In the comments to the post “The Defections of the Young”, someone said something that particularly caught my interest.
It’s about why modern Christians are increasingly focusing their proselytization on children rather than on adults.
Christians are starting to realize that their religion is losing its onetime glory and dominance. It’s been happening at least since I was a Christian, but the flood of people from their churches is getting so dramatic that even the most optimistic, chirpy of Christians has started to notice that something is definitely wrong.
And they’re starting to realize in turn that they must do something about these defections from their ranks, or their religion will become little more than a footnote on the pages of history books. Their responses to this hemorrhage of members range from otherworldly to totally counterproductive to downright sinister, which is where we’ll be taking up today.
A Demographic Death Spiral.
It’s a simple truth: the gods are not winning. As that link reveals, about the only major religion growing in the world is Islam, and that’s only happening because of demographics: Muslims tend to live in countries that are not exactly bastions of democracy, freedom, and liberty. Everywhere that people are (at least to some extent) free to choose their affiliations and to question their culture’s dominant beliefs, they are abandoning religion. And even in countries where people aren’t totally free to choose and question, they’re still walking away from their familial and traditional faiths.
This linked essay echoes a simple, inescapable, undeniable, unequivocal truth that I’ve seen time and again in my research: as a group or country becomes more financially secure, educated, safe, and confident, its level of religiosity decreases significantly. The folks in those communities might not actually disavow their religious affiliation, but they sure don’t tend to be as fervent and over-zealous as people are when they feel financially insecure, ignorant, unsafe, and uncertain. All sorts of scientists are starting to study this phenomenon, and their findings are largely consistent: dysfunctional hellholes are way more religious than happy, prosperous countries are.
Fundagelical Christians may never stop arguing among themselves (a squabble which that author criticizes, rightly) about exactly what America’s future demographics mean for their tribe’s own membership levels, any more than they’ll stop coming to the conclusion that the real problem here is that nice (white) (Christian) women aren’t taking one for the team and breeding more nice (white) (Christian) babies. But clearer minds in their tribe know by now that once the finger-waving and pearl-clutching is done, despite every single measure they’re taking to stop it from happening, they’re still losing vast numbers of people–especially the young people who were going to be their next generation of pew-warmers but who, as it stands now, can barely wait till they’ve moved away from their parents’ homes before fleeing their onetime religion.
I can easily see why right-wing Christian leaders are starting to panic. Unfortunately for them, their response has not been effective.
Following the Buffalo Herds.
This exodus from churches is causing two big problems for the religion’s leaders: first, membership itself is dropping, sure, but second and more importantly the donations they need to fuel their programs and agendas are drying up.
Fewer members of a church means, among other things, lower turnout at bigotry-for-Jesus rallies, fewer volunteers to provide free labor for a church, fewer people writing checks to the religion’s leaders and buying their books and swag, fewer people selling the religion’s product to non-believers, and fewer people to funnel into the ministry for the future.
Less money coming in means that those big beautiful church buildings (and big ugly ones for that matter) can’t pay their light bills or mortgages, can’t afford the well-educated seminary-graduate pastors they think they want, can’t maintain the tiny fraction of their budgets that go to their various social programs and charity drives, can’t make their buildings safe from natural disasters, and of course can’t fight progressive laws that aim to stop Christians from harassing and abusing people, like ones supporting equal marriage.
So we’re looking at a serious dent in the time, money, and manpower they can bring to bear to accomplish their goals.
As above, so below, as the saying goes, because even as a Christian I noticed that happy, prosperous people didn’t convert to Christianity much. We didn’t even tend to target those folks for proselytization. We very deliberately went after people in prison, poor and homeless people, drug addicts, sex workers, kids from horrible family situations, and the terminally ill. We barely even tried to convert healthy, successful, happy, secure, well-situated people–because we knew perfectly well that we didn’t offer them anything as a “trade up” from their current situation.
In the same way, once upon a time evangelism-minded Christians might have preyed upon kings and chieftains, the wealthy and the powerful, but in recent generations their net has shrunk considerably. Given limited time, money, and manpower, they’re (wisely, it must be conceded) focusing on hunting-grounds where they think their future new members–and more importantly those future new members’ money, time, and manpower–are most likely to be found. Without those three benefits, right-wing Christianity is doomed and their leaders know it.
The situation they’re in reminds me of some ancient nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe whose leaders having noticed that their hunting-grounds are thinning out. Once, those lands were thick and rich with buffalo (or whatever you want to imagine them hunting!). But now, for whatever reason, those herds are no longer plentiful enough to support the tribe.
These hunters’ options aren’t plentiful. They can either find new territory, or something new to hunt. But fundagelicals, in this equation, view the “territory” as theirs by divine right. They can’t give it up, which would mean altering their sales pitch–their message–in this situation. Their message is perfect, remember? In fundagelical minds, perfection implies changelessness and immutability. If people aren’t responding to their message, then the problem is the people, always, rather than the message.
So they have to find new prey to hunt to get the money, time, and manpower they know they need for their system to survive.
The ideal prey they are turning to is, increasingly, children.
The 4-14 Window.
One of the truisms in American evangelical Christianity at present is that if they want to “reach” people, they’ve got to do it when those people are way too young to be able to adequately defend against their irrational arguments and fearmongering.
This proselytization guide repeats figures I found over and over again online:
83% of all Christians make commitments to Jesus Christ between the ages of 4 and 14 (International Bible Society survey)
American children between the ages of 5 to 13 have a 32% probability of accepting Christ (Barna Research Group)
Adults age 19 and over have just a 6% probability of becoming Christians (Barna Research Group)
They might be right, too. Barna Group in particular has been studying the matter and have realized that–as the presentation above reflects–a person who reaches age 14 not believing in Christianity has only a vanishingly small chance of ever believing in it.
In a survey last year from the National Association of Evangelicals, respondents were asked how old they were when they became a Christian. 63% responded that they’d done so between 4 and 14. Another 34% claimed they were 15-29; only 2% replied that they’d been over 30 years old.
So Christian leaders call that stretch of time wherein their message sounds more plausible to people the “4-14 window,” and they are trying harder than they ever have to get their sales pitch in front of kids that age because they know that this is their one real opportunity to cultivate future members.
A Dreadful Necessity.
A few years ago, this new trend in fundagelical thinking took me totally by surprise.
A friend of mine mentioned that some Baptist friends of his had allowed their daughter–a tyke of 5 or 6 years–to be baptized.
That news seriously startled me.
I’d been a member of a very similar denomination as a teenager and it was simply IN-CON-CEEEVABULL to imagine a Baptist pastor happily baptizing a child that young.
Way back in the 1980s, child evangelism was seen as pretty skeevy by the churches I was involved with. Catholics baptized little babies who didn’t even know what sin was, but once I became Protestant at 16 I learned to take pride, as my peers did, in only believing in dunking people once they’d reached the “age of accountability.”
The term is a bit of Christianese that means “an age where the kid knows what sin is, that s/he is a sinner, and can reasonably be expected to understand what it is to declare allegiance to Jesus.” Christians often believe that a child who dies before reaching that age gets an auto-in ticket to Heaven.
But oh, how things have changed. Now it isn’t hard at all to find impassioned exhortations to Christians to evangelize little children. That link notes the president of Youth for Christ International as saying, “Any evangelism after high school isn’t evangelism. It’s really salvage.”
(That must be why Jesus spent all his time in schools and playgrounds, in the Gospels.)
A Case Study in Hypocrisy.
The person who wrote that exhortation above, David Shibley, laboriously explains exactly why his tribe should be indoctrinating children:
Christians seem to be the only ones who believe they should wait to influence children’s minds. Advertisers don’t wait. Child abusers don’t wait. Neither do humanist educators, false religions and cults, or Satan.
He lists five different groups that prey upon children. Let’s whisk through the list:
Yes, but compassionate people know that’s bad and we’re taking pains to stop advertisers from unduly influencing children. We know that children’s minds haven’t usually learned to critically weigh claims or assess information, so we try to protect them from stuff like aggressive advertising.
2. Child abusers.
Very true, but here, again, we seek to protect children from this influence. We know that children don’t have a clear understanding of boundaries and cannot give meaningful consent–so we have all kinds of laws meant to stop adults from manipulating and hurting them.
3. Humanist educators.
He may be referring to the teaching of science in science classrooms rather than his religion’s brand of indoctrination masquerading as science, since that kind of wording is a common dogwhistle to a tribe primed to see the whole evolution vs. Creationism battle as being fought by atheists/humanists/naturalists/liberals and TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like himself. In actuality, humanists are keenly aware of issues like consent, and thus they are far more likely than a Christian is to support children’s rights and oppose indoctrination attempts of any kind.
4. False religions and cults.
I’m not really sure what he’s talking about here. Most of the cult members trying to indoctrinate children are, well, fundagelicals. I’ve never heard of any other cults seeking to indoctrinate kids. But his tribe certainly thinks this is true.
Yes, because “Satan” really loves to deceive children. He had to throw that in, because it’s all about ramping the threat level up to 11 with fundagelicals.
Here’s why I went through this list of boogeymen:
First, he’s expressing a really common idea in fundagelicalism lately. I ran across this sentiment over and over again: this fearmongering and stoking of anger and hatred against those nameless, faceless enemies who seek to indoctrinate THE CHILDREN, OH WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN.
Secondly, having gone through a list of people seeking to indoctrinate children, this author firmly joins those horrible awful no-good people by insisting that it’s important for his group to do the exact same thing.
It’s totally okay to indoctrinate children, influence them, prey upon them, and manipulate a group that the author understands to be “notably tender,” as long as it’s being done for the right reasons, because in his opinion it’s not important to actually “fully understand the Gospel to be saved” and hell, even adults don’t always understand it, just get ’em dunked.
We saw this kind of horrifying double standard at work in the documentary Jesus Camp, where the fundagelical leader of the camp, Becky Fischer, insisted that it was totally okay to proselytize children because Muslims were doing it too apparently.
And this is all stuff that’s totally alien and foreign to me. My old church was totally down with Bible studies for children and with exposing them to a very strong message, but actual proselytization was generally considered off-limits until the child had demonstrated a very clear understanding of what was going on (at least insofar as anybody ever did, granted).
What astonishes me is that this screed was written in the 1980s–meaning that this guy was was ahead of the curve in a lot of ways. Indeed, now sites like GotQuestions.Org (a large apologetics site) insist that “children should be evangelized” and laud organized groups that seek to do so.
Other churches and denominations consider Vacation Bible School, a sort of summer-long program of Bible study and activities for children that is aimed at desperate parents who need somewhere to stick their kids during school break, an absolute essential every year. These “schools'” organizers justify its enormous expense because, in one pastor’s words, it gives them a “chance to share the gospel with kids.”
They all seem to take it as read that they should be evangelizing children, that it is right and proper to do so, and that it is an “investment into the mission” (as a LifeWay minister put it), meaning that it will return dividends of money, time, and manpower in the future as those evangelized children grow up and take their place as Christianity’s next generation of active members.
Yeah, About That: A Ray of Sunshine, Perhaps.
As people increasingly grow up and leave Christianity, they are likely to come to some uncomfortable conclusions about all this childhood proselytization they endured. As society grows into an understanding of children’s rights, too, we may start seeing religious indoctrination in the same way we view other forms of influence-peddling (like aggressive advertising).
Christianity’s message has shrunk to sounding credible only during a span of 10 years in a person’s life. People older than that hear the message for the first time and think it sounds totally preposterous; they cannot believe anything so patently false or absurd. It takes a child to do that (and many children don’t even buy it–I’ve got friends who rejected Christianity before they hit double digits in age).
So only a small subset of people actually seem reachable by Christianity’s leaders.
But as we’ve seen and discussed over the past few weeks, even that subset is leaving.
Christian leaders can’t count on them to stay either. A huge majority of them are leaving the religion once they hit college age. And as our society becomes more secure and functional, fewer and fewer people are going to seek to “trade up” by joining a religion that seems designed to appeal only to those wretches who have no other options whatsoever and don’t mind joining a religion full of dishonest people who follow a god who is apparently totally down with dishonesty.
Put that way, what’s not to like?
We’re going to talk next about Christians’ reactions to the losses piling up on them–see you this weekend!
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