fire in a barrel or brazier
Reading Time: 9 minutes (Chris Rhoads.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we checked out an apologetics outfit called Summit Ministries. They sell apologetics courses to teens and young adults. At the time, we examined their course offerings and pricing, determining them to be just the same old apologetics repackaged for kids today, da yoot. Today, I want to show you how Summit’s leaders measure success — and how their measurement tallies up with actual success. Summit seems to have mastered the evangelical reframing game — and their marks rarely see through that smoke-and-mirrors act.

fire in a barrel or brazier
(Chris Rhoads.)

(Check out Chiropter’s writeup of attending a Summit two-week course back in 2005. Ouch.)

The Stated Goal.

As most businesses do, Summit Ministries’ “About” page contains their purpose and objective. These constitute their stated goal. In their own words, here’s Summit’s stated goal (all emphases come from quoted sources, unless I note otherwise):

Summit Ministries’ mission is to equip and support rising generations to embrace God’s truth and champion a biblical worldview.

From what I saw of their course materials and offerings, their equipment and support consists of cramming apologetics down kids’ throats, along with a heaping helping of culture-war indoctrination. The God’s truth and biblical worldview consist of nothing more than a repackaging of evangelicals’ ultra-authoritarian, ultra-politically-conservative, pseudoscience-friendly worldview and a deep dive into their various overwrought conspiracy theories.

Evangelical leaders know none of that stuff appeals to younger generations, who now enjoy more freedom to reject evangelical sales pitches than anyone’s ever had in history. Instead of retooling their message into something less cruel and evil, however, evangelicals instead simply reframe the same old guff to sound new and exciting.

All these leaders must do is trick parents into forking over money, after all. It’s sure not high-schoolers paying for Summit’s courses. They don’t have to actually change anything to make money.

Measuring Effectiveness.

Summit asks for a whole lot of money and time from parents and their kids, as we discovered yesterday.

How they try to convince parents that they represent a good value for those resources is a downright wild ride. Evangelicalism generally involves the worst nepotism and good-ole-boy networking that I’ve ever encountered in my life, so I expected nothing different here.

And boy oh boy, did I ever get what I expected.

Summit’s leaders, staff, and employees include a number of big-name apologists. They rely on a complex and often silently-operating network of fellow big-name apologists to maintain their veneer of trustworthiness and respectability. New network members, like Sean McDowell, enter their fold through family ties or extensive yes-manning. They do not vary a bit from their elders in beliefs or practices.

Because these younger recruits do not offer a single challenge to them, the older members vouch for them wholeheartedly, creating a perpetual feedback loop. Eventually, the network members’ work and mutual validation enters evangelical canon — becoming part of the tribe’s extensive and growing body of talking points, zingers, and hand-waving routines.

Thus, Summit’s first measurement of success consists of compliments and endorsements from major apologists. What Summit doesn’t tell visitors is that many of those apologists work in the same network, and are thus hardly disinterested third parties offering unbiased opinions.

And we find lots of those opinions around Summit’s site, perhaps because Summit employs so many of the people offering them!

Dishonest Endorsements.

On Summit’s front page, two major old-school apologists endorse their business: Ravi Zacharias and James Dobson.

Ravi Zacharias’ endorsement states that his colleagues are “products of Summit.” He ain’t kidding! Summit staffer Abdu Murray actually also works as the North American Director of Zacharias’ ministry. On another page on Summit’s site, we see Zacharias named as one of the co-authors for at least one of their products. So Zacharias has profited well from Summit. There’s huge overlap between his business and that of Summit. But Summit fails to disclose this fact to site visitors.

James Dobson’s endorsement is equally sketchy. Summit’s leaders credit Dobson for bringing their business to national attention in 1989 (when he talked them up during a Focus on the Sexism Family radio broadcast of his). He’s been thick as thieves with Summit ever since. Summit’s marketers especially like using his endorsement of Jeff Myers, their current president, as a prop of validation — without disclosing his long history with their business.

Maybe evangelical parents don’t mind so much, but I’d reckon most people would want to know if celebrity endorsements involved potential tons of self-interest. Indeed, Summit’s endorsements seem to run counter to the FTC’s guidelines

Easy for Him to Say.

On a Summit page selling student conferences, we find a quote from Sean McDowell (whose endorsement suffers from the same flaws we found in those other two guys above):

Summit was a game-changing experience for me, as as a student! While on a radio interview, I was asked, ‘If you had just one piece of advice for parents to help their kids hold onto their faith, what would that be?’ It’s easy, send your kids to Summit!

Similarly, Summit fails to disclose that he is one of their regular instructors. Of course it’s easy for him to say “send your kids to Summit.” He stands to make money from that purchasing decision!

I wish this stuff bothered evangelicals. It’s just so sketchy. I reckon this situation forms part of that “scandal of the evangelical conscience” some of them talk about sometimes.

Moving past the endorsement problem, we find another — and it’s bad.

For them, at least!

Testable Claims.

Let’s focus on the claims Sean McDowell makes above about his employer:

  • Summit’s classes represent a “game-changing experience” for students.
  • Summit’s offerings definitely help keep kids indoctrinated and believing, more than any other one thing parents could possibly do or buy.

These are measurable claims.

And that’s where evangelicals tend to fall down.

They keep wanting a real live god doing real live stuff in the real live world, but when they start making claims along those lines, then the rest of us can easily test them — and we inevitably find those claims utterly lacking credence.

creedence leonore gielgud
Not that Creedence. (Troll 2) But I’d trust this Creedence’s claims over anything made by any evangelical leader.

More Claims Made.

Summit hardly stops there, with Sean McDowell’s claims about his off-and-on-again employer’s products. The site’s designers sprinkle big claims everywhere about what students can expect to gain from their offerings, like these (from the same page):

  • Preparation for higher education doubled.
  • Understanding of a Christian worldview nearly tripled.
  • Ability to explain their what and why behind their faith more than tripled.
  • Confidence to share their faith nearly doubled.
  • Ability to defend their faith​ quadrupled.

Unfortunately, these claims are sheerest nonsense. We know nothing about how Summit gathered these statistics, nor when they gathered them or from whom. We don’t know their starting points or ending ones. “Doubled” and “nearly tripled” sound really cool, but it could mean going from 1% to 2%, for all we know.

I found no explanations anywhere on their site, nor sources for these citations. All they offer are anecdotes — and anecdotes aren’t good evidence all by themselves.

Worst of all, though, Summit can’t relate any of these glowing claims to increased retention of young adults. That’s supposed to be their dadgum mission statement! If they’re not successfully keeping kids Christian, then nothing else they’re doing matters — or should matter — to them.

The Most Damning Bit of All.

sean mcdowell
I almost didn’t recognize him cuz he’s not wearing his trademark tryhard youth pastor uniform, a blazer over a graphic tee-shirt.

Summit employs a lot of big names and has a long history. So really, the most damning thing I can say about the business is that I’d never heard of them till now. Not to tootle my own horn with vigor or anything, but that’s a really bad sign for them.

Whatever Summit’s doing, its products have had little to no impact on evangelicals’ young-adult churn rate.

If it had, I’d have heard about it. I’d have heard all the usual hand-wringing, but then I’d have heard a soft note of hope from evangelical leaders: “… at least, except for those guys at Summit. I have no idea what they’re doing that we’re not doing, but dang, they sure do manage to keep kids Christian!”

Nobody’s saying that.

But that’s not a special condemnation. Nothing whatsoever that any apologist produces seems to have any appreciable impact on evangelicals’ decline. One by one, apologists plunge into the marketplace with ringing claims of success, swearing that their approach will fix everything.

A few years later, nobody even remembers what they said.

Parents Don’t Know What They Don’t Know.

Alas, I don’t think evangelical parents realize the truth about Christian marketing.

Summit forms a significant part of the elaborate web of advertising aimed right at their hearts. From the time they have their babies, their Dear Leaders begin hammering at them with How to Keep Your Kids Christian For Life. Their apologetics-slinging hucksters all agree on this topic, reinforcing each other and validating their respective ideas.

Summit’s leaders and endorsers all push the idea that the way to keep kids Christian (and specifically, evangelical) is to stuff the little darlings full of apologetics. But if any of these kids’ parents ever took the time to listen to ex-Christians, they’d know that apologetics materials often backfire spectacularly.

Unfortunately, evangelicals in particular tend to believe whatever their tribe’s salespeople say about their own products. Gosh, who’d ever fib or exaggerate about something this important?

Gosh! Who oh WHO?!?

They’ll trust their own tribes’ hucksters long before they listen to any critics of their tribe.

Waning Interest.

Summit might be getting worried about their future. I see some interesting trends with them, though I’m not 100% sure about where they come from.

Alexa, at least, sees interest in Summit tanking over the past few months.

(Source.)

That decline represents really really really bad news for Summit because their site hits should be going through the roof. Currently, they’re registering students for the summer. However, interest had already begun to decline when the pandemic hit in late February/early March, so I’m not sure it’s all down to that cause.

Perhaps this fluctuation is perfectly normal for them. I don’t know. But I do know that when I compared them to another teen apologetics training course, Child Evangelism Fellowship, the Alexa stats for that business looked very different.

(Source.)

I checked a few other places offering apologetics training, and almost all of them had similar trending stats (like this one). T’is the season for people to look for apologetics/missionary activities for themselves and their kids, apparently, just not from Summit.

Summit’s speaker list for this summer’s conference looks star-studded, too. I see lots of repressive, authoritarian big names on the list there, including Sean McDowell (looking like the smirking fratchoad villain in any teen movie from the 1980s).

If an apologist warbles a talking point to an empty classroom, does he still get paid?

Well, at least that philosophical question is one I can answer with certainty!

The Real Goal.

Whatever happens with Summit’s summer registration numbers, I can count on this:

All those smug-looking apologists and culture-warriors in their speakers lineup are gonna get paid.

Like we see in most evangelical groups, Summit’s stated goal isn’t their real goal. They tuck their real goal out of sight of outsiders, but we can see it clearly when we look at the short-term goals they pursue and the methods they use to get there. When we use this evaluation technique on Summit, one thing becomes clear quickly:

Makin’ money for a certain and select group of deeply-enmeshed network professional apologists seems like the real goal of this ministry. Summit functions as a valuable secondary income stream for them.

I just wonder how the pandemic will affect that income stream. Whatever Summit’s marketers are doing to drum up interest, it doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe providing some real evidence for their effectiveness-related claims might help — if they actually had any, I mean.

NEXT UP: I got curious about one of Sean McDowell’s apologetics hand-waving routines, so I want to examine it. Gee, I wonder how rigorous his ideas are? I hope you’ll join me for the fun — see you tomorrow!


Please Support What I Do!

Come join us on FacebookTumblrPinterestTwitter, and our forum at rolltodisbelieve.com! (Also Instagram, where I mostly post cat pictures. About 99% of my insta consists of Bother being adorable.)

Also check out our Graceful Atheist podcast interview! It was a blast.

If you like what you see, I gratefully welcome your support. Please consider becoming one of my monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve for as little as $1/month! My PayPal is captain_cassidy@yahoo.com (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips. You can also support this blog through my Amazon Affiliate link–and, of course, by liking and sharing my posts on social media! This blog exists because of readers’ support, and I appreciate every single bit of it.

(Later, I plan to catch us up with a look at reframing — it’s a fascinating concept to me, and it represents such a big strategy for apologists of all levels.)

Chat post day!

Avatar photo

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,...