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Every so often, I get a stunning reminder about exactly why evangelicals’ decline won’t end any time soon. This was one of those times. A recent opinion post by a pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dave Miller, lays out what he thinks is “wrong with [them].” He says he’s only trying to get his fellow evangelicals to “face [their] problems.” But he’s doing the dead opposite: he’s feeding his readers what they ache most to hear, and this unhealthy diet will ensure that nothing can possibly change any time soon.

In short, we’re watching a dysfunctional authoritarian system collapse in real time. I’ll walk you through why evangelicals can’t even understand why it’s happening.

First, let’s define the symptoms of decline—or rather, fail to define them

Dave Miller, an SBC pastor, defines the current state of evangelicalism as “overall, things are not good.” Talk about understatement! He then lays out the symptoms of decline as he sees them.

The church is badly divided. Christ prayed that we would be one. Of course, we should not unite with false teachers, but church of Jesus Christ, those faithful to the gospel, is fractured contrary to Christ’s prayer. My dad [. . .] said that he could count on one hand those that were not badly divided.

Dave Miller, “What’s Wrong with Us?”

This is true. But it isn’t new, so it’s not a symptom of evangelicals’ current decline. Christianity has always been “badly divided.” Literally, since the days when the New Testament was getting written, Christians have been arguing with each other about every doctrine and policy position under the sun. And that prayer Miller refers to here, from John 17:20-25, is easily the most hilariously failed prayer in the entire Bible. Miller continues:

A scary percentage of churches have abandoned doing evangelism. Evangelism Explosion used to say that 95% of professed believers never lead another person to faith in Jesus Christ. This isn’t good.

Dave Miller, “What’s Wrong with Us?”

Evangelicals always think that personal evangelism (person-to-person sales pitches made by mostly laypeople) will save evangelicalism. They’ve been saying that since I was a teenager (in the 80s). So that figure isn’t new either. Miller continues:

Churches were devastated by COVID.

Dave Miller, “What’s Wrong with Us?”

He cites declines of about 50% attendance in most churches. This part sounds right to me, at least. Once Christians stop attending church, they frequently discover that they don’t miss it much. But this, too, isn’t a symptom of evangelicals’ current decline—but rather an acceleration of something that’s been happening slowly for decades.

But gosh, Cas, I hear you asking, if evangelicals can’t even successfully define their problem, then how can they possibly fix anything?

Don’t worry! We’ll get there.

False reason for decline #1: “We have discounted Christianity.”

Dave Miller’s first accusation:

We have discounted Christianity, offering one absent of dying to self or denying self.

Why this doesn’t work

Dying to self is prime evangelical Christianese. It means to put yourself last, always, every time. Evangelicals think this is very Jesus-y. They even have an acronym aimed particularly at women: JOY, meaning Jesus first, then Others, and only then You.

The problem is how evangelicals actually sell Christianity. In fact, it’s the only reason that it sells at all. To get people to join, evangelicals sell them a god who loves them and wants to help them and save them from Hell. Worse, evangelicals tell recruits that their product, active membership in their churches, can help them overcome their problems when it really can’t.

See what I mean? Evangelists’ focus is always on what the religion can do for the recruit, not on what their new leaders will expect recruits to do for the religion. This has been the case for many decades, at least since I was evangelical, and likely well before. It’s not a new problem.

There’s not going to be a way to successfully switch the focus to self-denial and sacrifice after the sale’s been made. Doing that won’t get recruits more benefits. They can’t not go to Hell twice. So it’s not surprising that many of them won’t listen to orders that they “die to self.”

(Plus, they might even notice, as I once did, that recruits who actually try to “die to themselves” often become an abuser’s very favorite new victim. Jesus sure doesn’t stop abuse from happening.)

False reason for decline #2: Lost commitment to “the biblical call to holiness”

Dave Miller’s 2nd accusation:

We have lost or abandoned the biblical call to holiness.

The grace of Christ calls us to a life of holiness and there is little difference in the way many Christians live from their lost neighbors. Many have rejected even the concept of holiness.

Why this doesn’t work

Holiness is Christianese for that special, ethereal quality that evangelicals think they radiate. It’s supposed to make them look extremely different from evil ickie heathens. It’s their Jesus aura. Heathens are supposedly very attracted to this quality, though they’re also supposedly repelled by its sheer blinding purity. Basically and in practical terms, heathens are supposed to be able to tell at a glance that someone’s a real-deal true Christian.

Evangelicals don’t sell their product as a vehicle for holiness, however, which turns out to be just ostentatious self-denial amped up to 11 with a dash of More Hardcore Than Thou. Few people are interested in that! Instead, as I said, evangelicals hype up their product as something that adds to recruits’ lives, that helps them, that fixes them, that most especially ensures an easy afterlife.

To add to that, I remember being absolutely shocked to see how worldly evangelicals were in the 2000s (meaning, in Christianese, how much like heathens they looked and acted). But they were already well on their way in the 1980s. I saw that for myself. At the time, I was Pentecostal—so I lived my own tribe’s conceptualization of holiness 24/7. (See also: Pentecostal Holiness Standards and the Pentecostal pouf.)

So in a lot of Christians’ opinions, evangelicals can’t recover their sense of holiness—because they never had it in the first place.

Why evangelicals like goals that are moving targets

Interestingly, Miller also complains about legalism as a risk of pursuing holiness:

I grew up in an evangelicalism that teetered on the brink of legalism. Our mantra was “I don’t drink, smoke, cuss, or chew, and I don’t go with girls who do.” The pendulum has certainly swung, with theologies trumpeting grace. Thank God – legalism is spiritual poison. We do not earn our way into the favor of God with rules.

Legalism is Christianese for rules that are more strict than the judging Christian deems necessary. Its opposite, if you’re wondering, is lukewarmness. The penalty for lukewarmness is Jesus (metaphorically, hopefully) spitting you out of his mouth after you die because you’re at the wrong temperature for eating.

But Jesus isn’t wild about legalism, either. But he says Christians still have to follow all of the Bible’s rules.

In evangelicalism, these two poles become a wildly ill-defined and moving target. One evangelicals’ legalism is another’s lukewarmness. And in the hands of dysfunctional authoritarians, moving targets become a very effective way of policing followers. It keeps them off-balance: never sure if they’ve hit the sweet spot, always vulnerable to criticism and censure. Modesty works in similar ways.

So back then, we fundamentalists regarded Southern Baptists and other evangelicals as dangerously worldly and lukewarm. All they were calling holiness was refusing to drink, swear, have unapproved sex, or do drugs. That was only the start of “holiness” as far as we were concerned. We were very worried that their worldliness would cause them to fall into error. And if I had remained Pentecostal, I’d feel entirely vindicated in that belief today.

But really, all those rules do is make Christians look weird and uptight. It doesn’t actually denote a sense of holiness. Evangelicals—and I include Pentecostals here—have never exuded anything like that, and they frequently receive painful and ego-piercing reminders of that fact.

What I’m saying is that there’s never really been a difference between evangelicals and the heathens around them. There’s no “holiness” to go back to. Nowadays, that fact is just way more obvious. If anything, evangelicals are way worse people than any heathens ever could be. It’s like they look at their rules and decide that breaking every one of ’em is their goal every day.

However, it benefits evangelical leaders to paint a rosy picture of some imaginary former age wherein everyone could tell at a glance who was in—and more importantly, who was out—of the Cool Kids’ Club.

False reason for decline #3: “Quench[ing] the Holy Spirit”

Dave Miller’s 3rd accusation:

We have quenched the Holy Spirit.

A (perhaps the) great need of our convention is a healthy pneumatology and a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit. We need to be “Baptist in the Holy Spirit.”

Ohhh, boy. This was another huge difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists. Fundamentalists believe that being “baptized in the Holy Spirit” (yes, Miller’s making a pun up there with the SBC’s name) prompts the baptize-ee to start speaking in tongues. To fundamentalists, speaking in tongues indicates a successful possession by Jesus. The Gifts of the Spirit include a lot more than that, of course: words of prophecy, magic healing, and the whole nine yards. But accessing them requires possession first.

When I was Pentecostal, Southern Baptist guys used to try very hard to make me think that stuff was demonic! They even had tracts about it. They insisted that we fundamentalists should instead express the Spirit the way they did. But to us, they had only an impossibly weak substitute.

Interestingly, the SBC’s official word on speaking in tongues has altered considerably. No more silly tracts, I suppose. These days, they just don’t want it practiced in churches. But they won’t stop people who babble at home in private. About half of their pastors even think it’s real, so maybe they don’t want to alienate more of their own pastors.

As for fruits of the Spirit, I’ve known only a few evangelicals and fundamentalists alike over the years who showed those: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Alas, they were the very rare exceptions to the rule.

Unfortunately, speaking in tongues correlates not at all with showing the fruits of the Spirit.

(If you ever want to annoy the tar out of an evangelical who’s seriously acting out, tell them that you’re a “fruit inspector” and their fruit is rotten.)

False reason for decline #4: “Evangelism substitutes.”

Dave Miller’s 4th accusation:

We practice evangelism substitutes.

Evangelism is unpleasant, unpopular, and confrontational. Paul told us that the gospel is offensive to those who do not believe it. [. . .]

When we remove the offense of the gospel we nullify the power of the gospel.

Churches have replaced the gospel with substitutes. We do “outreaches” or events that make a splash and get people into our churches but often do not proclaim the death and resurrection of Christ or call sinners to repent.

Again, this ain’t new. It’s been like this for decades. As long as evangelical leaders have emphasized confrontational evangelism styles, evangelicals have tried hard to find ways to obey without risking their friends and social capital. In my day, that meant “pizza blasts” and Chick tracts.

Many evangelical leaders are guilty of moving evangelism goalposts to the point where their Christianese jargon is all but meaningless. Instead of a hard-sell fly-or-fry pitch, you get “gospel conversations,” bait-and-switch “hangout sessions,” and “sharing the gospel.” Mealy-mouthed, yes, and yet I understand why, completely.

Just don’t make the mistake of thinking any of this is new. As evangelicals continue to decline in numbers, cultural power, and credibility, their targets will push back increasingly hard on unwanted pitches.

Unwanted sales pitches are disrespectful and a violation of other people’s boundaries. And increasingly, evangelicals know it. The time when they could rely on their cultural power to avoid the fallout of this disrespectful violation is passing quickly. However, evangelical leaders want to pretend it isn’t. Their fervent followers would love to bring those days back as well.

In past years, evangelicals didn’t need to care about that pushback. So nostalgia for those days makes for a pleasant reminder—and an evergreen topic for exhortation.

False reason for decline #5: “We are so earthly minded we are of no heavenly good”

Dave Miller’s 5th accusation:

We are so earthly minded we are of no heavenly good.

Materialism and the love of the things of this world has captured our souls.

He’s riffing off an old saying in Christianity: Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re of no earthly good. It means, basically, not to neglect your real-world duties and responsibilities for religious blahblah.

However, modern evangelicals didn’t somehow become even more materialistic. They’ve always been like they are now: out for #1, and viewing material success as a byproduct of divine favor and approval. This truth has never, ever been any different, at least since the Cold War. As a group, modern evangelicals have always clearly hated doing what Jesus directly told them to do.

(I’ve only known a couple of evangelicals who sold everything they owned to evangelize and Jesus their hearts out. And they were inexperienced young zealots. They all became abuse victims of various cults.)

Evangelical leaders, meanwhile, are famous for living high on the hog while their followers scrimp and save to buy them another car or a personal jet. Their followers want to be like that, not like the young zealots captured by cults.

In fact, the SBC soared to its biggest years on record in the middle of all this materialism. Materialism did not cause their decline. Even if they could somehow convince the flocks to be less materialistic, that won’t reverse their decline. They already know that self-denial doesn’t sell very well. If it did, they’d already be selling that way.

False reason for decline #6: Using all the wrong metrics

Dave Miller’s 6th accusation:

We measure by earthly means, not biblical.

We think bigger is better. We bow to celebrity pastors and accept their word. While we say we believe the Bible, we are often more driven by experts, by human opinions, and by tradition than by God’s word.

Well, yes. It’s easier to go by measurable metrics than look to intangibles like adherence, fervor, and obedience. And if evangelicals suddenly measured that way, they’d only see a decline even sharper than the all-too-tangible one they have now.

For example, Southern Baptists lay a great deal of importance upon their “baptism ratio.” This is the number of baptisms each year per existing members. It’s been in decline for decades now. Years ago, I recognized how easy it would be to game that number by artificially boosting baptisms. And indeed, that’s exactly what happened.

By 2014, an SBC task force lamented that churches are dunking pre-schoolers to keep their baptism numbers healthy. They also re-dunk others after periods of laxity. Often, they even baptize new members from other evangelical churches to signify their membership in their new group.

The pre-schoolers really got my attention though. When I was briefly SBC myself, that was one bridge they swore they’d never cross. They bad-mouthed Catholics for infant baptism, even! But that changed too.

This baptism situation is happening because for many years, Southern Baptists saw their denomination growing by leaps and bounds every single year. All of their metrics supported this conclusion. So when the metrics began to decline, they panicked.

Meanwhile, Southern Baptists themselves, along with almost all evangelicals and fundamentalists, have this idea that a church that’s “blessed” will grow, while one that’s Jesus-ing wrong somehow won’t. It’s been like that for ages, just like their belief that wealthy evangelicals have been blessed by Jesus himself.

While the SBC grew and grew, nobody criticized this belief, either. It’s only now, when their tangible metrics inspire only desperate sadness, that suddenly someone wants to use something else. And that something else just so happens to be impossible to define or gauge in any meaningful way. How strange! (/s)

False reason for decline #6: BAD PASTORS

Dave Miller’s 6th accusation:

We, pastors, are often part of the problem.

Sometimes, pastors are arrogant and operate on their ego, instead of being servants of God and his sheep. [. . .] Sometimes, we become angry and bitter against our sheep and we cannot care for them properly until we forgive.

Interestingly, Miller also alludes to unpleasantness at his own church:

As I have processed what happened at Southern Hills, God has shown me where I made mistakes. I promise you, pastor friend, it is rare for things to go south and it is all their fault. I realized how angry I’d become at some people, how deep my hurt was, how poorly I’d responded to some of that, how I’d failed to forgive, how I’d relied on myself, my lack of spiritual passion – many of these things that contributed to my problems.

Tantalizing! I wonder “what happened.” All I can see online that might qualify for this sort of language is a political tweet he made in 2015. In it, he denounced Donald Trump. Worse (to many Southern Baptists), he took the side of Russell Moore, who was then a major SBC faction leader. Moore’s faction opposes the hardliners in the denomination. In other posts, like “Yeah, It’s Worth It,” Miller alludes to a lot of generic infighting and “so much dysfunction” in the SBC.

If this hinted-at season of squabbling involves Trumpism, I can easily see why Miller failed so drastically at following his own religion’s “holiness” roadmap. Trumpism split the SBC roughly down the middle, producing two tribalistic factions who fought hard to grab control of the denomination. The Old Guard hardliners sought to steer the SBC back to a single-bloody-minded emphasis on recruitment, while Moore’s faction, the Pretend Progressives, pushed for minor reforms seeking to chip away at the SBC’s huge abuse crisis. In the past year or two, the latter faction began winning those fights. It now largely controls the SBC.

(Neither faction appears to have named themselves anything specific. My nomenclature is purely informal.)

How evangelicals fool themselves

For the most part, Miller clearly exempts himself from the category of bad pastors. And for what it’s worth, he’s definitely not one of the worst-of-the-worst, ideologically. He’s a very typical example of the Pretend Progressives.

But he shouldn’t exempt himself. He’s one of the very pastors who is so hung up on tangible metrics like recruitment and growth (as he condemned just above!) that he’s willing to junk the entire Greatest Commandment from Jesus himself. The very organizations he names as making his SBC membership “worth it” to him are the selfsame ones that have, for years, mishandled abuse accusations and assault reports and given SBC leaders free rein to commit whatever indecencies they desire.

In a lot of ways, he seems to value these organizations’ contributions to the SBC’s metrics so highly that he can’t perceive the damage they do. At least, I hope that’s what’s going on. The alternative is that he just considers that damage to be collateral in nature—unavoidable fallout that Southern Baptists simply must accept as the price of growth. He certainly forgives their damage all too easily, though there’s no indication that anything has really changed to prevent future damage.

Truly, the easiest people to fool are ourselves.

However, the SBC grew just fine while those organizations’ leaders committed their darkest misdeeds. Its decline has nothing to do with hypocrisy, not in general at least. Even if Miller could somehow convince evangelical leaders to clean up their act, that won’t bring back their glory days.

Dave Miller’s Conclusion: Everyone just needs to Jesus harder

Our SBC pastor concludes thusly:

Our deepest problems are not out there they are within. Finger-pointing won’t solve things in evangelicalism or in the SBC. There are enemies outside, and we must be wary, but our greatest enemies are our own hearts, our own failings, and we must deal with these or we will continue to fail. The time for finger-pointing is at an end. The time for self-examination and repentance is at hand.

Not gonna happen. People don’t join the SBC so they can examine themselves for errors, blame themselves for their flaws, and admit they were wrong and ask forgiveness of their victims—much less make amends. They sure don’t stick around if anyone tries to force them to do any of that.

The good ship Accountability likely sailed before the SBC even arose as an attempt to keep slavery alive. Yes. The denomination wouldn’t even exist if Southern Baptists were even a bit capable of doing what Miller now wants them to do. Instead, it exists as an entity because Southern Baptists always, without fail, choose to do the opposite of anything compassionate, accountable, or self-denying.

Want proof? Imagine any evangelical leader suggesting that they completely abandon their culture wars. Yes, including the dishonestly-engineered one they started against abortion, which Miller himself supports to the hilt. Imagine that leader suggesting that they only promote politicians who elevate their credibility, instead of poking the “R” button every time they vote just because their power-hungry leaders have convinced them that “D” stands for “Demon-worshiping, blood-Drinking baby-Destroyer.” Imagine a leader throwing out people from their church who get divorced for off-limits reasons, or who are caught hurting children, or who are otherwise known hypocrites. Just imagine anyone instituting a first-strike-you’re-out rule for leaders under them. Or refusing to allow the crony network to close ranks around hypocritical leaders, ever, or join in protecting them from the consequences of their own behavior.

And if their church doesn’t implode under all that righteousness, just watch how long it takes the oh-so-loving ambassadors of the Lord of Love and Prince of Peace to destroy that leader’s entire life.

None of this stuff is even new—not even close

Christians have always insisted that solving all their problems requires them to get back to some mythical, imaginary state of perfect Jesus-ing.

No such state has ever existed.

But this imaginary state of perfect Jesus-ing makes for a very safe excuse. Yes, yes. Of course evangelicals are having all this trouble! They’re not Jesus-ing perfectly anymore! Yes, yes. It’s so obvious, when you think about it. Yes, yes. Jesus harder, and everything will fix itself, as the night the day!

Except it never does, because evangelicals can’t be forced to obey. Maybe at one time they could to some extent, very early on in America’s history before religious leaders lost that power. Not anymore, though.

Alas for Dave Miller, without that power there is no way whatsoever to get the SBC back to anything even close to that obedient state. First, because it hasn’t existed for centuries, and even then only through the use of force. Second, because too many Southern Baptists are invested in keeping things just as dysfunctional as they are now. Third, because even if the SBC ever enacted his suggested reforms, they’d lose almost everyone who’s stuck with them all this time—without ever being assured of getting back those who’ve already left.

The real reason for decline wouldn’t make evangelicals happy, though

In truth, nothing supernatural is behind evangelicals’ decline. Their decline has nothing to do with evangelical leaders’ hypocrisy, nor in their holiness posturing, nor in their choice of expression of gifts of the Spirit. That decline doesn’t even have anything to do with their level of personal evangelism.

Instead, their decline reflects decades of secularization in the United States.

Right now, for huge numbers of people, it is safer than it has ever been to reject and abandon evangelicalism. Thanks to the protection of law, evangelical leaders know they’re sharply limited in what they’re legally allowed to do to those who leave their ranks. And evangelical pew-warmers only have so much “Christian love” they can shower upon apostates and dissenters. Generally speaking, evangelicals nowadays only stomp with both feet on the highest-profile targets.

This safety only increases in depth and scope with each new defection.

Right now, evangelical leaders know they need to commit their degeneracy with one ear listening for eavesdroppers and whistleblowers. In general, abuse victims and scandal witnesses are finding it safer now than it’s ever been to speak out against hypocritical evangelical leaders.

It’ll only get safer.

Without their former powers of coercion, which includes the ability to silence truth-tellers, evangelicals are sunk. And it seems very unlikely that they’ll ever get those powers back. Their groups simply aren’t good enough to make people naturally want to join and stick around, otherwise. They never were. Their cultural power masked the truth, and now that power is fading.

But I reckon that’s a bitter pill to swallow for evangelicals who’ve been raised on the vision of perfect Jesus-ing as a solution for all their problems.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...