Sometimes it’s hard to believe that a culture can be this blind to its own faults and problems, and yet here we are at another installment of “Heads in the Sand: Southern Baptist Edition.”
We’ve talked before about the head-deskingly delusional reaction of Christians to the 2014 Religious Landscape Study done by Pew Research Group, but Christians could fall back on a number of disqualifiers regarding the validity of the report itself, or try to quibble with how it defined terms or measured faithfulness. I’ve heard some terribly creative attempts to do all of these in the last month or so.
One of the best examples of Christian creativity is still one of the earliest reactions to the study. Written by Ed Stetzer, the president of LifeWay Research (which is the research group of the Southern Baptist Convention), it exults in how the only part of Christianity dying is that of “cultural Christians.” The TRUE CHRISTIANS™–or, as Ed Stetzer calls them, the “convictional Christians,” which includes himself of course–are not going anywhere. Only lukewarm Christians who were not really proper Christians at all are leaving, he thinks, and he’s totally okay with them leaving.
According to Mr. Stetzer, Christianity is not vanishing; it is being “clarified,” its “squishy middle” evaporating to leave only TRUE CHRISTIANS™ behind. So yes, he’s more or less comparing his religion’s losses to the Rapture. He sounds downright smug in his many posts online describing how happy he is that these false Christians are leaving; his only real request seems to be that these fakers not let the door hit them on the ass on their way out because it might disturb the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ during their oh-so-exalted devotions.
I wonder how one human being can survive so long on a steady diet of sour grapes?
It’s not hard to imagine that Mr. Stetzer wouldn’t be quite this enthralled with giving the finger to all those “cultural Christians” if numbers were up rather than down. I mean, it’s not like Christians like him aren’t already totally convinced as it is that 90% of their peers are fakers. Presumably these “cultural Christians” have been infesting his religion for years, but he never seemed that interested in rooting them out or bidding them goodbye–before now. He was happy to let them sit in church with the TRUE CHRISTIANS™, inflate his religion’s numbers, and support Christianity with tithes and volunteer work. But now that they’re leaving, he’s only regretful that he can’t swat them on the behind with a rolled-up newspaper to make them walk faster.
Of course, he’s totally wrong about pretty much everything he is claiming, but you didn’t really need me to say that.
Many of the people who are leaving Christianity were, like I was once, very dedicated and fervent believers who cared so much about the truth and about being loving human beings that we followed those drives clean out of a religion that increasingly cares little for either.
But Christians have built up a whole mythology around ex-Christians and deconversion, and that mythology would be totally ruined by reality.
This “cultural Christianity” bullshit is nothing more than the newest trendy way to accuse those leaving their ranks of never having been TRUE CHRISTIANS™ in the first place.
Accusing departing church members of having been nothing but “cultural Christians” is a trend that needs to die; I’ve been hearing it of late even from progressive Christians, who really ought to know better, and it’s not going to help remaining Christians at all to alienate and demonize people even more than they already are. The people leaving are not “cultural Christians” any more than the remaining ones are, and it makes the remaining ones look considerably worse to lob that kind of accusation. (For some reason, Christians like Ed Stetzer sure do like to accuse others of stuff that isn’t true. Are they sure they’re worshiping the correct mythological being? Because I seem to remember the nickname “the Accuser” belonging to someone else entirely, and certainly the god they think they follow doesn’t like it when his followers bear false witness against each other. You’d think they’d be ever so slightly more concerned about committing this grave sin in their supposed master’s eyes.)
This accusation joins all its brethren in their foul, stinking pit: the “you didn’t have a relationship with Jesus UNLIKE ME” one, the “you just didn’t pray/fast/study/worship/whatever enough UNLIKE ME” one, the “you just got hurt by hypocrites/failed a spiritual test/got peeved about something UNLIKE ME” one, and oh my yes, the “you just wanted to
have unapproved sex sin UNLIKE ME” one.
I’ve even heard these accusations flung at ex-ministers! Christians don’t care what we say was the reason for our deconversions; they’re positive there was some flaw in us that caused us to leave, and if they can figure out what our mistakes were, why then they can fix us and next thing you know we’ll be repenting and rushing back into the correct church. When we do, we’ll be using the correct doctrines and correct amount of Bible teaching and correct people around us and correct translations of the Bible and of course the correct emphasis on a relaaaaaaaaaaationship with Jesus–becoming like the Christian who is so worriedly trying to psychoanalyze us. Clearly the Christian making the accusations is doing everything correctly, since of course he or she is Christian still and we are not, so obviously whatever we did as Christians that varied even a tiny bit from what our accuser is doing, that’s what we did wrong.
It’s like those multi-level marketing scams: if you’re not a big-time success at the system, you’re obviously doing something hideously wrong, and even someone who is not actually terribly successful at it feels duty-bound to analyze you to tell you what you obviously did so wrong that you failed at a perfect system.
Those still in a flawed system will do anything at all and pursue any wrong answer imaginable to avoid having to engage with our actual reasons for leaving or think even for one micro-second about whether or not that system is really so perfect.
Christians’ habits of denying reality and acting like assholes are a big part of why people are leaving Christianity, so it’s doubly ironic that in the wake of learning that people are leaving in even greater numbers than usual, Christians are drilling down even harder on their habits of denying reality and acting like assholes. I guess when all someone has is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; there really aren’t a lot of tools in the Christian toolbox that can be used to address this kind of unprecedented cultural shift. People tend to use approaches and arguments they personally find persuasive and compelling. Spin-doctoring and wild, unfounded accusations very likely seem persuasive and compelling to our accusers and may well have gotten them converted, so I can see why those are the go-to reactions now.
If it wasn’t feeding something in them, they wouldn’t be doing it.
Trendy New False Accusations Won’t Bring Ex-Christians Back.
Nor is there really a way to spin-doctor the new bad news coming out of fundagelicalism because it’s coming from inside the house just like in that old urban legend. The news comes straight from the SBC’s own research team. And wow it’s bad. Or good, depending.
This week LifeWay reported that numbers are seriously down. Though the SBC is adding churches, its overall membership declined by 200,000 and tithes are down as well. The decline in membership itself is the worst single-year loss the church has had in over a century, but one that has been an unbroken trend for fifteen years. Actual attendance figures look lower too.
The truly hilarious part about this report is that not a single word of it should be a huge surprise because this is a trend they’ve been crying about for years.
Here’s a 2008 writeup of the SBC blaming “shallow preaching” for creating “anemic churches” full of “lethargy.” Their solution at the time? Demanding that their preachers start preaching “the real Word of God” and drill down on the culture wars they started against women’s and LGBTQ rights even though they conceded it sounded “mean-spirited” to non-SBC people. I suppose they expected Jesus to magically strong-arm people into joining a group of admittedly mean-spirited people, but one must confess to wondering exactly where all these SBC churches were that were preaching about cheese pizza recipes instead of the Bible because I thought that was pretty much what all of them do.
But the slump continued.
In 2013, the SBC blamed excessive worldliness for their continuing drop in numbers and influence. Conceding that they’d totally lost the culture wars they’d started, leaders in the SBC continued to insist that magical thinking and a re-emphasis on those culture wars would work any day now to reverse the losses the denomination was facing.
At the time, SBC brass hat Russell Moore blamed adherents for getting soft on LGBTQ rights and daring to think that people’s private lives were their own business and not the SBC’s. He was sure that if the SBC would only drill down harder on its core message of hatred, control, and exclusion–but in a more “personal” way, which appears to mean in a more spin-doctored manner–then everything would be fine.
But everything was not fine.
And now we stand at 2015.
The SBC is losing numbers faster than ever. People despise them so much that their member churches aren’t even using the SBC name on their church signs or letterhead anymore–perhaps because of how mortifying it is to be associated with such a terrible bunch of hypocrites. A study the SBC did around 2006 discovered that almost half of all young people polled would be less likely to visit a church if it was affiliated with the SBC–and Ed Stetzer was involved in that study, so you’d think he’d have remembered what it had to say, namely: the younger respondents are, the more they tend to be alienated and repulsed by the SBC’s message.
Many Southern Baptist churches didn’t baptize a single young person at all last year, and since the slump began the denomination lost almost a million members. I’d say those two facts alone constitute a crisis for them. But if they can’t even figure out why these losses are happening, their chances of halting the trend are way lower.
Wherewith Shall They Be Salted?
In what is quite possibly one of the most surreal reactions I’ve ever seen to the news of their own decline, the SBC’s response has generally been to blame their members for not praying hard enough or being obnoxious enough. One of their other brass hats, Frank Page, said:
“While we might complain about the many churches who are not reporting their baptisms, and we can, the reality is that we are simply not sharing our faith like once we did. In this year’s Southern Baptist Convention, I will be making a call for Southern Baptists to be involved in evangelism and stewardship like never before.”
Forget about how easy it is to find out why people are leaving Christianity. Frank Page knows the real score. It has nothing to do with his people’s nastiness, science-denial, and bigotry. He’s positive that people aren’t leaving because they found out Christianity’s supernatural claims are untrue. They aren’t fleeing like rats on a sinking ship because they realized nothing in the Bible really happened as the SBC claims it did, or that the religion’s entire philosophy sets people up for abuse and predation by those in charge. They aren’t noticing that this religion’s moral teachings seem to produce a lot more hypocrites than decent human beings, and they’re not uncomfortable with how the SBC treats non-believers. They aren’t outraged at the blatant control-grabs the SBC keeps making for other people’s lives. They aren’t alienated and pushed away by Christians’ pushiness and paternalistic condescension, nor by the downright nasty and evil-minded racism, sexism, and classism that the SBC increasingly embodies.
Nope, the real problem here is “evangelism and stewardship.”
Is he sure it isn’t a serious lack of mimes in ministry? Because I think if SBC churches had more mimes in the pulpit, that’d fix everything. For sure.
Frank Page thinks that if SBC members stomp on and push themselves at people even harder in 2016 than they have in the last 15 years, that approach will magically make people listen to them again instead of doing what that approach has been doing for the last 15 years. And once those people get somehow magically induced to join up, “stewardship” will keep them there.
Even the SBC’s churches themselves dimly realize that this magical thinking isn’t working. Why in hell else would so many of them not even use the Southern Baptist denominational name and label on their signs, websites, and letterhead but a desire to distance themselves from a group that is doing so much to destroy its own reputation and distract from its own stated cause of evangelism? Almost ten years ago, the SBC’s reputation was so bad that the name alone was dissuading half of a survey’s young respondents from visiting affiliated churches; how much worse do you suppose that effect is today?
At this point it seems clear that the problem isn’t so much gaining new converts, though obviously that’s a concern; it’s keeping existing members in the fold. The spin-doctoring, demonization of non-believers, pushy grabs for power, dishonest miracle claims, and general hostility toward those leaving is meant to keep existing Christians in their pews, I think, more than it is to convert brand-new members. The SBC is selling hatred and bigotry to its own people more than to the rest of us. If they can’t at least hold steady and keep who they’ve already got, then it hardly matters if their magical incantations and marketing start working to draw new people in.
I’m guessing that in a few years someone in their upper ranks will get a revelation from “Jesus” to stop stomping on LGBTQ people and women’s rights and start focusing more on what their people think Jesus said they should do. Their own sense of self-interest will do what simple human decency and compassion could not, since both of those qualities were scorched out of their hearts long ago. A bunch of their more homophobic and misogynistic members will flee for even more extremist patriarchal churches, but quite a few other SBC members will either not care or will breathe a sigh of relief. Oh, it won’t draw people in, but at least it’ll halt the hemorrhage some little bit. So yes, I think the SBC will go the Mormon route to save face and yet still make the changes they’ll need to make to maintain relevance in the coming decades. The SBC is a business, and whatever they say their motivations are and however many pious preacher-eyebrows they squinch up and toothy Jesus smiles they make and crocodile tears they shed, the bottom line is on their leaders’ minds at all times.
Right now they think trendy new false accusations and SSDD spin-doctoring is how to keep their bottom lines plump, but sooner or later even they’ll rethink those ideas. Maybe that’s just me being overly optimistic, but I have faith in their simple human greed.
Speaking of bottom lines, we’re going to take up next time with what that movie I reviewed last week, Left Behind, tells us about Christians themselves. It ain’t a pretty picture.