Evangelicals commit overreach for a reason

If they can't get to unchurched kids in public schools, they know they are doomed

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Earlier today, ABC News reported on yet another example of evangelical overreach. In West Virginia, public school students found themselves in the middle of a midday evangelical revival on school grounds. There is absolutely no way this should have happened or been allowed, and yet it was. There’s a reason it was, of course: Evangelicals are fighting for every single thing that’s important to them: dominance, cultural power, numbers, everything. And they know that victory will come to the side that owns the hearts and minds of today’s children.

(When I talk about evangelical recruitment as a sales process, that’s what it is. The product evangelists sell is active membership in their own religious group. That’s all it is. The only reason they push belief is that it’s super-hard to sell their actual product to non-believers.)

Evangelicals and West Virginia: an overview

West Virginia is one of many states in the US that is overrun with evangelicals. According to Pew Research, 78% of the state identifies as Christian, with 39% identifying as evangelical. (Of the rest, 29% belong to mainline Protestant denominations, while 6% are Catholic.) So, of all the Christians in West Virginia, most turn out to be evangelical. Only 18% of adults there identify as unaffiliated (1% atheist, 1% agnostic, 16% “nothing in particular”).

Though evangelicals are hardly a majority in terms of numbers, they are nonetheless the biggest single group of Christians in the state. La Wiki considers it, therefore, to be a firm part of the so-called “Bible Belt.” Accordingly, it sits well under the thumb of its largely-evangelical masters.

Best of all, there are lots and lots of non-evangelicals around for those evangelicals to prey upon and control.

Perhaps thanks to its religious demographics, West Virginia functions as a model dystopia. According to a local news site in 2019, the state ranked 43rd in the nation as “Best State to Live.” OUCH! Thank God for Mississippi, eh? In fact, West Virginia ranked 47th in education and health and 50th in quality of life. (That includes access to public transportation, weather, and entertainment options. But only Alabama beats them for affordability. Um, hooray?)

Compared to other states, they rank almost first for highest teen pregnancy rate, have a huge divorce rate and domestic violence too, almost have the highest percentage of people on welfare, suffer nearly the worst average income, and have the very worst rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation.

If evangelicals dream of a Republic of Gilead, they would be well advised to look to West Virginia for a peek into how an evangelical theocracy runs.

The 4-14 Window and why it matters so much

For many years now, evangelicals have been fluttering and wringing their hands over what they call the “4-14 Window.” The numbers indicate people’s ages. Simply put, it means that if evangelicals cannot fully indoctrinate a child between the ages of 4 and 14, then they have next to no chance of ever recruiting that person later in life.

In addition, this concept means that their recruitment and sales processes have almost no effect on adults who were not immersed in the required ideals and concepts throughout childhood.

I cannot possibly overstate the importance of the 4-14 Window.

It informs almost everything evangelicals are doing now to destroy the separation of church and state. Without understanding the 4-14 window and its vital importance to evangelical recruitment processes, nobody can really understand just how frantic and desperate evangelical leaders are getting to sneak into children’s lives without their parents’ consent.

The 4-14 Window, illustrated with statistics

In the past, I used to use a particular church link to access a PDF download called “Leading a Child to Christ.” That download is gone from their site, but thankfully someone archived it. (Always, always archive Christian stuff. Always. They memory-hole material constantly, especially if it makes them look bad later.) And yes, I can see why this download vanished.

In every single way, it absolutely destroys evangelicals’ claims of following a good, objectively-real god. Instead, what they present are simple psychological facts–and the absolute need to manipulate vulnerable children into belief.

Here’s the first page of the handout:

This image surely haunts the nightmares of all evangelicals.
Archived copy of “Leading a Child to Christ.”

Of course, all of the research involved here comes from Christian sources. Thus, it is simply not trustworthy. The people creating it do so to sell more stuff to panicky Christian leaders. However, the evangelicals creating this handout sure thought it was real. So that’s what matters here.

Where the kids are, 2022

Right now, almost nobody actually regularly attends church every single week. A while ago, a boots-on-the-ground study estimated that about 17% of Americans are in church on any given Sunday. For what it’s worth, I think that’s about accurate. However, I suspect it’s declined since that study was done.

(Long ago, I noticed that Christian survey houses had at some point begun defining “regular church attendance” as showing up for 3 out of their church’s past 8 Sunday services. You can see this exact definition in use here, on p. 3.)

All these statistics tell evangelical leaders that almost no children are walking through church doors and parking their butts in Sunday School seats. The younger people are, the less likely they are to be regular church attendees. (Of course, if they’re kids and have no real choice in the matter, then they attend with their parents. But if the parents don’t attend, then neither do the kids, usually).

Getting the 4-14 Window open

If evangelicals wish to indoctrinate unchurched children, then they can certainly offer sneaky indoctrination attempts that draw in their targets. Vacation Bible Schools, fake parties like the “pizza blast” that converted me as a teen, even “bus ministries” can be used this way. However, these efforts rely on parents to send their kids to them, and that doesn’t seem like it’s working well these days. The most secular and unchurched of parents certainly won’t do this unless they’re desperate for childcare–and they will likely be watching for excessive evangelism attempts.

So generally, evangelical evangelists must go to where those children are, and they must get those children alone, without caretakers to stop them from traumatizing and manipulating their kids.

And these days, mostly that’s going to mean going into public schools.

Public schools represent the one place evangelicals can for-sure find young unchurched children without anyone around to stop them.

That is why evangelicals keep sneaking into public schools.

That, right there, that is why.

That’s what this whole Creationism-in-schools thing is all about

If you ever wondered why evangelicals keep trying to sneak Creationism into public schools’ biology classes, this is why. The 4-14 window explains everything.

While they’re still vulnerable to these sorts of threats, children must learn that an invisible wizard wished everything into existence in a week. Moreover, they must learn that they must obey the people speaking for this invisible wizard, or else he will burn their ghosts alive forever after they die.

In addition, this is why evangelical publications like Christianity Today have, for many decades now, tried hard to encourage evangelicals to become public school teachers. At that link, we find this exhortation:

In an increasingly mobile and secular society, the public-school classroom has become one of the few places where all aspects of community life meet. In the ultimate urban complex, the Christian public-school teacher may become a prime home missionary. [. . .]

Evangelicals need also to encourage those Christians who are already in the classroom. The National Educators Fellowship, an organization of Christian professional educators in the public schools, seeks to provide such encouragement. Local congregations can assist in strengthening existing chapters and in organizing new ones

Evangelical Responsibility in Public Education,” Christianity Today, February 1971

You may rest assured that evangelical leaders are making even more of these sorts of exhortations these days. Perhaps more than anybody warming the pews, they are well aware of the urgent need to get evangelists into public schools.

The West Virginia evangelism event

From the news stories I’ve seen of this event, it looks like the most recent example of evangelical overreach went about like this:

A local high school chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) hired an evangelist to come to Huntington High School. About 1000 kids attend this public school. The evangelist, 25-year-old Nik Walker, came there to preach up a storm during the school’s free-study period. (It’s legal to hold voluntarily-attended religious events during school hours, but only during such noninstructional periods.) He’s apparently been evangelizing since his teens, and has haunted the area for a couple weeks now.

Apparently, the FCA had circulated some kind of sign-up sheet for this event. If so, then it is beyond obvious that a few teachers at the school either didn’t know about it or didn’t care to ensure that only signed-up students attended it.

SoMeHoW, wE jUsT dOn’T kNoW hOw, a bunch of kids who hadn’t signed up got roped into attending. ABC says that “two teachers mistakenly brought their entire class.”

I don’t suppose we need to wonder about those teachers’ religious orientation. Do we?

A typical evangelical evangelism rally

During the forced rally, Nik Walker told those attending to “close their eyes and raise their arms in prayer,” then told them to “give their lives over to Jesus so they could find purpose and salvation.” He also tried to talk the kids there into attending the nearby evangelical church, Christ Temple.

Naturally, Walker threatened the children who refused to cooperate with his demands. He told these dissenters that they would go to Hell after they died. Of course. Goodness, evangelicals wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they had to sell their product without threats. (This guy sounds beyond ridiculous to me, if you hadn’t guessed my opinion.)

I’m not sure how many students total were brought to the rally. The few photos I’ve seen don’t seem like Walker got anywhere near the school’s total enrollment, maybe a couple hundred tops. But we do know that about a hundred students walked out–despite some teachers, wE dOn’T kNoW wHo, giving the impression that nobody was allowed to leave.

As they left, the departing students chanted slogans about freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. (Interestingly, ABC also reports that the school refused to allow journalists to cover the demonstration.)

Afterward, one of the students who walked out started a petition that he will present to the county’s Board of Education. The petition demands an apology and tighter restrictions around religious presentations at the school. About 75 students signed it.

Don’t expect anyone to listen, though

I hope the school board listens, but I doubt they will. In all of the stories I’ve seen of the walkout, it’s crystal-clear to me that the adults involved here believe they are these unrelated teens’ Designated Adults.

And thus, they know what’s best for these unrelated teens.

And thus, any laws they break and any mores they cross are simply collateral damage in the sales process. Indeed, I’ve never met any evangelicals who felt constrained to follow the law when it threatened to interfere with recruitment.

something something, moral responsibility to break laws for Team Jesus, blah blah blah, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, blah blah blah

If evangelicals can’t sneak into public schools, then they are doomed

It comes to this.

It’s really this simple.

And it’s really this stark.

If evangelicals ever finally get stopped from sneaking their indoctrination into schools, then they are doomed to irrelevance forever. (Just imagine how a bunch of authoritarians on the #WINNING JESUS TEAM feel about this knowledge!)

Evangelicals can pretty up and mask their frantic desperation however they please. However, the facts remain.

Despite the alarming political and governmental power they keep amassing, they are losing more members, credibility, and cultural power every year.

Every person who leaves their groups also takes their wallet with them. That is money evangelicals desperately need to amass the political and governmental power they want.

Already, churches are making tough choices about what bills to pay and which staffers to let go. Eventually, many just can’t make the calculus work, and they simply close forever.

(After all, it was that student group that hired that incompetent-sounding huckster–rather than the church they attended. I don’t wonder why. Sure, it keeps the paperwork more legal. But I bet the church can ill afford the expense, whereas a student group can raise, pool, and spend resources far more easily.)

Evangelicals don’t have a product that religious consumers naturally want. They never did. It took governmental-level power to make Christianity dominant in the first place. So, when it comes to shoring up their numbers in the modern age, they can’t make sales in any honest way.

Therefore, we must expect nothing but lots more of these sketchy, dishonest shenanigans from evangelicals in the near future. They’re up against the wall, at least in their own minds.

And they are fighting for their entire future.

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,...