Sometimes it’s downright painful to see a Christian skate right up to the edge of understanding and then skitter and windmill away from it again. Richard Krejcir has managed that stunt in a post he wrote for an evangelical church leadership site, reminding me yet again that culture-war-loving Christians really don’t have a good solution for their current membership crisis.
A Doozy of a Post.
Richard Krejcir’s group used US Census records and Assemblies of God denominational reports to come up with a set of startling statistics. At least, he sounds startled. You probably won’t be.
Like his peers in that end of the religion, he may be ever-so-slightly overstating things to get his readers suitably galvanized, but the gist of what he’s asserting is stuff we’ve discussed many times on this blog:
· Every year more than 4000 churches close their doors compared to just over 1000 new church starts!
· Every year, 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity.
· [T]here should have been over 38,000 new churches commissioned to keep up with the population growth.
· Half of all churches in the US did not add any new members to their ranks in the last two years.
I don’t think it’s a super-recent report–its latest copyright is 2006, but like most Christian posts this one doesn’t say exactly when it was written–so one wonders how panicky Mr. Krejcir would sound if the last few years were taken into account, when his religion’s leaders really began to engage with the fact that their religion was failing.
There’s Definitely Reason to Panic.
Christians live in a bubble. That’s just the reality of it. They learn a series of false teachings about the world and relationships and what people are like, and then spend their finite lifetimes trying to live according to these totally unworkable ideas–and of course trying to force them on non-believers.
The problem is, those teachings just don’t work. The beliefs of Christians don’t reflect reality on any scale. Their relationship teachings are catastrophically bad; their ideas about the perfect society are demonstrably harmful; their worldview itself is based on ideas that either can’t be tested at all or have been tested many times and found wanting.
And they can’t even really question any of it because along with those laughably erroneous blueprints-for-life, they are taught that all of it was handed down to their pastor directly from a real live god who is never wrong about anything. Dissent is not only not tolerated, it is actively punished.
So when faced with the simple truth that people are increasingly choosing not to join or remain in Christian groups, Christians have to do a funny little two-step to both explain the problem and offer a solution to it without criticizing any aspect of their doctrines or getting too close to suggesting substantive changes to anything their leaders are telling the flocks to do and think.
And Mr. Krejcir shows us both sides of this awkward hoedown in his post.
First, Assign Blame.
Krejcir blames “‘so called Evangelists'” (see what he did there with his no true Scotsman distancing act?) and other church leaders for leading hypocritical lifestyles that disappoint and alienate people. He blames churches for not caring adequately for members who need support and for not adequately welcoming first-time visitors. He also blames Christians for behaving in a very non-loving way generally.
That part is completely accurate.
Many Christians are well aware that most people see them as unwelcoming, petty, cruel, and distastefully uncharitable, and it’s not hard to find exhortations from leaders asking them to tone those tendencies down a little. It must be simply mortifying to be a pastor and see long-time church members getting snooty at potential new
customers members or to see the church kids snub and bully visiting kids. But Christians never connect their religion’s teachings with the behavior church members manifest as a direct result of those teachings. They’re all sure their teachings are the perfect will of a perfect god, and so therefore these hypocritical behaviors are the result of imperfections in Christians themselves.
I don’t think it’s occurred to anybody in these churches that people who are psychically possessed by the spirit of a god of love, mercy, peace, and charity shouldn’t need to be told this often to maybe be a little nicer to people and not so off-puttingly nasty all the time.
Second, Offer a Solution, Sort Of.
Then Krejcir tells Christians exactly how he thinks they’ll fix this hemorrhage of members. That’s where he makes his wrong turn at Albuquerque.
Having chastened the flocks for not behaving in the least like their worldview says Christians should behave, Mr. Krejcir blames pastors who dilute what he sees as “biblical values” to try to appeal more to potential new
customers members. He tells them to “be on guard against the erosion of biblical values and damage to our beliefs and biblical mindset.”
What he’s referring to here is the fundagelical culture wars. Their culture wars against abortion and equal marriage are the defining characteristics of fundagelical churches and other toxic Christian groups (such as hardline Catholics) by now. They’d sooner give up their tax exemptions than give up on their two hills to die on. And they’re totally convinced that the big problem facing their religion is that so many churches and individual Christians are trying to get away from that trainwreck.
When you hear a fundagelical talking about “watering down” or “diluting” their teachings, or going on and on about “absolute morality” or “biblical/traditional” anything, you’re hearing a coded demand that the culture wars continue.
Pick One: Culture Wars or Love.
The problem is, the culture wars are based on fear, contempt, greed, and control-lust. They’re about hurting other people and destroying their rights, forcing them to behave certain ways, and violating their privacy and overriding their most intimate personal decisions in the name of a perverse, grotesque form of paternalism.
All of that mess is completely antithetical to love.
You can’t be loving and still feel those things toward someone else. And someone can’t manifest those awful things in a truly loving heart. Christians get around this problem by redefining common words like love, respect, tolerance, and charity to allow themselves to do the stuff they vastly prefer to do, but nobody is fooled except them. We show that we’re not fooled by voting with our feet and pushing back hard against their attempts to control or mistreat us.
Contempt, especially, can lead to all kinds of dehumanizing and cruel behavior. Just as a couple’s marriage can’t survive contempt, love itself withers in the face of the behaviors that flow out of a contemptuous heart. It’s clear to see that Christians feel great contempt for non-Christians, especially those who firmly reject proselytization attempts. When a noted Christian pastor talks about literally enslaving atheists, or a super-popular evangelist refers to non-Christians as petulant children who want candy for dinner, that sort of talk sure doesn’t sound respectful or loving.
You Can’t Have Both.
You can have love, or you can have the culture wars and all those attempts to dominate and control everyone. But you cannot have both. If you try to blend them, the toxic foulness of the culture wars will infect and soon overpower any love you might still have.
Christians haven’t learned that lesson yet. They’re still convinced that there’s a magical way they can blend their domineering with love and come out of it with an intact, harmonious church body and growing membership. That’s why their advice always centers on trying to have both worlds, and why their ideology and teachings always assume that it’s possible to achieve perfect equilibrium between love and domineering.
I’ll tell y’all this: any denomination or group that clings to the culture wars is one that is going to be marked by hatred, contempt, fearmongering, deception, overreach, and tribalism–and their hypocrisy is going to come out one way or the other.
That’s why, when you hear about horrific Christian scandals in the news, the responsible group is nearly always one that’s immersed in the Christian Right’s culture wars. It’ll be a fundagelical or Catholic group, or Mormon, but it’s almost never an affirming church or one that has completely rejected all of the culture-war fights. (I’m sure toxic Christians explain this strange situation away by saying that the mean ole librul media just hates them extra, but I ain’t buying that horseshit no matter how many times they try to call it chocolate.)
Don’t Y’all Go Changin’.
But Mr. Krejcir skates right up to the edge of the realization that his tribe’s culture wars might have anything at all to do with the hypocrisy that his flocks exhibit, and then skitters away from that edge. He instead admonishes his tribe to keep up their good work oppressing people and disapproving at them:
Remember, churches fail because we place our needs and desires over the Lord’s.
And what, you may be asking, is
Mr. Krejcir’s “the Lord’s” need and desire?
Sometimes, we may not recognize sin and will perhaps rationalize it away. This happens especially when solid biblical theology or teaching is “dumbed down” and shown as OK in the media and entertainment which are at our disposal.
Ah, okay. That explained everything. Or not.
Christians have never been really good at translating their ideology into concrete suggestions. Sometimes they just don’t have any idea how their ideas look in action. Other times, it seems like they just don’t want to say what they really mean. The latter situation is what I suspect in this post.
Though rather opaque in phrasing, I suspect that he’s saying here that Christians must take care not to condone sin, because that’s how he thinks churches fail. They must keep drilling down on the culture wars and maintaining their firm disapproval of a variety of “sins” that “the media and entertainment” insists are actually not sinful at all.
If they keep doing what they’re doing except harder and more of it, this post writer insists, their churches will totally succeed.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Culture Wars.
The weird thing is, Mr. Krejcir is almost kind of correct here. Almost.
Churches that are culture-war bastions but then try to move away from that arena often find themselves splintering at the seams. Very seldom does a culture-warring church survive whole such conflicts. Even less seldom do pastors who try to pull away from those wars find a happy ending (or at least a happy next-chapter).
Adam Phillips is one such fortunate pastor; when he started an evangelical church in Portland and announced that he wanted to grant LGBTQ people full inclusion in his group, his denomination bigwigs booted him and de-funded his church. He stood his ground, refusing to leave his congregation or to renounce his conviction, and got his church affiliated instead with a different, inclusive denomination. Apparently they’re doing well. But he’s a rare creature in his end of the religion.
Many other pastors like him lose their jobs and homes. Meanwhile, denominations wrestling with this issue discover their membership ripping in half. The bigots-for-Jesus in their groups stomp away to more hateful pastures that’ll welcome them and their awful opinions.
Many people will find the groups that engage in culture wars to be off-putting and hypocritical. But many others will find grim satisfaction in being among people who feel the same way they do.
Banding together to fight against a world that seems like it’s increasingly leaving behind so-called “Christian values” can make a powerless person feel both thrillingly outnumbered and spectacularly heroic all at the same time.1 This is the exact sensation that Slacktivist calls martyrbation. It’s clearly quite an addictive sensation for the Christians who enjoy it!
Christian leaders themselves think that “the mushy middle” is abandoning churches. That means that people who are enjoying the culture wars are becoming more committed to their groups, while those who aren’t happy about it or aren’t very fervent in the first place are drifting away. I don’t see any reason to gainsay them there; that matches my observations. The religion is losing the people who aren’t into that martyrbation thrill, but whoever is left will be way more likely to be very gung-ho indeed.
(If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Christian Right leaders are trying their best to purify their ranks by driving away everyone who might criticize their extremism, but I think the idea gives that shortsighted bunch a lot more credit than they deserve. As it is, I suspect that what’s happening is a little more accidental than deliberate. I think they’re just going with whatever seems like it’s working and steadily refining their approach of pandering to the lowest common denominator.)
A Trumpet Call and a Banner Raised.
Mr. Krejcir’s main advice to his flocks is to stay the course with the culture wars they started. They won’t win people who care about love. But there are a honkin’ lot of Christians who care more about the values contained within the culture wars than they do about love. The angrier those Christians get at their loss of power, the more they are going to hear the trumpet call of that latter group.
That trumpet’s song tells them that if they come to that group’s banner and fight in that group’s army, they will regain their onetime dominance, humiliate their enemies, and get that little bit of extra supernatural help they need to finally get to the top of the heap. Once those ragtag troops assemble at that banner, nobody is going to get them to do a 180 and become truly loving. The very suggestion will outrage them.
Little wonder that culture-warring churches tend to create such an atmosphere of criticism avoidance. We’re going to take up there next time–see you soon!
1 In The Hunt for Red October, let’s face it: another kind of movie would have made that chef character into the star of the movie. He’d have been fighting against unstoppable odds to prevent the theft of his country’s submarine by the evil defectors. And he’d have been played by 90s-era Steven Seagal. I’m just sayin’. (Back to the post!)
Also, yes, the title of this post is a riff on the title of the beautiful novel Love in the Time of Cholera. If you’ve never read it, consider it wholeheartedly recommended.
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(Cas tidied up this post a bit on February 14, 2019.)