Losing Slower ≠ WINNING (The New Moved Goalpost for Evangelicals)

Losing Slower ≠ WINNING (The New Moved Goalpost for Evangelicals) March 26, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Before we move on from yesterday’s topic, I want to circle back around to something else I noticed about one of our sources. Way back when, evangelicals finally realized they were in the middle of a solid decline. And at that point, they began redefining success as just losing members and credibility slightly more slowly than their rivals. For a group as obsessed with winning as evangelicals are, their quirky new redefinition of success seems like a downright striking bit of compensatory fantasizing. 

the anticipation of a winning game

Decline ≠ Winning, in Evangelicalism.

Here’s the money quote from Josh Buice’s 2019 post. In it, Buice quotes a video by Al Mohler:

If you look at the denominations where women do the preaching, they are also the denominations where people do the leaving.

Seriously, it still astonishes me — years past the time when it should have stopped — that people can think they’re sooooo utterly rational and yet come out with idiocy like the above and think it represents compelling and masterful thunkin-power.

Al Mohler himself is likely compensating for an earlier embarrassing period when he actually supported women in leadership roles in his denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

(Don’t worry. We’ll get to that story one of these days too. I mean holy cow, just look at his own explanation for his shift in opinion).

But now, one of Al Mohler’s stated reasons for rejecting women in leadership roles is that allowing such a preposterous idea would cause a worse decline in his denomination than it already faces. And Josh Buice clearly agrees with him.

Correlation ≠ Causation. (AKA: “What’s Your Second Guess?”)

Interestingly, Josh Buice and Al Mohler both agree that when denominations allow women to preach and lead congregations, they decline worse and faster than those that do not. Their mistake is in thinking that it’s the women-in-leadership part causing those churches’ decline.

I can see a lot of reasons why evangelicals might have come to decline later — and maybe even see a bit less decline than mainline churches are experiencing. For one thing, evangelical groups typically impose much greater social control over members than mainline groups do. Also, evangelicals typically retaliate much harder against apostates than mainline Christians do. The social costs of leaving evangelicalism are simply much higher. Those costs may easily outweigh the high costs of living inauthentically as a secret non-believer among believers.

It wouldn’t occur to these two evangelical men to wonder if their two factors, “women in leadership” and “lesser decline,” represent a correlation or a causation. Almost certainly, misogynistic leaders’ refusal to allow women in leadership flows naturally from their higher-control ideology. And that higher-control ideology does not equal more Jesus-y ideology; it’s just a natural part of authoritarianism.

The truth is, “people do the leaving” in evangelicalism aplenty. And they leave despite all its authoritarianism. In fact, not one single credible survey done in the past ten years (like this one from 2019) indicates that evangelicals have even begun bottoming-out in their decline. Authoritarian evangelicals just came to the trend a bit late (again, likely because of their leaders’ greater control over their groups). But they’re here now.

Declining Slower and Later ≠ Winning.

Yesterday, I jokingly asked us to imagine a world where a Christian leader could literally gloat about declining very slightly more slowly than his tribal enemies. But it’s no joke at all to Al Mohler and his pal Josh Buice.

Authoritarian evangelicals have long associated their flavor of Christianity with #winning. By the term #winning, I mean gaining and holding absolute dominance over others. Evangelicals don’t see any way that they can’t achieve and keep that kind of dominance. With Jesus behind them, they think, they can’t possibly lose their power or fail to gain new power. As Jaime Fernandez, an evangelical, put it in his post “Conquer or die” (emphases from sources, as always):

Everyone wants to be on the winning side. Everyone recognises a winner. In heaven, on earth, and in the whole universe, the history of the cross is written, with the Lord’s victory shout.

One day this victory will be realised by all, but it will only be valid for those who have signed up on the winning team.

Which team do you belong to? 

Y’all, he wrote that nonsense in 2019 — which is well after evangelicals realized they were in decline. Sounds like someone’s overdosed on copium, doesn’t it?

And you’d think Al Mohler would be okay with losing his various picked and ginned-up battles. After all, he spoke at length to Bible Study Magazine at some point about the process of becoming okay with that exact facet of Christian decline. I reckon that Mohler’s actually just as concerned about losing too much too quickly as his evangelical pals are.

(I’m still just amazed that Christians need SO MANY danged guides for studying the Bible. Oooh, so divine, much god’s word for all humanity forever, y’all!)

Winning Popularity ≠ Correctness.

Evangelicals seem to be really confused about what, exactly, irrelevance would represent for them as a tribe.

Would it mean they’re ultimately blessed by Jesus and graced by Jesus-approval? Would this trend make them the underdog Remnant fighting to survive in a world grown hostile toward Jesus-ification?

Or would it mean they’re very, very wrong about something big? In that case, would it mean that Jesus has withdrawn his blessings and approval from them till they get their act together?

One company profiting off of Christianity’s decline, Church Fuel, offers the standard evangelical surefire formula for guaranteed church growth:

It’s a combination of the blessings of God and the stewardship of man. God-given results somehow teamed with human endeavors. A combination of divine intervention and human leadership.

So pastors must “steward” a baby church’s resources correctly (the Christianese word stewardship just means wise and Jesus-flavored administration/spending of resources). At the same time, Jesus must also sprinkle his fairy dust over the endeavor. If these two things happen, a church inevitably grows.

Thus, if a church fails, then one of those two things didn’t happen. Either the pastor didn’t steward correctly, or Jesus didn’t sprinkle his fairy dust.

Sidebar: Are Christians Sure They Wanna Go There?

I’ve seen this exact formula parroted countless times by both hucksters and pastors. A pastor whose church grows quickly soon gets regarded as a rockstar by his denomination. One whose church doesn’t grow feels humiliated and scorned.

Heck, most Christians (mistakenly) believe that their religion exploded in growth very soon after its invention because of how amazingly Jesus-y it was. They likewise (mistakenly) think that there’s no way at all that it could have grown like that if it hadn’t been divinely blessed.

So yes, Christians quickly and easily identify a declining Christian group of any size as one that has failed somehow to Jesus correctly.

And they’re completely wrong.

Obviously, an idea’s popularity does not in any way indicate how factually-correct it is. Unpopular ideas can be true or false, and so can popular ones.

(Just look at how common it was to misspell “voila” as “wala” back in the 2010s! I had to train my sister out of that! Everyone and their dog was doing it for a while there.)

But mention to Christians other religions that grew quickly, or wonder aloud if maybe Christianity is failing precisely because it’s not animated and inhabited by a real live god, and OOH! They get SO TETCHY!

The Winning Motivation, Laid Bare.

Unfortunately for Josh and Al, all denominations are in serious decline. Of course, their respective declines will bottom out eventually — but nobody knows exactly when or where the bar will be when the dust settles. We do know that after that settling-out finishes, white Christians will be a minority group — like, way in the minority, not just slightly so like they are now.

And y’all, I just think it’s interesting that a pair of die-hard misogynistic authoritarians see “women preachers” and their very first objection to the idea is “OMG WE CAN’T! We’ll just decline WORSE if we do!”

They’re just so focused on dominance that they’re not even halfway willing to consider change because it’s just the right thing to do. Their main argument against change is their unwillingness to lose more people than their enemy denominations are.

They’ll cling to their fantasy of being on “the winning team” all the way to utter irrelevance. Sure, “the winning team” here is just the team that’s losing very slightly fewer people than the other teams are. And sure, even that marginal victory will almost certainly be achieved because their flavor just so happens to be the most brutally ruthless in enforcing lockstep.

That’s totally okay by them. Their authoritarianism may help them become one of the more powerful post-decline players in the Christian marketplace.

What else matters to authoritarians?

NEXT UP: Yes, refusing to allow women into leadership roles is, indeed, oppressive. Good work, there, Josh! You asked the right question at last, even if you answered it incorrectly! Indeed, oppression is the goddamned point of the doctrine. We’ll say a few more words about that tomorrow — see you then!

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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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