The White House, in particular, is more than happy to push their social policies on LGBT issues and women’s health. In turn, white evangelicals are President Trump’s most solid constituency, and their support for him is at an all-time high.
The Supreme Court is favorably disposed towards broadly expanding their ability to do… well… anything they want, while tearing down the wall between church and state. They also control most state governments as well.
You would think Evangelicals would be feeling pretty good about their position right about now. Scratching the surface, however, we see a profoundly fearful group.
Republicans believe that no one suffers more discrimination than Christians. This trait is even more pronounced among evangelicals, who are more likely to believe that there is “a lot” more discrimination against Christians than Muslims (57% to 44%).
Looking at the future of evangelical churches in America through the lens of a business case analysis provides insight into why these fears exist.
Using traditional measures such as trend analysis, capital on hand, brand image, expected future revenue, demographic trends, and targeting of emerging markets helps explain why the long-term future of evangelical churches is in question.
Cash on Hand and Current Revenue
First the good news. Current revenues are strong, mostly due to for profit enterprises such as Liberty University and mega-donors like David Green of Hobby Lobby. While the finances of most US churches are fairly opaque, there is enough data available to make some inferences.
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability reported that its member organizations drew in over 26 billion dollars in 2017. There has been revenue growth for years in the 2.2% range. In ECFA there is a reported year over year cash revenue growth of 2.2%, and non-cash revenue growth of 3.6%.
Other data shows that people who tithe make up only 10-25% of a normal congregation. The average giving by adults who attend US Protestant churches is about $17 a week. 77% of those who tithe give 11%–20% or more of their income, far more than the baseline of 10%.
This implies that churches are drawing their revenue from a small number of older, financially well-established individuals, particularly due to the fact that millennials have a less than 50-50 chance of being better off financially than their parents, earning 20% less than baby boomers did at the same age.
Additionally, government grants are opening up more widely to evangelical churches, especially since the Trinity Lutheran Supreme Court case which found that the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.
This holds true even if these churches would violate local civil rights laws in the process (e.g. a Southern Baptist church in California must be allowed to apply for a grant to build a playground for their daycare center, even if that daycare center refuses to serve LGBT parents).
Finally, President Trump has issued an executive order effectively ending IRS oversight of church activities, including the previous prohibition of direct involvement in political activities on behalf of a candidate.
Evangelical churches are in position to launder money from foreign sources in support of their preferred candidates. Given the level of foreign involvement in the 2016 elections, this looks to be a potentially lucrative short-term revenue source.
Here the news takes a turn for the worse for evangelicals. Essentially, every serious demographic study of evangelicals in America shows that their market share is in decline.
The most recent data available shows that this decline has continued, and that now only 13% of Americans consider themselves white evangelicals.
These losses get even steeper when you take demographic age into account. Most of these losses are simply young people dropping out of religion altogether, and becoming part of the “nones”.
While some evangelical leaders such as Russel Moore have suggested that they can reverse the trend with Hispanic converts, the data below shows that even if you assume all Hispanic Protestants are evangelical, their market share would still be in decline.
Given the full-throated support that evangelical churches have given President Trump even as he proposes military run internment camps for undocumented Latino children, calls them rapists and murderers and implies they’re “animals”, it is hard to envision Latinos finding a comfortable home in many white evangelical churches.
This might be survivable if white evangelicals had a bunch of young people coming up through the ranks, but they don’t. The data shows that they are, on average, one of the oldest denominations out there, despite encouraging high fecundity rates through things like the “Quiverfull” movement.
At the same time, one-third of their kids are leaving the faith, and of those, 40% drop out of religion altogether.
They aren’t converting people at a sufficient rate to stem their losses, either. For every person who has left the unaffiliated and now identifies with a religious group (and evangelicals are the most common winner) more than four people have joined the ranks of the religious “nones.”
Thus, when looking at market share, evangelicals are in free fall and there is little to suggest that it will turn around quickly.
First the good news. Just like when Americans hear the words “soda” and “photocopy” they think of Coca-Cola and Xerox, when they hear the word “Christianity” they think of evangelicals. They are in effect, synonymous.
This would normally be a good thing, but it’s not. Now the bad news.
We know this, because when the Barna group (run by born again evangelical George Barna) did focus group work asking Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 what words best describe Christianity, the most common answer was “antihomosexual”.
This was used by 91 percent of non-Christians to describe Christianity. The same was true for 80 percent of Christians in this age group. The next three most commonly mentioned were “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”
Yes, it could be argued that maybe these people in the focus groups weren’t specifically thinking about evangelicals, but it would stretch the bounds of credulity to do so.
No religious group has been more actively involved in politics, bet more of its future on being anti-gay, or been more visibly hypocritical in its morals (being gay is unforgivable, but most voted for a man who sexually assaulted teen girls) than evangelicals.
(Note: Roy Moore narrowly lost, and in great part due to Black women turning out in record numbers, not because evangelicals voted for the Democrat).
The best that can be said for evangelicals in the US is that they are not the most disliked religious group in the country.
Based on current trends, however, they will be less popular than Muslims and atheists by 2019 or 2020.
This forecast isn’t farfetched; 2017 polling data showed that Canadians would be more likely to vote for a transgender person or an atheist than an evangelical. Additionally, when looking at the Pew data by age group, evangelicals are already on a statistical par (i.e. within the survey margin of error) with atheists and Muslims.
In addition to being seen as “antihomosexual,” “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics,” evangelicals are known for taking unpopular religious stances on many issues, including gun control (Jesus wants you to have a gun), climate change, and birth control.
Most proposals to charge women who have abortions with murder have come from evangelicals. They are also seen as particularly hostile to science – and social sciences in particular. 58% of Republicans see colleges and universities as having a negative impact on the country.
These stances have a generational gap, wherein young people are much more likely to support gun control, climate change theory, and government funding for birth control coverage.
As demonstrated above, the primary competition in the market for being a church-going evangelical are other churches, or simply not going to church. There isn’t nearly the life penalty for leaving your church that there used to be, as the US religious landscape has become both more heterogenous and secular.
Finding a community of some sort, even if a secular one, offers an alternative to many. Additionally, other communities can have less expectation of putting money into them, and certainly less than 10% of gross income.
When church is frequently seen by Millennials as boring, irrelevant, shallow, antagonistic to science, simplistic, out of touch with reality, exclusive, and unable to deal with doubt or questions of the faith, is it any wonder that they seek out other activities that better suit them – even if that’s sitting on the couch and watching Netflix on Sunday mornings?
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The evangelical product is essentially a safe space to hold views that run contrary to the rest of society. They are the religious outlier when it comes to perceptions of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.
They are the only religious group where a majority want to see a religious right to discriminate become a part of US constitutional law. They promise to never change, never yield on these issues.
The “prosperity gospel” idea that God rewards the virtuous with wealth and health, and the poor are being punished for their sins has a home here. It allows those with wealth and status to feel good about being there, and feeling antipathy towards the poor and the sick.
It should come as no surprise then that Trump supporters were better off than other Americans, and that the narrative of the “hurting blue collar worker” was a myth. Southern Baptists were less likely than the public at large to live on less than $30,000 per year, and most live in lower cost of living areas.
In short, they provide a religious experience / support group / social club for people higher up on the socio-economic ladder with extremely conservative views that are very unpopular everywhere else.
However, there are two key group of people who are required to buy the evangelical product: Republican legislators and judicial nominees.
Just like people had to buy Internet Explorer 6 if they wanted to use the internet on a Windows machine, most republicans must buy into the evangelical positions on basically everything to access the reins of power.
Try being a pro-LGBT, pro-choice, pro-gun control, or pro-climate change Republican. Any one of those positions would be lethal to a campaign, but to evangelicals they are all non-negotiable tenets of faith.
The current marketing strategy of evangelical churches is tied up in a “Make America Great Again” mindset. They are unhappy with the direction things have gone, and yearn for an age before feminism, gays, transgender people, birth control, the New Deal, abortion, and a host of things they see as particularly modern failures.
The beliefs and positions of evangelical churches will appeal to an increasingly niche market. Few people of color will be interested in churches that fail to recognize discrimination in our country, much less encourages practices like police shootings of unarmed civilians.
Similarly, how will Latinos feel comfortable among a demographic that overwhelmingly supports mass deportations, abuses by ICE, and military run internment camps for minors?
How will millennials who are struggling financially feel at home in a place where poverty is seen as a sign of a moral failing? Evangelical churches effectively exclude gay people from full inclusion in the church, completely exclude transgender people, and anyone who would use a transgender person’s preferred name and pronoun.
The Southern Baptist Convention is being asked to vote this summer on denouncing “social justice” as “evil”. Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights, feminism, and efforts to stop the erosion of the middle class all would fall under this umbrella.
There is also a hostility towards people who have higher educational backgrounds. Antagonism toward social and environmental sciences are a “must” in order to fit in with American evangelicals.
It is hard to see how targeting well-off, white, high-school educated, fiscally and socially conservative men will lead to growth in membership in the long run, when each and every one of those demographics is shrinking among Millennials and Generation Z.
Adaptability / Flexibility
Usually this refers to a business’ ability to change based on shifts in demographics, markets, economic, and social factors. Depending on how you define success, evangelical churches have either been spectacular successes at changing their business models, or are in the middle of a calamitous failure.
First, if success is defined as “making lots of money,” then yes, evangelical Churches are doing a remarkable job at adapting to changing revenue streams. They’re no longer reliant on congregation members for revenue, and have developed a host of new streams.
Businesses. Investments. Government grants. Universities. Medical centers. All very lucrative, and able to ignore lots of those pesky government requirements for reporting revenue, civil rights laws, IRS reporting requirements, payroll reporting, etc.
Medical and educational costs are spiraling, and the Trinity Lutheran case all suggest that there will be no shortage of legitimate cash to come.
Then there’s the “gray” areas of taking money from foreigners wishing to buy influence with the Republican party, and ensure Republicans stay in office. If the National Rifle Association (NRA) can do it, imagine what a church with immunity from the IRS and Federal Election Commission can accomplish.
In short, cash flow is the least of their worries because they have been sufficiently flexible in things they are willing to consider as revenue streams.
Having actual living, breathing members in church is another matter. While evangelical apologists can cherry pick stats here and there suggesting things aren’t so bad, the overwhelming preponderance of reliable data we have on hand suggests that they are on the verge of demographic Armageddon.
Any potential steps to head off this end state have been effectively cut off by leadership and lay members alike.
At best, evangelicals tend to be apathetic to discrimination against minorities. At worst, the Jim Crow South lives on inside the chapel with the rhetoric toned down ever-so slightly.
They will not accept LGBT people, or the people who accept LGBT people in an era where almost everyone has an LGBT friend or family member.
They’ve made being poor a sin when wealth inequality is making “sinners” out of most young people. They’ve made belief in gun control or efforts to stop climate change a sin.
They’re also completely opposed to changing their position on any of these things, and made that opposition to change a part of their actual marketing strategy.
What Is in Store for Evangelicals?
The future of evangelical Christianity in America is reminiscent of Microsoft in 2002. They had a product that everyone was basically forced to buy (Internet Explorer), had an effective monopoly, dominated the market, and made tons of money in the process.
It was also a product that was generally loathed by those forced to use it. When Microsoft’s market share of browsers collapsed, they had to find other lines of business to make money on.
Similarly, evangelical churches in America are doing a good job of finding ways to hold onto power and make money, while simultaneously hemorrhaging users.
Rather than trying to woo people back with a better product, they are simply making it mandatory for Republican politicians to buy their product, and then pass laws which favor their other revenue streams.
This is akin to Microsoft contractually requiring government agencies to use Internet Explorer 6 on Windows machines. (IE6 was one of the worst tech fails in modern history, but government contractors were still required to code towards its use).
The question remains: what is a church without adherents? What is a church that considers securing government grants, shaping labor and civil rights laws to favor their business endeavors, and electing politicians to maintain their position more important than actually having butts in seats on any given Sunday?
This model essentially describes a blend of Super PAC and shell corporation, motivated by religious fundamentalism, money, and power. It is also one which is currently dominating US politics and social policy, with no end in sight.
Thus, congratulations may be in order to the leaders of the evangelical religious right. They may have failed abysmally at producing Christians, but they’ve successfully resurrected the 15thCentury Catholic business model founded on indulgences, political favors, and insider business practices.
They also seem to have conveniently forgotten this model was the genesis of the Protestant Reformation.