the self-interest isn't labeled
Reading Time: 8 minutes (Benjamin Ashton.) The self-interest isn't labeled. However: I'ma need someone to explain what a 'bum-burner' is please.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Recently, I showed you some very visible signs of the decline of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The leaders of this venerable denomination must be panicking these days! But I had to laugh at this story I ran across on one of their official blogs. They’re still pushing the flocks to sell more product — but they’re acting like their interest in those sales comes from some other, far loftier source than simple, stone-cold utilitarian self-interest. Today, let me show you how Christian self-interest masquerades as evangelistic zeal.

the self-interest isn't labeled
(Benjamin Ashton.) The self-interest isn’t labeled. However: I’ma need someone to explain what a ‘bum-burner’ is please.

The Decline of a Business.

For many years now, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has faced a decline. Their baptism numbers, long used as a shorthand metric for their growth and success, have plummeted. Heck, those numbers would likely look even worse if they weren’t fudging their numbers as much as humanly possible.

And yet even after gaming their broken system as much as they can, they still face ongoing struggles with sales and retention. Nobody at all in the survey-and-research party van even gives them a slim hope of recovering their former dominance.

This giant, long-running business faces decline because their only product — active membership in SBC churches — just isn’t in great demand anymore. In fact, their entire brand name has become hopelessly tainted.

But what does anybody expect them to do? Markedly change their product’s feature list to be more in line with what customers actually want to buy? Hardly. They taught their customers ages ago that change for the better constitutes compromise, which is in turn the absolute worst thing ever that a business in their field could possibly ever do.

No, that’s just not an option. Instead, the SBC has long pursued a different path out of decline.

The Flocks Still Aren’t Selling Enough Product.

Mostly, the SBC’s strategy consists of hammering at their own customers — the few people who even bother purchasing their product anymore — to get out there and sell that product to new customers.

sample decision card
A sample decision card from a Christian printer. (Source.)

Yes, the sales managers demand that their customers do the majority of sales activity for their product! (Just imagine a legit product in the real world trying this. Outside of multi-level marketing schemes, which aren’t really very legit, it’s just unthinkable. At most, many companies use word-of-mouth and customer testimonials to do much of their marketing, but this isn’t even close to what the SBC is demanding. That’s way too voluntary and informal for these self-appointed ambassadors of Jesus.)

The SBC’s leaders know their actual formally-trained salespeople can’t save them from decline. I mean, they have them. They call these professionals evangelists. Evangelism yields a comfortable living for a charming, charismatic public speaker.

Evangelists’ big huge “revival meetings” often produce big fat stacks of “decision cards,” sure. However, those cards rarely materialize into sales of product to lifelong customers. The customers thus acquired tend to look more like the poaching of existing customers from other similar businesses (called denominations in Christian lingo), or the recapture of former customers, not so much the capture of brand-new ones.

No, the SBC’s leaders have known for a long time that it’s the customers themselves who tend to sell the most product. One SBC leader, John Rothra, even directly attributes the denomination’s decline to its members’ failure to make enough sales.

Reframing Sales as Evangelism.

But but but you see, those customers are not doing anything nearly so crass as selling product.

No, no! This isn’t about self-interest!

They’re evangelizing.

More than that even: they’re sharing the gospel!

They’re doing personal evangelism!

This idea isn’t new, of course. Very little in Christianity ever is. I found a mention of the absolute necessity of “personal evangelism” dating back to 1970, and it was probably a well-known idea even by then. It’s a hilariously overwrought piece too, with the author asking, all wide-eyed:

Just now we ask: could it be that most brethren have not recognized the need for personal evangelism?

Clutch those pearls! Clutch ’em good!

The new part is simply the urgency, frequency, and scale of the demands. Indeed, I found evangelicals all over fretting about the lack of sales activity in evangelical sheepfolds everywhere.

The SBC’s frantic cries for increased selling just seem like the loudest, probably because they’re just such a huge chunk of evangelicalism.

Dancing Around the Self-Interest.

And the SBC does indeed cry frantically for increased sales among the flocks. I’ve written about it many times:

And all of their efforts have failed miserably, largely because evangelicals didn’t join their churches in the first place (thus purchasing product) in order to become salespeople themselves. They joined to get their needs met, like proper consumers always have. More than that, even, the salespeople who made that sale did so on that explicit basis. It was always about getting their needs met as Christian consumers. So the self-interest carries all the way down the line.

It makes perfect sense that the SBC’s current customers aren’t wild about suddenly being baited-and-switched into acting as salespeople. They see that job as belonging to the pros — but the pros have largely abdicated all responsibility there.

This whole situation is a hilarious example of self-interest — and evangelicals can’t even see it for what it is. They’re not asking the simplest question of all — the one that would reveal the whole con game for what it is.

What’s In It For the One Making Demands?

When someone makes a request of us, it’s not a bad idea to ask how that person/group benefits from our compliance with the request.

In this case, when we part all the obfuscating bushes of Jesus said so! and it’s for your own good as a Christian! and If you don’t, you’ll totally go to Hell!, we discover that when Christian flocks do occasionally make sales, those customers immediately bring direct and tangible benefits to their churches:

  • Paying tithes (to some greater or lesser extent)
  • Parking their butts in pews (BIPs) to up the member count of that church — to the glory of the pastor, as J.D. Greear demonstrates
  • Eventually, theoretically, making sales of their own

So these pastors and SBC bigwigs can make their demands sound as Jesus-y as possible. They can dress their demands up in Jesus robes and put some nice Jesus backlighting on them if they want. Heck, they can go all out and have a totally radical sold-out Jesus-themed wrestling team put on a show around the demand!

That won’t change this simple fact:

Every single pastor and SBC leader making a demand for evangelism from the flocks stands to benefit massively from the flocks’ compliance. 

Why Failure’s Perfectly Acceptable in a Self-Interest Model.

Even if those flocks don’t make sales — and let’s face it, the vast majority of them won’t ever score a single one — their obedience to the demand itself will tie them closer emotionally to their tribes. Failure itself, and the embarrassment of that failure, also isolates the flocks from the churches’ many enemies.

That’s why churches seem singularly disinterested in training the flocks in techniques that’d actually work to score sales. Yes, those techniques do exist — as mentioned, pro-level evangelists at least seem to know them. It’s how lackluster nitwits like John Arnott and Rodney Howard-Browne (of the Toronto Blessing) finagle themselves huge followings in evangelicalism. But actually-successful evangelistic techniques are probably just a little too reminiscent of sausage-making for most of the flocks.

(I think that because every time one of them deconverts and leaves the religion, like Marjoe Gortner did, it seems like we learn some more hair-raising facts about their previous career. Evangelism is viciously manipulative and callously straightforward, done correctly. Maybe that’s why their successes seem to have such poor long-term survival.)

SBC leaders seem to care considerably more about the effort itself than the results, which tells me that their interests are served either way.

The Two Facets of the Sales Push.

This self-interest game has two facets:

  • If successful, the church enjoys a new member’s BIP and tithing.
  • If unsuccessful, the church more firmly locks in a current member’s BIP and tithing.

Either way, the church wins.

But if the flocks don’t play the game at all, then the church loses — by default.

It’s no strange coincidence that in recent years, evangelicals have been moving the goalposts on evangelism to stress the importance of trying to make sales over and above actually successfully scoring any sales. (See: Got Questions; this John Stott post.)

If anything, though, this moving of the goalposts has only hurt their cause. They must have been trying to encourage the flocks to try anyway, even if they fail, but they seem only to have made the flocks aware that sales aren’t actually always the top priority for their Dear Leaders anyway. If they’re not gonna make sales either way, they’ll take the path that leads to fewer social repercussions.

Maybe moving the goalposts a bit further was on LifeWay’s mind the other day when they ran the post that caught my eye, “3 Ways Your Church Might Be Burying the Gospel.”

“Burying the Gospel” = Not Even Trying!

As I read Luke Holmes’ post on LifeWay’s blog Facts and Trends, I suddenly got hit with this wave of realization.

He tried his very best in this post, bless his cotton socks, to make Christianity sound like this vast unknown treasure — literally comparing it to the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922. It’s a laughably awful comparison, but TRUE CHRISTIANS™ tend to assume that nobody outside of their tribe has ever heard their sales pitch before, and that nobody could possibly reject it* once presented with it (*terms and conditions apply).

Then Holmes chided the flocks for not sharing their massive “treasure” with everybody around them.

He accuses the flocks of being “busy,” as well as “lazy,” “comprising,” and too “confrontational.” He shakes his finger thusly:

As we face a new and different world don’t let the gospel get buried in your church. Everyday time, pressures, and work have a way of trying to bury the Great Commission a little more. [. . .] We must work to make sure we’re doing all we can to uncover the beautiful work of the gospel. Get out the shovel and dig, for you sit on the greatest treasure the world will ever see.

And as I read this, I wondered if any SBC member reading his post realized what massive self-interest drove him to write it.

Luke Holmes, LifeWay, and the SBC’s top leadership don’t care if the flocks alienate their friends, get fired from their jobs, or push away their flesh and blood with unwanted sales pitches.

But the flocks increasingly don’t want to face those sorts of outcomes. Their Dear Leaders can make as many demands as they like, with whatever threats they please.

Unfortunately for them, those flocks are there for self-interest too…

… And the customer’s always right.*
*Terms and conditions apply

NEXT UP: Controlling people often seek power through infantilization. We often see this tactic used by toxic Christians, but seeing it outside of that realm was a potent reminder to me today of the importance of recognizing it — and rejecting it. See you tomorrow!

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Last notes: The phrase “the customer’s always right” doesn’t mean that the customer is always correct about every assertion they make. I’ve heard a lot of interpretations of the saying, but the one I like most is this: what the customer wants can’t really be argued with; it drives the market as it will.

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,...