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Why Evangelicals Can’t Quit Transactional Thinking

Why Evangelicals Can’t Quit Transactional Thinking December 9, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I showed you a doozy of a post by Mark Wingfield, the new leader of Baptist News Global. In his post, he asserted that his tribe needed to be less transactional in their thinking. See, it was hurting their sales and reputation as a metaphorical car dealership! Today, I want to show you why his request is impossible for evangelicals to obey. 

transactional behavior isn't always bad
(LumenSoft Technologies.) To buy the shoes, you must perform an operatic aria.

What Transactional Thinking Looks Like.

When we talk about transactional thinking and behavior, we mean very shallow, surface-level communication and actions that focus on an exchange between participants to achieve goals for them both.

For example, most of us engage in transactional behavior during brief retail interactions. We bring our purchases to a cashier, who rings us out. Maybe we’ll make small talk during the interaction, or maybe not. Either way, the entire purpose of this engagement remains the same. We are only there to give someone else what they want (money) so we can get what we want (the object purchased). Indeed, we wouldn’t conduct this interaction at all if we didn’t want something from that other party — and if we didn’t have what that other party wants in exchange for it.

So transactional thinking focuses on achieving a mission. Both parties have a mission. In the above example, our mission is to buy the thing. The cashier’s mission is to take money from us in exchange for the thing.

Transactional thinking doesn’t tend to be deep at all. Nor is it often much more complicated than what I’ve described. And for that matter, it’s not even necessarily bad. We’ve probably all stood behind someone in the supermarket checkout line who wants to have an earnest, in-depth, free-ranging exchange of ideas with a beleaguered cashier. And we’ve likely all been made uncomfortable by an overly-friendly retail worker forced to act that way or lose their job. (See endnote.)

But this kind of thinking exists in a lot of other areas of life besides retail.

Relationships of all kinds and sizes can also be run along transactional lines. And that’s where things get a little stranger and less ideal.

The Safety Dance of Transactional Thinking.


The Safety Dance,” a hit song from 1982, focused on the singer’s anger over being ejected from a club for his bombastic style of dancing, which seemed unsafe to those making that decision.

If I may segue for a purpose here, I’ve met a lot of men (of all religious stripes) who really don’t like dancing.

By that term, of course, I mean modern free-form dancing. They don’t like it. They don’t want to do it, ever. And the reason for their reluctance is simple: they don’t want to look like idiots flailing and shuffling around a dance floor.

These same men tend to be excellent ballroom and historical-reenactment dancers, however. I’ve converted more than a few to that style of dancing. Once they realize that this other kind of dancing has a very definite shape to it, definite rules, definite steps and orders of operations, then they get into it. They don’t have to risk looking like idiots with this kind of dancing! Hooray for Strictly BallroomAnd slowly, they can start learning about the optional stuff they can branch out with in these dances — like twirling their partner around or sharking someone else’s.

In a very similar way, if a person really feels awkward and uncomfortable with relationships, then transactional thinking can look like the perfect way to avoid looking like an idiot. There are very, very distinct and firm rules within transactional relationships of all kinds.

And suddenly, just like that, courtship culture itself swims into focus as a sort of safety dance for fragile evangelical-male egos. Right behind it, complementarianism starts looking the same way.

The Rules of the Transactional Relationship Road.

A lot of evangelical lads grows up thinking that women are almost literally space aliens from another planet. Such young men will likely find a lot of comfort in the rigid rules of his tribe’s courtship culture. In this environment, young evangelical men and women pursue marriage along some extremely weird, rigid, outdated lines that emphasize strict one-size-fits-few gender roles, women’s utter powerlessness within evangelicalism, and evangelical men’s unwarranted, undeserved, unilateral, and poorly-wielded power over those women.

Husbands act this way, wives act that way! It all just magically works bestest for everyone! Hooray Team Jesus!

This odd way of handling mate selection and relationship-conducting must seem like a divine blessing from Jesus himself to the young men involved, though.

Ah, at last! Rules everywhere! Nothing left to chance! No way to be rejected and thus emotionally devastated! And no way to be lessened by the scorn of their worst enemies!

Of course, these same men often end up married to women they barely even know and who are utterly incompatible with them, and then they’ll spend a lifetime playing House with women they don’t understand or fully trust, ever.

But that stuff must seem like a very small price to pay for avoiding the nightmarish freeform jungle of worldly dating.

Transactional Religion: Also a Thing.

By the same token, transactional religion is also a powerful thing. And we find it in evangelicalism aplenty.

Mark Wingfield pointed out that truth in his December 1 post for Baptist News Global. In that post, he wrote:

Rooted in our frontier evangelism mindset, Baptists and other iterations of crusading Christianity came to place so much emphasis on “getting saved” that we acted as though faith is merely a transaction to be completed, like making a deposit at the bank or signing a contract for a house.

However, evangelicals back then were not acting as though their faith was just a transaction. They weren’t acting at all.

To the evangelicals Wingfield remembers in his post, that is exactly and precisely what “getting saved” meant to them — and what it still means today. It is simply a transaction they complete with their imaginary friend to avoid an imaginary fate. That’s all it is.

In their minds, Jesus offers them safety in exchange for their obedience. Everyone refusing to sign over their lives to Jesus will not gain the benefits of that transaction. In other words, they will not be safe from Hell. Only those who complete the transaction can hope to gain that benefit.

Once the transaction completes, they’re officially safe from the worst possible threat to their own safety. Nothing else matters: just being safe. That is what they purchased, and that is all they want to purchase from their hucksters.

Similarly, unadulterated absolute power is all they want to purchase from their pandering politicians.

Bait and Switch With Evangelical Transactionalism.

That’s what evangelical evangelists and preachers push on so hard to score their sales. It’s all that can move their product (active membership in the groups they operate). They begin their entire relationship with evangelical converts on a purely transactional basis.

Mark Wingfield doesn’t disapprove of that beginning at all, of course. I mean, it does bring in the sales. The problem is that afterward, they’re not Jesus-ing quite the way he’d like to see. As he puts it:

This has worked pretty well for a couple hundred years, leading to tremendous growth among revivalist churches that preach a transactional faith. Which has led to church growth without faith, membership without discipleship. But no matter, the churches were full, and people were being converted and baptized, and all the business goals were being met or exceeded.

However, if those transactional sales had not been scored, his tribe would never have achieved its growth or its business goals. It’s really that simple. Wingfield seems to accept this truth. He just wants evangelicals to move smoothly across to non-transactional religion once they conclude that initial transactional sale.

So he doesn’t want them to stop using transactional thinking to appeal to new customers. Instead, he simply wants them to switch gears after the sale is made. He wants his tribe to move from transactional religion to something deeper and more meaningful, something that’d be a little more community and relationship oriented, something that’d actually appeal to their current targeted marks as a group they want to join.

And it is just not ever gonna happen. See, one common thread binds all of the transactional thinking I’ve described today: authoritarianism

Transactional Thinking, in a Nutshell.

What Mark Wingfield suggests would certainly help evangelicals in a lot of ways. I’m not saying he’s wrong, really. I just mean he’s seriously misreading his tribe as well as making a demand they can and will never meet. It’d require them to drop their authoritarianism and their transactional mode of thinking.

That’s because transactional thinking is the hallmark of the authoritarian psyche. When you encounter someone who just cannot relate on any other level to other people, chances are you’ve just found yourself an authoritarian.

Evangelicals can no more lose their authoritarianism than they can ever stop stiffing restaurant workers. It’s so baked into their culture from the ground up that if they ever did manage to change that facet of their psyche, they’d become something totally different from what they are.

If evangelicals even tried to do what Wingfield suggests, that effort alone would represent a huge loss of power in evangelicals’ minds. They would only open up countless vulnerabilities in themselves, and vulnerabilities always make authoritarians super-twitchy.

(I mean, that’s why they rejected regular dating and went after courtship culture in the first place, and why they rarely make a sales pitch to a potential recruit that is anything but 100% transactional in nature.)

Safety and Security Assured.

In transactional behavior, authoritarians feel safe. It is, in fact, the only way they know that can ensure their safety. This kind of behavior — and the thinking behind it — ensures that everyone in the engagement knows who’s supposed to do what and when and how.

More to the point, it’s also the only sales model that’s working to score the few sales evangelicals are even getting these days.

So good luck to Mark Wingfield, if he now wants to shift them even one inch from transactional thinking. Not only is he directly baiting and switching customers after making those sales, but he’s asking evangelicals to do stuff that seems as scary and foreign to them as disco dancing.

I just don’t see it happening, ever, is all.

Evangelicals would put the torch to their entire culture first. They’d prefer to go extinct before markedly changing that aspect of their psyches.

If evangelical leaders ever did force that change through, count on this: the flocks would immediately leave in search of another tribe that’d let them rock their little transactional, authoritarian hearts out on the worst dance floor ever constructed.

NEXT UP: Speaking of scare tactics, let’s check out how evangelical pastors are handling their growing losses of power, relevance, and credibility! See you tomorrow.


Endnotes.

Regarding super-friendly retail workers: In fact, I’ve heard people from other countries express a little discomfort with the way that American retail workers get ordered to be super-duper-friendly with customers. Such over-the-top behavior seems very artificial to them, and it certainly goes far beyond the requirements of what really is just a simple transactional engagement. Having been the focus of some intense and scary customer crushes because of this demand and my naturally sunny, friendly disposition, I deffo wouldn’t mind if company owners would quit making it of their frontline workers. But I doubt that’ll ever happen. (Back to the post!)


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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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