This past week we were talking about the 2011 book You Lost Me by David Kinnaman. The book was about why modern Christian evangelical churches were losing so many young-adult members, and how they could possibly reverse that trend. Christians either agreed wholeheartedly with this book’s ideas or they hated every word of it. Either way, however, nothing whatsoever changed in the modern Christian evangelical church as a result of it. Today I’ll show you why nothing changed, and why nothing ever actually could.
It’s More Than a Buggy Whip Situation. It’s Worse.
Often non-believers, in describing Christianity’s decline, use comparisons like being a Christian nowadays is like being a buggy-whip manufacturer in the dawning Age of Automobiles. By this we mean that Christians are offering a product that modern progress has rendered archaic and unnecessary–perhaps even laughably so.
It’s a valid comparison to make. Once upon a time, just about every family had to own a horse and buggy to get around in, and obviously they all needed buggy whips for their buggies. But when cars came out and became accessible to even middle- and lower-class families, horses and buggies became a greater expense than their benefits could provide, while automobiles became far easier to operate and way less expensive than the old buggies had ever been.
But more than that, automobiles suffered way fewer of the hassles of horse and buggy ownership, and they offered way more benefits than the old transportation method had. So everyone moved to automobiles, and did it so quickly and so completely that doubtless a great many business owners catering to the old market suffered enormously as a result. Meanwhile, families that still insisted on buying, equipping, and maintaining the old mode of transportation were increasingly seen as out-of-step and old-fashioned (one sees a discussion about exactly this in the novel The Blue Castle, set around the 1920s in backwoods Canada; a popularity-driven girl in the story is described as trying to talk her father into getting one to stay in fashion).
A smart and savvy business owner in that situation would see the writing on the wall and adapt to the new market–perhaps offering accessories for automobiles that mimicked the old style in a hope of capturing a nostalgia market, or offering all-new accessories designed to make automobile usage easier (such as the driving gloves and coats one sees in ads from the 1910s and 1920s).
But fundagelical business owners in that exact situation would be following a very different strategy. They would:
- Go on and on and on about how horse-driven transportation really is the very best.
- Try to pass legislation favoring horse-drawn buggies over automobiles while also penalizing the owners of automobiles in significant ways.
- Accost people going about their everyday lives to try to persuade them to give up their automobiles in favor of horse-drawn buggies, going even so far as threatening them with harm if they don’t agree.
- Try to sneak their pro-buggy ideas into school civics and science classes to indoctrinate young people into believing the same things they do.
- Develop entire libraries’ worth of pseudoscience and fallacy-riddled arguments supporting their long-debunked ideas.
- Brutally police their ranks to find and punish all the members slinking off to buy cars despite the party line–and suffer scandal after scandal as their leaders’ cars get discovered in their driveways.
- And then, when all of that totally failed to increase buggy sales, they’d blame automobile enthusiasts for not falling for any of their blather.
Reading this list, it feels surreal and unthinkable for a business owner to behave in any of these ways. We sometimes see them do similar things and it’s just so bizarre and out-of-the-ordinary that the business owners behaving like that often reach viral status as people share and talk about their meltdowns and poor decisions. We recognize what they’re doing as ultimately self-destructive, and most business owners would agree completely with us there.
And yet Christian leaders and their most fervent followers do everything on this list and more and worse to try to maintain their product’s popularity and cultural dominance.
The Sin of Change.
That’s what one gets when one exalts any particular way of doing business as the will of an all-powerful god who is thought to value consistency, constancy, and sameness in every single way.
People change–constantly, without notice, and despite everything they might do to avoid it. In this, we are like everything else in our world, which undergoes changes at the same pace and to the same extent we do. Smart philosophical systems accept this change and stress the value of adaptability and resilience, and teach adherents to navigate change gracefully.
But broken systems can’t do that. The people who are drawn to them are afraid of change for a variety of reasons. Their leaders push a system that never ever changes (except when it does), one headed by a god who can be counted upon to be the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (except when he isn’t), and one whose followers seriously think that they are as close to 1st-century Christianity as it is possible to get (except that they totally aren’t–even leaving aside the question of exactly when Christianity got started in the first place!).
When an absence of change gets counted as a divine attribute, you can expect that the presence of change will quickly be seen as the opposite.
That’s why you so often see Christians trying to hold people to promises they made as little children about their future vocations and positions in ministry, their marriage prospects, even their adherence to Christianity itself, and why Christians don’t even hesitate to extract these promises from people who are far too young to legally consent to anything about their futures. To them, a promise made in toddlerhood is binding for a lifetime–if they choose to see it that way.
They don’t even come close to understanding why their demands are a completely unacceptable predation upon vulnerable little minds and hearts. Consent itself–so maddeningly inconsistent in their eyes, so subjective, so completely impossible to override or trample over or negate without instantly becoming the villain in that scenario–is the essence of change, while their authoritarian leanings are rigidity personified.
And for a very, very long time, Christian leaders went along like this, becoming more ossified and more rigid and more afraid of change with every passing year.
They made this bed, and now they are realizing that only a few of their followers want to sleep in it.
Two Different Markets.
A big part of Christianity’s decline is that it no longer offers a product that people must buy. That includes even the nicer, more compassionate flavors of the religion, whose leaders can no longer offer anything that adherents can’t get elsewhere for far less cost and effort.
But the more conservative flavors of the religion are discovering that their market has broken into two segments: an older customer base and a significantly younger one. And oh, sure, they’re losing all of their customer groups to some extent, but that younger part of the base is what is hemorrhaging now and the worst, so that’s what they’ve been focusing on.
The older customers are pretty easy to please; they want 24/7 pandering and they want to hear the same old bullshit they’ve always heard. They want their fears titillated and their rage stoked; they want to hate and be terrorized by the same kinds of enemies they grew up hating and fearing. They want to hear that they are superior to every other tribe, and that their tribe will win and stick it hard to all the other tribes who foolishly stood against theirs.
However, their younger customer base wants totally different things than the older customers want. They respond to completely different marketing. Worse, what attracts the older segment repels the younger–and vice versa.
There is no way possible to create marketing that appeals to both groups at once. The only way to appeal to younger people is to substantially change all the stuff they don’t like, but the older base likes that stuff and will revolt if a single bit of it changes.
Playing Both Sides.
When you see a fundagelical leader who seems like he’s trying to institute any kind of change to the way they do things, look carefully to see how substantive and meaningful those changes are. Chances are, especially if it’s a very established leader and he’s talking to that older customer base, that the proposed changes are merely semantic in nature and do not represent any real change in the way fundagelicals “do church.”
That’s what David Kinnaman is doing in You Lost Me. He presents himself as a hip, totally gets-it younger Christian dude who sincerely wants to draw back all the young Christians who have rightly abandoned their childhood faith. There’s nothing about this book that indicates that this is anything but a very sincere desire of his. He is deeply aware of the criticisms that younger people offer of his religion, as well; nothing in his reports of their concerns seemed really off-base (though I’d have some questions about exactly how he worded some of his questions to them).
However, he also is a member of the older segment of that tribe. He’s on board with all of their culture wars and agrees with all of their platforms. He thinks that equal marriage is a terrible thing, that abortion is always wrong and must be criminalized, and that the scientific method cannot be trusted. He doesn’t want to lose or change any of that stuff–indeed, he’s right there cheerleading all of it and perpetuating whatever bit of it he can.
So he combines that knowledge of young people’s criticisms with his desire to keep everything the same, and comes out with a strategy that is so Bizarro-world and so surreal that it defies description to anybody outside looking in at his tribe:
He tries to cloak the old strategies with new wording and phrasing, and to make no change at all look like awesome changes that young people can trust and support.
He’s trying to keep the older Christians while drawing back the younger ones. He’s trying to avoid alienating anybody at all.
And as events would quickly prove, he failed miserably and completely at both goals.
The Problem With Rigidity.
Very rigid people, like the legions of authoritarian followers found in right-wing Christianity, don’t take kindly even to those kinds of reframing games. That’s why so many of them got upset with David Kinnaman and his book; they didn’t realize that he wasn’t actually proposing that they do a single thing differently–he was only suggesting that they talk about their actions in a different way.
But a weird thing happens to marginalized people when they are constantly plied with meaningless change by oppressors who promise constantly to change and yet never do: They learn to spot those false promises and can see meaningless faux-change a mile a way.
That is why a fundagelical wife knows that her husband’s flowers, entreaties, and apologies mean absolutely nothing after a big blowup; she knows that her husband is not going to actually become a supportive, compassionate, fair-minded full partner in the marriage. She might be fooled the first time (or three) that he offers her these gestures, but very quickly she’ll see them for what they are: gestures that mean way more to him than they do to her, and which do not actually result in any kind of meaningful change in her everyday life.
She knows that without a huge shake-up in the very way that her husband sees marriage and sees her as a human being, nothing can change. Until that shake-up happens, every single thing her husband offers her is nothing but a placebo–a salve made only of grease and wishes that won’t cure the sickness underneath the skin.
That’s why young people were not fooled by David Kinnaman’s double-speak, but it’s also why older people got enraged that he even went as far as pretending that he was talking about real change. Just as the majority of fundagelical husbands are damned proud of pursuing a marriage model that could only be called misogyny as the bonus plan, the majority of older fundagelicals are damned proud of pursuing an oppressive, repressive, regressive, transgressive social model that is broken to its very core.
Had he persisted and even gotten major leaders in the religion to buy into his ideas, chances are really good that a lot of those older Christians would have rebelled and headed for churches that did not offer wheedling promises to young people. Even false promises of change are enraging to people who despise change that deeply. However, in that case there is very little assurance that any young people would have been tricked into joining–and if they did get tricked into joining, there’s even less assurance that they’d stick around for very long after discovering the truth about the smoke-and-mirror act that their elders had perpetrated upon them.
That really is the dilemma facing Christian leaders. They cannot continue as they are and hope to attract young people or even to keep the ones they currently have. But any suggestion of changing their system in any way will drive away older Christians while not ensuring that younger ones come into the fold.
They can either keep one customer base for certain and in keeping that base lose the other bases, or they can try to appeal to other bases but almost certainly lose the only one they have for sure now.
David Kinnaman hung out his marketing shingle in hopes that his technique would appeal to church leaders and work to reverse the trends that were even then gaining steam in his religion. The ironic thing is that his brand of false promises is the main tactic I see today in Christian leadership as they respond to growing losses of young people from their membership rolls, even though that tactic fails just as resoundingly as anything else that those leaders have tried.
It’s like he created a buggy that was labeled “Model T Automobile” in hopes that young people would purchase more of them.
And then he and his fans were just shocked–SHOCKED, YES SHOCKED THEY WERE!–that young people realized that these were not automobiles and refused to buy them.
That’s not even the worst part, though.
You know what the very worst part of this whole farcical charade really is?
It’s that, having totally failed in their quest to trick young people into buying buggies when they need automobiles, Christian leaders’ stated solution appears to be to find newer and more innovative ways to trick young people into buying products they neither need nor want through increasingly-clever disguises.
That’s why change can’t happen and won’t happen in fundagelicalism. They’ve left nothing to chance on this one. They’ve created a system in which meaningful change cannot occur, and then backed themselves into a corner because meaningful change is the only thing that could save their sinking ship at this point. They’re so set in their ways that they would literally rather go down with that ship than make any meaningful changes to how they do business–because the only customer base they have would rebel at that point, thanks to the careful and thorough indoctrination they’ve been receiving from those exact same leaders for the past five or six decades.
It’d be hilarious if they weren’t causing so much damage to the rest of society as they flail around trying to recapture their onetime dominance. Instead, I can only hope that the worst of their tantrum ends soon so we can get back to the serious business of progressing as a species.
We’ll be looking at one of the weirdest outgrowths of fundagelicals’ hatred of change next–see you then!