Thom Rainer and His Boxes of Air

Thom Rainer and His Boxes of Air October 8, 2016

Last time we met up, I was talking about a post written by Thom Rainer, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention. In it, he sought to blame churches’ congregants for not communicating adequately with their pastors, who were consequently upset that they were being asked to “read minds.” His post seemed like it was part of an overarching, ongoing effort to help his group recover from their catastrophic losses in recent years. Today I’ll show you something else he wrote that fits in with that effort–and also why it fails just as hard as his other post did.

Sometimes it's just easier. (Credit: Ace Armstrong, CC-ND.)
Walking away. (Credit: Ace Armstrong, CC-ND.)

Certainly, we shouldn’t be surprised that Christians, having finally figured out just how bad the situation is for them, are finally swinging around to trying to fix things. But a funny thing happens when very criticism-averse people try to solve big, sweeping, systemic problems with their group: they start coming up with reasons for those problems that bear no resemblance to reality. Because they’re not able to see the real reasons for their problems, they keep coming up with solutions that won’t actually help them at all. But in working themselves into a fine lather to fix nonexistent problems with solutions that won’t actually impact anything meaningfully, they accidentally reveal exactly what the real problems are, and also that they aren’t able or willing to do what is actually necessary to identify, much less fix those problems.

A Caveat about Thom Rainer’s “Surveys.”

6 Reasons Why Your Church Members May Not Be Friendly to Guests” is Thom Rainer’s second recent listicle aimed at helping churches stanch their bleeding membership rolls. In it, he tries to uncover the reasons why Christians might not be as genuinely friendly as they think they are.

This post, like others he’s written, relies on the results of a mystery survey that he claims his group conducted of church visitors. This survey might even be the same one that’s in that earlier post of mine; as usual, he doesn’t tell us any of the facts behind it. We don’t know how many people were surveyed, what his definition of “guest” or “visitor” was, what those people were asked, when or where the survey was conducted, or what the specific questions were. We don’t know if this was a multiple-choice questionnaire or an essay-only survey; we don’t know how old the respondents were, how they were chosen, or any of their demographic information; we have no idea what specific churches were involved. That he doesn’t ever reveal this information tells me that we should expect the worst about the methodology involved.

Worse, there’s this thing that fundagelical ministers do when they lecture their flocks: they overstate dangers and risks to get congregants to pay attention and take matters more seriously. In one breath they can exult in how marvelous dem Jesus gainz are, while in the next they can lament that Christianity is dying. They’re perfectly happy to distort the truth or even “lie for Jesus” if doing so will help them make a point.

We should also bear in mind that Thom Rainer’s blog is part of his company’s marketing system. LifeWay Christian Resources, his particular corner of the Southern Baptist Convention, is a publishing house that makes media for churches in the SBC (like books, videos, etc.). They’re a business just like any other. They exist to sell stuff. Salespeople cannot ever be trusted to be 100% honest; they’ll always be tempted to distort facts, exaggerate, or downplay as necessary to increase sales.

So please bear in mind that there’s only so far that we can trust much of anything he says. What I do is listen to what he has to say and see how it meshes with stuff I’ve learned from more reputable sources. (Mr. Captain, reading this draft: “And then you’ll piss on his grave.”)

A Mismatched Vision.

That said, what Thom Rainer is talking about here sounds fairly accurate. He’s trying to make a point about the striking dichotomy between how Christians often see themselves and how others see them. We’ve talked about that dichotomy before, so I’m on board so far.

He tells us that many churches sell themselves as “the friendliest church in town” in an effort to draw in visitors (with, of course, an eye toward turning them into regular members). He says that this is actually the most common selling point he’s heard churches use.  But unfortunately, this come-on is only very rarely accurate. Most churches are nowhere near as friendly as they think they are, and their standoffish behavior (or frequent outright rudeness) drives off visitors–who might visit based on the advertising, but quickly decide never to return once they experience the reality.

He claims that in his mystery survey, the most common comment he heard from church visitors was that the churches they’d visited simply weren’t very friendly, and so he seeks to show fundagelicals some things he’s observed that aren’t very friendly at all–but which they themselves might not have noticed they’re doing.

And again, I’m generally on board here. I’ve seen similar marketing and heard similar horror stories. There are entire sites online that exist to help Christians align their behavior with their marketing appeals. Some of the horror stories those visitors tell, when they find their voices, sound like a comedy of errors; others sound like the opening scenes of an actual horror movie.

One pervasive message can be gleaned from all these websites and blog posts and books and videos: Christians’ self-image doesn’t even remotely resemble how non-members (and even many of their own fellow members) see them.

So I don’t know if Thom Rainer’s survey is accurate here about the most common comment that church guests make being that the church was unfriendly, but if it wasn’t the most common then it was probably common enough.

A Box of Air.

Evangelism-minded Christians are, at heart, salespeople. A pastor is more of a business manager than anything else. And any Christian who thinks that their church is anything but a business is someone who is probably going to be burned very badly when their lofty expectations slam face-first against that stone-cold reality (as this poor lady discovered, and as I did years ago). That’s how it’s been from the very beginning of the religion.

All those would-be evangelists and businesses are selling a product, however, that fewer and fewer customers actually want to buy, largely because they’re realizing that the box evangelicals are pushing at them contains only air.

Since one empty box is very much like another, about all Christians can do to differentiate themselves to the decreasing pool of seekers* is to make their own particular box look better than everyone else’s box.

About the only two ways to make that differentiation is either in doctrine or church culture. As you might guess from the fusion word fundagelical,** most churches’ doctrines look strikingly similar. Though the slight differences between them may seem terribly important to the members themselves (I cringe now to remember all the fights about the Trinity I’ve heard), to outsiders it’s all pretty much of a muchness: all the same stuff said in ways that are barely perceptibly different. Thus, marketing campaigns based around doctrinal stances aren’t going to be terribly productive.

R2D Translation Guide
See this handy translation guide for the meaning of “Really?”

So most churches go the route of trying to make their community sound like the most fun, the most engaged, the most active, the most friendly, and the most gosh-darned Christlike of all–or the most hardcore and Biblical and unyielding and REALLY? and conservative. Indeed, when I look at the advertising I constantly receive in the mail from churches, I see about 75% going the friendly route and 25% going the correctness route.

Very few Christians are under any illusions about how most people see their churches. That’s why so many of them use marketing based around the denigration of church culture generally: “We’re not like them. We’re wonderfully nice! We’re generous and kind! We’re totally focused on Jesus! We’re totally different from all those other shallow, petty, small-minded Christians you might have met! We’re a church for people who hate church!

As much as it annoys some Christians that this type of marketing is used at all, I suspect that it’s going to continue simply because there are a lot, as in a lot a lot, of Christians who have been so disillusioned by their experiences in churches that they’ve simply withdrawn. To be sure, I’ve noticed that in the last few years they’ve become a far more visible presence on Christian blogs that touch on disengagement; there are simply so many disengaged Christians that they feel much safer about talking about it.

Christians’ mistake may be in vastly overestimating just how many of these disengaged folks are actually looking for a church to join anymore, when the reality is that almost none of them are. But they’ve got to do something. Churches are not, in the main, gaining people. Some are, yes. A few. Most aren’t. The vast majority are losing people bit by bit if not by clumps and armfuls. But without a clear understanding of where the problems are coming from, their solutions are going to sound surreal. That’s exactly what we see in Thom Rainer’s suggestions.

Fighting to Maintain a Broken System.

In that last post about “reading minds,” the problem wasn’t that Christians aren’t communicating, but rather that a toxic culture actively discourages communication. Lecturing church members seems really cruel and counterproductive when what needs to happen is a systemic overhaul from the top leadership on down. In the same way, this time around Thom Rainer is calling for more friendliness and he’s making some good points about what people in his group act like–but the big problem here is that his culture’s architects have created a system that is categorically incapable of self-examination, accounting for reality, or even showing compassion and empathy for others. The way church members behave is nothing but a reflection of the system that their leaders have set up.

His people can’t make the changes he is calling for because their entire culture would need to be overhauled for it to happen. Even if they tried to do what he’s suggesting, it’d probably come off as really creepy. They act the way they do because their culture is a belligerent, one-sided celebration of ignorance, selfishness, and superiority. It teaches that compassion and empathy are no-nos, that charity is actually a bad thing, that the feedback given by reality itself is suspicious and must be disregarded, and that “love” means hurting and alienating others. The further right one goes in the theological pool, the more we find a culture that teaches Christians to be narcissists who must look out for number one. And it teaches them to genuinely fear any changes in their culture, especially changes that might alter the power structure they’ve gotten used to (and may be reaping the rewards of).

Not for nothing are many fundagelical churches sardonically characterized as country clubs full of snobbish cliques rather than “hospitals for sinners,” as their popular saying goes. You can see that reality when you look at how Christians react when told that they are not being very friendly. I’ve made the mistake myself of telling Christians that they’re missing the mark–and the shocking response I got from them became part of the reason that I began blogging three years ago!

I could not believe how this bunch of preening, self-congratulatory TRUE CHRISTIANS™ could possibly be so hypocritical and hateful, so nasty and cruel. I was still innocent enough to think that they just didn’t realize how they were coming off. I thought for sure that if I just told them, they’d be properly ashamed and horrified of themselves. And I got punished brutally for my audacity in busting their self-image. (I guess they totally forgot that they’re supposed to be persuading people and being loving in their rush to trample the dissenters in their midst?)

You can imagine that since then, I’ve grown way more accustomed to that behavior. When I read a pastor declaring that why golly gosh, “some people just don’t take to friendship,” or others hotly contesting the idea that people even want friendly churches, I don’t have to wonder why Christians would say that–or what their “friendship” looked like that it got rejected.

In reality, if any church members did try to become more loving, kind, accepting, or compassionate, their fellow church members would be the very first people to jump on them with both feet. At this point they’ve got a hell of a lot invested in that culture.

The Even Bigger Problem.

Of course, the even bigger problem here–one that you will never, ever hear Christian leaders tackle–is that there should be no reason whatsoever for Christians to require so much pushing and shoving to get them to be decent people.

Christians believe that they are possessed by Jesus, who is love personified in their mythology. Their entire goal is to be as “Christlike” as they possibly can (though they generally lean more toward the “judge the holy living shit out of everyone in sight because that’s totally what Jesus would do” end of that equation). So just as Jesus is supposed to want to save every lost lamb he can, they are supposed to want that. Just as Jesus told people to come to him as they are, they should be doing that. Just as he is thought to be infinitely forgiving to those who seek him, they should be as well. (Obviously, anybody who has read the Bible knows how few of these traits are evident in the Gospels. But this is the general belief.)

Because of this belief, many Christians think that something supernatural can be seen in them, a sort of Jesus-aura that glows and entices others from afar like a bug-zapper attracts moths. They also believe that the social rules that their religion dictates are not only divinely-given but also simply the best way for any people to live. So you’d think that they’d naturally be wonderfully friendly people!

If nothing else, even if we ignore that their supernatural or earthly claims aren’t borne out in reality, Christians are salespeople. This requirement isn’t optional, and pastors make sure their flocks know how important it is that people Always Be Closing. The simple truth is that their church leaders are neither teaching them how to do that, nor creating an atmosphere in which they can do it.

So why in the hell do they need so much coaxing, urging, coaching, admonishing, and downright lecturing to do the very least that we’d expect any such group in their situation to do? And why in the hell do they fight those few reform attempts as hard as they do?


“Only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted.

Ultimately, their difficulty in managing even the miniscule task of acting sort of friendly to people once a week for a couple of hours speaks to just how wonderful a group they are and just how valid their claims are. I don’t know about y’all, but I sure wouldn’t ever want to join a group that unwelcoming. And when they blame me for not wanting to join them, it just tells me that I was right to make that decision.

We’ll be talking about more of this stuff next week, but Tuesday there’s a sad news story I want to show you that accidentally highlights some of the worst shortcomings in Christian conceptualizations of “sin.” We’ll see you then. Happy weekend!


* Seeker: Christianese for “someone who is interested in potentially joining a church.” Seeker-oriented churches tend to be friendly, boppy, and light on theology so that seekers will feel at home. What’s funny is that I’m remembering now that there was a cult of college kids who called themselves Seekers back in my day who were as hardcore as it can possibly get–they begged for food and crash space, wore whatever clothes they could find, and generally preached an ascetic, apocalyptic message of self-denial and homelessness-for-Jesus that was not super-successful with anybody except a very limited audience of kids who were “more hardcore than thou”. They were some of the original “spiritual but not religious” too-cool-for-the-label hipster Christians–probably the direct descendants of the Jesus People movement. But they are not what modern churches mean by the term “seeker.”

** Fundagelical: fundamentalist + evangelical. Twenty years ago, the differences between the groups was quite stark; now I can’t see any difference at all. I got tired of writing out “fundamentalist or evangelical” and began using this word instead. I’m not sure who invented it.


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