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Christianity is a business, and like most businesses nowadays, its leaders are concerned about the acquisition and retention of paying customers. Today we’ll be talking about one of the most pressing concerns Christians face as their business falters–their churn rate–and examining their incredibly poor response to that concern.

Not this kind of churn. (Credit: Hippie Bowman, CC-SA license.)
Not this kind of churn. (Credit: Hippie Bowman, CC-SA license.)

A Brief Overview of Churn.

“Churn rate” is the term used to describe the rate at which a business’ existing customers stop patronizing that business. It is a term used especially often by businesses based around subscription services, like satellite television and cell phones, but it can apply to any business that depends on regular customers.

Churn itself is an important concern because it is one of the biggest symptoms there could be of the health of a business. The lower its churn rate is, the longer-lived the business’ relationship with its customers is going to be. An annual churn rate of 25%, as that above link explains, implies a customer lifespan of about four years. Within that four years, a company with that 25% churn rate can expect to experience a near-total turnover of its customer base.

When a business’ churn rate increases sharply, it also means that people’s relationships with that business are ending a lot faster than they used to. Some causes of churn are obvious and easily resolvable. We’ll talk about that kind of churn some other time.

Today I’m focusing on three kinds of churn that can’t be helped–or can only be helped at great cost.

First, sometimes churn is “a gravity issue.”*

Some churn is almost unavoidable: it’s like gravity, something that nobody can really do anything about. People who move out of a business’ service area, for example, can’t remain customers. That’s why, when you notice churches talking about their churn rate, they differentiate between folks who moved away and those who left for any other reason. (This differentiation might not be as cut-and-dried as Christian leaders would like to think–sometimes someone moves and simply decides that that’s a great time to make a fresh start by disengaging from the religion, or even moves away to escape an especially toxic church.)

But there are other reasons why customers might find themselves forced to sever their relationship with a business. Someone who subscribes to a diaper service for an infant inevitably closes their account once the infant is toilet-trained. Or a huge storm might destroy a company’s infrastructure and leave no ETA in sight for repair, like what happened after Hurricane Katrina.

This is the kind of churn that either cannot be addressed, or else can only be addressed at such great cost that most businesses either can’t or don’t want to do it and will instead simply build that kind of churn into their business model.

Second, some churn is false churn.

Churn doesn’t always mean that a customer is genuinely leaving the business. Consider a company that offers new-customer promotions that are way better than anything that existing customers can get, which causes many customers to close their existing accounts in order to begin new ones to access those promotions. It’s technically churn, but it’s “false churn.”

Sometimes false churn isn’t done at the customer’s request. Cell-phone salespeople for one particular company used to be notorious for closing accounts and starting new ones for their customers in order to gain commissions on the new accounts (they only got commissions for brand-new accounts). Because their customers depended on these salespeople to handle their accounts for them, they didn’t question the “company policy” that apparently required them to get whole new phone numbers every couple of years when they wanted new phones. So the service provider didn’t realize for years that the many tens of thousands of closed accounts generated by that company were actually false churn.

Yes, one might argue, in these cases the business is still at least getting those customers’ money–but it makes the accounting ledgers look really bad and reflects poorly on the business in other ways. Remember, churn rate indicates not just how often customers are closing their accounts but also the length of those customers’ relationship with the business. That’s another important indicator of the business’ health and can impact its borrowing strength, consumer optimism, how likely investors are to park money there, and a lot of other factors.

False churn is churn that a business could address if it only knew what was going on, but often doesn’t find out about until it’s too late. Or maybe the company actually considers false churn a necessary evil that they must endure in order to sign up as many new accounts as possible.

In the case of churches, this kind of churn might look like a person hopping from one church to another. The lateral movement makes the first church look like it lost a member and the second appear to have gained a whole-new member, but the religion as a whole didn’t lose or gain anybody. In reporting, the church that “lost” someone will try to gloss over that loss, while the church that “gained” a member will crow about it. In this manner, megachurch growth is almost always a form of false churn; they tend to cannibalize smaller churches in the same way that Wal-Mart often destroys a small town’s locally-owned businesses.

Addressing this sort of churn can be costly, and often requires the company to overhaul a lot of its different policies and governing philosophies. A business that is too worried about the short-term cost of that overhaul might well find false churn far more expensive in the long run.

Third, sometimes churn rate is more a reflection of larger changes going on culturally, politically, or economically.

Even getting away from “gravity issues” and false churn, customers might walk away from a business because of cultural, political, or economic changes in society. For example, the entire tourism industry in North Carolina is discovering that local politics is having a huge impact on their bottom line–to the tune of USD$3 million since the state’s controversial “Bathroom Bill” was passed. It’s possible to address that sort of churn, but difficult.

New technology might also make a business’ product line obsolete, and if a business can’t adapt to the changes somehow, then customers will leave because they can’t get what they need. All My Patients are Under the Bed was written by a New York City pet veterinarian, Dr. Louis Camuti, who had originally been trained to treat horses. Once cars became accessible for regular families to own, however, people stopped keeping as many horses, which meant that horse-specializing veterinarians like him needed to either adapt to the new market or else find another line of work.

In Christianity, though, the religion’s leaders usually blame parishioners for leaving when their needs aren’t met. Imagine if Dr. Camuti had spent his time ranting constantly about how dumb his ex-customers were for buying cars rather than keeping horses, or accusing them of buying cars because they were lazy or sinful!

Christian businesses churches should be paying close attention to this kind of churn, because it is, I think, largely what is responsible for the high number of people leaving their religion. In today’s world it’s simply more costly than it used to be to belong to an oppressive, belligerent, regressive, reality-denying, prejudice- and ignorance-celebrating group like right-wing Christianity is. Our culture is leaving this kind of religious expression behind, and for good reason. But the changes that Christian leaders and adherents alike would have to make in their religion to cope with these sweeping societal shifts are so vast that at the moment they’ve chosen a response that is far less expensive and requires them to make no changes whatsoever in their operating procedures or philosophies.

The old adage is true: “Cheap, easy, and effective. Pick two.”

Christians have chosen cheap and easy. Unfortunately, that option is also the worst one they possibly could have gone with.

Not this kind of churning either. (Credit: Derek Σωκράτης Finch, CC license.) Lands End, Cornwall, UK.
Not this kind of churning either. But one must admit that it’s very lovely. (Credit: Derek Σωκράτης Finch, CC license.) Lands End, Cornwall, UK.

The Blame Game.

Once fundagelical leaders became dimly aware of the rising the churn rate of their various churches, they immediately mounted a semi-organized response to it. Al Mohler has thoughtfully provided us with a completely representative example of that response.

Al Mohler, a major name in the Southern Baptist Convention, lamented the case of twin brothers who were raised in an evangelical home and church but left to become ministers in other denominations, as we discussed recently here. What he was really upset about was churn. Here were two young men who had initially seemed set for life to remain customers of the SBC’s product, but then they left to patronize a competing business. And he, as one of the many owners of his business, didn’t like that news.

Ever since the Pew Religious Landscape Study was released last year, Christian leaders have been grappling more and more with the question of why people keep leaving their faith and rejecting their claims–and how to stop them from doing so. Al Mohler is no exception at all to that trend.

But leaders like him can’t engage with the real reasons for society’s increasing rejection of Christianity, for a variety of reasons. So instead, they are coming up with what is possibly the worst possible way of responding to this increasing churn:

They are blaming the people who have rejected their business. 

Yes. Instead of looking at possible flaws in the product itself that might be causing that churn, or investigating ways of adapting to the changing market forces impacting their churn rate, Christians are instead doubling down on their current business model and refusing to even consider altering their marketing campaign or product line.

The Invisible Hand.

Christians might not like this fact, but it’s still true: their religion is simply one of a number of philosophies and worldviews jostling in what amounts to a world marketplace of ideas, all of them seeking to capture a shrinking slice of the pie that is the total amount of consumers’ attention and resources. As the price for refusing Christians’ overtures becomes lower and lower, Christians themselves must come up with a business model that relies on something besides overt force or peer pressure to sell their religion.

And I don’t think Christians, especially the ones involved in the more authoritarian, ignorant, and cruel flavors of the religion, have figured out yet how to sell their religion under such circumstances–nor any way to respond to those who refuse their sales pitches beyond a knee-jerk shift of blame from their own shoulders, where it rightly should rest, to those of the people who have refused them.

In that podcast I just mentioned, Al Mohler made a series of flailing, wild guesses about those brothers’ upbringing and church life in order to explain why they’d left his denomination.

[a] failure to ground children in Christian doctrine leaves them vulnerable “to be led by their senses” rather than “a theological understanding grounded in the explicit teachings of Scripture.”

“When these two boys, identical twins, were asking deep theological questions, who was there to help them?” Mohler asked. “Who was there to guide them? Who was there as an evangelical thinker, apologist, theologian, friend, pastor and guide to help them to understand these questions?”

In essence, he’s blaming both the people who left and every single person in their early lives for having done something–he’s not sure what, but something–wrong. These sorts of guesses aren’t at all uncommon to see; indeed, most of ex-Christians have been faced with the downright surreal experience of having our most personal life decisions explained at us by people who clearly just want to throw a lot of pasta at our emotional wall to see if any of it’ll stick. (It never does, but we’re usually too polite to watch them crash and burn and then coo, “Aw, look! Twitchy’s made a dust angel!”** Usually.)

Even “gravity issues” are no longer off-limits; I’ve been hearing anecdotes lately about pastors blaming parishioners for moving away, accusing them of being “in rebellion” because obviously “Jesus” wanted them to remain in their home church area!

And as usual, there’s a reason for their choice of response.

It’s not an accident that Christians so often blame those who reject their overtures. When you hear these accusations flung at those who are leaving churches (and oh, fundagelicals especially do love to make accusations–do you ever wonder why? I don’t…), you’re hearing something not only common but downright institutional in scope: a phenomenon that is all but dictated and prescribed by Christians’ leftover feelings of entitlement and their resentment over the loss of their onetime privilege.

Here’s Why Their Reaction To Churn Is Important.

A business that treats churn as the customer’s fault 100% of the time is a business that feels an excessive amount of entitlement to that customer’s business. Christian leaders once had a perfectly justifiable sense of entitlement to their customers’ patronage; the social cost of rejecting the religion was so incredibly high that most people didn’t dare to sever that relationship. I don’t think they’ve figured out how to deal with a world where an increasing number of people don’t feel that kind of fear anymore.

If a company feels that it has customers by the short-and-curly hairs, then they’re not exactly going to care about honesty, customer service, or basic human decency. They’re going to feel like they can do whatever they want to customers and their victims won’t have any choice but to take it. (This is exactly why we have such stringent laws around monopolies!)

Thankfully, Christians don’t have the luxury of unwarranted, uncontested privilege anymore, nor the power to compel compliance as they did in the “good ole days” they often pine for.

The more choices consumers have, on the flip side, and the less costly it is to them to sever a business relationship they don’t want anymore, the less leeway businesses have to mistreat them.

In the end, that might well be Al Mohler’s big problem with churn: it shows that his business is losing its power in such a tangible way that he has no choice but to demonize his ex-customers as ferociously as he can. If he had a way to sell the religion in such a way that it actually made sense to “purchase” it, he already would have gone that route. Instead, what he’s got are insults, wild speculation, dehumanization, belittlement, and dishonesty.

Really, who wouldn’t want to join a religion whose god apparently is totally on board with what followers like him are doing? (Answer: a lot, as in a lot a lot, of people.)

Out of every single reaction that Christians could possibly have to the growing churn rate in their religion, this is without question the most nonsensical, offensive, ineffective, and counter-productive one they could have decided to run with. I don’t know about you, but when a business’ representative blames me for or wants to argue with me about my decision to sever ties, I generally think their behavior is a good sign that I did the right thing. Nor do I ever feel inclined to renew my patronage of a business whose representatives or owners treated me like that.

If Christianity is to survive in the coming generations, its salespeople are going to need to move beyond the blame game and learn how to adapt. Or they’ll continue to refuse and stoutly, smugly, petulantly, belligerently ride their doomed train all the way to Irrelevance-Land–and blaming those who leave every single time for their defections. Either way… well, you know.

Next time, we’re going to talk about the weird form of idolatry that arises from Christians’ inability to lovingly and realistically engage with their own churn rate and the message it sends. See you tomorrow!

* A “gravity issue” is a simple fact that nobody can do anything about, so one must work around and deal with it as best as one can. Complaining about that reality doesn’t help; instead, a much better coping mechanism is to find some way of rising above it to succeed despite it. For example, a person selling satellite-TV subscriptions can’t do anything about the cost of the company’s packages, and all of the salespeople are facing the same obstacle.

** Oglaf is a hugely NSFW webcomic that is well worth the read if you’re okay with adult humor. I just spent a truly ridiculous amount of time looking for that particular strip.

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,...