Veronica: I didn’t say there wasn’t a commercial about greening the building. I said there is no program to green the building.
Ted: So it’s all a lie?
Veronica: They prefer to look at it as a dream.
Ted: But one they’re not working towards.
Veronica: Are you working toward all your dreams, Ted? Then stop pointing fingers.
Thom Rainer is the President and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, which is a venerable arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. They produce media materials for Christians that are supposed to help them evangelize (and coincidentally keep the money flowing into their large chain of Christian bookstores, which have come to dominate the industry). Mr. Rainer is not a bad egg, by evangelical standards; we’ve interacted very casually in the past without incident.
This headline was spotted on his blog the other day:
“Five Thoughts on Why Lighting Will Be the Next Worship War.”
Apparently churches are beginning to seriously squabble over well-lit vs. dimly-lit church services.
Some churches, it seems, like their lights to be super-bright; some prefer things to be dark and secluded-feeling. Some vote for the lights to start bright and then dim during the sermon; others prefer the dead opposite. The Worship Matters blog argues for both before settling on “brightly lit”, as does this rather inconsistent music minister. One blogger identifies the fight as somewhat generational before landing on both being nice at different times. I couldn’t find much consensus. But Thom Rainer himself insists in his comment section that this fight is indeed heating up and getting ugly.
If he’s right and this on-and-off bickering is turning into “the next worship war” (and I do believe him when he says that he’s hearing about it a lot lately), then it’s mind-blowing to me that Christians would even focus on minutiae like that when their religion is literally sliding into irrelevance before their very eyes.
But it wouldn’t surprise me on other levels. This little squabble, if indeed it is turning into a big bone of contention, would nestle among a number of fuzzy, blinky-eyed bedmates that have come before:
* Traditional vs. more contemporary worship music (this was a big fight in my old Pentecostal outfit);
* Electric guitars and drums in worship (this was an even bigger one);
And others besides.
I genuinely don’t want to imply that I’m telling Christians how to Christian, but surely I’m allowed to look at this new apparent fight of theirs and think about how this “worship war” fits into the religion’s general decline, aren’t I?
In an age when people are leaving their ranks by the thousands per day, when churches are getting foreclosed in record numbers or simply shuttering their doors by the hundreds if not thousands per year, when Christianity as a whole is fast losing its entire reputation and formerly effortless cultural dominance with every fresh new scandal, in an era where Christians’ lifestyles are hypocritical in the aggregate and their very knowledge of Biblical history and mythology is put to shame by atheists who know Christianity’s sourcebook and history better than Christians do, when untold thousands of their own members don’t even attend church regularly,* these churches are focusing on their fucking lighting? Could there even be a more useless argument to have?
This situation reminds me of a Dilbert cartoon from some years ago:
Pointy-Haired Boss (PHB): Announcing Project “Sparkle,” the clean desk policy. This is a company-wide effort to keep our work spaces clean.
Alice: Tiny question. I’m curious about one thing. I’m picturing our top executives in the “War Room.” They talk about the competitive threat and our lack of resources. Suddenly, panic sets in!! A lone voice penetrates the confusion. Two words: “Paper towels.” Is that pretty much how it went?
PHB: Moving along, you each get a laminated card with our mission statement.
Wally (to Alice): Let me do this one.
Let Me Do This One.
When we’re facing what feels like an absolutely insurmountable task, a good strategy to follow is to find some way to break that task into much smaller blocks. For example, people who have a lot of trouble studying for a huge test or spring-cleaning the whole house might set themselves to mastering the study questions in Chapter 1 or just getting the kitchen sink clean. It’s rarely a great idea to set a huge goal for ourselves all at once because we can get overwhelmed that way. We tend to have much better luck with smaller goals that add up to the huge one–and each small success will not only give us more confidence moving forward but also make the larger goal more possible to reach.
Sometimes, though, we find ourselves staring at a task that is not only totally unreachable but which doesn’t lend itself particularly to those smaller blocks. Or we don’t particularly want to do even the smaller blocks, but we still want to feel like we’re making some kind of headway whether we are or not.
That’s when we start sabotaging ourselves.
Have you ever found yourself cleaning your guest-room closet when you know you’ve got a deadline looming for a tough class? Or suddenly conceived a desire to cook a very complicated, time-consuming dinner feast when you’ve still got another few thousand words to do that day for your NaNoWriMo challenge? Or are you ever totally mystified about why efforts to lose weight or find a romantic partner simply don’t seem to succeed no matter how hard you may try? Sometimes we don’t even know what actually would get us to our goals. Sometimes we kind of know, but we don’t want to actually do those tasks. And sometimes we think we know what we need to do, but we’re wrong.
This applies to obstacles in our paths, too: sometimes we don’t even know that obstacles even exist, only that progress isn’t happening. Or we kind of see the obstacles but we don’t know what they are exactly, so we plow ahead anyway in the hopes that we’ll succeed without having to know specifically what they are. And sometimes we see the obstacles and know exactly what they are, but we don’t want to address them for whatever reason.
I think that’s what Christian leaders are starting to do in the face of almost certain cultural irrelevance.**
A few years ago I began to think that they were finally starting to perceive, dimly, that there was a serious problem in their religion. They finally began to notice that people were both leaving Christian churches in record numbers and becoming more outspoken about their rejection of Christians’ overreach and hamfisted attempts to dominate and control people.
The trend began some time ago–but it was only a few years ago that Christian leaders as a whole began to engage with the reality of what was happening right under their noses.
First they tried to deny that reality. Ed Stetzer of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote, in 2012, that all that was happening was that “nominal” Christians were sliding out of churches. Nothing to see here, move along, just a bunch of Christians In Name Only (CINOs) finally letting the door hit them on their asses on their way out. As far as he was concerned, this exodus from their ranks was actually a good thing because it allowed the Christians remaining to proudly polarize their faith system even further than they already were–because all that was really stopping them until then were these lukewarm*** Christians, I suppose. I don’t agree with him that an even-more-extremist and polarized Christianity is really that awesome of a thing, obviously, but give the guy some credit for trying extra-dextra-hard to spin-doctor what had to be the most stunning news to hit his religion in years.
These guesses were often mean-spirited or comically misguided when they weren’t both, but it’s quite clear that they were being made because their authors didn’t really want to make any changes to what they were doing (and they largely still don’t). As Rachel Held Evans noted around that time (2013), she could tell church leaders till she was blue in the face about the frustrations that her age cohorts felt about modern evangelicalism, only for “a pastor [to raise] his hand and [say], ‘So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands.'” So if they heard something that really disagreed with their preconceptions and presuppositions about those who were leaving or who rejected their various claims, they simply ignored it. When they even sought opinions, what they really wanted were opinions that reinforced their erroneous ideas.
By 2014 they had moved on to admitting that they had a “baptism drought” going on, the solution to which was very clearly more “personal evangelism” and doing more of the stuff that wasn’t working in the first place to convert and retain members. In other words, church leaders didn’t want to examine what they were actually doing to repel people, and so they figured out a way to blame everyone but themselves and to find a way to justify doing what they really wanted to do in the first place.
And now we’re at 2015, when they’ve moved on to stuffily declaring, in the wake of the Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Group, that liberalism is very clearly the problem–which means that the solution to the problem is an even more concerted effort to turn extremist, polarized, radicalized right-wing Dominionist Christianity into America’s state religion. Stung by constant defeats in court over their attempts to enshrine their privilege into law, and even more stung by society’s wholesale rejection of them and their so-called “values,” these Christians have moved past 2013’s denial and 2014’s attempt to stay the course in the face of overwhelming reality. They have moved into 2015’s new normal: trying to grab whatever they can before their religious dominance is flushed down the toilet.
In the face of the impending catastrophic failure of 2015’s strategy, little wonder that Christian leaders are turning again to stuff they actually can control: their lighting, their dress codes, their Sunday School programs, their megachurch coffee bars, their small groups, and the like. Even these have the whiff of being arguments over what music the band will play on the deck of the Titanic as it sinks. It’s hard to even imagine anything less relevant to the retention of current Christians or the converting of new believers than how freaking bright the lights are. In terms of tactics and strategies, the ones I just named are probably the most useless and meaningless one could possibly muster–but let’s face it, the more grandiose plans don’t turn out much better.
Christian leaders thought they had the luxury of time–that if they just waited out the cultural changes going on in America, they’d eventually be able to go back to business as usual.
They were wrong.
I want to learn from Christianity’s example, not just point and laugh at their self-created problems like I’m that Simpsons character.
The danger would be to assume that we ourselves, as skeptics, are immune to exactly this dynamic. Unfortunately, we’re not. What’s going on in Christianity is a simple human bias writ large: our inborn desire to succeed at our goals (or defeat our obstacles) with the smallest expenditure of energy we can get away with. And there’s another bias at work too: very few of us really enjoy examining ourselves or our ideas for flaws. We’re human, so we’re going to face the same potential biases if we’re not careful.
In the last few years, I’ve been keeping track of my own personal goals and my strategies for reaching them. When I realize I’m not reaching a goal, I begin to seriously assess my list of obstacles and strategies. Sometimes it’s painful work.
Sometimes I discover that I do kinda want to reach the goal–but I don’t want to do what’s really necessary to reach that goal. Or I’ll find that I’m spinning in circles doing stuff that won’t help me reach my goal because I don’t really want to change what I’m doing. Either I need to re-assess my goal and how much I truly want to achieve it, or I need to knuckle down and start doing stuff that will actually help me reach the goal.
I also want to keep in mind that there are a lot of decent Christians who are caught in the middle of their religion’s various culture wars, people whose lives are nothing but pawns on a chessboard to their leaders in their naked pursuit of power and dominance. Yes, it’s kinda hilarious that right-wing Christianity–the most toxic variant of the religion in my opinion–is going through the troubles it is, since, well, the movement’s leaders are largely to blame for those troubles and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving tribe. But I don’t want to forget to be compassionate to the folks who are trying to do better.
There is no Jesus keeping Christianity from tumbling ever further into obsolescence, nor demons driving Christians from their former church homes–any more than any gods or demons are helping or hindering any of us from reaching our own goals. No supernatural explanation is required to make sense of this trend of rising secularism and skepticism.
There was a time when that idea would have terrified me–the idea that humanity is on its own. But now I am grateful for the lack of supernatural meddling in humanity’s affairs. It means that if we really want to achieve something, and it’s achievable, then we’ll generally be able to do it–and that if we fail, there’s a real explanation for it, if we’ll only seek it.
* “Regular church attendance” doesn’t mean the same thing nowadays that it used to. In the past, regular church attendance meant most Sundays, say 6 out of 8. At some point researchers redefined the term to mean 3-4 out of the last 8 Sundays. By that definition, about 17% of Americans attend church regularly–and even that number is still dropping.
** I don’t mean extinction. It’s very unlikely that there will ever come a day when humanity completely abandons superstition. I mean something far worse for Christians: becoming utterly irrelevant to society as a whole.
*** In Christianese, a “lukewarm Christian” is one who is not as fervent as other Christians think he or she should be. It comes from a verse in Revelation describing the Christian god’s posthumous rejection of believers who are “neither hot nor cold”. Despite the verse clearly indicating that it is their god doing the judging and rejecting rather than other Christians doing it, and despite other verses explicitly and specifically forbidding Christians from judging others, many Christians love to evaluate other Christians’ fervor.