Christianity continues to decline with a loud, wet FLUMP. As it does, Christians leap on trends to try to stop it. One potent sign of the Christian times: hucksters shilling revitalization efforts aimed at desperate pastors. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a growing strain of snake oil in this faltering faith.
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Not long ago, I mentioned Ed Stetzer’s new side hustle: church revitalization. For just a hair under USD$300, marked down $100 until tomorrow, he’ll take a desperate pastor through a course of classes aimed at helping that pastor “revitalize” his church. The first 100 takers get to sit in on 3 conference calls with “Dr. Stetzer,” even!
For his day job, Stetzer is the Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism. In fact, the college created that role just for him. Plus, he worked for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in LifeWay, its research and publishing arm. You’d kinda think he’d know something about the topic of bringing a church back to life.
But you’d be wrong there.
In this series of videos, he offers to show pastors how to bring their dying churches back from the brink.
It’s the same work his former masters have sought to accomplish for years. And many other Christians offer many other systems just like this one.
They’re just hoping to cash in on Christianity’s latest trend before the market dries up.
A Cottage Industry in a Dying Culture.
A big focus for this blog is evangelical churn. The term churn comes from the business world; it means existing customers who leave the business relationship, essentially. A business wants a very low churn rate because it’s often (but not always) much more expensive to acquire brand-new customers than simply to keep the existing ones. Christianity is no different from any other business.
Evangelicalism, in general, suffers from an increasing inability to acquire new members. For example, check this 2015 news article out about the Mormons. They’re flinging more and more missionaries into the void to acquire roughly the same number of conversions. The article cites a 44% increase in the number of missionaries, which netted the struggling denomination a nine-percent increase in the number of converts scored. Other denominations find themselves needing to re-tool what they think of as missionary work in the first place.
Along with the increasing difficulties in recruitment of new members, evangelicals find themselves struggling to hold onto the people they already have.
In the absence of real, useful, relevant, and effective information about how to keep a church group together, Christian hucksters have expanded to fill yet another void in the religion. They offer advice that sounds super-Jesus-y, which is to say very pious and dramatic, oh yes, very deep and spiritual-sounding. In reality, none of it actually works to reverse a church’s decline.
These dirt merchants call what they’re doing church revitalization. The term implies breathing new life into an old, tired church group.
In reality, these salespeople simply “tickle Christians’ itching ears” with the advice their marks long to hear.
Feels > Reals.
We’ve looked at a number of Christians claiming to know how to fix Christianity’s slump. These Christians range all through the breadth of the religion. Some are rather progressive-sounding. Others are hardcore fundagelical. But their advice runs along exactly the same lines.
A long time ago, I joked that their advice universally amounts to “Y’all just need to Jesus harder!” Here’s what that means.
Regardless of theological leanings, Christian leaders almost universally assume that their flavor of the religion contains correct, accurate, and divine teachings. In their view, the only reason for a church to decline is not following those teachings closely or rigorously enough. So their advice always boils down to admonishments to start taking the group’s existing teachings more seriously.
The reality of their situation looks very different from their fantasized version of it.
Not a single one of these leaders understands that the problem is the teachings themselves–they’re just not enough to hold a group together. Not these days. And they never were.
Dominance, as a Group Dynamic.
It doesn’t matter how hard a Christian leader Jesus-es. Nobody cares how pious a group might feel, or even how correctly-interpreted their quirky homebrew take on Christian doctrinal points might be. When we look at social groups that have lasted for a long time and those that survived only a short while before disintegrating, we can see that they boast a wide range of beliefs.
Christians have a great deal of folklore in their murky past. Part of that folklore involves an explosion of growth during and right after their Savior’s supposed life and death. That narrative is almost certainly false. In reality, Christianity grew very, very slowly for a long time. Early Christians had as much trouble converting people then as modern ones do today. Even in the Pauline letters, we can also see that retention was already becoming a problem for them.
The reason for their troubles with recruitment and retention?
As a group, they lacked social dominance.
The moment they gained that dominance, around the 3rd and 4th centuries, they began to grow like gangbusters. After that point, Christian leaders converted entire countries–mostly through force of law and outright, brutal violence. The religion stayed dominant for centuries–and its leaders and members alike happily employed brute force to stay that way.
Something I Can’t Stress Enough.
It is vitally important for us–and for Christians themselves if they had any sense–to understand that for all their warbling about how wonderful they think Christianity and their “good news” is, as a message it is not very compelling on its own to most people. It never was.
As Christianity itself, as a world power, loses its social dominance, people have more options about what they’ll do with their increasingly-limited resources. The religion’s adherents can no longer hope to force those people to play along if they don’t want to. Their message alone won’t keep butts in pews. Nor will their fervor.
Christians’ time of dominance fades more quickly by the day. Now if a Christian group wants to stay together, its members must follow the same guidelines that any other group must.
That’s kind of the problem here, for the sorts of Christians who eagerly chase these hucksters’ promises of revitalization. They don’t want to be like any other group.
But they are. And they always have been.
Doomed to Fail.
Back in 2013, before Christian leaders really realized just how serious their decline was, Rachel Held Evans (at the time an evangelical) wrote about those leaders’ unwillingness to question their tribes’ teachings. She gave speeches to pastors’ groups about the serious problems she perceived in evangelical culture. In those speeches, she detailed evangelicals’ obsession with sexual rules, their soul-crushing bigotry and sexism, their outright science denialism, their over-politicization, and more. Afterward, these pastors always responded in the same exact way:
Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …” And I proceed to bang my head against the podium.
These same pastors are very likely part of the crowd that is eagerly snapping up revitalization classes now! But almost none of them have used those intervening years to critically examine where their real problems are.
BTW, I’m being really generous with the “almosts” in this post. In reality, I literally haven’t seen any Christian pastors going any other route than Jesus harder. Only a few get as far as suggesting that maybe Christians’ group dynamics are iffy. Of those few, all the ones I’ve seen still hint that through Jesus-ing harder, those group dynamics will solve themselves in a snap. For example, here’s Carey Nieuwhof explaining why “your church isn’t growing:”
If people truly don’t want to be around you, don’t let the reason be because you haven’t let Christ reshape your character or social skills.
They can’t deal with the obvious: Jesus isn’t helping his followers make good groups. That’s a purely earthly, natural process that requires no gods at all to manage.
And that’s the problem here.
The Lost Can’t Lead the Lost.
The problem is, Ed Stetzer himself is just as lost as his sales prospects are. None of them prepared for a world where they didn’t own a dominant position in society just for existing. I hope he didn’t quit LifeWay just to shill this program, because he has no idea what he’s talking about. As one of his denomination’s biggest names, he couldn’t guide the SBC to growth, and he has always seemed well aware of that fact. I don’t see how he’s going to have better success as a fundagelical rōnin possessing even less power to force anyone to change.
That truth might well be why he’s not actually trying to get them to change.
He’s just trying to get them to hand him some of their hard-won tithe money on their way to their last church foreclosure meeting.
Look at his 19 video topics. The first nine are purely about making sure the church’s leadership is as Jesus-y as humanly possible. Like Preston Sprinkle did in his bigotry-for-Jesus book, Ed Stetzer makes a fatal assumption right out of the gate. He assumes that if a church’s leaders are topped out in Jesus Power, then everything else will follow.
The rest of the videos focus completely and entirely on pumping those leaders up to follow the fundagelical playbook more scrupulously. He spends next to no time at all on what would genuinely help those churches: a major change in group dynamics and a retooling of fundagelicalism’s toxic message. To wit, the 10th video partially focuses on whether or not the church should shift its worship style (read: hmm, should they get hipper worship bands?); the 13th video is almost certainly about small groups,1 not the church group as a whole.
It’s not hard to guess why Ed Stetzer almost entirely ignores the hands-down most-important parts of any group’s rise or fall–and why he always has.
Some Free Advice.
To grow and flourish, it seems to me that a group needs to have as many of these three things as it can manage.
First, it needs to be tethered to reality. Whatever the group says is its mission, it needs to be something that is ultimately quantifiable, definable, and falsifiable. People need to be able to tell when the group is achieving its goals–and when it isn’t. However the group says it’s going to achieve its mission, members and leaders alike need to hold themselves accountable–through observation and measurement–for working toward it. Even a religious group can manage this one, to a certain extent.
Second, it must be a pleasant and relevant group to be around. People need to want to join the group–and then to remain members of it. That means its group dynamics need to be something people will find rewarding and relevant on their own merits. “Bad apples” must be reined in and kept from destroying the group’s good vibes. Trolls must be ejected with haste. The group must welcome new people with warmth without veering into that weird land of trying-too-hard. It’s a balancing act, but one that any group–religious or not–must achieve. People will abandon a group with the noblest mission imaginable if the group’s members are tedious or unpleasant.
Third, it must be a good value for the resources it requests of members. Whatever the group is, whatever its focus might be, whatever its mission might be, it needs to be a better use of time, money, and energy than whatever else its members might have going on right then. If a group asks people to collect together at 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings, or to pay USD$5000/year to be members, then they need to provide an adequate return on those expenditures.
Counting on Inertia.
The further right-wing along the spectrum of belief a Christian group finds itself, the more they rode on brute force to survive–and the less able they are to do any of those three things. That’s why a tweak to their music ministry won’t help them, and why trying to out-Jesus each other in ministry won’t reverse their declines.
These new revitalization hucksters may or may not realize that point. But they’re offering something these leaders and congregations want way more than revitalization.
Instead, they want to hear soothing pablum:
- “You’re doing everything fine. Just do more of it and harder.”
- “This’ll be easy! Just do what we keep telling you to do anyway!”
- “Jesus will help your group succeed if you just Jesus hard enough!“
Christians want to fix their slump, sure. They just don’t want to substantially alter anything they’re already doing to fix it. Essentially, they want their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game to suddenly start producing in reality the results they get in their fantasies. That’s not how reality works for any group.
And that’s kinda the problem Christians have here. They don’t want to be just like any other group.
But they are.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over a strange sign of Christianity’s decline: mountebanks who promise to save dying church groups by telling them to keep doing what they’ve always done, just harder.
1 A small group is a subgroup within a larger church that functions as a mini-church. Its members meet together regularly for prayer, Bible study, and socialization. Typically their leaders are influential laypeople, not professional, educated clergy–meaning they aren’t usually any good at managing groups of people who are there voluntarily, and they care way less about retention than the church’s clergy do. As a consequence of those two serious shortcomings, some of the most explosive dramas you will ever see erupting out of a church come straight out of its small groups. But pastors love small groups–for the same exact reasons that dumpster-fire-tier trainers and educators love “group work.”
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat, who knew a lot more than he ever let on.