Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about a recent post Greg Stier wrote for Christianity Today. It’s his usual fluff written to pander to older evangelicals, but it goes much further than those sorts are usually willing to go. His third suggestion really brings home that impression. In it, he reveals exactly why he focuses so much on teenagers — and it is a breathtaking, callous display of overt manipulation. Today, let me show you exactly what landed this tryhard on our schedule for a solid week.
(Previous posts mentioning/about Greg Stier: The Falling Away of the Young; Dare 2 Share and the Sabotage of the Young; Soulwinners Hope to Score More Sales in the Pandemic; Greg Stier Thinks Teens Will TOTALLY Save Christianity; The Redemption of Johnny Lawrence; How Teens Will Save Christianity; Greg Stier’s Reframing Game. Emphases in quoted material come from original sources. Unless I specify otherwise, all quotes derive from sources and not scare-quotes.)
Why Greg Stier Focuses on Teens.
In Greg Stier’s post for Ed Stetzer’s little nook on Christianity Today, he outlines three totally surefire ways to turn evangelical teens into zealots. We’ve already seen that the first two suggestions exist only to puff up older evangelicals’ egos (so he can sell them stuff). His third, however, got me furious. Here it is:
Mobilize teenagers as Gospel activists.
What. The. Actual.
He goes on to explain, in what sounds like a very condescending way, that teens are “digital natives.” They have used social media and internet stuff since the day they were born. That means they can use their friends lists and contacts to evangelize like nobody’s business!
OMG! Why did nobody ever think of this before???
… Except that most youth-oriented ministers today do the same thing. Just a few months ago, I was mocking Sean McDowell for having a TikTok account. Worth noting: I don’t see much evangelism online from teens, but I do see a whole ton of it from twits my own age and older.
But it’s not teens’ social-media contacts that Greg Stier likes best.
It’s their innocence and their enthusiasm.
And the perceived ease of radicalizing them.
Greg Stier and the Mobilization of a Child Army.
After explaining the vast benefits of recruiting children to his army, Greg Stier waxes eloquent again about how easy it is to get teens completely “activated.” As he writes:
Additionally, teenagers can be inspired, equipped and mobilized to have Gospel conversations with their friends at school, on their sports teams and in their neighborhoods. By sharing the message of Jesus as a relationship and not a religion, Christian teenagers can help their unbelieving peers embrace the love of God for them.
I cringe to imagine all the teens trying to sell that tired-ass chirpy “iT’s A rELaTiOnShiP NoT A rELiGiOn” talking point and then getting their asses handed to them.
However, it amuses me vastly that this guy uses the same word, “activated,” that my mom used to use to describe very energized, playful, hyper-focused cats. Seriously. He writes:
Teenagers are “activated” through a simple real-time experience, either at an event or through [the Dare 2 Share] curriculum. That single step of faith then leads to another, and then another. They quickly become on fire with the message and mission of Jesus. They begin to embrace the Christian faith and the Christian cause as their own.
I left out the bits about him claiming to have seen this process happen literally millions of times in his business, Dare 2 Share, over the past 30 years.
So Greg Stier offers an intensely emotional experience to teens to get them super-excited. After teens leave that experience, he promises their caretakers that this excitement will carry them forward into very zealous behavior. He promises that his products will not only keep teens that way for years to come, but will pay dividends in the form of turning them into the hardcore-sales shock troops the tribe thinks it needs to reverse its decline.
Everything I’ve seen of Dare 2 Share so far sounds like pure emotional manipulation and grooming to me.
And evangelicals are totally okay with doing all of this to children.
The Child Army Greg Stier Offers.
Greg Stier winds down his post with this bit:
Revived teenagers can be used by God to spark revival, not only in their communities, but in their churches as well.
And then he invokes David, described as “a teenaged shepherd boy,” who slew Goliath and saved the Israelites. For now, let’s ignore the fact that there’s some debate about how old David would have been here. Even in the 1980s, I heard that he was well into adulthood at the time of that story. Online, I see many Christians who reject the “teen David” idea as well. But some like it.
Greg Stier’s in that latter camp — and he sees the children he gets “activated” as a whole army of Davids rushing out to fight the tribe’s enemies. He ends his post:
It’s time to mobilize teen Gospel activists to revive the church and change the world!
Even if David really was a teenager, though, that doesn’t make it okay to groom children to join an army today — even one fighting invisible foes on imaginary battlefields with their minds.
There’s a reason why human rights organizations speak so strongly against the idea of child recruitment. Manipulating children into the roles of crusaders, rescuers, and protectors might appeal to evangelicals, but this action has costly after-effects for years after those children escape the tribe and begin picking up the pieces of their lost childhoods.
Counting on Children to Save Their Tribe.
Moreover, there’s something truly grotesque about the way evangelicals callously, cynically admit that they prey on teenagers because they think they’re so much easier to manipulate than adults are. I’ve seen this sentiment so many times in evangelical writings, but Greg Stier’s really the most open about it.
Perhaps once upon a time, that was true. I remember an entire wave of high schoolers, including me, getting caught up in the whole “88 Reasons” Rapture scare. It drew adults in too, sure, but mostly it was teens. Teens had never heard of the Rapture before, and had never experienced any previous Rapture scares. Nor did the adults around us clue us in or allay our fears. All they did was place more burdens on us to “save” our friends and family members so they weren’t left behind.
The teens converted during that scare were, indeed, much more fervent and enthusiastic than the teens who’d grown up in the tribe. Those teens had had years and years of experience in the tribe’s hypocrisy and false claims. Adults in the tribe were even more jaded and cynical, of course. But oh, those adults sure liked our fervor — properly harnessed, of course.
We didn’t even notice that last part, nor chafe overmuch at how little the rest of the tribe joined us in our urgent soulwinning. Though we frantically sought converts to buy our product (active membership in our churches), the older members of our tribe seemed content to let us handle all that ickie sales stuff.
Not much has changed with these older evangelicals. They still see teens as easily frightened and manipulated, even easily radicalized. They still don’t want to do any of that ickie sales stuff, either.
But teens have changed enormously. Newsflash for Greg Stier: they will not be swooping in to save evangelicals from themselves.
False Praise for the Dancing Bears.
It feels like evangelicals offer the same exact false praise to every generation’s teens. Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
Oh, y’all, kids today are so amazing. Their bullshit meters are so well-tuned! They can spot a phony a mile away. And they can be counted upon to embrace someone who’s real with them, talking truth — like me, like us! They’ll change Christianity forever!
In reality, evangelical leaders don’t think much of teens. In his post, Greg Stier even mentions that dislike:
So why hasn’t this same philosophy transferred to our churches? Why do so many church leaders view teenagers and youth ministry as a kind of necessary evil? Why are teenagers referred to by so many Christians as “the church of tomorrow” and not “the church of today”?
The answer is quite simple, too, but Greg Stier doesn’t ever answer it. He might not even know the answer. In the interests of being helpful, I’ll give it to him for free:
Evangelicals relish the idea of millions of easily-manipulated, completely-controlled warriors who’ll fight their battles for them and do all the heavy lifting they don’t want to do themselves. But they DON’T like the idea of giving their child army any real power at all. Older evangelicals can’t trust them.
One day, those child warriors will take the reins of church leadership. However, that day is not today. When that day finally comes, they will take power from the cold dead hands of their elders and not a moment before.
The Hidden Meaning of Greg Stier’s False Praise.
When I was young, I don’t think anybody my age noticed this eternal truth about authoritarian groups. We didn’t perceive a lot of things. And that’s why older evangelicals puffed us up.
For real, any adult praising a child’s attempt to vacuum a floor for the first time knows exactly what’s happening here.
When Greg Stier and other older evangelicals praise teens for their boundless energy, for taking up this super-important cause and executing it so zealously, that’s all stuff they want teens to live up to.
We must temper that high praise with evangelicals’ constant fretting over how KIDS TODAY don’t Jesus exactly like they do or care about the culture wars enough. Why, they don’t even idolize Israel like their elders! Clutch them pearls!
Gen Z teens, though, seem to see evangelicals’ manipulation attempts for exactly what they are, just as they see the culture wars for what they are. This time around, that reflexive praise evangelicals have always offered is truer than ever — even if evangelicals don’t mean it at all and never did.
The Army Evangelicals Ache to Command.
However, remember that teens won’t be reading the vast majority of Greg Stier’s output. In cases like this post, he praises teens so highly precisely because he seeks to sell his products to their parents and ministers. In effect, he tells the older evangelicals reading his self-promotions:
Just look at all the stuff these teens could do FOR US, once they’re properly manipulated! I’m just the guy you need: I can manipulate teens perfectly and save our tribe from decline!
No wonder Ed Stetzer keeps giving this bozo a platform. His own message isn’t much different at all. Neither evangelical understands boundaries or cares about the social losses that will inevitably come to almost everyone complying with their demands.
Greg Stier sells them the potential of a child army of obedient, well-manipulated zealots who won’t care about stuff like lost friends, diminished credibility, embarrassment at rejection, or rejection fatigue. More than that, he sells them a future of regained dominance.
It’s a heady potion this mountebank holds aloft to his marks. I’m just surprised he’s not more popular within the tribe than he is.
After all, he’s telling them exactly what they want to hear.
A Much-Deserved Decline.
Greg Stier’s been working this same gig since the 1990s, by his own admission. He doesn’t seem like he’s changed his approach much at all, despite teens’ huge shifts in understanding and awareness. Obviously, he’s not really talking to teens themselves but to older evangelicals, who haven’t changed much in that time — except to become even more politicized and controlling.
Maybe it’s because of Greg Stier’s relatively low status within the tribe, I don’t know. It’s really remarkable to notice how much more open he is about his manipulation practices than most evangelical leaders. Dude doesn’t even try to hide it. He gloats about the supposed success of his manipulation, even.
More than that, even, he pushes extremely hard on manipulating children to take up hard-sales recruitment activities — which those older evangelicals won’t even do themselves. He’s telling those adults, in essence, to hire him to groom children to start recruiting for the tribe.
Evangelicals don’t ever catch this essential disconnect between their fetishization of innocence and their ruthless attempts to exploit that quality. And millions of children have paid the price for that exploitation.
Out of every harm that evangelicals do, it’s their constant and complete disdain for consent that angers me the most. Irrelevance represents the least of what this cloud of toxic people deserves.
NEXT UP: I stroll down Memory Lane to count the cost of evangelicals’ exploitation and manipulation. See you then!
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(Last note: We’ll talk very soon about Gen Z as the beginning of the end of Christian dominance in America. That post is already half written. For now, I’ll just say this: Seriously, Gen Z represents a whole new and exciting phase of Christian decline, and older evangelicals just have no idea yet what’s about to hit them right in the face.)