Is anybody ever surprised to see a Christian leader mischaracterizing his tribal enemies? I’m sure not. Ed Stetzer thought it’d be awesome to tweet something about a topic he patently does not understand: people leaving evangelicalism. Not only are his assertions flat wrong, but they reveal something about his own shortcomings. Today, we look at yet another Christian who shows us exactly why his religion is struggling like it is. More than that, even, Ed Stetzer gives us a blueprint for his embattled tribe’s response strategy, and with it, perhaps a little hope for the future.
The Making of a Strawman-Maker.
Ed Stetzer used to work for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) directly with LifeWay. LifeWay functions as the SBC’s publishing and research division. There, he wrote blog posts criticizing people for not Jesus-ing hard enough. To his minimal credit, he was one of the few SBC leaders who somewhat-recognized that the religion’s stats were tanking. Unfortunately, “Jesus” never told him exactly why they were tanking or how to fix the problem. In the absence of divine assistance, he did what every Christian does when they need answers about such topics NOW: he made up whatever he wanted.
What he came up with invariably aligned perfectly with his tanking denomination’s opinions about how Christians should act out their religious beliefs. Likewise, his non-solutions aligned perfectly with whatever immediate goals his religion had–for example, here, where he wrote a fake “open letter” ostensibly aimed at non-Christians. In reality, he wanted to reach Southern Baptists who weren’t making with the sugar often enough.
Then, just over a year ago, he left that position for a brand-new one made just for him at Wheaton College. That’s one of the biggest names in fundagelical education. Many people speculate that the name of the main character in the first God’s Not Dead movie, Josh Wheaton, refers to the place.
Filling the Day.
I’d be hard-pressed to say exactly what it is that Ed Stetzer does with his days now. He’s got a lot of positions that sound like sinecures and busy-work. It all reminds me very strongly of a temp position I briefly had in between college semesters one summer. There, I watched beautiful, snooty, well-dressed young women pretending to file and re-file the same exact folders all day long. (They had quite a system for doing it in plain view of the employers.)
It paid ridiculously well and the workplace was a stupidly-gorgeous glass work of art situated in Houston’s ritzy Buffalo Bayou business district. And I quit two days later, despite all those perks. I just can’t do that kind of busy work.
I get that same strong whiff of busy work from Stetzer’s move to Wheaton. It’s like the SBC had to do something with him, and this is what they came up with.
Part of me strongly suspects that Stetzer finally annoyed his superiors at the SBC enough to require action. He’s expressed pride on numerous occasions for daring to somewhat-criticize his employers–and hinted darkly that such criticisms are typically taken catastrophically poorly.
But really, your guess is as good as mine. I could totally be wrong. He’s at Wheaton now, and that’s how it is.
Now he has even fewer reasons to second-guess himself!
The Two-Edged Sword.
Social media can look a lot like a two-edged sword, in Christian hands.
On the one side, social media allows Christian leaders to reach a vast audience very quickly in realtime. On the other, it allows them to make utter idiots of themselves very quickly in realtime. In one tweet, a Christian can demonstrate that their religion is completely not based on real truths, and show the whole world that it’s really just a business and 24/7 power play.
Ed Stetzer accidentally found himself on that second edge a few days ago. I doubt he realizes it, though.
Well, I’m feeling helpful today.
Casting Stones At Glass Houses, Again.
On July 14th, Stetzer thought it’d be a grand idea to badmouth the critics of his dying denomination. Again. He wrote:
You will always find people ready give you a platform if you will just move away from your convictions, caricature the evangelical you once were, and speak against evangelicals today.
Normally he either hawks his merchandise, plugs various fundagelical meetings or causes, or retweets glurge (though sometimes he sneaks in a little criticism of the worst-of-the-worst Republican incompetence these days), so this little turd-gem was a bit buried. I only found it because some #Exvangelical friends online began reacting to it.
In a minute here, you’re going to see why he was smart to keep it on the down-low.
Let’s Talk About Platforms.
About three-quarters of the country still identifies, however loosely, with Christianity. That’s one honkin’ huge audience. Granted, thousands of Christians every day are disengaging from the religion or flat-out deconverting, while hundreds of churches close everywhere. The leaders of the SBC know quite well that they literally can’t open enough new churches to offset those closures, much less dunk enough people under any pretenses to offset the people leaving. But we’re still talking about a lot of people who consider themselves Christian.
Even if we go purely by the numbers of fundagelicals, which Ed Stetzer considers the only TRUE CHRISTIANS™, a lot of those still exist. PRRI discovered last year that white evangelical Protestants comprise about 15% of the country. Not all of those will be true-blue fundagelicals, but most of them will. I’m no mathematician (I can’t even spell it without autocorrect, so TYAC), but that sure sounds like 25-35 million adults, if we consider that there are about 246 million adults in America.
When someone leaves fundagelicalism, they often lose absolutely everything. The tribe leaps quickly upon dissent. However esteemed and beloved that questioner is, the tribe often decides on a dime to destroy that person completely in retaliation.
No wonder people who make a living in fundagelical circles seem the worst-entrenched in their errors. They know what awaits dissenters–just as their followers do.
Tell me again about who’s got the biggest platforms to offer: fundagelicals or those who criticize them.
A Quick Christianese Lesson.
A conviction, in fundagelical Christianese, is an opinion. But it’s a Jesus-flavored opinion. Christians think convictions come from Jesus and are shaped by Jesus. They use the word as a verb, too. (I heard it all the time: Sister Cas, why hasn’t Jesus convicted you about having children yet? and the like.)
So a Christian who has committed some huge act of hypocrisy might say that Jesus has convicted me of the sin of pride. That feels better than saying I realized I was a mega-jerk last night.
In his tweet, then, Ed Stetzer is saying that people who criticize his tribe do so out of greed. In search of validation and rewards, they “move away from [their] convictions.” This is a Christianese dogwhistle about those who’ve left the tribe. Often Christians think that people who leave their group no longer feel bound by morality and are no longer listening to Jesus. Thus, these heretics are, very literally, abandoning the convictions that Christians think come from their god.
If these critics still held true to their convictions, goes the thinking, then they would not be driven by greed. Thus, they would not be criticizing the SBC.
So by criticizing at all, critics advertise how conviction-less they now are. QED.
The only way to win is not to play.
Let’s Talk About Convictions.
This insinuation is especially rich coming from a guy who’s been muttering under his breath for years about the blazing inferno of fundagelical hypocrisy. Whatever you think you know about the SBC’s underbelly, Ed Stetzer is here to tell you that you ain’t seen nothin’.
In the SBC, a man can literally engage in a career of hypocrisy, naked power-mongering, predation upon the vulnerable, and pure driven greed for decades without being stopped. Hell, the SBC’s leaders and adherents alike will give such a person a golden parachute and a multi-million-dollar retirement bungalow. Then they’ll start unseemly fights for months over the terms of his firing. They’ll even write glowing paeans to him in Christianity Today to say “Thank you, Dr. Patterson, for your service.”
And these same hypocrites will use their incredible reach to connect with their huge audiences to slam their tribe’s worst enemies. They do it because they can. Who’s going to stop them?
Ed Stetzer sure won’t. He restricts himself to sniping here and there. He hints about just how corrupt, misguided, and bereft of ethics and compassion the SBC truly is. Then he doles out the same insults and mischaracterizations.
Tell me again about convictions and who has the better moral fiber: those who lick the boots of oppressors and profit from pandering to the gullible, or those who refuse to serve such interests.
Let’s Talk About Caricatures.
If I had a dime for every fundagelical who insists that an ex-Christian’s experiences are obviously made-up, we’d all be partying together somewhere nice right now. Ed Stetzer critics of having “caricature[d] the evangelical you once were” in order to gain fodder to criticize.
This guy tells us with almost every post he writes about how absolutely hypocritical his tribe is. And he thinks that only through strawmanning can someone possibly criticize his tribe.
What exactly could we possibly be writing in “caricature,” anyway? That we sincerely believed? That we did damage to those around us in our zealotry and fear? Or that we only discovered what real love and compassion were after leaving fundagelicalism? Does he think we’re flat-out lying about the terrible things we saw, did, heard, said, inflicted, endured?
I’ve yet to encounter someone who left evangelicalism who said anything that didn’t sound immediately familiar, in form if not always in degree. I can’t remember encountering a single lie or exaggeration in an ex-timony.
That said, I’ve totally lost track of the number of Christians I’ve encountered who lied about anything and everything. In this situation, they constantly mischaracterize their enemies.
This dishonesty is part of their strategy for keeping the flocks terrified of doubt and dissent. It also shuts down engagement by instantly nullifying critics.
Tell me again about who caricatures whom: the Christians who draw such inaccurate pictures of their enemies, or those who have nothing whatsoever to gain (and often much to lose) from speaking up.
Let’s Talk About Criticism.
Christians hate criticism. But I’m not sure which they hate worse: in-house criticism, or criticism coming from outside.
A few scattered voices, most of whom have little to no real influence on the system itself, ring from the wildlands about racism and misogyny. Little of it makes any difference. Some of the bigger leaders offer token criticism of Donald Trump and his cult. (It’s entirely possible that Ed Stetzer’s own opposition to Trump got him shuttled out of LifeWay. Remember how another SBC bigwig, Russell Moore, barely managed to save his job after doing the same thing?)
But most of those Trumpkins are fundagelicals. A great many proudly attend SBC churches and vote exactly the way their tribal leaders demand. His loving worshipers won’t abandon him now. But they will savagely retaliate against anybody they see as challenging any aspect of their idolization.
Even the people who can get away with a little sniping at the tribe can’t actually do anything about the final endgame of the Conservative Resurgence. Even Ed Stetzer himself, while lapping at Paige Patterson’s shoes, can’t even begin to consider any criticisms of his beloved privilege-manufacturing apparatus. Nor can he even begin to understand the links between the flagrant hypocrisy of his tribe and idols and the system they deliberately crafted to enrich themselves.
Just as fundagelicals in general with Donald Trump, he can’t abandon the Conservative Resurgence now. He’s put too much into it, and benefits too much from it, to push it away. He clings no matter how foul it is, and no matter how poorly it reflects upon him as a person.
Tell me again which is more virtuous: clinging to a rotted idol, or speaking against those who do.
Ed Stetzer’s Broken System.
All that said, I don’t think it’s easy being Ed Stetzer right now, or really being any big name in the SBC.
What little numerical data we’ve gotten about last year’s performance so far does not indicate good news for the embattled denomination. The big news was that worship slightly rose across the denomination, though that could be a false positive considering how tanked those figures were already. The total number of churches still affiliating with the SBC rose, but that’s a sign of desperation more than anything else; these churches tend to be very small and many are plants that will fold within a few years. Plus, with membership dropping overall, those churches will be squabbling for fewer and fewer members between them all.
Their baptisms and their baptism rate per existing members declined too. Currently they’re at 1 baptism per 59 members. A few years ago, I remember some pastors freaking out over reaching 1:51, and then it got worse. I’m guessing that most of their remaining baptisms are double-dippers of various kinds and extremely young children, like it’s been for years now.
Worst of all, the SBC continues to get older and older. I haven’t heard of any upticks in them benefiting from posthumous gifts from their adherents, so we can assume that the data from 2013 still holds. Very few of their older members who die will “remember” their churches in their wills. Meanwhile, younger people continue to flee their churches. They almost never return. They know that the SBC has nothing for them.
Every single day that passes, the SBC loses more churches, more people, and more credibility. Absolutely nothing they (are willing to) do appears to be able to reverse this long-term trend.
Ed Stetzer can’t change any of that. So instead, he lashes out.
Ed Stetzer implies that people who want “platforms” lie about their experiences in order to score points against TRUE CHRISTIANS™. I hope I’ve thoroughly dismantled where he is dead wrong about every aspect of his assertion.
But there’s one more meta-aspect to his tweet that bears a brief mention.
If I woke up tomorrow and was willing to lie my butt off, I’d quickly gain a far bigger platform. If I was willing to craft one of those trendy I-was-totally-an-atheist-you-guize testimonies, I could likely land a book deal by the end of that month.
I know of a few TRUE CHRISTIANS™ already on that publicity circuit.
That means there are almost certainly crowds of liars-for-Jesus doing it.
If someone really wants a platform, money, attention, validation, whatever, the path of least resistance in this situation is to go from non-membership in the fundagelical tribe toward full membership in it. They just need to make a story that sounds as close as possible to the tribe’s narratives.
It’s pure lunacy to seek profit by moving from fundagelicalism, so full of easy, gullible, grasping marks already primed to believe nonsense, toward apostasy. All of the people I know who’ve left fundagelicalism work hard to find any kind of audience, post-Christianity. Most fail. Any SBC leader easily blows us all out of the water on that score.
(If you thought to yourself here, Hm, she’s almost describing Ed Stetzer himself here, then good. Dude projects in IMAX.)
Another Christian Huckster.
Hopefully Christians will eventually figure out that their leaders are hucksters, for the most part. They have stuff they need to sell, and the flocks make the best customers ever. Pastors want tithes. Apologists want book sales. Their website owners want clicks and views. Their moviemakers want tickets sold and butts in movie-theater seats.
And Ed Stetzer is no exception to that rule. He’s got a special offer to make to his readers: for the low, low price of USD$297, marked down from $397, they can sign up for his online training course! It’s about how to revitalize their dying churches! He totally promises, as its designer and salesperson, that it works!
The sale ends next week, so interested buyers should probably hurry. They really don’t want to miss solid advice about how to Jesus harder. They definitely won’t want to miss exhortations to maybe be nicer to people so they stop wanting to leave.1
I see no wrong in offering a product–obviously. However, I do see wrong in offering a product that sounds like pure snake oil to desperate Christians. I see a lot wrong with making promises that this will totally help them, when it is glaringly obvious that its creator has no clue in the world why people keep leaving his tribe. He can’t even offer any solid reason in the world for anyone to join it!
All he’s got is We totally Jesus harder than all those other guys! Why is this not working? Ah! We must Jesus harder!
A Sign of the Times.
When the SBC’s unwieldy, lumbering bulk needed firm leadership and sensitive handling of its numerous mistakes, all its flocks had were power-hungry zealots snapping like alligators for ever-shrinking gobbets of power.
Instead of showing the whole wide world the grace, compassion, kindness, wisdom, and humility that his tribe identifies frequently as Christian virtues, Ed Stetzer decided it’d be way more fun to take potshots at the very people blowing the whistle on his tribe’s hypocrisy–and to blatantly lie about them.
I find that lapse telling–and predictable.
I also find it inspiring of hope, too, in a way.
This tweet means that Ed Stetzer still isn’t ready to fix his denomination’s decline. His leaders definitely aren’t, because let’s face it, clearly he ain’t at LifeWay anymore. Since I find the possibility of their problem fixing itself by magic quite remote, that means the decline will continue until we reach a baseline of wingnuttery. Hopefully that baseline will be a low baseline.
Keep pushing, friends. Ed Stetzer himself has accidentally revealed that things are slowly getting better.
NEXT UP: You must be born again, goes the Bible verse. Sometimes, Christians want to be born again–and again–and again! I’ll show you one of the weirder aspects of fundagelical culture, next time. See you soon!
1 He writes some of his advice out here as a teaser to potential customers. #4 suggests that pastors seeking church revitalization maybe shouldn’t just wholesale purge their dwindling membership rolls of all dissenters or gadabouts. He might rail against “cultural Christians,” but even he realizes what would happen if pastors took that opinion too far.
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