Our dear friend Charles at Skeptic Journey has brought something up that I wanted to talk about today: the growing sense of flailing that I get from modern Christian organizations as they try to stem the tide of apostates and attract new members to their groups.
A long time ago, I worked for a call center whose owners weren’t doing all that well. It used to amaze me how often the business’ owners would lurch from idea to idea, model to model, trying to figure out what would work to grow their business. For the employees, things were often chaotic and shifting; we used to say that if someone didn’t like how things were being run now, wait five minutes and it’d all change. One month we were all focused on customer service and getting scores and bonuses exclusively based on how happy customers were with us; the next month nobody cared if customers were unhappy because it was all about handle time and how quickly we could get someone off the phone and get to the next caller. And the next nobody upstairs cared about anything except how much money employees got from customers from sales of add-on services and optional equipment.
As you can guess, this constant shift of priorities and practices was discombobulating at best and disastrous at worst for employees. As soon as employees got a grip on handle time, they had to turn around and start caring about after-call survey scores. Obviously, ideally employees would care about everything and do it all perfectly, but in the real world, customer service is often a zero-sum game; resources and time spent in one area means other areas will necessarily be shorted. The more the company lurched from side to side, the further the pendulum swung from one extreme to the other, the worse things seemed to get for the customers as a whole as employees struggled to find a balance and learn the new priorities. And the business continued to flounder as the owners sought the all-singing, all-dancing magic bullet that would fix everything.
And that’s just business nowadays. What I’m talking about isn’t unique to any company in the modern world, I don’t think. To a huge extent finding success, even for big companies, is about catching lightning in a bottle.
So it goes for churches. Anybody who doesn’t realize that religious organizations are, at heart, businesses is just being romantic or sentimental at this point. They are not only businesses, but they are businesses whose practices make even the most cutthroat silver-screen caricatures of businesses look tame by comparison. They get tax exemptions that secular businesses don’t get and they don’t have to follow the same rules that secular businesses must follow, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t just as focused on the bottom line. They can dress their behaviors in as many sanctimonious catchphrases as they like, but them’s still the facts. Without people giving them money, these organizations will fall apart. Without people voting the correct way and showing up for the rallies, these groups will lose their influence. So churches need wallets opened and butts in pews. And I don’t think they know how to do that anymore.
We’ve been talking about how young people are leaving Christianity in vast numbers of late. This trend was likely beginning some years ago, probably around when I deconverted in the 90s, but it’s really coming into its own now. Young people don’t have a lot of money themselves now, but hopefully they will at some point. And they might not have kids now, but (according to these church leaders at least) hopefully they will at some point. Getting them properly indoctrinated well before they get their money and families established ensures that the cash keeps flowing and the membership numbers stay properly fluffy.
The problem is that nobody really knows exactly what makes one church successful while another one struggles and disintegrates. We know that having a charismatic leader helps quite a bit–megachurches especially tend to have way more extremely charismatic pastors than struggling churches do. Location is important as well; a robust church may have very low income so will need bigger numbers to acquire the same wealth and resources that smaller churches can do with way fewer but wealthier members. That UW study I just linked you to talks about how the very most successful megachurches focus on a technology-driven, generic message that is feel-good and exciting-sounding, but even a small church can share a very repressive, oppressive, focused theology and doctrine and grow if it’s in the right place at the right time.
The style of the church matters quite a bit as well; a hipster, internet-savvy group like Mars Hill could sell an essentially immoral, savagely brutal Calvinist message to Seattle Christians, but the same group would have had a great deal of trouble selling the same message elsewhere and indeed its tactics and core message were all but gibberish to some of the pastors who came in from very far away to help them out in their early days. And I don’t know if the Jesus People movement could have possibly begun anywhere but in California during the heady days of the 1960s; certainly it couldn’t survive in the way more hedonistic 1980s and was already fading out of relevance when I converted to Pentecostalism.
And in the wake of dwindling numbers and cries of doom and gloom from the skies, Christian leaders switch from tactic to tactic in hopes of finding something that works.
I lived through some of these trends. When I was in high school, I joined–briefly–my first megachurch, though I didn’t know the word for it at the time. I just knew it was absolutely huge, and looked nothing like the insular little Catholic communities I’d known for most of my life up till then. They were buying an abandoned grocery store nearby to turn it into a bowling alley for their youth group. I’m not even kidding. Until joining them I didn’t even know the term “youth group,” for that matter; in Catholic churches we’d had CCD, which was a bit like a more tightly-focused Sunday School, but the general spotlight shone on the adults, not the children.
That spotlight’s aim changed abruptly when I joined that Southern Baptist church. Suddenly young people were the whole focus of the church’s gaze and attention. I was awhirl with new experiences and a chock-full social schedule. And things only got busier when I later moved on to a Pentecostal church. My mom was actually a bit worried about just how busy I seemed to be with my new friends and religious hobbies. I barely had time to think. Maybe that was the whole idea–to keep folks busy and distracted. I guess the idea was to fill young people with so much rah-rah it’d carry them over while they learned the more hardcore doctrines of the church and got fully indoctrinated.
It didn’t work on me, obviously, nor on many other people who leave the religion the second they’re able to do so. Churches seem evenly split and ferociously divided over just how much to entertain children and young adults versus how much doctrine and theology to stuff into them. The two camps play pushme-pullyou over the issue. Both camps are however happy to accuse ex-Christians who leave the religion of having been entertained at the expense of learning theology, or having been drilled in doctrine to the exclusion of having found joy in the “Lord.” The ratio alters with the Christian observing it but it’s always to the detriment of the ex-Christian being accused.
Now I see trends that didn’t even exist back in my day, all designed to either inculcate young people with tons and tons of emotional fun experiences or else restrict their access to information and differing viewpoints. From the emphasis on “youth group” as a social phenomenon and culture all its own (as this adorable young Christian’s YouTube channel demonstrates) among the hipper, more progressive Christians all the way to the ultra-repressive fundagelical homeschooling movement and “courtship” culture in the far-right-wing flavors of the religion, churches are throwing everything they can at the wall to see what sticks–everything, that is, except for the objective truth, which is why these measures will fail.
All of these measures are being taken because they are seen as giving churches more control over young minds and greater access to those young people. This control can be exercised very subtly indeed. I saw that principle even in my own life: by occupying all of my time, church was slipping into spaces that once had been occupied by boyfriends, or hanging out with friends, or playing video games, or reading, or all the other stuff I did as a teenager. Much larger churches are moving from the small informal cells I once knew so well to formal “small groups” (a phrase I’d never even heard while Christian) that function as little churches-within-churches on their own; these groups often exercise power over their members, even punishing people for infractions of their rules and hassling people for leaving their small group without permission.
But regarding control, Princess Leia said it best: “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” Christian churches could stand to take a little advice from the good ambassador! These measures’ sheer restrictiveness ensures their own failure. We don’t live in a society that values restrictiveness and the removal of access to information. Christians themselves may as a group celebrate ignorance and hold certainty up as being superior to actual knowledge, but in the real world, we increasingly value what can be shown to be true. The many people who escape the more restrictive, controlling Christian groups have that much more baggage to sift through and struggle with, but they escape anyway.
The next big trends are already visible on the walls of the world: a panicky bleating about free speech and religious freedom from people who understand neither idea; increased politicization especially on the right wing; an even-more-expansive push to make women’s bodies public property and control their sexuality and to marginalize LGBTQ people further/again; a sudden jump in hipster “relationship” Christianity; demands for equal time for their pseudoscience and junk history; laughably incorrect characterizations of Christian zealots as the real victims here. The main trend, though, is restriction of access to information through the use of homeschooling, courtship, and fundagelical colleges. That’s a very new idea, just something that arose in the last 10-15 years, but clearly a concept that seems to appeal very greatly to conservative church organizations.
These are all catchup plays and Hail Mary passes, though, and will do little more than perhaps keep their own sheep in the fold for perhaps a little longer. When numbers continue to fall, Christian leaders will abandon these trends for something new and different in hopes of regaining influence just like any business would tweak its operating model and paradigms to try to improve failing sales figures.
The evangelical and fundamentalist denominations active today look absolutely nothing like the ones I observed while Christian. In twenty years, the religion has changed so much it is barely even recognizable to me; it wasn’t easy for me to get caught up when I returned my attention to the religious landscape of American culture. The mainstream fundagelical groups now would have been considered dangerously extremist back in my day, but that’s what happens when zealots all try to outdo each other in demonstrating how hardcore and committed they are. And none of it’s really going to help in the long run because nothing they’re doing is seeking or cherishing the truth.
Just imagine how much this supposedly unchanging message will have changed in another twenty years. Because it will definitely change; it will have to, in order to survive. But that’s always been Christianity’s big strength, hasn’t it?–its ability to adapt and change.
It’s a bit early to write the religion off as a whole, but I can remain just floored at how far its leaders and most devoted adherents will go to maintain their fading dominance–even to the extent of sabotaging the young minds of their own children if it keeps their little butts parked in pews for a lifetime.