counting false costs in teen evangelism
Reading Time: 8 minutes False coins: gold foil-wrapped chocolate holiday coins. (Sharon McCutcheon.)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! As we reviewed evangelist Greg Stier’s three totally-surefire teen evangelism strategies, many of us got angry and saddened — because we’d been exactly the teens he’d have considered major successes. For many of us, though, his strategies caused us only immeasurable grief — first and foremost because evangelists lie freely about exactly what the costs are that we should be counting. Today, I’ll be counting the costs of the zealotry that Greg Stier desperately wants to push onto unwitting evangelical teens. 

counting false costs in teen evangelism
(Sharon McCutcheon.) Now imagine evangelists lying to teen recruits, telling them these are legal tender and not tasty holiday candies.

(Previous posts mentioning/about Greg Stier: Greg Stier Counts the CostsMobilizing 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. Emphases in quoted material come from original sources. Unless I specify otherwise, all quotes derive from sources and not scare-quotes.)

Social Capital.

Before we begin, I want to quickly whisk through a sociology concept called social capital.

People in groups operate according to a complicated balance sheet of deposits and withdrawals to their group and its other members. As individual members do stuff within the group, they add to their social capital with the group’s other members. When they need stuff from other group members, they withdraw social capital to get that stuff. At all times, as other group members interact with that person they’re remembering how much that person’s done for the group vs. what that person wants the group to do for them.

Ideally, group members will contribute more social capital to the group than they withdraw from it. These contributions strengthen the group members’ ties to each other and to the group itself. Withdrawing capital can also increase those feelings of closeness — to an extent. If a group member withdraws way more social capital than they ever contribute, then the group may cut ties with that person — or at least sharply limit how much they’re willing to do for that person until they start doing their share again.

Think about that person always bumming money or smokes off the group, but never repaying those favors. Or the person constantly behind on their phone bill, now begging their phone company for an extension and late-fee forgiveness for the umpteenth time this yearOr the parent in the parents’ group constantly requesting a babysitter, but never sitting themselves. These people have exhausted their social capital with their groups.

It seems to me that very few groups operate with such a savage profit-loss mentality as high school students. It’s like that for a lot of reasons.

So as we bring our focus to Teen Cas in 1986, be thinking about social capital.

My Precarious Situation.

When I was in high school, I ached to fit in and be part of a tightly-knit group — any group. As a military brat, I’d only rarely found such closeness with other kids. Compounding my difficulties, I could only very barely speak People at all — I didn’t understand much about how to make and keep friends, nor how to successfully enter and navigate social groups.

When my family moved to Houston, I enrolled in 10th grade that fall.

I found myself at a very formative stage. More than ever, I wanted that experience of having lots of close friends, of having a large tight-knit social group. I spent half that first school year yearning for these things.

In short, I was one very lonely little cat.

And that made me the perfect prey for whichever teenaged evangelistic hunter spotted me first. Really, I’m amazed it took as long as it did (half of that first year) for one to pounce.

The Safe Bet, for Jennifer.

This hunter turned out to be Jennifer: a popular, pretty, fashionable senior girl who happened to attend the local Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) church. This was a megachurch, though I didn’t know that word then, and its teen youth group was huuuuuuge. Right then, their youth pastor was throwing a pizza blast to boost recruitment numbers. As such, he’d given his youth group tickets to distribute to their friends and schoolmates.

Looking back, it’s glaringly obvious to me that Jennifer did not distribute many of her tickets to actual friends. Indeed, none of them attended the function unless they were already members of the youth group.

She very sensibly didn’t want to destroy her social capital with her actual friends. Asking them to attend a church function with her could create rifts in their friendships, as it does many times for Christians. Even now, evangelicals of all ages agonize over this exact risk, and their Dear Leaders must work overtime to persuade their sheep that it’s not really so risky, and they should take those risks anyway.

So instead, Jennifer zeroed in on relatively unpopular schoolmates who didn’t enjoy close social bonds with her. She and I had little to do with each other. So if I rejected her offer, then it wouldn’t cost her anything dear.

And if I accepted, then hooboy, Jennifer’s social capital would skyrocket with her youth group! They’d consider her quite the teen soulwinner!

Really, Jennifer would have seen this invitation as an absolutely safe bet for her. Whatever came of her invitation to me, she could consider it a solid win.

Teen Cas Counts the Costs.

I accepted that invitation, of course.

To me, the social-capital potential was ginormous. I saw this invitation as a potential first gesture of friendship from a very popular girl, a senior even! I’d made it at last!

At the time, I thought my first professional makeover (a lavish present from my mom over winter break) had succeeded.

In reality, I just looked like a very safe bet.

That night, I heard about Hell as a very real possibility even for a nice Catholic teen like I was then.

I also heard about counting the costs of following Jesus for the first time.

In fact, this concept figured prominently into the youth pastor’s hard-sales sermon. Ostensibly, he wanted to make extra-sure that any potential recruits knew what they were getting into. But looking back, I can see he was already beginning to extend the tendrils of authoritarian control over the newest lambs in his flock of sheep.

I was  scared silly by the threats being made and enticed by the idea of becoming part of a movement that was both incredibly important and potentially risky, and whose members were loving and kind.

In every way, the math added up for me as a teen.

Giving Up What I Never Had Anyway.

To a teen who was already feeling lonely and wanting more out of life, counting the costs turned out to be very easy indeed.

I had no reputation to lose, and very few close friends to alienate (I thought). And as a member of Generation X, I was stuffed full of teen movies like 1984’s Red Dawn that made me yearn for a life of adventure, meaningfulness, and excitement. And that night, I got my first glimpse of a Christianity that was much, much more than anything I’d ever dreamed in my wildest fantasies about religion.

That SBC pastor peddled a vision of an intense, martial, lived-to-the-fingertips Christianity that was just too danged radical for filthy casuals. That vision wouldn’t appeal to many non-authoritarians. But to authoritarians, it is a siren call!

This concept makes authoritarians feel not only super-hardcore compared to all those aforementioned filthy casuals, but it also made them feel very invested in their groups. I could see that these folks seemed really on fire for Jesus, and that they also seemed extremely tightly-knit and close to each other. At the time, I had no idea that these qualities were really just facades they play-acted for the benefit of unwary visitors. I thought they were serious.

So I never really had anything to lose, I thought, but instead I had everything to gain. This deal seemed way too good to be true: a win/win even.

I was using the exact same logic Jennifer had, just coming at it from a different direction.

The Costs I Thought I’d Be Paying vs the Benefits I Thought I’d Receive.

Church leaders like to pretend like they’re laying everything on the line to prospective recruits like Jesus did OMG! But very, very few of those recruits really know what they’re purchasing when they join up.

I sure didn’t.

Here, then, are the costs I thought I’d be paying and the benefits I thought I was purchasing:

  1. Maybe my utter devotion to Jesus might upset my friends and family. That was fine by me. In terms of social capital, I wouldn’t be one of the Cool Kids if I became a Jesus fanatic. However, I didn’t think I had any chance of becoming one anyway.
  2. Maybe I’d miss out on all the fun (“all the SIN!”) my friends were having. This, too, was fine by me. I was terrified of Hell by that point. If having “fun” meant Jesus letting me burn alive forever after I died, it wasn’t worth pursuing at all.
  3. In exchange for these potential losses, I’d be making Jesus really happy with me. More importantly, I would make myself much safer from Hell, all while belonging to a close, supportive group of people who’d love me, nurture me, and encourage me to be my best.

In every way imaginable, evangelicals design this concept of counting the costs to be as lopsided as possible to their biggest potential marks. They offer costs that seem negligible or easily-paid to purchase benefits that are quite literally out of this world.

In reality, though, I had a lot more to lose than I thought I did. And those benefits would turn out to be illusory at best, cruel mockeries of reality at worst.

Heck, it wouldn’t even take long for those losses to start registering, nor for the illusions to start dissolving at the seams.

Starting Small.

Most bad groups don’t hit recruits all at once with everything that’ll be demanded of them. If they laid everything out like that, any sensible person would run away screaming — and they know it!

So their demands begin very small, only growing in number and intensity as the group’s control over that recruit solidifies. Every single well, I mean, okay becomes another tendril wrapped around that recruit. Eventually, the demands get very serious and very big, but by then the recruit’s well in hand.

This is how even very sensible, educated people can come under the total control of truly awful groups. If people aren’t aware of the control techniques authoritarians use, they can easily fall for them.

Instead of giving recruits the truth about their groups, evangelicals present the-truth-as-they-wished-it-was, the ideal that they can never actually reach in reality. It’s not like they’ll be paying those costs, after all, nor that they will miss out on the benefits they promised to their recruits. They already have their rewards, to quote someone-or-other.

Out of the Frying Pan.

After joining up, every time some new demand came to light or the true cost of membership became a bit more clear to me, I felt bewildered and betrayed.

Oh, and as for my hopes of friendship and inclusion with Jennifer’s social circle, she ditched me immediately after that pizza blast. She’d gotten her reward, indeed. And yes, that memory still simmers deep in my heart.

That easy burden and light yoke began looking like anything but that. But by then, the tendrils of control had encased me fully.

Things only got worse when I left the SBC, frustrated with Southern Baptists’ hypocrisy, and joined a Pentecostal denomination some months later. My goodness! If I was upset with hypocrisy, I really jumped out of the frying pan to land in the fire on that score!

But by then, I was convinced that rejecting these demands and not finding TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ would lead to horrifying, eternal consequences. My cost/benefit calculations had gotten completely warped by then, and it’d take me years to untangle fantasy from reality.

NEXT UP: The fantasy Greg Stier sells youth pastors and parents, contrasted with what actually happens to the teens he and his pals indoctrinate successfully. See you tomorrow!

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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,...