‘Counting the Costs’ is Music to Authoritarian Ears

‘Counting the Costs’ is Music to Authoritarian Ears October 15, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about Greg Stier and his long-running plan to mobilize evangelical teens into an army for Jesus, which he thoughtfully sorta-explained in a recent post for Christianity Today. Before I get into the harm his suggestions do to children, I realized I needed to explain a popular Christianese concept: counting the costs. This phrase figures prominently in Greg Stier’s work, and it certainly did as well in my own life when I was evangelical. Today, let me show you this Christianese phrase, how it’s used, and how it manipulates the unwary into groups and behavior that will only harm them.

counting the costs
(Josh Appel.)

(Previous posts mentioning/about Greg Stier: Mobilizing a Teen Army for JesusThe 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.)

Christianese 101: Counting the Costs.

Evangelicals love the Christianese phrase counting the costs. It’s one of their favorite dogwhistles. So let me begin by explaining it.

The phrase comes from Luke 14:25-30, with the phrase itself coming from verse 28. In this section of Luke, Jesus speaks about the social and economic costs of following him. It’s a famous sermon, running thusly (emphasis mine):

“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters— yes, even his own life— he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not carry his cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple.

“Which of you, wishing to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost to see if he has the resources to complete it? Otherwise, if he lays the foundation and is unable to finish the work, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This man could not finish what he started to build.'”

(Family-friendly, that’s our Jesus! What a great moral teacher he was! Give him a hand — right out the door.)

The phrase has been around for a long, long time. I found it in a 1757 book in Google’s scanned library. It’s a compilation of sermons by Joseph Morris, a Baptist minister. And on page 33, we find this:

We must therefore sit down, as our blessed Lord directs us, and count the costs of a religious life; and consider, that we must sometimes deny ourselves, if we would live godly in Christ Jesus, that we may not faint in our minds, and be discouraged, when we come to the trial.

I doubt this book represents the first time Christians had ever used it in this way, either.

Counting the Costs in Modern Usage.

Nowadays, evangelicals use this phrase to exhort each other to withstand all the repercussions of their boorish attitudes and behavior. Once they start losing friends and opportunities, you see, they might lose courage and slack off from soulwinning. But this phrase reminds them that when they first began Jesus-ing, they knew it might mean some losses in the temporal world.

It’s like telling an inadequate worker that their employment contract specifically directs them to clean the bathrooms, and they signed it! So they know very well that this task is their lot — so they’d better get going!

Or maybe it’s like that classic office poster, with slogans like this one set to a backdrop of storms or natural disasters:

Momma said there’d be days like this.

I guess that’s supposed to cheer up workers or something. Like if we were warned that some days might be that bad, then it won’t feel as draining to go through bad days. Sometimes that works — “you’ll feel a little pinch” before a shot. But other times, it backfires hard.

(Oh, memories flood my mind here of the dentists who gently reassured me, “you’ll feel a little pressure.” And then a moment later, I’d be fused to the ceiling in pain. I’m glad the tech’s come such a long way since I last needed anything done.)

Counting the Costs, In the Wild.

In addition to a whole host of Christian-oriented books and merchandise, countless sermons involve this phrase.

Back in 2017, the pastor of a standard-issue evangelical church in New York State offered a sermon on the topic of counting the costs. (He also likes the “Are you a good person?” apologetics zinger, which features prominently on their site.) It’s quite consistent with what my own pastors taught back in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as consistent with what I’ve seen out of similar pastors all through evangelicalism.

First, this guy explains the difference between regular Christians and TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Obviously, he and his church consider themselves part of the latter group. (See endnote for the definition of this phrase.)

Then, he outlines how expensive it is to join the Cool Kids’ Club. He names lost relationships first, beginning with familial rejection and ramping straight up to martyrdom at siblings’ hands. Yes, because TRUE CHRISTIANS™ in upstate New York in 2017 totally might face martyrdom for their faith one day.

(Authoritarians operate on fear the way many people operate on caffeine. Without it, they just can’t motivate.)

Then, he outlines the cost to TRUE CHRISTIANS™ themselves, which he interprets as self-denial and missing out on all the fun that heathens have. His third cost involves “the cost to materialism,” which means withholding one’s money and goods from “Jesus.” I think he’s talking about tithing, though he never specifies this. He bolsters all of these items with various threats.

His first threat involves all the supposed harm to the body done by sinful behavior.

The second, if you’re wondering, is Hell. Of course. (See endnote.)

A Very Old Trope.

Nothing I’ve described here varies from the boilerplate stuff evangelical pastors have always said about this topic.

Back in 1874, Charles Spurgeon (revered by modern more-hardcore-than-thou evangelicals) wrote in the same terms. He warned his followers in all caps:

TRUE RELIGION IS COSTLY.

Watch out, y’all! We’ve got a badass here! And he threatens them in a familiar way:

He who thinks that a careless, hit-or-miss, headlong venture will suffice for his eternal interests is the reverse of wise.

Indeed, we see the exact same rhetoric and threats from another bit evangelical site, Got Questions. Their page follows the same tropes evangelicals have always used:

  • Fakey-fake regular Christians vs. TRUE CHRISTIANS™
  • This weird insistence that Jesus’ exhortation about counting the costs was completely anti-evangelistic
  • Delineation of the various sorts of costs that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ must pay for Jesus-ing correctly
  • Insisting that TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ is sooooo worrrrrrth all those costs
  • Copious threats for those who don’t Jesus correctly, especially TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who buckle under those costs

All of it’s music to the ears of authoritarians, which is why they’ve stroked and caressed each element of this trope for centuries now.

So when I went searching through Greg Stier’s work, I wasn’t even a little surprised to see that he, too, loves the idea of forcing Christians into counting the costs.

Counting the Costs, According to Greg Stier.

At least as far back as 2015, Greg Stier wrote to advise youth ministers to force teens to count the cost of Jesus-ing correctly. In his post “Have You Done Your Youth Ministry Math?” he praises Jesus for doing this same thing to his followers:

[Jesus] sent His followers out to spread His message early and often and it motivated them to learn from Him.

It forced them to count the costs of following Him.

He considers this process of counting the costs to be essential in moving teens “beyond a lukewarm Christian life” to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. And he warns youth ministers about what will totally happen if they don’t force teens to count the costs:

If you don’t cast the vision and challenge them now, they’ll be headed down the road toward a lukewarm, unengaged Christian life. The teen years are mission-critical for cultivating committed, engaged, wholly devoted followers of Jesus!

Oh noes! Anything but that!

Doing Harm For Their Own Good.

But really, Greg Stier tells his readers, this dilemma will do teens a lot of good:

When you equip your students to become “fishers of men,” and unleash them to do so, you’re laying groundwork that will deepen their walk with God. They will be forced to choose whether they’ll lay it on the line and risk their image and popularity for Christ.

Infuriating. But yes. He’s been yammering about his dream of an evangelical army of teen salesbots for years now.

In 2015, though, evangelicals had just begun to reckon with the reality of their decline. That’s when they finally confronted their abysmal retention rates of teens in particular. So Stier is really pushing hard on what had just become a major hot button for evangelical leaders.

And he does it by setting up an absolutely horrifying dilemma for teens.

A Cruel Dilemma. Pushed on Children.

CHILDREN.

Here’s how that dilemma works:

Either teens make Jesus happy but wreck their lives by losing friends and missing out on opportunities…

… Or they refuse to wreck their lives but become responsible for the fates of their friends’ ghosts and perhaps go to Hell themselves.

The teens in these youth groups aren’t even old enough to vote, in many cases. Many come from authoritarian households with parents who won’t see the problems inherent in shoving kids into these positions from their earliest years. Many evangelical parents and teens alike don’t understand concepts like consent themselves — and if they know about it, they reject it.

Presenting teens with an impossible choice like this should be illegal.

But Greg Stier has nothing but enthusiasm for this idea.

Children in the Front Lines.

I wasn’t kidding about child armies yesterday. Here, we see Greg Stier rhapsodizing about the idea yet again:

When your teens are out there on the front lines sharing their faith and making disciples who make disciples, you’re unleashing the power of multiplication, because they can touch many more lives for Jesus than you possibly could yourself. And their friends who trust Christ can touch the lives of their friends, and so on and so on, until whole schools and communities are rocked by the message of the gospel.

“The front lines.” He’s okay with shoving children into “the front lines.” Older evangelicals are way less willing to step into “the front lines.” But evangelical leaders know they can’t convince adults to do this stuff. In that way, I suppose Greg Stier’s child army operates much like most real-world ones.

As WereBear said today, I am essentially 100% against child armies of any kind and in all forms.

But evangelicals have always loved the idea, because they don’t understand or like the concept of consent — and because in their history, it’s always been way easier for them to manipulate teens into acting like zealots than persuading adults to destroy their lives that way.

What Didn’t Happen, Ever.

Of course, at no time in modern evangelical history has any evangelical teen zealot actually “rocked” their schools and communities with their behavior. Greg Stier refers to the Book of Acts as a totally-for-realsies example of “exponential growth,” but there’s no reason to think much of anything in that book really happened.

He ends by promising that pushing teens into counting the costs will pay dividends for years for wise youth ministers:

Evangelism can ramp up your discipleship efforts as it multiples your youth ministry, giving you exponential increases in both qualitative and quantitative growth.

Do the math!

Notably, Greg Stier doesn’t ever talk about what happens to the teens who get “challenged” to become their churches’ child soldiers. He never speaks of the after-effects of counting the costs, except in the most gauzy and soft-focused of ways. Indeed, he only foresees grand futures for these teens: lifelong fervor, constant success, etc. Counting the costs, in his hands, is the ultimate good for them!

But we will really count those costs, tomorrow. Evangelicals’ pushing of children to count the costs causes them great harm that can take years to untangle. It’s cruel and wicked and grotesque to treat children this way.

And I know, because as I said, I was a teen zealot myself and knew a fair number of them as well.

NEXT UP: Now that we’ve got this Christianese under our belts, I’ll be counting the costs of my own youthful zealotry. See you tomorrow!


Endnotes.

The definition of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™: Usually you see this phrase from evangelicals, but it’s endemic throughout Christianity. A TRUE CHRISTIAN™:

  • Believes about the same things as the judging Christian does — and at about the same level of fervor;
  • Hasn’t been caught doing something the judging Christian considers completely out of bounds; and
  • Dies in the traces (in other words: doesn’t deconvert, ever).

As you can see, this definition knocks all us ex-Christians out of the running. But they adjust the meaning considerably depending on the group or person they’re judging right then.

When a Christian judges your past, remember that it’s just a way to introduce a red herring. They seek to negate your criticisms and soften the blow of your defection.

I’ve had good success in short-circuiting these derailing attempts by asking these judges exactly how they define a proper TRUE CHRISTIAN™. Every single time so far, they have all taken an immediate vow of silence. I think they know what I’ll say once I hear their definition, and they don’t want to hear it. (Back to the post!)

Regarding Hell: Authoritarians love love love everything about Hell. They couldn’t possibly have invented a better threat than this one, which is why they invented it so early and haven’t ever tried to come up with anything worse. Ever since they devised the concept of Hell, all they’ve done is expand on how horrific it’ll totally be.

Since evangelicals tend to be so risk-averse and threat-sensitive, even the imaginary threat of a realm that’s never been objectively verified as real works just fine to get them thinking in profoundly agitated and self-preservational ways. (Back to the post!)


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Last note: Greg Stier seems to have developed his “do the math” post from a 2013 presentation he gave. I suspect this is a very, very old idea for him. It’s an awful presentation, too, but also quite instructional in understanding exactly why Greg Stier has never achieved vast success in evangelicalism. If you check it out, don’t miss the end of page 11. It’s so WTF I can’t even start right now or I will just never shut up. I sorrow for all the teens who took his suggestions seriously. I guess we found my own hot button.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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