Christian leaders (and many adherents for that matter) keep forgetting that they’re not ambassadors for a god but rather salespeople of their worldview. I’ve written about that topic many times, and still I find myself simply shaking my head over how badly Christians botch the selling of their religion. They’re completely oblivious to how gobsmackingly terrible they are at persuading others to join their various groups. Well, you know how I am–helpful, gracious, generous, and sweet to a fault–so I thought I’d bring in my trusty Clue Bat and see if I can’t get some metaphorical baseballs through a few metaphorical windows. Today I’ll show you how Christians could adapt to the changing reality of a post-Christian world–and what they’re doing instead of adapting.
Welcome to Fundagelical University, where your questions about how to Christian Right are answered! Take a seat
right over here. Class is in session!
A Post-Christian World.
Hi, everyone! Praise Jesus and welcome! I’m Professor McGillicuddy and this class is Introduction to the Post-Christian Marketplace. If you’re here for anything else, you’re in the wrong place. Oh. You’re all in the right place. Wow. This is a, uh, bigger class than I normally see for this topic. Who here is just auditing the class? Wow. Five, six, seven… 23. Okay. Well, just keep the aisles clear for safety reasons. Haha, yes, I know that we all know that Jesus wouldn’t ever let us all burn to death or whatever, but the authorities setting the rules aren’t saved. Definitely, yes, pray for them.
For a long time now religion researchers have been talking about America being post-Christian. The term means (mostly, generally) that Christianity no longer completely, totally dominates global culture and politics, though in reality the people using the term are actually talking more about North America and Europe than about the entire world. Sometimes you run into Christians who gloat and boast about apparent and unverified mass conversions in developing and disadvantaged nations. They act like it’s something to be proud of! Even so, they’re well aware of how poorly the religion is doing in more fortunate countries (hell, it’s probably why they keep trying to export their worldview to those disadvantaged nations).
(Christians are very fond of policing who does and doesn’t get to use the label Christian–until they need the bolstering of numbers that a wide application of the term allows!)
The for-profit (and not at all free of bias) Barna Group has created some descriptors of the post-Christian label. These descriptors include obvious markers like “do not believe in God” or “identify as atheist or agnostic,” but also less obvious ones like “disagree the Bible is accurate” and “do not feel a responsibility to ‘share their faith.'” So we come away from their list of descriptors realizing that they really don’t like non-evangelicals or consider them TRUE CHRISTIANS™. They’re only measuring evangelical reach in their descriptors.
They’ve discovered that a lot of people who define themselves as very committed to Christianity are actually post-Christian. Since quite a few Christians reject evangelical demands for literalism and deep immersion in church culture, they come out looking post-Christian. And now you know why I don’t 100% trust Barna Group’s surveys.
Barna decided that if a survey respondent fit 9 or more of the 16 (originally it was 15, but they added one eventually, “not born again”) descriptors on their list, they’d qualify as post-Christian; if they fit 13 or more of the 16, they were “highly post-Christian.” They’ve been using that list to keep track of how post-Christian America is growing over time–and as you can guess, the numbers ain’t looking good for Christianity. In just two years–from 2013 to 2015–the number of post-Christian Americans rose by 7 percentage points, from 37% to 44%. Meanwhile, the number of post-Christian Americans in all states are rising.
The Post-Christian Religious Marketplace.
Class, we’re going to be covering a wide range of topics, so that’s why the external reading list is so long. The first module in our semester will be about Christianity’s history of coercion: how it gained dominion over so much of the world through ruthless use of that power and how it more recently lost that power. Oh, a question? Sure. And you are..? Jerry Jr? Thanks. Yes, I know your entire denomination has taught you that Christianity initially flourished because it was just so wonderfully compelling, but as we’ll discover in our reading, that isn’t the case at all. Sorry.
Christians in America are at the first pages of a unique–and entirely unwanted!–chapter of their religious history. At no time since possibly the third century has their religion lacked so much power to coerce others–and at almost no time since then have people had such ready access to information about other religions as we do now. Oh, sure, in some areas that are still very dominated by fundagelicals and their toxic dogma, that power to coerce others still exists and is of course gleefully utilized to force members to join and remain in the sheepfold. But that power is disintegrating (so the Christians in those fast-shrinking pockets of influence will soon enough be discovering what their peers elsewhere have already learned).
Those freedoms mean that for almost the first time since the religion gained steam, large numbers of people are almost perfectly free to accept or reject the religion as they please. Christians cannot coerce them to do so, either through force of law or cultural lockstep. What little power they still have to coerce compliance is dwindling by the day. Instead of there being only one religion on the shelves, consumers may shop among the various products for sale as they please. They can even leave the market entirely if they don’t feel like buying anything.
And Christians can’t do a damned thing about any of it.
For a group as highly attuned to power and control, fundagelicals have just got to be having kittens over this seismic cultural shift.
And they haven’t been taking their loss of power gracefully at all.
When the Dogma Hit the Fan.
We’ve got a field trip planned in a few weeks to the Manischewitz matzo cracker factory during our exploration of Chapter 3 in Introduction to the Post-Christian Marketplace, which is about Christians’ simultaneous anti-semitism and weird attachment to Judaism–oh, sure, and your name is…? Steven. Okay. Go ahead. Oh! Absolutely, we’re devoting almost a month to the culture wars about same-sex marriage, since that’s still such a big part of Christian marketing now.
Around 2013 or 2014, I began to notice that Christians in America had finally begun to notice that their power had begun, seriously, to fade. They began writing whiny editorials about “coming to terms with a post-Christian world” and how they were upset that their culture war against LGBTQ people had failed so dramatically. Not even stomping their feet, throwing tantrums, and talking about starving themselves had successfully moved their god to action! So now they were down to trying to dictate the terms of their own surrender to the world (that’s Christianese for anything that’s not directly related to their religion, like compassion, true tolerance, lovingkindness, grace, and mercy).
The sheer amount of childish petulance on display from these once-proud rulers of America might give the rest of us a justice boner like nothing else, but if there’s one thing I can count on fundagelicals in particular to do, it’s to react to losses in the worst possible way. Indeed, that’s about all Christians are doing in the wake of every new survey and study painting their futures in the bleakest possible terms.
Sometimes you hear woke people talking about stuff like privilege distress, which is that peculiar whininess that we see out of people whose privilege got whittled away a tiny bit. That whittling-away, as slow and as subtle as it still is in 2017 America, can feel an awful lot like persecution and unfairness to people who’ve never had to deal with serious persecution and unfairness.
So a few years ago, they were going hard on their culture war; their vicious brutality toward LGBTQ people had become American fundagelicals’ most distinct marker belief, the thing that made fundagelicals distinct from other kinds of Christians and indeed from all non-Christians.
And suddenly, to their eyes with no warning at all, Americans as a whole abruptly turned around on fundagelicals and rejected that war.
A Total Eclipse of the Heart.
Um, no, Ronnie. We’re not actually going to cover sign making this semester. Wow. Okay, just make sure you get your drop forms signed at the Registrar’s Office. Well, at least we’ve managed to clear the aisles a bit more. I didn’t realize how important sign making is.
I can’t overstate enough how devastating that rejection was to the fundagelical psyche. Not only did we reject their culture war, but we rejected fundagelicals’ claim to having a stranglehold on ultimate morality and began calling them immoral, hateful hypocrites and bigots. They’re still scrabbling for an effective response to that rejection and to suddenly being cast (rightfully) as the bad guys in their culture war.
Combined with increasing awareness of the serious hypocrisy of religious leaders and Religious-Right-pandering politicians alike, fundagelicals still haven’t figured out a way to respond to so much animosity and mockery. The ways they’ve tried so far–such as whining about how intolerant people are of fundagelical intolerance and of course attempting to seize a legal right to discriminate against those they hate so much–are laughably backfiring.
The big problem is that Christians–and in particular fundagelicals–have simply never been in a situation where they’ve had to sell their worldview to others. They have no idea how to do it. They don’t even know what consumers in the religious marketplace might even want out of a religion.
Very few Christians were sold on the religion using ethical means, and fewer still of ’em remain in it for reasons that healthy people would recognize as non-abusive. So when would-be salespeople for fundagelicalism trot on out to the sales floor to make a pitch, it comes out sounding like something space aliens would say. They’re still trying to use their accustomed tactics: force, threats, emotional manipulation, and shoddy apologetics arguments masquerading as legitimate reasons to buy into the religion’s claims and join that salesperson’s group.
Back when they could use coercion to force recruitment and retention alike, those methods worked because in that unequal power dynamic anything would have worked. In a more equal power dynamic, Christians have to actually learn to sell–and they neither know how to do it nor want to learn the skills required.
A Healthy Way to Handle a Serious Loss of Dominance…
Yes, Jeremiah? So nice to see you back again this semester, by the way. Yes, it is a rather inflammatory title on the main textbook, but I like how it gets right to the point. A lot of the recruitment techniques you’ve all been taught are, to say the least, ineffective. Our class aims to remedy that.
Probably the best advice anyone could give Christians is that they need to stop pretending that they are anything but salespeople and supplicants seeking recruits.
For too long, Christians have acted like they have some kind of entitlement to other people’s time and attention–and nothing’s further from the truth. Any moment that a person willingly grants them is a moment that that person could be giving to someone else. Even when it’s a critic causing a ruckus on a Christian’s blog, that critic is doing their Christian audience a huge kindness (one that is almost never appreciated!).
When Christians use dishonesty and extortion to try to win people’s attention, they lose most people immediately. When they trample over other people’s boundaries–by interrupting them and pushing evangelism on them that is not requested–they show their victims that neither they nor their groups are to be trusted!
It’s hilarious how Christians so often justify and rationalize all kinds of terrible behavior because they think that the ends always justify the means. But out here in Reality-Land, we don’t agree. We will instantly turn away from a salesperson who is boorish, rude, or dishonest. We know that a good product doesn’t need trickery to sell itself. We also know that small elements of dishonesty in the sales/recruitment process indicate the presence of much larger lies elsewhere.
The second advice I’d offer would be for Christians to learn how healthy people evaluate potential groups of any kind to join–and then do the stuff that attracts healthy people instead of what they’re doing now.
The funny thing is that a lot of people–Christian or not–carry around in their heads this vision of the ideal form of Christianity. If Christians got busy doing the stuff they clearly think is just too boring for words, chances are they wouldn’t regain a whole lot of people, but at least there’d be a chance of them ending the tidal wave of deconversions. If Christians never gave anyone a reason to be startled into making re-evaluations of their groups, chances are way fewer re-evaluations would happen.
Some people would still leave because the religion simply makes a lot of untrue claims, but if their groups were solidly-packed with kind, generous, forgiving, self-sacrificing people, not many people would have much negative to say about them. And Christians spending their time on charity work sure wouldn’t have a lot of time to try to seize control of our political system or rewrite science and history books to suit themselves and their fake-news way of looking at the world.
As it stands, Christians know very well that they have a much better chance of making sales if their prospects are desperate. So their marketing generally revolves around friendship evangelism and other emotional manipulation–and it draws people vulnerable to those tactics, and (more sinisterly) those who sense that joining and then adopting those tactics would grant them an awful lot of personal power over others.
Third, they absolutely must be safe for people to be around. It doesn’t matter how nice they are if they aren’t safe.
It made me laugh to read Preston Sprinkle’s dumb bigotry-for-Jesus book last year, especially the part where he was talking about taking weeks-long “coffee dates” with LGBTQ people and their families to avoid having to directly answer their questions about how safe his church was for them. He seriously thought that if he could couch his bigotry in super-nice terms, then people would accept it and maybe even agree with him about it. He was actually positioning thought reform, a known cult tactic sometimes called “brainwashing,” as if it was this marvelous godly example of what he called “scandalous grace.”
The whole thing was just so weak, but the worst part was knowing that he himself was thrilled to think that he’d finally found the magical way to be a bigot-for-Jesus and not get called a bigot for it.
Simply put, healthy people will not join a group that attacks people’s rights. Ain’t gonna happen. Doesn’t matter how much charity the group says it does, or how loving the group says its members are. Doesn’t matter how close the group is to whatever ideal the prospect thinks is important. Without being able to ensure safety for all members, Christians will continue to hemorrhage people.
…And the Way that Fundagelicals are Handling It.
Ah. Yes, and you are…? Donny? Please take that weird white cone thing off your head. We don’t allow headgear in here. Thanks. Your question? Yes, obviously plenty of churches are doing fine without doing anything we advise here. Or at least, that’s what those churches want others to think. Nope, you’ll just have to stick with the course to see what I mean by that! On the syllabus, Evangelical Churn is one of our last topics.
I might as well be howling for the moon when I can’t even get candles, though. Not a thing I’ve listed here is ever gonna happen. This system is broken, and the simple truth is that it serves its masters’ needs so well that they will never willingly change anything about it.
Here’s how they’re trying to keep everything the same:
First, Christians drill down on being the awesomest, most wonderful people ever and who are totally doing this whole Christianity thing right.
Anybody else, of course, is doing everything wrong and is probably an idiot to boot for not recognizing that Christianity is for sure realsies and true.
Christians long ago rewrote the definition of love to include behaving in breathtakingly cruel and mean-spirited ways toward others–and to write themselves a permission slip to inject and thrust themselves into other people’s lives in shockingly controlling and depraved ways. On those rare occasions they actually manage to score a new member, it’s always going to be someone who is susceptible to their brand of fear- and hatred-based marketing. That means that their new members are increasingly going to be either victims or predators. And that polarization is only getting worse as Christians winnow out their decent people, leaving the rest either too addicted to the power that the religion grants them to prey upon others, or else too terrified to leave.
Naturally, when Christians use their current recruitment tactics on people who have no reason whatsoever to feel compelled to join a religion they don’t think is healthy or constructive, they metaphorically explode like a bottle rocket shot out of an Arizona pastor’s ass.
Second, they insult and malign those who reject their sales attempts–and also insult and malign any Christians who dare to tell them that their sales tactics are doomed to failure.
Anybody who’s ever tangled long with Christians or has been one knows how this goes. Talk about maybe listening to non-Christians, maybe trying to find out what non-Christians really value about groups they join, maybe dropping the condescension, arrogance, and meanness toward others that marks evangelists generally, and Christians will immediately pile on that daring soul with bulldog ferocity to attack them for being too suspiciously kind to non-Christians.
They lecture these suspiciously-kind peers, You won’t
make any sales win any souls like that! (Of course, nobody’s making sales winning souls anyway, but you won’t often hear a dominance-minded Christian admit that.)
Fundagelicals in particular are very prone to leap straight to the vilest of insults against marks who reject their sales tactics and power grabs–like they don’t realize we can totally hear them insulting us and all they’re doing is making the victims of this abuse even less likely to one day join their groups.
We’ll be looking soon at one of the typical examples of a Christian trying to drag the tribe kicking and screaming a half-inch closer to fitting the ideal they wish was the norm within their group. It’s almost sad. They want to do better and they themselves might seem like pretty decent people, but they are not the masters of the system; they can’t change anything in any substantial way.
Third, they insist that people must accept their product and react to it the way that its salespeople think they should.
It’s always hilarious to see a Christian insist that nobody’s allowed to judge Christianity by the behavior of Christians themselves. Equally hilarious are the many, many Christians who automatically parrot that tired old chestnut about how people should never disengage from church culture–no matter how many hypocrites and abusers are present in every single church’s congregation.
These are the salespeople of the product. They do not get to tell consumers how we will or won’t react to their pitch. They do not get to tell us when we are allowed to walk away from them and their defective product. They do not get to malign our judgement regarding their groups, or to criticize us for valuing our safety over their groups. And they certainly do not get to force us to value their feelings of urgency over our own free time.
It’s hilarious to see them constantly try to seize power over us when they do not, in reality, possess any power at all over us. In reality, they get as much as we wish to give them. We’re not even obligated to tell any salesperson why we are rejecting their sales pitch or refusing to even hear them out. Almost all of us reading this post know exactly why we have rejected their product, but in truth it’d be perfectly fine for us to not have any reason at all.
Christians have done a good job over the years in convincing people that we need to have valid reasons for rejecting them (and then they simply declare by fiat that there aren’t actually any valid reasons for anyone to reject Christianity), but let’s never forget that as consumers, we’re the ones in charge in every single one of our interactions with Christians.
In a Nut(bar)shell.
In summary, Christians desiring to make sales need to drop their culture wars, their science denial, their attacks on women’s rights and LGBTQ people’s rights, their control-lust, their arrogance and cruelty, and their desire to force themselves and their religion on everyone around themselves.
At a bare minimum, that’s what’s needed.
And that’s why not one single reputable survey or study conducted about Christianity anytime in the past five years has predicted anything but a continued downward spiral of losses.
They need us a lot more than we will ever need them, and one day they might even realize that truth. Without a lot of us suddenly joining them, or at least rolling over and letting them have the power they ache to hold again over American culture, they cannot survive in their current form.
To me, that’s the very best news of all–rivaling the false “Good News” of the Gospels, by far!
Moving on, here’s our syllabus and test schedule. I don’t grade on a curve. Haha, yeah, y’all sound happy about that now, but we’ll see… Any questions?
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