and 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. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.

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