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I can’t think of anything within Christianity that we could call a monolithic, universal belief. One of those non-universal beliefs is the doctrine that Christians need to SELL SELL SELL their religion to non-believers to recruit new members. Even among denominations that hold a sales-minded doctrine, we find Christians who really don’t like to hard-sell their faith to others. Sales-minded Christians are a very different breed from their more chill counterparts. One of their main distinguishing characteristics is their use of hard-sell sales techniques to try to persuade non-believers. And of all their sales techniques, their most successful throughout their history is surely their creation of a sense of urgency in their marks. I’ll show you why this technique is so useful–and why it’s starting to backfire on the Christian hucksters who use it.

hint: the ones that die out are the ones that use threats, and that do not use threats
I wonder how many gods will be forgotten relics of a bygone age a century from now. (Richard Fisher, CC.)

A Sense of Urgency.

One of the oldest sales tricks in the book is to imbue a sales pitch with a huge sense of urgency. It’s one of the most successful sales tricks, too. People who don’t feel a need to purchase a product often don’t purchase it. If they walk away, they will probably never come back; they’ll be distracted by stuff that is a need for them, and if they ever remember that they kinda wanted to purchase that first product, they may not have the resources to acquire it by then.

So a salesperson’s main job is to make the customer need that product so much that they have to stop what they’re doing right then to acquire it.

This is such a serious and essential task in salesmanship that you’ll find thousands of resources online and in print to help create that sense of urgency in customers. Even marketing people who recognize how badly the technique can backfire know that it’s still important! As Level Eleven, one such resource, puts it:

“Need to have” products create urgency. “Nice to have” products get the push off. 

Christian salespeople want their religion (and specifically, their particular take on the religion and their group itself) to float out of that nice to have category into that need to have category.

As you read these resources, you’ll likely be struck instantly (as I was) by how similar the skillset is to evangelism. Christian leaders have been teaching the exact same things couched in Christianese ever since I was a Christian, and likely long before that. The less overt power Christians have to force people to comply with their demands, the more salesmanship they must deploy to try to persuade–where before they could simply strong-arm. That Level Eleven site’s advice reads like any evangelism guide:

  1. Help your prospects recognize their needs.
  2. Spend less time selling, more time listening.
  3. Be a problem solver.
  4. Find reasons to continue communicating value.

In Christianese, those steps wouldn’t look much different.

  1. Help your marks recognize that they’re miserable sinners in need of salvation and divine help.
  2. Listen to them so you can find an opening to use to evangelize them–figure out what they need and pitch Jesus accordingly.
  3. Talk constantly about how Jesus can help them with their stated problems.
  4. Keep talking Jesus up until they break down and convert.

Nobody should wonder why multi-level marketing groups (MLMs, like Amway/Quixstar, Herbalife, LulaRoe, and thousands of others) seem to contain so many fundagelical Christians. Both MLMs and fundagelical groups use the same tactics amped up to predatory levels to sell the same nonexistent product to the same kind of desperate, vulnerable customer who is either willing to ignore their critical thinking skills or else lacks those skills entirely.

This is hard-sales territory, where nothing matters except getting them to sign on the line that is dotted, and where the law of the land is to Always Be Closing.

YouTube video

Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenn Ross: “Always Be Closing.” (Clip contains strong language.)

Why Urgency is Important.

Urgency is a form of stress. Stress is a valuable sales tool, so good salespeople learn to create that kind of stress in their pitches.

When someone’s stressed like that, they feel cornered. They tend to think less critically. They feel they must make snap decisions about the product on offer, and that means that they’re more likely to make decisions that aren’t in their own best interests.

And we’re actually learning a lot about how people function in stressful, urgency-laden, high-pressure sales environments.

People who have to make those sorts of quick decisions in those high-pressure situations often go with what they view as the sure thing–or at least the more sure thing. They go into a sort of fight-or-flight mode. They err on the side of safety. They extend themselves much further if they perceive that the urgency is great enough–and are willing to expend considerably more resources (time, adherence to a strict behavioral code, money) if the salesperson has done a good enough job of instilling that sense of urgency in that person.

Most importantly, if they perceive that they’re avoiding a bad thing in making that high-pressure decision, then they’ll go to much more trouble than if they perceive that they’re gaining a good thing. Sound familiar? It should.

Here’s how Christians create that sense of urgency that encourages their marks to put their discernment and better judgment on hold and make disastrous decisions that can sometimes alter the whole rest of their lives:

Faded, transformed, forgotten--after a long period of dominance. The writing is literally on the wall. ( Carole Raddato, CC-SA.)
Faded, transformed, forgotten–after a long period of dominance. The writing is literally on the wall. (Carole Raddato, CC-SA.)

They Try to Create Scarcity.

In the non-religious world, salespeople accomplish this task by telling sales prospects stuff like we’re running low on stock or this offer is only valid today. The prospect must not walk away thinking that they’ll take the offer later on. They must believe that if they walk away, all bets are off. And it’s a stunningly successful sales tactic.

Christian salespeople try to tell us that their religion is the only true religion–and that other denominations and religions are perforce false. More chill Christians don’t go that route; many of them even think that people from other religions and atheists will be okay if they don’t do anything really bad–and hoo-boy do they ever piss off the rest. It’s the toxic ones who push the scarcity aspect the most.

When a similarly sales-minded Christian gets around other Christians–in the same denomination even–the spiritual yardstick comes out as that Christian ferrets out the beliefs of the other Christians to judge whether or not they believe the correct things (read: the same things that one does). It becomes abundantly clear that it’s not enough to simply believe that Jesus existed and died and rose again; one must believe a whole raft of other claims as well or they aren’t safe from Hell. People must join a very small subset of Christians; just any old denomination or group isn’t enough. Solo practice is definitely not enough. Only this particular interpretation of the Bible and this particular way of practicing Christianity is allowed.

This promotion of scarcity is also behind Christians’ conceptualization of themselves as the ragged underdog stragglers facing impossible odds against the big bad demonically-controlled world–when in fact they are still a majority belief in America and still control vast swathes of the public sphere. The very (erroneous) idea of them being this embattled, persecuted minority in America might make non-Christians laugh uncontrollably or shiver in dread, but to the ones who think this way, they’re deadly serious about it.

In the end, the common Christian threat of “You can only get ‘saved’ through Jesus!” actually means Your only hope of protection from the fate I’m threatening you with is compliance with my religion’s various demands.

But if the threat isn’t valid, then the offer of protection isn’t worth the investment of time and resources being demanded.

They Try to Create and Magnify the Risks Involved in Rejection.

Jack Chick is probably the best example of this idea in motion; many of his tracts involve a person dying an untimely death, only to face an eternity in Hell because during their lifetime they rejected a TRUE CHRISTIAN’s™ predatory sales pitch. That was their one chance of escape, and they blew it. The tracts always end with some variant of YOU don’t want to blow YOUR chance… now do you?

This sales tactic is especially under-handed and predatory because the Christians who deploy it never actually demonstrate that their threats have any merit at all. They literally just use scary stories to frighten people into making bad decisions from a place of stress. Their focus in their religion’s entire history has been to figure out new ways to hone the scariness of their threats and the glorious certainty of their offer of protection–not on finding objective evidence to demonstrate that their threats are actually something to fear or on finding evidence to demonstrate that their promises of safety and security are actually true.

I don’t mean to imply that threats are always bad. Our world is full of threatening situations, and it’d be hard to think of a day I’ve gone through in my life where I didn’t make a decision based on that kind of stress. But I try very hard to ensure that if I’m acting to avoid a threatened outcome, the threat is actually something that I could face if I don’t make that decision, and that my intended actions will actually effectively avert that threat. If I find out the threat isn’t actually valid, then I try not to allow it to influence my decision-making. And if I find out the threat is actually valid, then I direct my efforts toward tangible relief from that threat.

That mindset would be all but alien to a sales-minded toxic Christian; most of them have no idea how to weigh a claim, much less to get away from magical thinking in their responses to threats.

Why This Tactic is Backfiring.

For many, many years Christians used false urgency to make sales at the expense of their integrity. Now, suddenly, they’re not making nearly as many sales as they used to make. After years of denying the evidence before their eyes, Christians are starting to wonder what happened to cause this exodus from their ranks.

In a word, Millennials happened.

It’s no secret that young people (loosely defined as the age group between 18-30) are the demographic leaving Christianity the fastest, leaving churches to grey in place without their mini-mes to replace them when they die.

The old sales tactics that worked so grandly on those Millennials’ parents and grandparents simply aren’t working anymore. It’s a lucky pastor who realizes that (I’ve seen numerous blog posts from pastors who speak in wonderment and adoration of today’s sophisticated, tech-savvy young people), but even the pastors who do acknowledge the new normal don’t know how to fix the problem; they’ve been using hard-sales tactics for so long that nobody actually knows how to market Christianity without them.

We’re talking about a new generation of people who’ve been marketed at since their earliest years, who grew up surrounded by advertising and saturated in sales pitches–and who were immersed in gadgetry that offered them information at the touch of a button. As us older folks struggled to adapt to a host of new technology, they grew up with it. They’re also entering a world that is much harder to exist in than ever–with lower wages, fewer opportunities, and a host of issues and problems that never existed before. Their resources are much harder-won, and so they relinquish them more carefully.

And those young people view with great suspicion the hard-sales tactics that won their elders long ago and kept those older butts in pews all this time.

In Search of a New Direction.

Millennials seek, receive and process information differently than their parents or grandparents do. They are much more collaborative in their decision process and are apt to continue interactions well after the normal work day. Millennials are eager to pick their projects and professions based on their passion rather than financial motivation alone. This fuels the engine of innovation and a strong desire to make a difference in their dedicated beliefs.

Rich Lucia, “Tried… But Not True Anymore.”

It seems like the business world might be catching on to the new normal faster than Christian leaders have.

Canadian Business wrote a great article earlier this year about how young people are rejecting abusive management techniques, causing older people to see them as “coddled.” Forbes ran an article last year about how Millennials have very different motivations for purchasing products than previous generations did.

A business site called Maximum Venture notes that Millennials do not feel that cold calling–interruption-based marketing very similar to how sales-minded Christians approach people to try to proselytize them–is “a viable sales tactic” anymore, and that they are not flocking to sales jobs as a result. The post  goes on to say that it’s far better to draw customers to oneself than it is to pester people with a sales pitch they didn’t ask to receive.

HuffPo weighed in with a blog post by a Millennial who makes a point of mentioning that he’s never once bought a product (that he knows of) based on traditional advertising like billboards, sales circulars, or radio advertising (or for that matter internet banner ads); he goes on to speculate that young people seriously distrust corporations. His solution is a four-point list of marketing directions that today’s businesses would do well to heed; he calls for communication, transparency, relevance, and caring enough to offer a good product with value–which sounds like fine advice for churches as well, though they bristle still at the notion that they’re simply businesses like any other now that they’ve lost their powers of coercion. (We won’t even get into the transparency problem; it seems like most pastors would rather quit their jobs entirely rather than communicate in that way to their flocks.)

As young people’s view of the world changed, their elders’ perception has changed as well–which may be why older people, too, are leaving the religion; it’s not just young people leaving in droves by a longshot. All age groups and demographical groups are leaving, just not quite in the same numbers. Those old threats and come-ons and promises just don’t work as well or as consistently as they once did, and church leaders’ responses are almost always to do more of what always worked before, only more of it and harder. 

If anything about their tactics has changed, it is that they are more ruthless and overt about preying upon the most vulnerable people in our culture: the oldest, the sickest, the youngest, the loneliest, the most desperate, and the most limited in any direction. And even that ruthlessness itself may be driving away and alienating still more customers than it draws in.

The simple truth is that younger folks are very wary of traditional sales tactics. And sales-minded Christians are largely still stuck on those tactics. I can see why; trying to draw people to their groups sure isn’t working (that’d require Christians to offer something worth a serious investment of resources, and increasingly people are voting with their feet on that count).

So… it’s good news, all around. Either they get their act together, or they fall into total irrelevance. Humanity wins either way.

Hey gang, movie review for I’m Not Ashamed is on Saturday, starting at 5pm Pacific. Got your wine coolers handy? See you then!

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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,...