The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) released their 2018 Annual Report recently. Like its predecessors, this report performs many functions: it relates what happened during their annual convention that year, gathers together metrics from the SBC’s member churches from the previous year, and lays out a blueprint for the year ahead. In addition, the report also reproduces in text form the main speeches given at the convention. One of the report’s sermons in particular seems like a very fitting summary of the denomination’s fears–and hopes. Today, we look at a sermon with a tell-tale heart.
The term “tell-tale heart” comes from an Edgar Allen Poe short story.
PS: Themed Subtitles Day! Catch the movie/TV quote riffs. I’ll reveal sources at the end of the post.
Fundagelicals and Self-Awareness Seldom Go Hand in Hand.
The sermon begins on p. 102 of the report. It comes to us courtesy of Steve Gaines, who was the SBC’s departing president at the time (he passed the baton to J.D. Greear). We discussed Steve Gaines last year in mocking evangelical leaders’ efforts to reverse their decline. If you’re wondering, his contribution to that effort was to command his flocks to “be evangelistic,” which he promised would totally fix the problem.
As one of his last functions as the SBC’s president, Gaines released this sermon. It’s called a “President’s Address,” but really it’s just a sermon. All he’s missing is the altar call at the end.
What, did you think fundagelicals do anything without a sermon involved?
And wow, it is a long sermon–as well as meandering, incoherent, and veering constantly into the weeds. I seriously think he forgot what he was talking about a few times during his speech and just latched onto whatever Bible verse or anecdote popped into his head.
His sermon functions perfectly as an encapsulation of every single shortcoming of his disgraced denomination–and as a blueprint for where he hopes it’ll go in the near future.
Gaines titled his sermon “Supernatural Christianity.”
Do You Wanna Build a Sermon?
Gaines begins by regurgitating his tribe’s historical revision attempts.
The earliest immigrants to America were money-grubbers hoping for a fresh start in a land advertised as bursting with the promises of wealth. A great many of them came to regret their decision to try to strike it rich in the New World.
Moreover, not all of this settlement occurred voluntarily. All the way through the 18th century, England exported many thousands of their convicted criminals to America. The English government sent these convicts, called “the King’s passengers,” under the flimsiest of pretexts. After being torn away from their homes and families, these hapless wretches became indentured servants to wealthy landowners.
But in Gaines’ re-imagining, these earliest settlers become TRUE CHRISTIANS™ being persecuted by mean ole England. Gaines calls them “conservative, Bible-believing, godly Christians.” He pretends that the Puritans were totally just like Southern Baptists, OHMYGAW YAWL.
Jews 2.0 in Space.
Dive underneath all the dogwhistles Steve Gaines uses and you’ll see an important point, though. Fundagelicals see themselves as Jews 2.0: the new Chosen People of their god. They see America as Israel 2.0. And they link America’s history with that of Israel. That doctrine is exactly what Gaines is reinforcing here.
He pushes this narrative because he thinks it will help him–and by extension his entire tribe–gain the power they ache to hold over others. Certainly the narrative reinforces their sense of permission to seek that power.
This doctrine makes fundagelicals dangerous to ideals like personal rights and civil liberties, however. They act like they genuinely believe that America literally belongs to them. If they can successfully convince enough people that America’s bounties and wealth were always intended to go to fundagelicals, then they might be able to grab a completely out-sized amount of power for their tribe.
In his sermon, Gaines first presents a vision to his tribe. This vision presents them as the rightful rulers of America. But wait! Meaniepie secularists and heretical deists stole what was rightfully theirs.
We Few, We Gullible Few, We Band of Nutters.
You might be wondering at this point what any of this revised history has to do with “Supernatural Christianity.” The answer is nothing, really. Gaines eventually meanders into a stern condemnation of Thomas Jefferson for creating a revised New Testament that took out all the unbelievable bits.
Gaines acts personally offended and affronted by Thomas Jefferson’s beliefs. Someone, somewhere doesn’t believe the same nonsense he does. STOP THE PRESSES!
As Gaines goes, so goes his tribe. Nobody may believe anything except what they do. He hopes that they will forget that a huge number of Christians manage to stay Christians without believing that every single event and person described in the Bible is literally real. Back when I was Christian, before evangelicals fused with fundamentalists, only a fraction of Christians thought this way. Even I didn’t–and I belonged to a fundamentalist denomination!
This part of the sermon forms the very bottom of Christians’ house of cards.
If someone removes the supernatural stuff from Christianity, fundagelicals insist that the entire religion becomes pointless.
And they’re quite right–in their way. Their version of the religion certainly loses a lot of its power to manipulate the vulnerable once the supernatural is removed from it. A great deal of their recruitment efforts center around the supernatural, as does quite a lot of the manipulation they use to keep existing fundagelicals in place.
But their deceptions and delusions backfire hard these days. Fundagelical leaders themselves have decreed that if any assertion or claim made by the Bible turns out to be untrue, then all of it might as well collapse.
He’s a Politician AND Lying Just Runs in His Family.
Gaines’ first point (once he finally arrives at it) consists of repeating some stories from Acts. He insists that these stories totally happened for realsies exactly as the Bible relates.
Then he does a very strange thing: he twines a story about Paul with an anecdote about his own son.
In his anecdote, his son–then just a toddler–needed some medical tests in 1985. The doctor feared that the boy might have leukemia because he’d seen “bruising on [the boy’s] body.” Gaines asked his fundagelical friends to talk very earnestly to the ceiling on his son’s behalf.
And–ZOMG!–the tests came back negative! The boy grew up fine and entered the family business of lying to people for Jesus and
preying upon recruiting vulnerable children to his tribe.
This story is Gaines’ PROOF YES PROOF that the Bible’s supernatural promises are totes true.
A Symptom of Irrational Belief and Groundless Hope.
Gaines and his wife had to be just terrified when they heard that the Big C might be knocking on their son’s door. I can’t blame them for grasping at whatever straws they thought they could.
But this sermon presents us with a prime example of fundagelical exaggeration in miracle claims. See, his son was never actually diagnosed with leukemia. Their pediatrician saw bruises on him that his mother couldn’t–or wouldn’t–identify as being from any injuries he’d sustained.
You know what else causes bruising?
Besides being injured, here is a list of 28 diseases featuring bruising as a symptom.
Obviously, a pediatrician wants to nail down the cause of a child’s mystery bruises. However, Gaines never shares exactly what did actually cause the bruising.
Instead, he wants his tribe to think that Jesus totally scared the pants off him and his tribe, then said HAHA LOL JUST KIDDING LOL! I WON’T ACTUALLY MURDER YOUR SON… THIS TIME. WOW, DID YOU SEE YOUR FACE, DUDE?
To me, the story sounds more like a boyfriend who deliberately pisses off his girlfriend to get the makeup sex afterward. Or a bully who threatens to hurt one of his accustomed victims as a “joke” to remind others of his dominance.
What happened here is not a miracle. It was a medical scare–one that most parents have gotten at some point in some similar form in their kids’ lives. Somehow, they’ve allowed Steve Gaines to eat out on this story for decades.
But we’re not supposed to notice Gaines’ omission of exactly what was wrong with his son. His tribe sure won’t. He’s already swept them into glurge Bible verses.
Fanaticism and Ignorance Need Feeding.
Now we get a series of demonstrably false promises.
Out of everything about Christian lies in general, their insistence on these false promises irks me just about the most. And Steve Gaines rattles off the full range of them.
To hear him talk, anybody in Christianity who needs to “be close to” their god, who is “living in turmoil and strife,” who wants “guidance and direction,” who is “weary and worn out by life,” who feels despair, who thinks they need supernatural help to “provide for you and your family,” who is worried about the direction they’re going in life, and who worries about their “future in eternity” needs fear no longer. Their god will totally answer all of these concerns and provide all this care.
Every one of these claims is testable.
Every one of them is false.
If they were even halfway true, then we would never see Christians commit suicide, harm others, act out, or develop emotional and physical dependencies. And yet all of these happen constantly in Christianity–exactly because the religion doesn’t actually help people with real problems and needs.
Gaines repeats himself often in this section of the sermon, and it isn’t hard to see why. Fundagelicals think that repeating a lie often enough makes it magically become true.
I wish that last bit was a strawman or exaggeration. You just have no idea how much I wish that.
Paying Off Karma at a Vastly Accelerated Rate.
Steve Gaines makes three assurances:
- His god’s promises are supernatural.
- This god also offers supernatural protection to his followers.
- And his power and provision are supernatural.
We’ll talk later about those specific assurances. For now, I want to focus on how these assurances work into the SBC’s decline and what the SBC is now pushing its adherents to do. All of these points relate to what the SBC hopes to accomplish in coming years.
Indeed, Gaines reveals this goal in the sermon:
I believe that one of the greatest things we could walk out of here in a few days and tell the world is that God is still on His throne. . . What is happening in the Southern Baptist Convention that only God can get the glory? Let me tell you something about the glory of God – He will not share it with anybody and that’s because He knows good and well that we can’t handle it.
You don’t say.
It sounds like Gaines’ point here is that the SBC’s decline is happening so his god can yank victory from the jaws of defeat–just like he pulled that LOL GOTCHA trick on Gaines by terrifying him with the potential death of his young son.
That Gang of Backward Children He Plays Tricks On.
Steve Gaines might be telling his tribe a whole bunch of doctrinal points they already know and believe. But he’s also seeking to bring them to a place where they can follow their leaders’ instructions.
The SBC’s theme this year is Testify. Go. Stand. Speak. For just ages now, they’ve been trying their best to prod their unwilling flocks toward doing more recruitment.
We talked about this exact effort a while ago, when Ed Stetzer wrote his vaguebook Easter post pretending to be talking to non-Christians–but was really talking straight to fundagelicals. The leaders themselves can’t do much to increase their own recruitment efforts. They can only hold so many revival meetings and whatnot. They themselves face way more ministerial work than they possess hours in their days.
So if anybody’s going to increase recruitment efforts, it will need to be the flocks themselves. This sermon represents Steve Gaines’ attempt to get them in the mood to do as their leaders demand.
Making Them an Offer They Can’t Refuse.
Three things work against Steve Gaines here.
The first problem, of course, is that fundagelicals largely possess next to no ability to sell anything. Most of them couldn’t sell bread to starving people.
Second, most fundagelicals know perfectly well that non-members don’t want their product. For all their blathering about how awesome they think their religion is, they know they get shot down quickly when they try to recruit others. They aren’t willing to risk their carefully-built-up social capital with their friends and family by pushing sales too hard. One can hardly blame them.
Third, his product isn’t quite what he says it is. He pushes the idea that his product is salvation (from an imaginary threat) and a divine protector (whose help is largely indistinguishable from no help at all). But that’s not really what he’s selling.
He wants his flocks to commit to selling membership in the Southern Baptist Convention. It does him no good at all if his sales representatives–the flocks–recruit someone to a whole other religion or denomination. If the SBC is to recover from its slump, he needs more people to become tithing members of the SBC. That’s why, at the end of his sermon, he doesn’t claim that his god “is in Christianity.” He says instead that his god “is in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
A Failure to Communicate.
These conventions always carry with them the stink of rah-rah. The Messengers who attend the event don’t come simply to cast votes on motions and officers. They also expect cream-of-the-crop leadership speeches to inspire them in their everyday lives.
Unfortunately, what they get is blather from the likes of Steve Gaines and exhortations to do yet more stuff they already don’t want to do.
Sooner or later, those leaders will get desperate enough to start pushing hard on their flocks. It’ll be interesting to see what their followers do at that point. As we’ve seen repeatedly, laypeople in fundagelical groups tend to bristle when their leaders demand that they sacrifice anything. In Divided By Faith, the authors drily note:
If we accept the oftentimes reasonable proposition that most people seek the greatest benefit for the least cost, they will seek meaning and belonging with the least change possible. Thus, if they can go to either the Church of Meaning and Belonging, or the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, most people choose the former. It provides benefit for less cost.
So their leaders can ask them to go a-recruitin’ more often. They can have a big ol’ evangelism cakewalk right down Wingate Street to the front doors of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, if they please. Their flocks increasingly decide what they will and won’t do all the same.
But if their leaders could reckon with their hosts, they wouldn’t be Southern Baptists in the first place.
NEXT UP: A little bit of number-crunching. How bad is the SBC’s decline this year? See you soon!
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The subtopic titles are riffs on quotes from, in order: Casino Royale, Frozen, History of the World: Part I, Henry V, Fried Green Tomatoes, House M.D., Inherit the Wind, Babylon 5, All About Eve, The Godfather, Cool Hand Luke.
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