How Christians Are (Not) Coping With the Rise in Churchless Believers

How Christians Are (Not) Coping With the Rise in Churchless Believers April 11, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Recently, I showed you this new Gallup poll bearing yet more bad news for Christians (here’s the original story). In it, we learned that fewer than half of Gallup’s survey respondents said they belonged to a church. Church-belonging Christians now represent a minority in America. And you can guess that Christian leaders — especially from the really authoritarian, reality-challenged flavors — don’t like that poll at all. Today, let me show you some responses to the news, and what I discovered when I went to find out what Christians plan to do about it.

a ruined ex-church in germany
(Christian Prade, CC.) Not a bad use for an ex-church.

(Previous posts about churchless believers: Come Meet the Churchless Believers; What Churchless Believers Tell Us About Christianity’s Decline. Christians themselves often call churchless believers “unchurched,” but this term just means anybody — believer or not — who does not attend a Christian church. Also, just to clarify: Gallup’s poll officially asked about church, mosque, or synagogue membership. It wasn’t specifically aimed at Christians. But those other religions are teeny tiny compared to Christianity: in 2013, Pew said Jews represented 1.8% of America’s population, while Muslims sat at .9% in 2015.)

Why Toxic Christians Are Talking About This Poll.

Toxic Christians tend overwhelmingly to be authoritarian leaders and followers. They really and truly think that they’d run our lives so much better than we ever could. Jesus told them so, so it must be true. Just ask them — they’ll tell you! These are our hardline evangelicals and swivel-eyed Catholics working so tirelessly to destroy Americans’ civil liberties and human rights.

Sorry! It’s orders from the top. YOU see, right? We must subjugate you. It’s for your own good. It’ll work out best for everyone. Jesus said so. Now gimme.

Toxic Christians have always been all about that hashtag-#WINNING mentality. They perceive the whole world as divided into those who win and those who lose. Only losers lose, and they as Christians can’t possibly be losers because Jesus Power animates their entire tribe. Loss thus implies a lack of divine favor, and worse: weakness.

More importantly, weakness leads to lost fights, and lost fights result in subjugation and oppression. After all,  when they themselves smell weakness in their many enemies, they attack. And when they win, they do indeed subjugate and oppress those they’ve defeated. They simply judge their enemies by their own repulsive example.

For a very long time, toxic Christians were indeed #WINNING. They won a lot, and they won grandly.

However, they made the mistake of thinking that winning was their due: the distinguishing mark of their tribe as a whole, something that’d always be like that.

So when they stopped winning, toxic Christians had no idea how to cope with their new normal.

Churchless Believers? Gosh! What Churchless Believers?

When they finally dimly registered that they were indeed in decline, around 2015, toxic Christians landed on simple denial as their favorite coping strategy. (It’s a form of antiprocess, which is a series of mental defenses that helps people avoid unpleasant truths.) If they just ignored news about their decline, or insisted they weren’t in decline at all, that was the very same as not losing in the first place!

And who knew? If they just kept insisting they were winning anyway, maybe Jesus would honor their faith by strong-arming people back into their churches and forcing everyone to express deference toward these toxic leaders, so they could just gloss over that whole painful episode!

(See? Donald Trump’s petulant refusal to accept his campaign loss last year came from somewhere. He’s just as much a product of toxic Christians’ power-of-positive-thinking culture as his fans are.)

Another common way for authoritarians to avoid bad news is by minimizing or negating it somehow. They might try to redefine terms to make the news sound less threatening, or they’ll gatekeep their group’s very identity to prevent any pretendy Scotsmen from wandering in to get some sugar for their porridge.

I see these avoidance strategies in play around this Gallup poll’s results. Now let’s check out two posts that illustrate what I’m saying.

Ignoring Churchless Believers Makes Them Go Away.

The Gospel Coalition (TGC) has a couple of posts up by now about the Gallup poll.

The first one, by Joe Carter, asks in its title: “Why Is Church Membership in America on the Decline?” Carter discusses the Gallup poll, then proceeds not to answer his question at all.

As far as I can figure, he’s just indignant that a nonzero number of Christians don’t feel obligated to attend church (like he presumably does). He considers all this non-church-attendin’ a symptom of their serious lack of Jesus-ification. If these sillies just Jesus-ed the way he Jesus-es, then they’d know how important church totally is!

If you’re wondering if he ever actually offers any compelling reasons for churchless believers to consider changing their ways, let me spoiler his post now: No, he does not. He just shakes his finger at them, flings Bible verses around, and figures he’s done here. Not one bit of his post rises to the level of a single benefit church involvement might actually add to Christians’ lives. Mostly, he’s concerned about the optics of all these churchless believers.

Hilariously, he also drills down hard on churches’ role in enforcing accountability. This strategy will, I guarantee, backfire hard if any actual churchless believers ever read his post.

Overall, Carter offers no solutions to his tribe’s problem. Dude isn’t even vaguely interested in figuring out why more Christians are opting out. Instead, his post exists as a pretext for him to preach about why Christians should should SHOULD attend church (like he presumably does).

His sheer lack of self-awareness morphs his sanctimonious finger-wagging into excellent reading. Dude’s part of the problem his religion is having right now, and he just has no idea.

Gatekeeping Churchless Believers Into Nonexistence.

The second post, by Thomas Kidd, promises to answer a similar question: “Why American Church Membership is Plummeting.” King Him has decided that Gallup’s just a bunch of meaniepies who hate Jesus, so they designed a very poor-quality survey. Thus, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like himself) need not take their silly little poll seriously at all. I guess he missed Gallup’s writeup at the end of their poll article. It offered concrete (if ineffective) advice to churches about drawing churchless believers back into their folds. If anything, Gallup is extremely sympathetic to Christians and Christianity.

He doesn’t seem like he actually believes Gallup’s poll is accurate at all.

At any rate, Kidd’s conclusion is that IF American church membership is plummeting, and this is a point he by no means concedes except for conversational purposes, then obviously it’d be because all those fakey-fake Christians-in-name-only are drifting away. And that is fine by him! He didn’t want them in his nice TRUE CHRISTIAN™ churches anyway. He just hopes these ickie fake Christians don’t let the church doors hit ’em where the good lord split ’em!

Seriously. I’m not exaggerating. Here’s his final parting shot:

If nominal, utilitarian, civil-religious “Christianity” is mostly what’s fading away with the cratering of American church “membership,” then I say good riddance.

It’s absolutely astonishing to see just how hateful and nasty TRUE CHRISTIANS™ get when they get a little room to rev up their cruelty engines!

He has no idea who’s actually leaving TRUE CHRISTIAN™ churches or why, but this self-appointed judge likes the taste of his sour grapes far too much to investigate further.

(See endnotes for something about this guy’s willful ignorance that made me laugh.)

A Strange and Glaring Lack of Strategizing.

When I initially thought about writing about this topic, I figured I’d find no shortage of pastors talking about how to bring churchless believers back into the fold. After all, it’s been almost two weeks since the Gallup poll got published.

To my surprise, I found nothing of the kind. Literally not one pastor or big-name leader or Christian-centric website appears to have given any thought to fixing this huge and glaring problem they’re having.

Call me naive, call me hopelessly sunny and optimistic. Fine. You would not be the first by far to do so. But even knowing toxic Christians like I do, it still surprised me to see that not a single one of ’em is taking this news seriously. Every site I checked either didn’t talk about the ramifications of the poll or else minimized its results or gatekept Christianity’s label or insisted that Jesus-ing harder would totally fix everything anyway. (<— Put a pin in that last bit. We’re coming back to it on Tuesday.)

Not one single-dingle-dongle Christian leader had any tangible proposals at all for increasing church attendance among existing Christians. Not one.

Bad Suggestions or Nonexistent Suggestions: Which is Worse?

And what’s so funny about Christians’ non-response to this newest sign of decline is that the person who wrote up that Gallup poll, Jeffrey M. Jones, offered them a few suggestions.

At the end of his writeup, he suggested that churches focus on giving interesting sermons, developing more church programs for children and teens, offering more community outreach and volunteer opportunities, and hiring “dynamic leaders.”

Sure, none of that stuff will work for many reasons.

But hey! At least he thought about it. That’s more than I’ve seen any church leaders doing.

I reckon that for Christian leaders to meaningfully address the problem of churchless believers, they have to first meaningfully engage with that problem.

And I don’t think they’re anywhere near ready to do that.

Tick, tock.

NEXT UP: LSP! Then, we’ll talk about why Jesus-ing harder absolutely will not fix the problem of churchless believers. See you tomorrow. <3


Endnotes.

Our Get-a-Load-of-THIS-Guy Cam focuses on Thomas Kidd: This was too funny for words. In his post for TGC (relink), Kidd expresses wide-eyed astonishment at the surprisingly high number of “so-called ‘nones'” who nonetheless consider themselves members of a church. He just can’t even fathom what THAT could possibly mean! He writes:

There is also a small but significant number of people who tell pollsters that they do not have a religion, but they are church members. The number of such people is usually about 5-10% of the so-called “nones.” This is a puzzling group, to be sure, but some of them are presumably Christians who would say “I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship with Jesus.”

LOLWUT?

It’s not puzzling at all. Only his smug sense of privilege prevents him from finding out more about that group. In our commentariat alone, we constantly hear and share our stories about non-believers who attend church and why they do so. (I wonder if King Him would even be bothered by the idea of people feeling obligated to attend church despite non-belief?)

His sneering assessment of “so-called ‘nones,'” though, is what made me laugh so hard that I had to start an endnote. Insulting us doesn’t make us disappear and it certainly won’t shut us up — but hypocrisy like this does confirm our likely-already-low opinion of Christians like him. Like his TGC colleague, he is a product of his religion’s decline — and also a contributor to it. 

(Back to the post!)

get-a-load-of-THIS-guy cam
From Wayne’s World.

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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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