We’ve been talking about the churn rate in Christianity lately. The number of people leaving the religion has finally hit that peak that’s convinced even the religion’s biggest names and most powerful leaders that yes, their religion has a serious problem that must be addressed.
Unfortunately, they’re trying to address it in possibly the worst way they could. And a lot of the reason for this bizarre reaction has to do with their idolatry around their religion’s message. Today we’ll talk about that message, the idolatry around it, and why so many Christians can’t seem to respond to people’s rejection of their idolized message in any way that seems constructive or helpful to their stated goals.
The Message Can’t Ever Be Wrong.
The first thing to understand about right-wing Christians is that they firmly believe that whatever their indoctrination teaches them the Bible says is actually what the Bible says. That may sound like a strange distinction to make, but it isn’t at all.
Christians, especially very fervent fundagelicals, are among the least educated of all people on Earth about the Bible. Most of what they know comes from their leaders, who themselves tend to be educated only in “Bible Colleges” that are largely conformity-factories churning out doctrinally-correct future pastors and preachers. Even those ministers who did attend more reputable seminaries tend to avoid talking about the stuff they learn there with their milk-loving, meat-eschewing flocks because what they learn there is so unlike the doctrines fundagelical church members think is so “Biblical,” as SBC sources confirm.* (Obviously, the more liberal the denomination/church/Christian, the less this generalization holds, but they’re not usually the folks who give anybody problems anyway.)
While reading the Bible and studying it is a priority for fundagelicals, I can tell you from personal experience that Christians tend to read it with a particular pair of “Jesus goggles” over their eyes that causes them to mistake their interpretation of the Bible’s writings for the real interpretation of them (an interpretation which, largely, we may never actually know). It isn’t until we deconvert that most of us actually see the really problematic parts of the Bible! Surveys bear out my experience, showing that Bible reading and study are declining every year even among Christians.
Al Mohler, like most of his cronies, believes that his denomination’s message is perfect, unchanging, and faultless–and that it is exactly what the Bible actually says. Because they link their interpretation to the actual meaning of the verses/stories/myths and then elevate the Bible itself to divine status, there is no way that it could ever be wrong on any point whatsoever. That message is not only perfect, moreover, but perfect for every single human being in the world.
So if anybody leaves Christianity, then clearly only two things could possibly have happened: Either the people communicating that message did so poorly, or else the person leaving had some personal failing that made believing or living that message impossible.
The failure is always someone’s fault. It is never the fault of the message. The message is always perfect.
In that sort of environment, doubts can’t be honestly engaged and that there simply aren’t any conclusions that Christians can possibly draw that differ from their indoctrination if they hope to remain in the tribe’s good graces.
But there’s an important reason for why Christians act this way. (There just about always is, isn’t there?) It has to do with just how essential Christianity is to humanity.
A Sorry Mess of a Cake.
Frank Schaeffer would agree that the message has problems, judging by a post he wrote about why he might have left the evangelical church and joined a Greek Orthodox one “even though it’s a mess too.” (He also wrote that really good “Open Letter to the Evangelical Establishment” that we’ve talked about off and on around here in comments. It meshes completely with what I saw in the religion when I was Christian.)
It may seem like an awful lot of work for him to go to a church that he concedes is “a mess,” or for that matter for a Christian to work as hard as many of them do to try to turn their religion into something halfway decent for humanity. And it is.
It reminds me of someone trying to salvage a Sandra Lee cake
assembly instruction recipe. Can it be done? Maybe, but a lot of folks would look at the effort required and the number of failures along the way to success, and they’d rightly start thinking Hmm.. You know, maybe it’s better to make a cake with a recipe that’s actually good to begin with than bash my brains out reforming a terrible recipe into something edible.
The idea that one even must try at all to salvage Christianity’s life-recipe, that one can’t simply go find another life-recipe, is an idea that only works to the advantage of the Al Mohlers of the world. There’s an underlying tangy off-vapor whiff of essential-ness to the doctrines such Christian leaders preach that makes it difficult for many adherents to simply walk away from the religion.
Hell, even hearing a suggestion to “just leave” can trigger the kind of anxiety and fear that leads a Christian to clamp down even harder on their dwindling faith.
If fundagelicals can get a wavering tribe-mate to consider their religion that kind of essential, then that poor soul will be trapped in an endless cycle of trying new flavors, discovering they’re not any better, adjusting doctrines or leaving for another flavor, and failing to reap any of the promised rewards the religion promises to adherents or even to silence their own gnawing doubts–while still not ever finding the strength to simply leave. The human costs of being trapped in that cycle don’t matter; what matters is that the person involved is still letting Christianity’s salespeople make their pitches.
Whether those marks actually manage to recapture their faith or not, the fact that they’re still running the gauntlet their leaders and peers have set up for them means that the religion still has some kind of power over people. Not for nothing did my old denomination often say that they’d far rather have someone who actively argued with and pushed back against proselytization attempts than someone who didn’t really care one way or the other (ahem). They thought that if such a person was still arguing, they were still listening. And no wonder the most active “soul-winners” I knew back then were the types who loved provoking people and (as Biff described it) “yanking their chains.” The damage done to the people who are thus manipulated and terrorized doesn’t matter. They’re nothing but collateral damage anyway!
The group of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ nodding their heads along with Al Mohler’s impassioned demands of departing Christians would likely agree that anything that “gets people saved” is automatically permissible.
Mr. Mohler is not going to sway people who have already left his religion. How many ex-Christians listen to his podcasts, much less read Christian news sources anymore? I’m guessing “not many.” I mean, I didn’t pay the faintest bit of attention to Christian leaders for years after my own deconversion. I’d escaped, and saw no reason to worry about Christianity any further. (It wasn’t until I realized what Christianity had become in America and what damage it was wreaking on innocent people that I realized that I had to engage again. As small as I am, as tiny as my individual voice might be, I can’t just let a bunch of dangerous, increasingly-polarized and radicalized extremist zealots destroy everything and everyone I love without doing my best to stop them.)
So Al Mohler’s words are not addressed to the Brad and Chad Jones of his religion–the people who’ve not only left but have begun new lives and professions within other Christian denominations or outside the religion entirely. The people who’ve left and found new lives outside evangelicalism aren’t going to hear its leaders blustering, whining, and clutching their pearls in horror. Nor are they going to reconsider their life decisions based on silly sermons like this one anyway, if all the emotional manipulation in the religion hasn’t worked on them.
No, Al Mohler is talking to the people who listen to his podcasts and who read what he has to say.
And of those people, there are two groups that he’s really trying to reach.
The first group he’s addressing are Christians who have no desire at all to leave and are not even questioning anything claimed or threatened by their leaders or holy book.
That first group will get a little burst of delicious smugness from agreeing with his opinion that their message is perfect and that anybody who leaves is obviously just doing something wrong. They’ll sorrow along with him about these defectors for being so vain and foolish that they’re not even trying to “talk to” any of them (read: allow themselves to sit through endless sales pitches) before making up their minds, because obviously belief is always a choice, and also just as obviously those who leave Christianity are in fact required to do all the stuff that Christians demand of them before they will be “allowed” to leave the religion.
So oh yes, that part of Al Mohler’s audience will get indignant along with him that all these people are leaving for vapid and silly reasons without even giving them a chance to try out all their Magic Christian sales pitches and talking points.
But he’s also sending a message to a second group of Christians, too, at the same time.
This second group is made up of people who are questioning their indoctrination–who are coming face-to-face with the yawning discrepancy between their beliefs and the observable reality all around themselves. This second group might well be frantically seeking answers, as most ex-Christians could attest they did, to quell their doubts and soothe their fears somehow.
That’s the group that is crucially important for him to reach.
The first group’s faith will be reinforced, but they might not have needed a lot of reinforcement anyway. The second group is the group Al Mohler really wants if he’s got even an ounce of sense–and I don’t doubt that he does; SBC leaders seem as sneaky as a kitten. (#noideawherethatcamefrom #getOUTofmykitchendammitcat). He must know there are a lot of Christians in that second group, given that it’s common knowledge by now that about 3500 Christians are leaving his religion every single day–a figure that Christian sources themselves came up with (and a number that’s probably only increased over time).
He’s telling that second group something as well, something they won’t miss hearing.
Al Mohler’s Message For Doubting Christians.
1. You must “talk to” your elders, parents, pastors, and other authoritative adults if you have concerns or questions about your indoctrination, even though “talking to” them will likely get you in serious trouble and start you on a path you decidedly don’t want to walk.
Mr. Mohler has no intention of making his denominational leaders a safe harbor for these conversations. When his denomination talks about “closing the back door in your church,” not a single one of the steps listed involves making themselves easier to talk to–not even the last step, which is about inviting new members out for dinner on false pretenses to hit them with “invites” to various church groups to make them feel more involved and invested in their church. In such an environment, I cannot imagine that such a less-involved member would really feel open about expressing any doubts or concerns with their indoctrination.
(“But but but we totally invited them to dinner, communicated the importance of small groups to new members, and reviewed everyone’s status once a quarter!” these church authorities will cry, all the way to their church’s bankruptcy hearing.)
As one otherwise-totally-ineffective guide to retaining church members has pointed out, people won’t share their concerns with church leaders and peers if they don’t think doing so will make any difference at all. Since they know they want to leave, and that their tribe can’t really engage with their reasons, they might as well save everyone some time.
2. You must come up with a valid and compelling reason that we can understand and accept if you want to leave the tribe. (Pro-tip: No reason you come up with will be considered valid or compelling because NO reason is EVER considered so. Whatever reason you give, we’re going to argue with you about it and declare it invalid. Oh, and regardless of how pointless it is and how doomed you are to fail at it, you are still required to jump through this hoop.)
This idea is simply the “courtier’s reply” to ex-Christians that we’ve discussed here on occasion. Very few Christian groups really care what reasons a new convert might have for joining their church. A convert can join many fundagelical churches without ever once talking to anybody on Al Mohler’s list of authoritative adults.
But if Christians want to leave, they must run past the gauntlet their “church family” has set up for them before they’ll be allowed to leave. And because his ideology provides no way for anybody leaving to pass the challenge, it means that nobody is ever actually allowed to do so without the remaining tribespeople’s censure and disapproval.
Unfortunately, that censure and disapproval is starting to lose its power over those who want to leave.
The Straw(Man) Is A Lie.
Al Mohler sounds downright bizarre in his impassioned speech about people leaving his denomination because he’s talking about how people operate in the fundagelical bubble’s impression of the world, not how people operate in the real world. That bubble-world is the one where his tribemates get their awful Christian movies from and the source of all those evangelism strategies that backfire so dramatically on them.
These movies and strategies create strawmen that Christians can actually win against. Only in these fictional scenarios can Christians see and revel in tribal victory, a situation that we can see repeatedly in movies like Left Behind, which a great many Christians actually use in their personal evangelism to terrorize non-believers, as well as in patently unworkable and ludicrously unhelpful self-help systems like The Love Dare, whose fans repeatedly reference the movie based on the book (Fireproof) as some kind of evidence that the book’s system works!
Al Mohler can’t engage with the real problem (people leaving his denomination and religion) as it stands in the real world, so he creates a problem that he can engage with. His “solutions” to that straw-problem are not going to work. But they will make his tribemates feel better. They’ll feel like they understand what’s going on and what’ll fix the problem. They’ll feel like their job is both clear and doable. They’ll feel like they have someone to blame besides themselves. They’ll feel like their idolized doctrines are perfect and in no need of evaluation, challenge, or change.
So in his eyes and those of his sympathetic audience members, he’s scored a victory.
In reality, however, he’s illustrating exactly why and how his denomination will continue to fail.
If he’d start engaging with the real reasons for the decline of the SBC (and evangelical Christianity generally), he might be able to start fixing the real problems facing it. But to do so would mean dismantling almost the entire engine of his denomination’s doctrines and ideology. And I think he’d rather see it all burn than do something to change it.
Hang in there, friends. Evangelicals are like those villains in movies who haven’t figured out yet that they’ve already been defeated. But they will. Even religions eventually fail.
We’re going to talk next about some of the strange ways that Christians talk about those who have left–and why. See you then!
* One cannot even emphasize or overstate enough how ludicrous that whole link is. We’ll be discussing it more in-depth later but wow. I highly recommend the read.