A pastor fesses up about Christianity's decline

A pastor compares Christian infighting to stuff going on in Major League Baseball right now--and predicts obsolescence for both businesses.

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Recently, Religion News ran an analysis piece about the future of Christianity. To be sure, this sort of post is far from the first one that has ever run there. But it caught my attention because it contains quiet acceptance of a truth most Christians aren’t anywhere near perceiving–let alone accepting. Christianity itself became superfluous a while ago for a lot of Americans, and most church leaders simply can’t deal with that fact.

Let’s meet a Christian leader who has a better perspective on his religion’s decline.

(The product that churches offer is active membership in their own group. Also, when I talk about Christianity’s decline, I’m referring to its declines in cultural power, membership, and credibility. Unfortunately, Christians–especially hard-right evangelicals–still hold a hugely outsized amount of political power.)

Meet Tom Johnson and Church of the Open Door

Religion News recently ran an article called “‘If you build it they will come’ no longer works for baseball — or organized religion.” In it, Bob Smietana introduced us to a Minnesota “missions pastor” named Tom Johnson. And Johnson has quite an interesting hot take about the decline of his religion.

Tom Johnson works for Church of the Open Door. Like many megachurches, this one started very small but grew exponentially thanks to the charisma of its previous lead pastor. That pastor retired in 2018, and the new lead pastor is Dave Brickey. Though its info says it’s non-denominational, there are little evangelical tells all over this church and, in particular, its leaders. Indeed, they used to belong to a right-wing evangelical denomination, but they left it in 2002. It sounds like one point of contention was women in pastoral ministry; as of this writing, almost half of their pastoral staff are women.

And from what I’m seeing, this church (affectionately nicknamed “Open Door” by its congregation) has been suffering for years from an extremely unstable customer base. In 1980, the former lead pastor presided over a congregation of about 160. By 2010, he claimed that congregation had grown to 3000. This 2019 pastor-hunting packet says it got as large as 4000 “at some point.” But as of 2019, according to that file, the church then boasted about 1000 every weekend. Reading between the lines, it also sounds like this church has mishandled staffing concerns in the past.

And now, Tom Johnson–the missions pastor of Open Door–has some observations to make about church membership as a product.

Baseball and churches both offer a product to customers, says pastor

I just loved this. It’s such a stark counterpoint to the usual chirpy proclamations of optimism that we usually see out of Christian leaders. Tom Johnson is just completely up-front about exactly what Open Door–or really, any church–offers potential congregants.

To make his point, he compares churches to baseball team owners:

They’ve lost touch with their past and with ordinary people. They’ve become too much of a show, their leaders too disconnected from their audience, he said. Both religion and baseball see the people in the pews and the fans in the seats as sources of revenue rather than valued partners or supporters. They’ve betrayed the people’s trust, he said, and trust is hard to regain.

Tom Johnson

Dude knows whereof he speaks, too. He used to pitch for the Minnesota Twins in the 1970s. Since losing his career to an injury, he’s gone into ministry. And now, he has an intimate understanding of these two similar businesses.

Both baseball games and churches face serious declines in patronage, and according to him, they face those declines for similar reasons.

Baseball games, as a product

People go to baseball games to have fun, be around other fans who share their passion, and feel that sense of deep community with others all year round. One could say much the same of the few Christians who go to church every Sunday.

Of late, however, Tom Johnson thinks that baseball team owners are making way too many demands on fans. To purchase their product, fans must fight their way past all kinds of obstacles:

Those declines are driven in part by changes in the game that have made it boring and joyless. Games start late, run long and are filled with tedious at-bats that most often end in strikeouts and walks. When a player hits the ball hard, it’s usually right into a shift, where the defending player is in perfect position to catch the ball, thanks to advanced analytics.

Religion News

Making matters worse, Johnson tells us, these teams’ owners are now fighting among themselves about how to split the “billions of revenue” that their games still generate. They don’t care about how fans will feel about this squabbling or obvious greed. Heck, they might not even realize yet that baseball itself, as a product, is fading from Americans’ priority lists.

As passionate as many baseball fans still are, and oh boy they definitely are, one truth is emerging quickly in Baseball-Land:

[M]ore and more people are increasingly content to live without religion in the same way Americans are increasingly disinterested in baseball.

Religion News

For both businesses, it’s not as simple as “if you build it, they will come.”

And now, Christianity: a product whose purchase was mandatory

Baseball might have become “America’s pastime” just through being one of the first big organized sports around, but there’s a reason why the phrase “if you build it, they will come” became the tagline people (mis)remember from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams. (It’s actually “if you build it, he will come.”) Success as a field or team owner probably did seem as easy to most folks as building or buying or renting a facility somewhere.

It probably felt about the same for pastors for a long time. After all, they had an unimaginable luxury, an unthinkable advantage that no other business has ever really had:

For many centuries, their product was a mandatory purchase.

Nobody got to opt out of this product. Everyone had to buy it and keep buying it. If anyone tried not to buy it, for quite some time they could face very serious punishment: imprisonment, dispossession, shunning, beatings and torture, and even execution.

Frankly, I think the mandatory nature of church membership made Christian leaders lose any salesmanship skills they might ever have had. They didn’t have to sell anything. Their product sold itself!

But that situation changed about 40 years ago–and forever.

Competing with a host of other products

Every year, it feels like Christianity is becoming more and more optional.

As Christian leaders lost their ability to retaliate against people who opted out of buying their product, suddenly salesmanship mattered. Suddenly (at least in terms of world religions), churches find themselves competing against all the other businesses who want their targets’ time and money.

And very quickly, it became very clear that consumers didn’t value churches’ product quite as much as church leaders had assumed they did.

Christians as a group have no clue how to compete in such a marketplace. Oh, they forgot how to sell their product centuries ago. So they don’t know how to make sales on their own to consumers who can reject them without fear.

They just can’t function without the safety net of mandatory purchase.

Inhaling the finest grade of Copium

A long, long time ago I spotted some pastors complaining about declining attendance at their respective churches. This was a very long time ago, a couple or three years before Christians got hit in the face with Pew Research’s Religious Landscape Study. But the decline was already underway, and pastors were already noticing a few things.

One pastor blamed a lack of parking for these declines in attendance. Another blamed unreasonable congregants who had beef with him. Still another blamed kiddie sports leagues that had the unmitigated gall to meet on Sunday mornings.

It was all just so astonishing to me, as an ex-Christian. It was just so unthinkable that Christians would forego the communion of the saints over such petty things. But there were real reasons at play–reasons these pastors didn’t want to face.

In the years since Pew’s landmark study, Christians have dragged themselves, kicking and screaming every step of the way, to at least a state of acceptance of their decline. But they still studiously avoid engaging with why it’s happening, and thus they are nowhere near figuring out how to stop it (much less reverse it).

Instead, they make up surreal reasons for it. Then, they offer non-solutions that won’t impact it at all–because they’re all just magical thinking made into the world’s worst sales plans.

But the truth remains: this product faces declining demand

Since Christians began to accept their religion’s decline, I’ve seen countless opinion posts, sermons, and news articles by Christians who are totally sure they can turn this ship around.

Why, they tell us, tons of Gen Z people are totally spiritual nowadays! Gosh, just offer people lots of community service opportunities! Only TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ can possibly revive this religion! Tap into that deep groundswell of yearning that totally exists in everyone! Read my books, they especially cry–they’ll tell you all about how YOU YES YOU can get right out there and SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY!

Meanwhile, the decline continues and continues andcontinues andcontinuesandcontinues. Wherever all this spirituality and yearning goes, it does not lead young adults back into Christian churches. It’s really the weirdest thing.

“The damage has already been done”

We do see a bit of that thinking in Tom Johnson’s words in this Religion News article:

“The church has shot itself in the foot by not adhering to the values that have attracted it to people down through the centuries — that is, caring about the poor and those who are on the margins.”

Tom Johnson

This is a Christian who can’t cope with the fact that people weren’t “attracted” to Christianity so much as forced to convert by fire and the sword. That said, he may well be imagining that a return to charity would end Christianity’s decline, but even he realizes that it’s too late now:

Baseball’s owners and players may eventually resolve their differences and get back to work. The same may happen in religious groups. But the damage has already been done.

When the fights are over — whether in church or in baseball — who will be left to care?

“People are going to move on,” Johnson said. “They are going to learn to live without the church. They are going to learn to live without baseball.”

Tom Johnson

It can’t be easy to realize that one’s profession and one’s passion are both becoming more obsolete and superfluous by the year, but this is one of the few Christian leaders I’ve ever seen come right out to admit that he knows it’s happening–and that very little can be done about it, thanks to Christian leaders themselves.

So, this story was a spot of welcome good news in a lot of ways.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...