Last time we met up, we were talking about Christian marketing and why it sucks. Christians are required to put faith in stuff that simply isn’t true–and their magical thinking carries through to their strategies around revitalizing their brand, guaranteeing failure.
Magical thinking is the term we use for people who pursue courses of action that are completely unrelated to their goals. For example, someone who wants to save money for a home purchase is thinking magically when he buys a bunch of clothes he doesn’t really need because they’re on sale and he thinks that’s the same thing as actually socking money away for his future home purchase. Of course, a far better example of magical thinking is seen in how Christians engage with prayer, but even that might not be 100% accurate–because I strongly suspect that Christians themselves know perfectly well, deep down, that prayer doesn’t do anything. And now we have a self-confessed failed church planter to tell us all about it.
What Magical Thinking Isn’t.
Magical thinking isn’t procrastination. Lots of people do really silly things as ways of getting out of tasks they find onerous. The classic example is the student preparing for finals who spends all night alphabetizing their music CDs. (Do college kids still buy CDs? I’m way out of touch here.) Such a person isn’t messing with their CDs thinking that this is going to help prepare for the exam–instead, that person is actively trying to avoid that preparation. It becomes magical thinking when the student asserts that this task is actually going to help them prepare for finals somehow–maybe by making it easier to select music, or having the stress of disorganization taken off the student’s mind.*
Some Christians do use prayer as a way of avoiding dealing with real problems, to be sure. The classic meme tells us that prayer is a great way to feel like one is doing something to help others in need without actually having to do anything meaningful and substantial to help them. I’ve even heard of Christians who use prayer as a way of refusing to do stuff they really don’t want to do (“Sorry, Pastor Brandon, but I prayed about cleaning the bathrooms and I just don’t feel led to do that at this time“). Others use the idea of having prayed as a way to foist off an unpleasant decision onto a nonexistent authority figure (“Gosh, Dwayne, I prayed real hard but I just don’t think Daddy God wants us to date“). Equally common and even creepier is the Christian who uses so-called divine revelation to persuade others to do something they normally wouldn’t do. None of that is magical thinking. Rather, this use of prayer is simply a Christian’s way of asserting a borrowed higher authority to get their way about something.
Magical thinking in Christianity would be someone who insists up and down that prayer is an important part of any plan and must be done or else the plan won’t work. And that is what we see in the self-flagellating confession post by John Thomas, who describes himself as a “failed church planter.”
Church Planting: Defined.
John Thomas was originally part of a baffling megachurch group based out of Texas called the Vineyard (I think it’s baffling in that I pored over its various webpages and still don’t really know what this group believes or what its stances are on evangelicalism’s various culture wars–and I’m sure that this opacity is no accident). He was, in fact, in charge of its “church planting” efforts.
Church planting is what fundagelicals call it when someone starts a new little church somewhere–perhaps in someone’s private home, or perhaps in a little rented space, or even in a remodeled shopping-center retail store in some grocery store’s immediate orbit somewhere. They think of church planting in the same way that a gardener thinks of starting a new plant from a little seed. The idea is that a very small core of believers will go start a church somewhere that they think needs one, and they’ll convert or bring in more believers and swell the church’s membership to make it a thriving congregation.
As Christianity continues to decline, church planting has become more and more important, which is why they have an actual term and job description now for something that barely existed in my day. The talents and skills needed to accomplish this task are quite different from the ones required to lead an established church, so one often sees ministers these days who specialize in that particular part of a church’s lifespan.
There are lots of these church-planting groups nowadays, to the point where this little cottage industry has become just as commercialized as anything else within Christianity. Mark Driscoll started a church-planting group called Acts 29 that has member churches all over the country that send men all over the place to start new little churches–though they eventually rebelled against him and removed his church from their group. Ed Stetzer even has a listicle of “six things that are indicators you may be called to plant churches,” in case someone wonders (he even grants his wife “some veto power in this area” — ain’t that nice of him?). Lifeway even sells an official test that costs USD$88 that potential church planters can take to see if “God” has really truly called them to the task. (And Mr. Stetzer offers an online course on the same topic that people can purchase to learn exactly how to do it right. One wonders why, if church planting is so important to fundagelicals, that they charge money for this information.)
And yes, there are more scholarly and official resources for church planters. The classic in the field is Todd Hunter’s work from 1986, which you can find referenced here if you like. It’s a true testament to exactly how non-supernatural churches are in nature.
Pedal to the Metal!
However someone becomes an official leader in church planting, John Thomas managed it. Even at the time, he knew that church plants didn’t have great chances of success, but he charged right in because he was totally sure that “God” wanted him to do this. I mean gosh, even his wife “was onboard!”
But after only 18 months in the position, he had to admit he’d failed utterly.
This post he guest-wrote for Ed Stetzer is his post-mortem of those 18 months, written with the hindsight that only comes years after a disastrous failure. (This post is actually a way-lots repost–Ed Stetzer originally featured it in 2012, so I’m not sure exactly when these events occurred.)
The main thing that sprung out at me, as I read John Thomas’ listicle of why he’d failed to start a new church even though he was 100% sure that “God” had personally totally told him to do it, was that very little on this list actually looks like it matters at all with regard to starting a new business of any kind.
He writes that he completely blames himself. This failure, he is sure, is his alone. And this post he wrote is his “confession” to the church body universal, which implies that he thinks that his personal sins are what caused his church to fail.
He Didn’t Talk to the Ceiling Often or Hard Enough.His first confession is that he thinks he didn’t pray enough. Seriously. He thinks now that frequent prayer is “the foundation for church planting.” Yet somehow he didn’t think it then.
But what exactly is prayer supposed to accomplish? What is the mechanism by which it works? How precisely would prayer have brought his plans to success? How much prayer is needed to make a plan successful? Is prayer supposed to persuade the Christian god to strong-arm people into belief? Is it supposed to make preposterous ideas sound more plausible to people? Is it supposed to make people forget about wanting evidence for claims, or to make Christian pseudoscience sound more convincing to people who know it’s purest nonsense?
For that matter, how would he even know if he’s doing it enough, considering that its results are so subjective and so maddeningly elusive? Surely a guy who actually holds a leadership position within a denomination would know that prayer is important and set time aside to do it, surely? Out of every human being in the world, I’d sure expect someone in his position to know without a doubt that prayer works, does miracles, and makes the impossible possible. If I thought that, I mean really truly thought that, I’d never get up off my knees. I’d be praying 24/7 for everything under the sun. (Indeed, when I realized I’d stopped praying as much, I knew that somewhere along the way I’d recognized that prayer didn’t do anything.)
And let’s not forget that John Thomas, our failed church planter, thought his god had personally told him to go start a new church. He was totally sure, as was even his wife and their church group too, that their god had reached down from the heavens to task him with this project. Surely their god wanted this church to flourish–why wouldn’t he? Most Christians think that their god wants everyone to be Christian and join a church, for that matter. And most Christians think that if their god is behind them in something, that it cannot possibly fail unless they do something really out of bounds. Surely this god isn’t so narcissistic as to be so hung up on prayer that he’d let one man who isn’t thinking at the ceiling often enough stymie his divine desire to convert tons of people. I mean, he told this human to do this thing he wanted. Right? Right?
We’re going to cover his other points in detail later–they’re all about this nonsensical–but I wanted to stress that his very first “confession” regarded how little praying he’d done.
A Vitally Important Task, Except Not.
I’m sure this assertion plays well in fundagelicalism, where it is taken totally for granted that prayer is of vital importance–even though nobody really knows exactly why.
One Christian thinks that if Christians don’t pray enough, they get “deceived by Satan’s devices” and make terrible decisions about life. He takes for granted that Christians will be able to tell the difference between whatever they want and a real live divine message from their god–or a demon’s attempt to deceive them. There’s a very good reason why it’s so hard to tell the difference between the three, but he doesn’t provide any advice there. Nor does he provide any reason to think that Christians who pray make fewer bad decisions than Christians who do not–or for that matter non-Christians who don’t pray at all, nor are under the requirement to do so.
When Carey Nieuwhof, a hip young Christian who really really wants to be a big name in fundagelicalism, asserts that prayer or a lack of prayer has little to do with a church’s size, he got some pushback on that point from “Jeff,” who wonders why prayer wouldn’t “fix all these [problems].” This pushback gets echoed by many other commenters.
The blogger clarifies immediately for one of them that why yes, of course, yes yes, prayer is “essential. It’s foundational.” It’s just not the whole question for him because he thinks there are “a lot of dying churches in which people are faithfully praying.”
I’d have to ask: which is it then? If it’s foundational, then if they’re doing it then things ought to be great, yes? If a church can be doing something foundational and fail anyway, then that thing isn’t that foundational, is it?
Carey Nieuwhof clearly understands that prayer is completely superfluous to a church’s success, that indeed a church’s growth depends instead on very earthly factors. But he can’t come out and say such a deeply heretical idea in his circles. He’s got to pay lip service at least to its importance or his readers will tear him apart. Indeed, he’s trying to sell books about how to reverse church declines and to help churches grow in membership, but if he’s letting the fundagelical party line about prayer get in the way of good advice, then his ideas won’t succeed at all.
The good news is that his audience cares more about that party line than they do about success.
If Carey Nieuwhof won’t give them what they want to hear, they’ll gravitate instead toward writers like Bert Farias, who declares that without enough prayer, churches will fall apart. That’s a much more familiar message to them. That’s more like the “do more of the stuff we told you to do, except more of it and harder” instructions they’re used to hearing. (And I noticed that there was almost no pushback for the writer tickling fundagelicals’ ears–though I did notice a familiar name in the comments!)
And when their churches fail anyway, they’ll still blame themselves for not doing enough praying. They might not have the faintest idea exactly why prayer makes churches grow, and they might not have any actual evidence that it does in the first place, but that’s the message they’ve been taught their whole lives.
Come and See.
I don’t want to just point and laugh at goofy Christians doing goofy things, or simply point to their many hypocrites and tut-tut. That’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’d be doing ourselves a disservice if that’s where we end. Christians don’t hold a monopoly on magical thinking. They may be one of the richest natural resources in the planet in magical thinking, but they’re sure not the only source of it! Even after we leave the religion, we may still be suffering from a disconnect between what we do and what we want to see happen. Many lifelong gold-star atheists are in the same boat.
Magical thinking happens any time somebody pursues a goal through methods that are guaranteed not to impact that goal. When we start thinking that a particular task is absolutely essential for success when it really isn’t, we’re wasting our time there instead of putting our energy into something that actually can help our endeavors.
We need to ask how this task will help us, and be willing to measure the results to see if it really is helpful. More than that, we must be brave enough to discard tasks that are really just busy-work, tasks that don’t really move us forward to our goals. We must be willing to correct our courses to find new ways to reach our goals, and always be refining our processes so that we’re making the progress we want to make.
One of the biggest drawbacks to Christianity, particularly the hidebound right-wing flavors of the religion, is that its adherents simply can’t make those kinds of examinations or course corrections. Once they decide that a real live god has told them to do things in a certain way, that’s it forever, and they will cling to that idea till the bitter end.
There’s doubtless a kind of comfort, to authoritarian follower types of people, in having a set-in-stone set of procedures and processes. But their reliance on nostalgia can become maladaptive very quickly if their procedures and processes are pure magical thinking.
The meltdown in numbers that we’re seeing in Christianity are the end result of decades of clinging to bad ideas and useless processes. Let’s not go the same route in our own lives. If this life is all we’ve got, then let’s push toward our goals by doing stuff that actually moves us forward rather than keeps us running in place.
We’ll be looking next week at the rest of John Thomas’ confession–and about the continuing decline in church membership, and about one of the most incompetent gods on the planet. See you then!
* I’ve got a certain amount of familiarity with this exact line of thought.