This essay was originally published in two parts on the Righting America Blog. It has been slightly edited and new graphs added.
The Moody Bible Institute in Chicago (MBI), a venerable evangelical institution, was hot news last week. Christianity Today, the Christian Post, even Inside Higher Ed reported allegations of excessive compensation for administrators and “liberalism” among its faculty.
The most sensational accusations revolved around MBI board member Jerry Jenkins, author of the spectacularly successful Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels. He apparently has a penchant for poker and was given sole use of a luxury suite in an Institute-owned building. All this came to light amid a financial shortfall that led MBI to close its Spokane campus and cut ten percent of its Chicago faculty.
MBI “is facing what is arguably one of the most serious crises… [of] its 132-year history” declared Julie Roys, a radio personality and self-described whistleblower who publicized these allegations. MBI leadership apparently agrees; both its president and COO resigned and its provost announced retirement (it also summarily fired Roys). The future of accused faculty members remains unclear.
I agree with Roys’ claim of crisis, but for none of the reasons she outlines. Heresy hunters will search in vain for a whiff of liberalism at this hopelessly conservative school. In 2017, management costs were 4.19% of expenditures, historically low for MBI and well-within the non-profit norms for administrative overhead. Her charges of “reverse racism” are bizarre (and particularly troubling in light of MBI’s ongoing struggles with white supremacy). Given the fresh, Trump-grade, scandals we are forced to endure each week, I can’t imagine folks remembering any of this in February, presuming MBI simply ignores it.
No, evidence of the real crisis is not found in gossipy blogposts from MBI’s rightwing fringe, but in its annual financial and ministry reports. The numbers they contain, suggest a crisis of marketing, not morality. For most of the twentieth century, MBI could claim ownership of a premiere (perhaps the premiere) conservative evangelical brand. Its longstanding tagline touted Moody as the “name you can trust.” Today, it is the name hardly anyone remembers.
MBI was founded in 1889 by Dwight L. Moody: a celebrity revivalist to middle-class Protestants. It began as a training school for men and women who wished to engage in religious work, but were unable to attend college or seminary. (Ironically enough, it offers accredited undergraduate and seminary degrees today.)
If education were the measure, MBI would be long-forgotten; but its real significance came elsewhere. In the 1910s, MBI had been remade into a new type of religious corporation: an unaffiliated producer of religious media. Such organizations are so commonplace today we assume they always existed; but MBI helped create the template. Its techniques, rooted in modern business principles, have been imitated by nondenominational churches and parachurch organizations across the country. It radically transformed American Protestantism.
MBI’s transformation was inaugurated by a man who knew the power of modern media. Henry Parsons Crowell made a fortune by promoting his Quaker brand as the only oatmeal guaranteed pure. At MBI, he redirected its educational mission to promoting his brand of “pure religion” and fighting liberal theology. A wide array of products drew many evangelicals into MBI’s orbit: magazines, radio, books, music, evangelistic meetings, and later, evangelistic films and satellite broadcasts. Education continued, but these “public ministries” were responsible for both the majority of outlays and revenues: most importantly, the steady stream of small donations that kept the lights on. Donors believed in MBI’s mission because they consumed its products.
Crowell brilliantly leveraged the reputation of Dwight L. Moody as a virtual trademark, guaranteeing that their message was neither “liberal” nor “fanatical,” but simple, wholesome, “old-time religion.” Even as people forgot Moody the man, they still associated Moody the brand with trustworthiness.
MBI maintained the Moody brand by studiously avoiding flash, fad, and controversy of any sort. It was stylistically stodgy and corporate by design; controversy was enemy number one. The strategy served them well into the 1990s; its white evangelical constituency might sample the exotic flavors of the fringe—the counterculture of the Jesus People or the new breed of prosperity-oriented tele-evangelists or the cathartic political tantrums of Jerry Falwell. But like oatmeal for breakfast, they considered Moody’s inoffensive products a staple of their media diet. And when push came to shove, Moody was the name they could trust.
With MBI demonstrating proof of concept, innumerable non-denominational churches and para-church organizations imitated its strategies. Many early competitors had direct ties to MBI (its personnel were regularly poached by other evangelical institutions in the mid twentieth century). But by the 1980s, the landscape was thick with competitors from all corners of the evangelical ecosystem. Media-savvy mega-churches and parachurch organizations like Focus on the Family began undermining MBI’s privileged position.
It is difficult to trace the precise timing of MBI’s financial crisis without more data (online financial records begin in 2005). But several contributing factors are clear enough. First among equals is when mainstream publishers discovered the lucrative world of evangelical publishing in the 1980s, and consolidation ensued. While the sector once was dominated by mid-sized firms, most major evangelical publishers today are subsidiaries of publicly-traded behemoths like News Corp. They have access to resources that dwarf independent publishers like Moody. As a result, best selling evangelical authors (who already have a platform and a following) will go with the deepest pockets, or perhaps form their own in-house publishing concern. Only the unknown, risky, propositions need the validation of the Moody brand.
That MBI’s publishing revenues have recovered to pre-recession levels is no small feat, but signs of future trouble abound. While Moody Press published 120 new titles annually in the 1960s, last year it released only 56. Annual ministry reports suggest their most profitable title is Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, first published in 1995. I’m no expert in this sector, but I see no equivalent on their current roster. This lack of marquee authors hurts their bottom line today and diminishes their brand in the future.
Moody Radio shows similar signs of stagnation. The million listeners it reaches weekly is unchanged from the decade before. Media forecasters predict steep declines in radio audiences, displaced by the fractured world of podcasts, streaming music, and other on-demand services. Where Moody could have positioned itself as the evangelical NPR of religious podcasting, it is frantically playing catch-up instead.
MBI’s biggest miscalculation came with its flagship magazine, Moody Monthly. Like many other periodicals, subscriptions had fallen calamitously in the 2000s. But while others cut costs and shifted operations online, MBI shuttered the magazine through which it had spoken into the issues of the day for a century. This effectively rendered MBI mute; alienating the Moody brand from its longstanding corporate personality.
Having rested on the laurels of its old media empire for thirty years, MBI is paying the price today. Evidence of its severely weakened brand is starkly represented not in its revenues. I’m not referring to its publishing receivables–they have always been a small part of the budget. Rather its in the donations. Adjusted for inflation they have yet to recover to 2005 levels.
In fact, the only thing preventing truly apocalyptic budget shortfalls are increased revenues from student fees. Today they constitute 31.4% of MBI’s total income. In 2005 they were nearly half, or 16.5%. The cost of providing education has risen also, and now makes up over half of total expenses, up from 42% in 2005.
Depending on education as a source of revenue is a historical anomaly at MBI. Given the state of higher education, its as risky as a hand of cards with Jerry Jenkins. When enrollment declines, as happened last year, the fixed costs remain.
From this perspective, the decision to shut down its Spokane campus is simply a return to the institutions traditional income and expense ratios. And MBI’s newest building project, the Gary D. Chapman Center, also seems like a return to focusing on (and investing in) public ministry side of the books. Opening this spring, the new center will house both the publishing and radio departments and provide space for new digital publishing and multimedia production.
Of course, all this will be for naught without a concerted effort to rehabilitate the Moody brand. As it stands, the 79 million self-identified evangelicals who have never listened to Moody radio are as mystified by the “Moody” label as the average Katy Perry fan. For these evangelicals, the names that they trust lie elsewhere.
Moody has become the Sanka of evangelical brands; it’s still around, but you probably don’t know it. Whether Moody is still with us in twenty years, remains to be seen.