Hang On, Everyone! This Christian Knows What the Problem Is!

Hang On, Everyone! This Christian Knows What the Problem Is! June 30, 2017

We’ve been having fun this week snarking a post in The Federalist to eensy-weensy little pieces. But who could blame us? The Christian who wrote it managed to outshine all his pals in finding the most WTF explanation possible for why his religion’s losing so many adherents and so much credibility and influence in the eyes of the world. That isn’t easy to do nowadays! So I thought we’d make a brief pit stop there, since it’s gotten so much attention from so many people (and not in the way the writer of it wanted, I imagine).

A "spirit of power, love, and sound judgment" that is leading young people right out of Christianity. (USAG - Humphreys, CC.)
A “spirit of power, love, and sound judgment” that is leading young people right out of Christianity. (USAG – Humphreys, CC.)

The Favorite Excuse So Far, By Far.

For years I teased Christians for denying that their religion was in any kind of trouble. Then I remember there came this point when I sensed that they could at least dimly perceive that yes, something was changing and not in a way they liked. That was probably around 2013, which is also around when I began writing Roll to Disbelieve. Of course, even the Christians who could see the same trends I saw didn’t necessarily agree with me or with each other regarding what the trends meant, how much of a decline was coming, or how steep of a decline it would be.

A couple of years later the Pew Religious Landscape Study came out, and at that point I stopped seeing Christians flatly denying that there was a very serious problem both in the short term and in the long term. That’s when they swung around from arguing about whether or not there was a problem at all to arguing instead about where the problem was coming from. A few of them keep trying to make guesses about what might reverse their religion’s decline, but mostly they’re stuck on arguing about who they should blame for that decline. One can almost see why; after all, it’s harder to figure out a solution if the problem can’t even be accurately defined.

Every Christian seems to have a pet guess about that topic, though I’ve noticed some common elements emerging over the past year or two. Within fundagelical Christianity in particular, explanations tend to follow one basic path:

Christianity’s decline, according to the TRUE CHRISTIANS™* in right-wing Protestant flavors of the religion, is happening because there are a bunch of people in churches all over the Western world who claim to be Christian who aren’t anywhere near hardcore enough. These lackadaisical Christians are mostly in churches at all simply because they were raised that way by their parents and belong to a community that is overwhelmingly Christian–but they lack the faith of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, which means they also lack the discipline, follow-through, and discernment of their more dedicated peers and leaders. These fake Christians fold at the first sign of pushback; they don’t pray or do any of the stuff that fundagelicals think everyone should do; they are entirely too sympathetic to fundagelicals’ sworn enemies. The moment the religion’s demands become onerous at all, they’re zipping out of the sheepfold with a handle of vodka in one hand and a bunch of day-glo condoms in the other.

Christianity’s losses are all the fault of these non-TRUE CHRISTIAN™ Christians.

It’s ALL their fault.

The Blame Game.

According to fundagelicals, these Christians in Name Only (CINOs), or cultural Christians, as Ed Stetzer calls them,  are the ones who are giving the religion such a bad name. They’re also the ones who are leaving, according to their TRUE CHRISTIAN™ peers, since they never really had a close connection to the religion in the first place.

Their leaders were perfectly happy to have these not-so-fervent Christians warming their pews and donating tithes to their ongoing culture wars and underwater mortgages, understand, please. I don’t remember a single Christian leader who ever tried to clean house in that regard. But once they thought that these were the Christians leaving their ranks, the claws came out and they made sure that everyone within earshot found out exactly what they really thought about them. Now suddenly these were the Christians getting blamed (and inaccurately at that, as we’ll get into in a minute here) for everything going pear-shaped.

Fundagelicals now take it totally as read that any bad news about anything in their religion can be blamed directly and completely upon Christians who aren’t part of their particular tribe within the religion. The more liberal the Christian or Christians in question, the less hardcore, the less invested in or supportive of the fundagelical culture wars, the more blame will be laid there and the more enraged and far-reaching it will be.

It’s not that fundagelicals weren’t always vicious to non-fundagelicals. To the contrary, I’ve been talking about that tendency of theirs to attack other Christians for years. But now that they see non-fundagelicals as the direct cause for Christianity’s losses, accurately or not, and now that they’re finally getting a glimpse of just how bad those losses are going to be, their blame game is stepping up accordingly.

They Don’t Need No Steenkin’ Evidence.

You’ll be waiting a long time if you ask them for any evidence for their claims about these cultural Christians being the root of all their problems. It’s not like they’ve ever presented credible evidence for anything else–why would we expect them to suddenly start doing it now?

I thought I’d heard it all when it comes to Christians blaming everyone under the sun except the people who deserve that blame for their mounting losses. I mean, once you’ve heard fundagelical pastors try to blame their churches’ losses on a lack of good parking spots or no-I-am-not-joking kiddie baseball leagues, it’s probably impossible not to get just a little jaded even while you’re snerking with laughter.

But now we have a Christian blaming Vacation Bible Schools for Christianity’s fast-eroding dominance.

Really.

Vacation Bible Schools.

Everyone, Meet Peter Burfeind.

Peter Burfeind is a fundagelical who wrote a post for The Federalist recently called “How Vacation Bible School Drove Millennials Away From Church.”

If you’ve never heard of him, you’re certainly excused; he’s simply yet another right-wing fundagelical grabbing frantically for recognition, attention, and fame while any of that tribe can still get any. A quick glance at his Twitter feed reveals that he’s a typical garden-variety fundagelical: an ammosexual military-fetishizing culture warrior and good-ole-days-idolizing Republican who hates “secularists,” which I’m guessing means anybody who isn’t a person just like himself. There is nothing whatsoever of love, mercy, compassion, or even kindness in anything I’ve ever read of his and his arrogance/condescension game is typically dialed up to 11, so he’s probably a Calvinist too. He writes fairly regularly for The Federalist, in addition to shilling some pseudo-Gnostic bullshit he clearly thinks is significant and super-relevant.

According to his biography, he’s a “domestic missionary” in Ohio, where he serves along with his wife (who gained my instant sympathy when I noticed that she looks and smiles exactly like Courtney Crumrin’s mother!) and their sizeable brood of kids (some of whom look downright angry or emotionally-messed-up, but maybe that’s just me?). He also opportunistically preys upon vulnerable military enlistees, veterans, and ROTC students as an Army chaplain. He declares that his chaplaincy “opens doors” for him–though he doesn’t mention what the doors open, so I thought I’d help everyone out by mentioning that the role opens a path for him to evangelize.

On the meager plus side, he’s one of many guys doing exactly what he’s doing with exactly the same skillset and attitude (and it looks like he’s having about the same success as any of his peers, which is to say little-to-none at all, or he’d be crowing about it nonstop), so he’s not likely to become a major player for all that he has (he thinks) correctly identified the major trend within his tribe regarding who and what to blame for their religion’s decline.

And He Knows Exactly Who to Blame!

What’s noteworthy about Peter Burfeind is where the typical fundagelical blame trail leads him, not so much where it starts. He starts with the same exact core assumptions that pretty much everyone else in his tribe does:

  • Liberals are not to be trusted or even shown the slightest bit of compassion or respect.
  • Christians cannot be TRUE CHRISTIANS™ unless they fall into lockstep with him.
  • When in doubt, be more hardcore about Christianity.
  • Everything going wrong in Christianity is happening because Christians aren’t as hardcore as they used to be.
  • [Insert literally any squawky, hysterical talking point from any AM Radio fundagelical shock jock here.]
  • TRUE CHRISTIANS™ need to regain dominance to save America.
  • The Good Ole Days were so much better. Always. In every way. The modern age, by contrast, sucks beans. Christians must do everything they can to return the world to those Good Ole Days.

But somehow all those starting points turn into the weirdest blame game I’ve seen yet.

I Never Thought I’d See This One.

In this latest piece of his, he literally blames Vacation Bible Schools for “[driving] Millennials away from church.”

Vacation Bible School.

For the uninitiated, Vacation Bible School, or VBS, is a catch-all term for the summer programs that many churches put on for children who might or might not be members of those particular churches or even those denominations. In a lot of areas, children are out of school for the summer, which means their parents have to come up with childcare for the kids during those months.

Typically VBS is free or very nearly so. Most programs last for a week, though others may take up most of the summer. Churches host a number of children in their facilities, often even providing bus service to get the kids there and home again. The children spend the day there and then go home in the afternoon or evening. The activities during the day are usually age-appropriate arts and crafts, with some evangelism and religious studies thrown in. It’s like a day camp with a Jesus theme.

Families who aren’t very well-off might have a lot of trouble figuring out where to park their kids (or how to afford said parking) when school’s out of session–so often they welcome the help churches offer. Many churches’ VBS programs end up being considerably more evangelistic than parents were led to believe they’d be. And the entertainment quality of the programs varies wildly–some kids enjoy them to a greater or lesser extent, while others loathe the time spent there.

And, uh, VBS is not some new concept for Christians. The first of them began in the 1890s, and the first formal curriculum was devised in 1922. Now there are all kinds of programs and craft supplies for sale to churches.** Even Answers in Genesis offers a VBS program, for crying out loud. And AiG’s sales page tells us why churches are so eager to host VBSs (if that’s not the plural, I don’t know what it’d be):

Recent surveys show that nearly 70% of “Christian” kids grow up and walk away from the church. One of the main reasons is because they have not been taught basic apologetics. Answers VBS programs are designed to answer the key questions that cause so many young people to walk away from the Lord.

Did you notice the scare quotes around the word “Christian” there? And the bizarre non sequitur reasoning? Whoever wrote that pitch is very solidly leaning into the CINO blame game. See, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ believe that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ always thoroughly indoctrinate their children, and the Bible says that a child that is properly indoctrinated won’t ever deconvert or disengage. So if when a child does so, then obviously the problem lies with the indoctrination that child received. Buy the correct VBS program and that kid will definitely get the correct indoctrination!

The desperate tone you might detect in how church members and leaders talk about VBS programs comes from their knowledge that their window of opportunity to evangelize and indoctrinate people is closing by the year. If a kid isn’t presented with the concepts behind Christianity very early on and convinced of their correctness and credibility, then that kid is extremely unlikely to buy into the ideas later. Christians call this time of opportunity the 4-14 window; it means that ideally they want that kid indoctrinated thoroughly by age 14.

But it’s getting harder and harder to get children through that window, since a lot of kids are growing up outside of church culture and live with parents who themselves neither attend church nor make indoctrination a priority. Schools are getting more vigilant about preventing evangelism during school hours, and AiG’s leaders regularly whine about not getting their pseudoscience into schools.

As a result of our culture’s growing secularization, VBS has become one of the only real ways that churches have of presenting their message to children. Little wonder most of them are going to throw themselves into the task. And little wonder that the very idea of charging money for the programs sounds so shocking to most churches.

As targets go, however, VBS is a big and easy one to hit. Peter Burfeind isn’t the first fundagelical to aim at it, either. He’s just gotten more attention than the other guys criticizing it.

And Apparently VBS is Now Bad.

It’s hard to fathom what possessed Peter Burfeind to write what he did. He starts out calling VBS a failure as an evangelism strategy, but is irritated that the churches hosting these programs consider them successful because “at least [they] planted a seed.” Remember, planting a seed is the Christianese phrase used to refer to an evangelism attempt that failed miserably; the idea is that if nothing else, the evangelism might help contribute to that person’s conversion one day. This is one of those CITATION NEEDED ideas in Christianity. So if that’s the best thing that churches can say about these VBS programs, then that’s pretty bad.

Here are Peter Burfeind’s other assertions:

1. That VBS is “seen as a critical tool for outreach.”
Children will go to VBS and have sooooo much fun that they’ll sell Christianity as a result to their heathen families. That may be the wildest hope, but I’m not sure just how critical a tool VBS is seen as nowadays. The luxury of throwing tons of money after programs that don’t return on their investment is fast fading.

2. Using business principles to enlarge a church’s customer base is baaaad.
He writes, “The smart set of any congregation will tell you, ‘Hey pastor, you’re just a salesman, right? You sell salvation.'” Um, who the hell is telling pastors that? I’ve literally never heard a Christian come out and say they’re selling Jesus. They are, but I don’t see any Christians admitting to that.

3. Only the Good Ol’ Days version of evangelism that Peter Burfeind carries around in his head counts as TRUE CHRISTIAN™ evangelism.
He claims that “Jesus” in the Bible tells Christians exactly how to grow a church’s customer base: through baptisms and what he calls catechesis, which is the religious instruction a Christian receives before baptism or confirmation, so anything else is obviously not TRUE CHRISTIAN™ enough and should be ignored. However, you can’t put someone through those two Christian rites of passage without them having been converted already. Is he or “Jesus” forgetting that part? How are those people supposed to be converted? Whatever his answer, he’s clearly annoyed that VBS isn’t a solid week of thunderous revival preaching from a pulpit and two-hundred-year-old hymns about what a wretched sinner everyone is. Further, he’s got this idea that in the last 30 years (specifically, I might add), everything in Christianity has totally changed and suddenly now it’s all consumer-pandering and customer-oriented, pop-culture-glorifying, and, in his words, “frivolous and cheap.” Sorry, I couldn’t hear him over all that fundagelical swag I accumulated as a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ teen in the 80s.

For that matter, 90% of his post is about how awful the modern day is and how much better the Good Ole Days were. He even whines about smartphones and kiddie sports (I actually laughed out loud there, but in reality it explains a lot about why his kids look like they do in their family photo).

4. Making evangelism age-appropriate or even trying to make it interesting for kids makes Christianity seem out of touch and lacking somehow.
He’s got a passionate hatred for the way that most VBS programs “sneak in the most minimalist teachings on Jesus (if you’re lucky).” The comments on that piece are a hoot; most Christians vehemently deny that their VBS programs are that light on theology. Our own community wasn’t short on memories of VBS attendance in youth, but nobody’s memories seem to match up with Peter Burfeind’s dismal view of it.

5. Young people–even young children–are toooooootally interested in his version of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.
The guy’s got kids and has clearly spent time around kids, so I’m baffled at his fundagelical version of children that apparently are eager and starving for the kind of bigotry-for-Jesus version of the religion that he peddles. “Yes,” he insists, “kids can learn about concepts like sin, redemption and the Incarnation! . . . Children yearn for the steady, eternal things in their lives!” At another point he declares that “children are amazing in their ability to discern the wheat of Christian love and authentic attention from the chaff of canned glitz and overproduced dramaturgy.” And one must ask: which kids and where, exactly?

6. And then he pulls out the Scary Muslim Card. It is not effective.
He claims that the mindset that produced the VBS phenomenon has gone on to turn out young people who leave Christianity for “religious alternatives like progressivism [which isn’t a religion or a religious alternative — CC], a more serious world religion [which he doesn’t name, for good reason — CC], or even radical Islam [which.. wait, what? Seriously??? — CC].” I guess he hasn’t read any of the studies out that indicate that when young people pull away from Christianity, they usually don’t plunge into much of anything else, especially not another all-consuming religion.

He even tries to claim that his fundagelical version of Christianity is losing ground because of that mindset, by whining that after a lifetime of consumerism-based Christianity, “the apparent substantiality of science was enough to dismantle such childish thoughts [as VBS implanted]” in young people.

Not shown: supernatural claims that are actually true or a social system that actually works. (Bill Smith, CC.) Backstage at a VBS in Virginia. The yellow puffy thing is obviously a representation of the Road to Emmaus, I'm guessing.
Not shown: supernatural claims that are actually true or a social system that actually works. (Bill Smith, CC.) Backstage at a VBS in Virginia. The yellow puffy thing is obviously a representation of the Road to Emmaus, I’m guessing.

He ends by earnestly informing his audience, “Folks, we’ve raised our children to leave the church.”

OH NOES!!!!

NOT THAT!!!!

FRIENDS AND BRETHREN, WHAT MUST WE DO?

And a Wild Opportunist Appears.

Oh, but he’s not advising that VBS be scrapped entirely–and that might seem strange until you know why he isn’t.

Tucked deep in the piece, we learn exactly why Peter Burfeind’s hate-boner for VBS has lasted more than four hours: he is selling his own VBS garbage that competes with all of these other programs!

Oh, but the one he’s selling is soooo much better because it’s “biblical,” has “substantial theology,” and features arts and crafts “designed with organic materials that last” that churn out “imagery from the treasury of Christian art.”

He needs to make his program sound superior. He needs his potential customers to know that his is the only program that works to indoctrinate children correctly and completely, and that his is the only program that can possibly turn the tide of evangelical churn.

If you’re wondering, I looked at his materials. They are distinctly the GeoCities of Christian education. And to add insult to injury, his program is certainly expensive compared to other VBS programs available on the market.

Where He’s Going, He Doesn’t Need…. Evidence.

The few reviews I saw of his VBS program looked decent (here’s one from 2006), but there’s one thing missing in his post on The Federalist that is also what is missing from those reviews: there’s no evidence at all supporting the notion that one VBS program is better than another at retaining young people, or that VBS has anything to do with young people’s exodus from Christianity.

Certainly he could have availed himself of the 2012 Barna study regarding Vacation Bible School programs, which puts the lie to most of his far-reaching and wide-ranging assertions. In it, we discover that in the last 30 years, the number of churches offering a VBS has actually dropped dramatically–from 81% of churches in 1997 to 68% in 2012. Whoops! Not only is VBS not a universal offering (and never was, even in his cherished Good Ole Days), but it’s dwindling over time.

Barna discovered some key shared characteristics in churches that still offer VBS:

  • They’re large, with huge annual budgets.
  • Most of the churches offering VBS are fundagelical-90% of them are in fact Southern Baptist. You know, that total stronghold of consumer-based, boppy, culture-aping, feel-good pandering to children.
  • Most of the VBS-offering churches are based in the Deep South. Churches in more secular areas are way less likely to host VBS.
  • Churches that don’t offer VBS typically don’t offer it because of either a lack of adult volunteers to run it or not enough kids to make it worthwhile. Other churches’ leaders feel that they already have a lot of programs for their attendees.
  • VBS programs aren’t necessarily structured around the goal of conversion or indoctrination.
  • Most interesting of all, VBS programs tend to be offered in churches whose leadership happens to have kids of the right age for VBS. What? Why are you all looking at them like that? That’s just a coincidence.

The writers for Barna conceded that there really isn’t any measuring tool in existence to measure the effectiveness of VBS programs. Like a lot of their marketing ploys, this one is just taken for granted as effective by Christians without any real reason for thinking so.

And if you think that Peter Burfeind is going to offer any solid reasons for thinking that VBS is in any way effective in any form, you’ll be waiting a while. He’s selling a program for it, for goodness’ sake. His main issue isn’t that VBS exists, but that his curriculum isn’t the main one used. He has no idea if his program works better to retain young people and apparently no interest in finding that out, for all his hand-wringing about evangelical churn.

Color me shocked, in the end, to find that yet another Christian is convinced he knows what The Big Problem Here might be, and that his stated solution is to be more hardcore and more fervent and more observant and more Jesus-y, because obviously that’ll work great and any day now all those millions of Millennials will quit caring about what is true and real and compassionate and come flooding back to fundagelical churches.

Any day now.

shovel 'em right there
This is probably the best use possible for VBS materials. (Bridgewater Church of the Brethren, CC.) A photo from their VBS program.

* TRUE CHRISTIAN™: A lot of Christians like to judge each other and to figure out who is the most hardcore, dedicated, correct, and superior to all the other Christians. They don’t tend to specifically use the phrase TRUE CHRISTIAN™ to define that ideal Christian, but after a while of hearing them argue among themselves about exactly this point I began to catch on. So here’s the definition, as near as I can make it out: A TRUE CHRISTIAN™ is someone who, in the opinion of the Christian judging the matter, believes the same basic stuff the judging Christian believes, does all the proper stuff that the judging Christian thinks Christians should do, hasn’t been caught doing something that judge thinks is totally off-limits (which varies considerably by the judge!), and most importantly dies in the traces like that. Of course, almost all Christians believe that whatever they happen to believe and do as Christians is the ideal.

** NGL, the “Rome Ultimate Starter Kit: Paul and the Underground Church” VBS program made me laugh. One of these days I’m gonna print off some CITATION NEEDED bookmarks and go wild at the Christian section of Hastings.

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