Hi and welcome back! This week, the big news in evangelicalism concerns evangelicals, who still don’t really like evangelizing. Who’d’a thunk? Well, any regular reader of this blog, that’s who! Let’s explore that study–and maybe brainstorm some ideas about why evangelicals seem so reticent to perform the function their leaders insist is every Christian’s #1 task. Today, we examine a very telling disobedience in Christian ranks–and the change in how Christian leaders are addressing that disobedience.
The Usual Poor-Quality Studies.
The news broke this week in Christianity Today (CT). As headlines go, this one likely sounded some major alarm bells:
ZOMG! The subtitle looked even worse: “Survey finds more than half of monthly worshipers haven’t shared Jesus in the past six months.”
Reading along in the article itself, we discover that the survey in question came out of LifeWay Research. LifeWay, of course, functions as the propaganda and publishing division of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The entire denomination struggles these days, but LifeWay has fallen on particularly hard times of late.
Of course, even when LifeWay seemed at its most solvent, its research was far more fanciful imagining than actual truth-gathering and reality-reporting. Their surveys and studies suffer from dealbreaker bad design and worse methodology, and the conclusions they draw from it represent the most WTF thinking the religion can possibly offer.
Don’t ever forget, when reviewing anything out of any evangelical “survey” house, that they create this stuff out of a desire to sell more stuff to evangelicals and to keep their status quo right where it is. (We’ll come back to examine this new survey’s exact flaws later, because they’re hilarious. For now, we’re only looking at the environment that created it.)
Indeed, it doesn’t take long at all to figure out exactly what LifeWay wants to accomplish with this study.
What LifeWay Discovered.
At some point, LifeWay’s head honchos created a subgroup within their division, which they dubbed Discipleship Pathway. The CT story thoughtfully links their webpage.
Weirdly, the study itself doesn’t come to hand very easily.
In fact, it doesn’t come to hand at all.
Apparently, the research the CT article talks about got bundled into some kind of personality quiz LifeWay calls the Discipleship Pathway Assessment, which costs $5 on the LifeWay storefront site. However, the study results don’t appear to exist independently. This quiz measures the test-taker according to eight factors that LifeWay calls “discipleship signposts.” These “signposts” consist of the usual jargon and meaningless blather that evangelicals adore as a form of antiprocess. Here, LifeWay accompanies their writeup of the quiz with their extensive line of Bible studies and whatnot, which are supposed to help someone improve their performance on those “signpost” factors.
LifeWay thinks that if a Christian is firing on all eight of those thrusters, then they are “progressing in spiritual maturity.” They assert that a spiritually-mature Christian will evangelize more than an immature one. That is why, they inform us with straight faces, that it is so incredibly important that Christians take their silly quiz and then buy their useless Bible studies.
See, Lifeway’s only thinking of Christians’ spiritual maturity, y’all!
Perfect Beliefs + Perfect Practice = Perfect Adherence.
We’ve seen this kind of thinking many times before. Quite a few evangelicals firmly believe that if everybody could just get with their program, every social ill on the planet would be eradicated. From racism to sexual harassment to child abuse, they see everything like that as a direct result of humankind’s sinfulness.
See, they think all people were born inherently flawed and broken. That’s one of the very few nearly-universal beliefs in the religion! Thus, we commit wrongdoing because our natures drive us to it. That’s what they call our sin nature. Then, having created this fictional disease, they provide an equally-fictional cure: their god.
Christians often make these two claims about their religion.1
First, they think their god possesses or influences his adherents in some way. This possession/influence is supposed to guide people to better behavior and self-improvement. If they’re super-lucky, their god might even instantly cure their addictions, illnesses, and worst habits on the spot when they convert or if they work themselves into a prayer breakthrough (that’s Christianese for a particularly euphoric or emotionally-fulfilling prayer session).
Second, they think their social rules guide people’s behavior toward the better. That’s why they keep pushing those rules on non-members. They think that everyone, even non-Christians, should follow these rules for the good of all humankind. And many of the religion’s leaders constantly stoke their fears about what will happen if people keep rejecting those social rules.
Of course, when neither of those assertions happens, then Christians point to a very long, well-ironed list of asterisked conditions that the people in question failed to meet. But that comes well after the sales pitch and only when critics confront them with their claims’ failures.
TRUE CHRISTIANS™ Evangelize.
LifeWay and the SBC as a whole have pushed evangelism for a while now. I can see why, too. Their leaders are stretched wafer-thin as it is with just leadership tasks. Consequently, they’re not able to evangelize much on their own. At most, they arrange and lead recruitment-themed events at their churches.
As a result, they need the flocks to get out there and SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY. Rank-and-file Christians need to start recruiting on their own, or at least issue more invitations to those recruitment events their leaders set up. Without this sales help, Christian churches will continue to empty without enough new people coming in to offset the churning-out members.
Unfortunately, those followers simply don’t want to evangelize.
Their leaders have tried shaming them. They’ve set up countless committees and task forces meant to examine this problem. At one point one of those leaders even tried writing a disingenuous and fake “open letter.” He pretended to address unchurched people. In reality, he was trying to manipulate the Christians reading the post into issuing more church invitations.
A Long-Term Trend.
Now, with this ridiculous “study” from LifeWay, those leaders are judging a Christian’s entire Christian walk by how often they evangelize.2
I’m not surprised to see them going there.
And yet the flocks will remain steadfast in their refusal to get out there and start selling. This won’t change anything, any more than anything else their leaders have done to inspire the flocks to evangelize.
They. Don’t. Wanna.
And they’ve never wanted to, either!
We’ll be talking about why that is in the post after next. For now, I note only that Christian leaders have always wrung their hands over the flocks’ unwillingness to evangelize.
Until the last few decades, though, this unwillingness didn’t hurt churches all that much. Most people in America were already Christian, and Christian groups held a great deal of cultural and social dominance over them. Christian laypeople didn’t need to evangelize to gain members–for the same reason that a state’s Department of Motor Vehicles doesn’t need to market drivers’ licenses and identification cards. Christian evangelism resources reflected that dominance.
That was then. Now the game looks a lot different.
That Hypocrisy Two-Step.
Christian leaders find themselves in a serious bind–one which they themselves created, yeah, but still.
In response, they’ve released a survey of poor quality done in service to an agenda. And once again, they’ve discovered that the flocks haven’t budged much at all from their dislike of evangelism.
What’s interesting about this particular story isn’t that the line hasn’t moved. That’s old news. Rather, what interests me here is the response from LifeWay to this new confirmation of that line’s positioning.
Way back when, the marching-orders Christians like me got might have looked like this (if explicitly stated):
You might not feel prepared. Maybe you’re not! And you might feel really reluctant. That’s okay! Evangelism is still really important. Just open your mouth and do your best. No matter what happens as a result, you did your duty. Everything you do helps in the end.
Now, the sentiment looks very different:
If you can’t evangelize, buy our stuff and memorize our talking points. That’ll help you mature spiritually. Then, you’ll totally be able to evangelize. You’ll even look forward to doing it! And you’d better, cuz evangelism ain’t optional. If you’re still having trouble, that just means you aren’t spiritually-mature yet. To fix that, buy more stuff and memorize more talking points until you can evangelize.
Who’d’a thunk Christianity functioned so much like a freemium game?
(PS: Spiritual often means stuff that isn’t real.)
I wonder when Christians will realize what a smoke-and-mirrors game their leaders are playing with them. I’ve known about it for a long time now. Still, this new display of mercenary greed took even me by surprise!
In retrospect, though, is it really shocking? No. LifeWay stands in very serious trouble. They’ve got to be panicking right now, along with the entire SBC.
Then, potential salvation: a new push for personal evangelism, wrapped in LifeWay purchases. Does a single person in the upper-level offices of LifeWay or the SBC think that selling $5 assessments and $70 Bible study kits is going to improve anything? Do they imagine that their products will help Christians push past social norms and poor-quality preparation? Or that it can fix the flocks’ unwillingness to exert effort or waste resources?
If they do, they are sweet summer children if anybody ever was.
And I don’t think they are.
For ages, we’ve seen head honchos in the SBC like Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer fleeing the sinking ship. But as they flee, they clutch side gigs and sales plans. In similar fashion, this new sales campaign won’t change anything. But it might sell a few more products before the organization reaches its bitter end. Personal enrichment might be the best outcome that Christian leaders can hope to achieve.
Meanwhile, the Christians making these purchases will chase their tails for a little longer as they perform busy-work to put off the inevitable moment of truth: them admitting to themselves that evangelism just isn’t one of their spiritual gifts.
And best of all, they’ll continue not to pester the rest of us with a product they know quite well we don’t want.
NEXT UP: Tomorrow, the flaws in the study–and what they tell us about the Christians who created it. Then we dive into the reasons why Christians have never liked to evangelize. See you next time!
1 Of course, both of these promised results rise to the level of testable claims. So far, those promises fall flat on their faces. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ commit all manner of horrific deeds, and “Jesus” clearly can’t cure a common cold or help someone learn to stay within the lines of a coloring book, much less end an abusive nature or an addiction. Communities heavily dominated by Christians continue to be hellholes of misogyny, crime, and every manner of dysfunction. Meanwhile, non-Christians manage to be decent, honorable, kind-hearted people without this god’s assistance or his followers’ regressive, backwards-facing, heavy-handed, and authoritarian rules. Oops. Time for the post hoc “just so” rationalizations! (Back to the post!)
2 A Christian’s “walk” is simply the sum total of a given Christian’s experience and practices as a Christian. It’s the strength of their faith, the consistency of their devotions, and their knowledge-base about the Bible and their own doctrinal stances. Christians always want a strong walk; they don’t want a weak walk. Sometimes one Christian might ask a socially-inferior Christian, “How’s your walk?” And the other Christian is expected to answer honestly, then accept whatever criticisms and advice that superior Christian might offer in return. Sometimes Christians say “spiritual walk” instead of “Christian walk,” or they might say “your walk with Jesus” or something similar. (Back to the post!)
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