When Change Isn’t Possible

When Change Isn’t Possible January 11, 2017

We’ve been chatting lately in posts and comments alike about how people react to problems in their midst when their entire system precludes genuine growth or change. Toxic Christians, particularly, tend to believe that their worldview–their social system–is perfect, and thus cannot fail. So when an actual failure is observed in their system, the problem can’t possibly be the system itself but must be the people within that system who did something wrong. The fix for the problem must happen within the minds and behaviors of the group members: they either have to stop doing the stuff that the system forbids, or do more of the stuff the system demands.

(James St. John, CC.) This is a right whale, which has plates in its mouth (called "baleen," used to filter tiny krill in the water for food) that were used long ago to make buggy whips and corset stays. Whale evolution, incidentally, doesn't embarrass Creationists nearly as much as it should.
A right whale skeleton on display in North Carolina. (James St. John, CC.) Right whales have plates in their mouth called “baleen” that are used to filter tiny krill in the water for food. Those plates were used long ago to make buggy whips and corset stays. Whale evolution, incidentally, doesn’t embarrass Creationists nearly as much as it should.

This truth manifests in weird ways in broken systems. In Christianity, adherents themselves get blamed for their religion’s fall from dominance, and told that clearly they must do more of what their leaders have told them to do, and to do it with more fervor than they have been, or else they will continue to fail and it’ll continue to be their fault. They don’t even wonder if the system they’re following is actually the problem; even asking such questions is seen as an absolutely intolerable sign of defiance.

Do more of that, and harder. It’s a mantra by now. It hasn’t actually worked yet, but it’s literally all the religion’s leaders have in their toolbox for coping with a crisis that nobody–most especially themselves–ever saw coming.

Change or Die.

Thom Rainer, the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s propaganda arm LifeWay Christian Resources, has been sounding alarm bells at his denomination for years. Last summer, he put out a provocative blog post advising churches to “Change or Die.” Incidentally, I only noticed it because he mentioned it in his year-end wrap-up post. Yes, that is how impressed he is with this one. It’s certainly very dramatic:

Okay, I have some tough news for you who are members or leaders of about 100,000 churches in America.

Change or die.

You read that correctly. In fact, if your churches don’t make substantive changes in the next few years, your church will die.

Bear in mind, please, that Christian leaders often make bad news sound considerably worse to get their flocks’ attention, but still, knowing what I know of evangelical churn, I can’t really disagree with the general ideas he’s presenting here. He goes on to outline what those changes are, and they are a celebration of his broken system–and a guarantee that his denomination’s catastrophic declines in numbers and donations will continue to tumble.

Before we get into his outline, I want to offer a few caveats.

He never gets around to saying what he means by “die,” of course. With him, that could mean anything from losing a large chunk of congregants to actually bolting the doors closed for good and completely shuttering the building and all its operations. Thom Rainer doesn’t normally provide definitions or context, and this post is no exception to that rule.

Nor does he even tell us exactly what he means by that “100,000” churches figure. There are some 300,000 Protestant churches in America (and about 20,000 Catholic churches, which are generally bigger and more formal than the Protestant ones). Of the Protestant churches, we’ll find, according to the last SBC Annual Convention book from mid-2015, 46,499 SBC member churches. Later Mr. Rainer will share that “nearly one of three churches will die in the next few years,” so I think he’s using that 300,000 figure.

So it appears that he is breathlessly including in his estimation churches that aren’t even actually part of the SBC. I suppose he’s trying to say that the problems he sees are completely endemic to Protestantism generally, but it’s disingenuous of him to paint with so broad a brush. Nor am I sure how he’s getting the information about 1/3 of those churches closing in the next few years. Small churches open and close all the time–little storefronts and church plants are always coming and going. That’s always been the case. Ironically, even in this time of rapidly-declining membership rolls, more churches are usually opening than closing–but Thom Rainer isn’t about to tell us that in his post!

Well gosh, Shaggy Captain, I hear you asking, which churches are in danger of being one of the 100,000 churches he thinks will die this year? And what does he think change would involve?

Who’s in Big Trouble.

Thom Rainer says he’s talked to “thousands of pastors” about churches and whatnot. This totally trustworthy, unbiased, and objective research allows him to predict with great clarity which churches in America are in deep bantha pudu.

Oh, but never fear! He won’t actually name any names specifically. Instead, he’s just listing the habits and traits of the churches that are most at risk of “dying.” (BTW, quotes in this post are from him. They’re not scare quotes.) Here they are:

First, churches with “shallow roots.” By this he means churches that aren’t literalist, as you might guess, but he also includes in that estimation churches that aren’t involved enough with the kind of ministry his denomination prefers. He doesn’t care for “secular or social” ministries, saying they’re “really not ministry at all.”

Second, “self-entitled” churches. These churches are more like “country clubs,” with members demanding programs and services or else they’ll go elsewhere–and take their tithes (which he says they think of as “dues”) with them. How dare people seek churches that make them happy and keep them busy! How dare they!

Third, “negatively critical” churches. The members here complain and criticize too much, exhausting their ministers and decent members. That must be that “love of Jesus” thing and that “infilling of the Holy Spirit” we keep hearing about.

Fourth, “ignorantly idolatrous” churches. This one was funny because I literally cannot think of a single fundagelical church (or for that matter any fundagelical person) that I have ever personally encountered or read about that didn’t fall prey to this sort of thinking. Basically, Mr. Rainer is taking a swing at Christians who get really attached to doing church a certain way and then react very poorly to any proposed changes to their established routine. He calls that attachment idolatry. But he doesn’t see that his own attachment to “the clear teachings of the Bible,” as he ignorantly and idolatrously calls them, might be a problem. Oops!

Fifth, “evangelistically anemic” churches. In these churches, members aren’t taught or encouraged to make pests of themselves, and thus nobody new ever joins their group.

Detecting a trend here?

You guessed it! Thom Rainer’s saying that if Christians were all behaving themselves, if they were only the SuperChristian perpetual-victim TRUE CHRISTIAN™ Jesus-aura-emanating ultra-pest culture-warring fundagelicals that the SBC wants everyone to be, then there wouldn’t be any problems at all.

We’ve seen this exact assumption many times in Christianity. Remember Preston Sprinkle, the “nice” bigot-for-Jesus whose book we reviewed last summer? He thought the same way: that if his tribe were only behaving more like how he thought TRUE CHRISTIANS™ should, then they would all be totally loving and wonderful toward gay and bi people, who would then flood churches to be embraced in their new lives of happy enforced, hopeless, unending, unrelieved chastity. In his view, the only Christians who mistreat any LGBTQ people are the ones who don’t know exactly what the Bible teaches about the topic of human sexuality.

And that’s really where we find Thom Rainer, and by extension his friends in the SBC’s leadership. The only churches having trouble, they insist, are the ones who are doing the SBC’s rules all wrong. Following the rules = flourishing and growing church. Breaking or being unaware of the rules (or worse yet flouting them!) = totally dying church.

The problem, of course, is that almost all churches are shrinking, if not on life support or even past the stage where anybody sensible would have just put on “The Thong Song” and torn the place apart.

Indeed, in 2011–before the SBC had realized fully just how bad their situation was, a Tennessee newspaper reported that out of 10,560 total Presbyterian Church congregations, almost 200 of them had between one and nine members. Further, at the time of the article (which, again, was 5 years ago), most Tennesee Christians belonged to churches with fewer than 100 members–many with less than 50. Quite a few of those very tiny churches probably belong to that 100,000 number Thom Rainer cites.

Of the ones that do manage to squeak by, they’re having to get creative about how they define success as a church body. But I doubt the Southern Baptist Convention would be very happy to hear about a church that starts tiny and stays tiny and is content to stay there. So they need Thom Rainer and men like him to jump out in front of the sheep and get them nice and panicked.

The Boss Is On a Roll.

Now that Thom Rainer has frightened and shamed his audience enough, he can now offer them the solution to the problem he has created.

If you look at his original post, you’l notice that it’s actually an advertisement for a book Thom Rainer wrote that his company is selling. If he was really that concerned about helping his fellow Christians keep their churches open, surely he’d be simply making the information available! But like the leader of a mystery religion did in ancient times, he demands a price for his exalted wisdom.

The product he’s hawking this time around is a book called Who Moved My Pulpit? It’s supposed to be about how to foster and promote necessary change in a church environment. And he specifically promises that his foolproof, absolutely certain “roadmap” will work its magic without “changing doctrine” or “changing biblical foundations,” but instead by “changing methodologies and approaches for reaching a rapidly changing culture.” So the broken system itself is in no danger whatsoever of even being critically examined by its adherents, much less altered in any way!

(If you’re suddenly seeing some parallels between LifeWay products and those ubiquitous rah-rah audiotapes that Amway victims are told to purchase and listen to daily, you are not alone at all.)

LifeWay Christian Resources exists to sell stuff to Christian churches and leaders. And from what I can see, it does very brisk trade. It may well be the only really healthy part of the SBC’s entire business. But if you’re waiting for the SBC book that gives hands-on expertise without relying on magical thinking, you’re probably going to be waiting for a very, very long time. They’ve finally fully come to grips with the fact that they have a very serious problem (something that took quite some time; two years ago I didn’t think they’d reached that stage yet), but they’re still not quite able to identify why they’re having it–much less how to fix it.

If you’re curious, Thom Rainer’s roadmap involves eight “phases” that are, in order: prayer, realistic evaluation of the church’s attendance statistics, building an “eager coalition” of church members and leaders, becoming a “voice for vision and hope,” dealing with opposition “lovingly,” actually moving through whatever changes in focus the leader has deemed necessary, finding and reaching easy-to-achieve goals early on, and then consolidating change. It all sounds pretty corporate and murky to me, and very light indeed on actual concrete suggestions. The fact that the author continually stresses how important magical thinking and spellcasting prayer is to a church’s success tells me what I need to know about how useful the book is in the real world.

But fundagelicals appear to just love the book; it’s got 5 stars on Amazon, with only a few 3-star reviews and absolutely no 1- or 2-star reviews. I can totally understand why they’d love it; it tells them that their worldview is correct and that it works consistently, gives them what it says is totally failure-proof instructions that, if faithfully followed, will absolutely succeed, and says all the catchphrases that they want to hear.

Failure Station, Next Stop.

Thom Rainer’s post–and the book it was written to sell–won’t ever tell fundagelicals what they really need to hear: that the more freedom people have to refuse to associate with them, the less they will choose to do so.

The system that held together (one cannot really say worked, but at least church leaders got more or less what they wanted out of the grift and didn’t face much pushback or mockery) when they had total dominance in their local communities completely fails in an environment in which people have true freedom of religion. When less-broken philosophies and worldviews became real options for people, they chose those instead of the broken system that they can see is a failure.

Notice the first pictured result? (Accessed 1/11/2017.)
Notice the first pictured result? (Accessed 1/11/2017.)

I know the old joke is that Christians are like buggy-whip manufacturers in the age of rising automobile ownership. I’ve even repeated that joke myself. But they don’t even have it that good. Hell, I just Googled for “carriage supplies horse tack” and got some 364,000 results in less time than it took to locate that number on the screen. The very first result I got was for a buggy whip! (They’re USD$19, if you’re wondering.) There are still horse-drawn carriage suppliers and they seem to be doing a pretty good business.

No, Christians like Thom Rainer’s tribe are more like a company that makes buggy whips with cores of gunpowder that explode randomly during use. People not only don’t need buggy whips at all in the numbers we might have bought them in once, but we’ve got a lot more choice about brands now. We don’t have to buy the particular type of whip that Christians are selling. We can buy one that’s safer and more humane, or go without any whips at all in our households (and we can do so, often and increasingly, without suffering from any kind of social censure or side-eye).

Some Christians are going to figure out how to make a slightly more humane buggy-whip that won’t randomly hurt the people using it. But a lot of other ones are going to drill down on the old style of whip, refusing to retool it or even to admit that there’s a serious problem with it. They’re aware that a lot of people are rejecting that type of whip, but all this awareness does is make them more and more defensive.

This is how buggy-whips are damned well supposed to work, they’ll growl, and they’ll imply that anybody with an objection to exploding buggy-whips is obviously not a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ (like themselves) because this is the way Jesus himself told them to make the damned things. The more people who reject their version of the product, the more certain they’ll be that they’re the only Christians in the world with the correctly-manufactured one.

When we see Christians like those in the SBC drilling down on their failed systems, insisting year after year that greater adherence will produce the results they once got in their heyday, we’re seeing the first outward signs of inward decay and collapse. They’ll cling to their broken system and ride it all the way down to total irrelevance–unless a miracle occurs, I add with tongue firmly in cheek.

We’ve got some updates coming this week, a semi-drunken review, and a look at a psychology concept I find fascinating: criticism aversion. See you next time!


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