Big Sort

How Running a Campaign Is Like Building a Megachurch

The model for the modern political campaign is the evangelical megachurch.

This isn’t a partisan observation. Both George Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama adopted the basic organizing techniques that many ministers have been using since the 1970s to grow their churches to stupendous size. And why not? They work.

The megachurch was built on an idea born in India by an American missionary. Donald McGavran spent half a century overseas, and he used much of that time to discover the way churches could convert large numbers of people to Christianity. McGavran observed that converts didn’t come to the church one by one. They came in groups. And those groups were socially coherent—castes, villages, or families. The key to church growth wasn’t in bringing individuals to Christianity but in converting groups, peoples. And these groups would come if they were appealed to as a “homogenous unit.”

“The individual does not think of himself as a self-sufficient unit, but as a part of the group,” McGavran wrote in this 1955 book,

The Bridges of God

. People don’t want to come to a church where they hear a different language or eat strange foods. “Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers,” McGavran wrote. McGavran said ministers needed to understand the culture of their constituents and recommended that they use the insights of anthropology to tailor their appeals to homogenous groups.

The church establishment largely ignored McGavran. The missionary arrived in the United States at a time when the pews were crammed with parishioners. The mainline churches needed architects and builders in the 1950s, not some bearded missionary who had spent the last several decades in India. But church membership began to decline quite suddenly in the mid-1960s, and by the ‘70s a new generation of young ministers was looking for a way to stimulate church membership, to fulfill the Great Commission’s call to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:16-20). They discovered Donald McGavran and began to use his ideas to create churches in the “homogenous units” (i.e., suburbs) being created on the edges of cities.

One of those young ministers was Rick Warren, who stumbled across an article on McGavran in an old Christian magazine. “As I sat there and read the article on Donald McGavran,” Warren wrote in

The Purpose-Driven Church

, “I had no idea that it would dramatically impact the direction of my ministry.”

Rick Warren’s story is now megachurch legend. He founded his Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., and he used McGavran’s techniques to attract members. Warren did his market research, even creating an anthropological composite of the target Saddleback member. He’s “Saddleback Sam,” a Docker-clad, cell-phone-carrying white guy who doesn’t like organized religion and doesn’t like neckties. That was the prototype for Warren’s “homogenous unit,” and so he built a church where Sam wouldn’t have to cross many “barriers” to join. Sam wouldn’t have to dress up for church, and he could look into the sanctuary and see more Sams, a “homogenous unit” of churchgoers. Warren stocked up on flowered shirts.

Ministers building these churches realized friends and neighbors were the best recruiters of new members. Like attracted like, which was an organizing tradition among evangelists. When supplicants answering the Rev. Billy Graham’s altar call streamed to the foot of the stage, each would be met by one of the evangelist’s helpers. The pairings weren’t random. Graham insisted that young women meet young women. Older men greeted older men. Graham understood that the best way to cement the conversion was to show new believers a reflection of themselves within the church.

And the most effective recruiting tool was for friends to “witness” to friends their personal stories of salvation (Acts 1:8).

The marketing techniques all turned inward—friends talking to friends about their experiences in a church built for “people like us,” which was the title of a popular book on church growth. The church wasn’t designed to transform but to mirror a way of life. And the techniques worked.

It took until 2004 for what was common knowledge among megachurch chaplains to become the latest gimmick for selling a president. The Bush campaign in 2002 had experimented with different techniques to increase voter turnout, from door-to-door canvassers to the noxious (and utterly ineffective) robo-calls. Their tests found that personal contact with a voter was good but that an appeal coming from a friend or neighbor worked best. If it was clear to voters that the canvasser came from the same social hive, Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd told me, turnout jumped.

The Republican campaign in ‘04 recruited neighbors to contact neighbors, and it enlisted respected community members to serve as Bush “navigators,” local surrogates for the president. The Bush organizers I talked with in Oregon and Minnesota instructed their all-volunteer canvassers to “witness” their support for the president. “We weren’t there to convince anybody,” one Oregon organizer told me. “We were there to give testimony of why we were for George Bush. And that’s very religious.”

The strategy was to reflect voters’ beliefs and ways of life back on to themselves, so that the 2004 campaign wasn’t as much about the re-election of a president and his policies as it was an affirmation of a local way of life.

The Democrats learned their lesson—they used paid workers who obviously were “not from around here” to do their canvassing in ‘04—and so this year the Obama campaign recruited an “army of persuasion” based on the Bush neighbor-to-neighbor model.

In Wisconsin

, the Obama campaign has hunters talking to hunters, women talking to women. At training sessions, “Obama Organizing Fellows”

were taught

to develop short, personal narratives that will explain to their neighbors how they came to support the Democrat—to witness.

Neighbors witnessing to neighbors is a marketing technique suited to Americans, who are increasingly sequestering themselves in communities, churches, and clubs with those who share similar ways of life and politics. The churches created over the last three decades have become some of the most politically segregated institutions in the country, a result of an organizing strategy built on the intentional molding of a “homogenous unit.”

These tactics aren’t designed to “sell” people something new or different but to show that the product (a church, a new concoction of PowerBar, a candidate) embodies the community’s beliefs and lifestyle. “The message you’ve got to send, more than any other message, is that Barack Obama is just like us,” Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill told the Obama fellows,

according to the Washington Post

. Exactly.

Politicians have been packaging image from the beginning: McKinley sitting on the front porch, Truman speaking from the back of a train, Madison Avenue selling a new Nixon. In the end, however, the message was the same: “Vote for me.” Campaigns today are doing something different. They attempt to manage behavior by creating a social environment that encourages people to vote for themselves. The most important message a campaign has to convey is one of flattery, that the candidate is “just like us.”

Self-government, however, is the opposite of self-love. Democracy is about meeting and coming to terms with people who look, talk, believe, and think differently from us. Government might work better if that democratic exercise began for voters during the campaign rather than the day after inauguration.