Hi and welcome back! Not long ago, I ran across this opinion piece about evangelism. It involves a bright-eyed evangelical guy who’s convinced that he’s finally figured out how to get the flocks out into the selling fields. In his words, churches just need to ‘reset’ evangelism! See how easy that is? Today, let’s see what this evangelism reset involves.
(I use a sales paradigm to describe evangelism. The product evangelists sell is not their beliefs and it’s definitely not their god. Evangelists sell one product only: active, dues-paying membership in their particular flavor of Christianity.)
Everyone, Meet Evangelism Team Leader Rob Patterson.
Back in January 2020, the Kentucky Baptist Convention hired Rob Patterson to be its Evangelism Team Leader.
Just imagine what a world January 2020 was. It shone brightly at the very end of the Before Times. But it also existed a solid year after the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) itself had been rocked by its sex-abuse megascandal.
In the middle of all that, Rob Patterson swept into the job. He sounded thrilled:
“As my wife, Jenny, and I were praying over the opportunity we found ourselves laughing with incredulous joy. What an incredible privilege to be at the front lines of evangelism, leading a team devoted to encouraging and equipping Kentucky Baptists to keep sharing the greatest news ever!” [Source]
I also see that in January 2021, Patterson held some kind of seven-site simulcast evangelism event. In that link, Patterson said this simulcast formed part of his initiative to “reach each of the 1,728,681 homes in the commonwealth with the gospel of Jesus.” Yes. Because someone might have gone their whole lives in Kentucky without some fundagelical trying even once to recruit them into an authoritarian church group.
Patterson has the requisite background in evangelism that SBC leaders like to see. It sounds like he was born in the saddle. And he wants more Southern Baptists to go and do likewise.
But that’s way easier said than done.
Getting Evangelicals Into Evangelism.
This problem has plagued evangelical leaders for years. As we see in another Baptist Press post:
“A lot of our evangelism attempts take place in isolation,” [Eddy] Pearson said. “We’re told that we’re equipped and to go get ‘em. That sounds good, but as the state evangelism director in Arizona, I know that 90 percent of our people don’t do it. There’s a great fear in evangelizing.”
The minority, the 10 percent, will remain devoted to personal evangelism, he said. The key is to get the others to join them. [Source]
See? It’s just that easy. Find the key!
I’ve written off and on over the years about how preposterously difficult it’s been for evangelical leaders to get their flocks to evangelize even a little sometimes. Evangelical faux-research houses like Barna Group release nonstop shoddy surveys — like this one from 2019 and this “outreach initiative” thing from 2013 (don’t miss p. 21) — to spur frantic pastors to buy their evangelism products. In 2018, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) even created a special EVANGELISM TASK FORCE to study the problem.
Through it all, one thing remains the same:
The flocks still don’t wanna.
The Whales and Freebie Players of Evangelism.
Did you catch that 90% thing in the above quote? That’s not an accident.
Christianity is a lot like the freemium games on our phones. Like those games, Christian groups play host to tons of freebie players. These players show up to their churches, take whatever is on offer there, and then they just leave again.
Churches themselves find little to no tangible support from this vast pool of freebie players. Freebie players offer no money of their own, very little of their time, and no resources. Instead, they actively take the church’s resources for themselves.
Also just as we see in freemium gaming, a very small group of players keeps the game — er, the church running. They donate the lion’s share of money, resources, and time to the group. In gaming, developers call those people whales. It’s not a pejorative, just a reference to their outsized contributions compared to those from freebie players. In churches, pastors might know them as high-rollers or something like that.
When it comes to evangelism, though, the situation grows way more dire for churches than for freemium game developers. Churches absolutely depend on recruitment to keep growing. However, modern pastors can’t do that recruitment themselves — if they ever really could. Thus, it falls upon churches’ members to recruit new members somehow.
Officially, evangelical flocks are totes on board with the idea of recruitment — meaning evangelism. After all, the very name evangelical evokes evangelism. Indeed, evangelicals tend to define themselves as a group by their dedication to evangelism.
However, the flocks don’t, don’t, don’t wanna actually go out and evangelize.
Even more amazingly, they never really have.
Yet More Hilariously Failed Evangelism Advice.
To combat this problem, Rob Patterson wrote a post not long ago for Baptist Press. In it, he suggested his brand-new no-fail way to get the flocks into evangelism. Churches just need to do a “reset” of their evangelism system! That’s it! Seriously! It’s just that easy! He titles his post:
An evangelism ‘reset’
And then, he compares IT troubleshooting to prodding the flocks into evangelism:
“Have you restarted your device?” It is the first question from any IT help desk. Repeated frustration has taught us that when a favorite app or software program begins running slow or grinds to a halt, we probably need a reset. Some internal process has become stuck in an ineffective loop. Usually, a quick shutdown and restart is all that it takes to get things running smoothly again.
As churches restart more and more programs after the infamous shutdowns of the past year, we must not miss the opportunity to hit a true reset on our evangelism strategies. Otherwise, we may quickly find ourselves stuck in the same ineffective loops all over again.
Hm. So how should churches “reset” their evangelism strategies?
Well, he tells us in “five simple questions” how to do this “reset.” So let’s check them out.
What I found interesting was that some of them aren’t bad advice really. Most, however, are.
A Simple Listicle.
First and foremost, churches need to re-evaluate the effectiveness of their outreach programs. If a program isn’t working to bring in new recruits, then the church should trim it out of the budget. That’ll sting some churches that are really attached to their Vacation Bible School-type programs, but he’s not wrong.
Second, churches must pursue their outreach programs with “intentionality.” This second point is pure gibberish Christianese. Evangelicals in particular get really hung up on this buzzword, thinking that if they just go at a pointless, useless program with “intentionality” (whatever that means — I’ve never once seen it tangibly defined), then it’ll start working.
Third, prioritize budgeting and resources to programs that look like they’re bringing in more people than others. Well, duh. What’s funny is that Rob Patterson thinks his imaginary friend has a single thing to do with that success. If his god is “clearly moving” to cause success for a silly outreach program for an SBC church, but he doesn’t lift a finger to save thousands of SBC children from SBC predators, then he’s an evil god and the SBC’s members are evil as well for following a god like that.
Fourth, ask “what is missing?” In other words, ask what the neighborhood around the church needs. I’m guessing he means charity or programs or something. However, if he’s only asking because he wants to sell to them more effectively, I don’t think it’s going to help him much. People know when they’re being targeted for sales attempts.
Last, make evangelism “personal enough.” More “intentionality” gibberish, but it amounts to prodding the flocks to make more sales attempts on their own time.
And that, friends, is how a church can hit its “reset” button.
That’ll totally save Christianity from its decline!
Could This Listicle Work, Though?
The real question is how effective this “reset” listicle could be in the wild.
Christians yearning to reverse their religion’s decline don’t tend to look at the situation like a scientist. Instead, they lump all the buzzwords and trendy ideas they can into a listicle, then release it with a claim that Jesus likes it best. They don’t test their methods or quantify their results, ever.
And indeed, Rob Patterson gives us no indication whatsoever that his listicle is trustworthy or worth following. Instead, he presents it to readers with a flourish. If someone actually tries to do it (gauzy Christianese gibberish and all) and does not succeed in drawing more recruits to their church, well, that’s on them. The market’s flooded by now with starry-eyed evangelism reformists all hawking their own personal quirky take on the problem and its solutions.
Patterson isn’t thinking like someone in a dying industry. He’s still thinking like someone dominating their niche. He doesn’t understand salesmanship or marketing — especially if he thinks an imaginary friend makes any difference at all. So he’s not going to begin with an analysis of his target market, much less study that market’s needs, much less tailor a product that will appeal to them, much less offer it at a price that market is willing to pay.
Worst of all, he completely ignores the massive scandals rocking evangelicalism right now. He says not a word about QAnon’s addling of the flocks, nor Trumpism turning them all into traitors and ghouls, nor the sex-abuse megascandal reaching all the way up into his denomination’s top ranks and all across the world of its missionaries, nor the racism and sexism that even today spill out constantly into the light.
Reset all you want. If your churches are known shielders of the very worst of humanity’s criminals, it doesn’t matter how “intentional” you are. Your market ain’t coming through those doors.
Speaking of Effectiveness.
I was curious about Rob Patterson’s ideas. So, I took the liberty of checking out the past few years of his home state’s numbers compared with the general SBC’s performance from 2018-2020. The Kentucky Baptist Convention hired Patterson in early 2020, so I wanted a baseline of where his state’s SBC subgroup was before and after he joined its staff.
(Annual reports contain the data from the previous year. So the 2018 link goes to the 2019 Annual Report, etc. To find this info, search the doc for the word “baptisms” till you find the big metrics table. The state-specific stuff follows shortly after it.)
Total baptisms: 246,442. Kentucky: 10,642 (4.31% of total).
Total membership: 14,813,234. Kentucky: 601,962 (4.06% of total).
Total baptisms: 235,748. Kentucky: 11,024 (4.68% of total).
Total membership: 14,525,579. Kentucky: 644,277 (4.43% of total).
Total baptisms: 123,160. Kentucky: 6,701 (5.44% of total).
Total membership: 14,089,947. Kentucky: 559,002. (3.97% of total).
That is interesting. I’m not skilled enough in stats to know if that sudden jump at the end in baptisms means Patterson’s tireless Christianese parroting is doing anything statistically significant or not, nor if that sudden drop in Kentucky membership means much.
But it sure looks like Kentucky’s evangelism leaders have increased their state’s churn rate by focusing too much on recruitment of new customers.
In other words, while he’s been getting everyone busy with evangelism, he clean forgot about retention. And somehow, Jesus didn’t “clearly move” to prevent the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s existing customers from leaving.
Evangelism and the Business of a Church.
A poorly-performing business tends to lurch along from one extreme to another.
If you’ve worked any length of time for a call center, you know exactly what I mean. One week the company is frantic about handle time. The next, they’re snarling about the tech people replacing too many units and offering too many refunds. The next, they’re setting everything on fire over quality assurance scores. And then, we circle back around to handle time.
The reason declining companies lurch like that is because workers can’t prioritize everything at once. Tell the agents that handle time is what matters, and they will blaze through calls. But that impacts a lot of other metrics. A super-fast call gets lower quality scores and provides the agent with less time to troubleshoot (which results in more product replacements). If the agent works in sales, faster calls mean less time to pitch anything. And if you tell agents to just balance everything, then the handle time goes through the roof.
Something has to give, when it comes to panicking businesses in decline. They must pick something to cherish and do it right. Sometimes that’ll mean forging ahead with a new customer base they can actually please and which can actually support them as a business. Other times, it’ll mean taking extra-good care of their existing customers.
And evangelicals haven’t yet figured out where to land there.
I’m guessing this “reset” idea will join the dustbin of all those other failed ideas from all those other failed evangelical reformists. But it’ll at least keep some evangelicals busy and distracted while the denomination plummets further into irrelevance. So let’s not get in their way!
NEXT UP: The red flag of hypocrisy. See you on Friday!
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