Pinky: Gee, Brain, what do you wanna do today?
Brain: The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.
Pinky and the Brain, pretty much every episode.
Pinky and the Brain was an enormously popular American cartoon series that ran in the late 1990s. It concerned a pair of laboratory mice living in a cage who, as you can guess, repeatedly tried–and failed–to take over the world. And I can’t help but think of their best-known catchphrase when I look at the state of modern American Christianity.
Ed Stetzer’s So-Called Life.
In the last week or so (and off and on over the years), we’ve been looking at Christianity’s growing demographic crisis. Their followers are leaving the religion at a record pace that is only accelerating–and once those followers are gone, they don’t tend to return. More and more people are calling themselves “Nones,” meaning that they don’t belong to any religion in particular (they are “none of the above,” so to speak). Only a tiny percentage of them are even interested in finding a religious group to join.
Younger people, in particular, are rejecting Christianity and its leaders’ demands in ever-increasing numbers. And this development is wreaking havoc on those remaining Christians’ efforts to find marital partners.
The Christians you’ll find in churches nowadays tend more and more often to be possessed of various traits that make finding relationships more challenging no matter what group we’re talking about. But the further right you go in the religion, the more of them fall into those demographic groups–and the more they stress the importance of marriage. So the impact of this staggering churn rate is hitting single Christians, especially women, harder than just about anybody else–and may well be driving many Christians to form relationships with people outside the group.
The sadness and resentment bubbling up through the ranks can’t be stated strongly enough. Say what you want about how they may well be causing their own problems (and you’d be saying so with justification, let’s be clear), it’s still very sad to see people wasting the few years that they hope to have in this life. Even knowing what a struggle it is for them to do so, I’m only glad that more and more of them are opting out of the fantasy their leaders are selling in order to get what they need in reality.
In response to this growing catastrophe, Christian leaders have swung into action. Armed with doctrines and talking points that perfectly express their movement’s ideas and motivations, spurred on by their understanding of trends and forecasts of future membership decline, they have constructed an intricate plan of response….
that looks exactly like all the other plans they’ve ever come up with.
Ed Stetzer Explains It All.
One can always count on Ed Stetzer of the Southern Baptist Convention to give us the most surreal, otherworldly response possible to anything relating to his religion. Ed Stetzer is an SBC teacher and leader, an editor for Christianity Today and The Gospel Project, and the author of dozens of books that mostly deal with either recruiting new Christians or retaining existing ones.
He not only hasn’t ever met a fundagelical talking point he doesn’t like, but he actively creates all-new ones all the time to pander to his listeners and blow sunshine up their asses. One of his favorites is the idea of cultural, congregational, and convictional Christians. In this paradigm, Christians are categorized into one of three groups. A “cultural” Christian is one who’s just Christian because they were born into it and their local culture is rooted in it–like someone in the Deep South being Baptist, say–but doesn’t feel very fervent and probably doesn’t attend church very often or follow the rules very closely. A “congregational” Christian is someone who feels a little more fervor and is more connected to their home church but they’re still kinda on the fence. And a “convictional” Christian is a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ who is totally zealous and “living according to their faith.” He thinks that existing Christians divide up equally among these groups (and I’m sure that there’s no resemblance at all here to the Christian myth about the war of the angels).
Guess which group Ed Stetzer thinks he’s part of, and which group he thinks he’s talking to most of the time? And guess which groups he imagines are leaving the religion? Yeah. He thinks that the cultural and congregational Christians are leaving the religion, while the convictional ones (like himself) are drilling down. This flies in the face of what surveys and ex-Christians themselves consistently say, but despite his earnest title for a blog post about the topic a few years ago, facts are not his friend.
We needn’t single him out, of course. It’s not like any of them have ever been good at recognizing reality. Here’s a newsletter that talks about their goal to enroll a million new students in their Sunday School program in 1954–they failed “A Million More in ’54” by about 400,000. (Similar campaigns also fizzled out, including one I can barely remember that wanted SBC members to recruit like six million new members some years ago; as you can guess, it failed on a comically epic scale and has largely vanished even from the memory of the internet.) A paper from 2005 talks about how dismal the situation was for churches in their denomination. And I wrote about their 2013 report here, in a post that traveled pretty far at the time.
“The only real hope for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention is a heaven-sent revival,” that 2005 paper declares, admonishing readers to pray super-lots for magic to fix their problem. Around that same time, another SBC leader was provocatively asking, “Is the Southern Baptist Convention a Frog in the Kettle?” James T. Draper, Jr., then the president of LifeWay Christian Resources (the media and research arm of the SBC), celebrated that the hardline literalist faction of the denomination had won the latest fight for what he called “Scriptural fidelity,” but now he feared that this win would be Pyrrhic at best unless younger ministers–many of whom had fought for more nuance in the denomination’s doctrinal stances–could be persuaded to buy into the old-timers’ views. (You don’t need me to tell you how that squabble ended, right?)
The One Where Ed Stetzer Repeats Himself.
By 2008, Ed Stetzer was trying his best to spin-doctor his denomination’s numbers. He and his pals Thom Rainer (who took over LifeWay in 2006 from Mr. Draper) and Chuck Lawless (dean of an SBC college) all saw that the latest numbers from 2007 indicated that the SBC was in a tailspin, noting elsewhere that the same problems still plagued the denomination: aging ministers, infighting, and lack of focus on proselytization. But by the 2013 paper, absolutely nothing had changed; if anything, the situation had only deteriorated further.
Consistently, their stated solution to the problem of dwindling baptisms has always been to drill down on “evangelistic fervor,” focus more on outreach to children, and stop emphasizing what Christians call “seeker-oriented” programs (that bit of Christianese loosely means to stop being so user-cuddly and friendly that they forget the hellfire and brimstone stuff that fundagelicals tend to think is so important).
So the SBC has been aware of its problems for years, and yet their suggestions for solving those problems hasn’t varied at all. Ed Stetzer writes as if his suggestions are this totally astonishing new direction, but they aren’t. I’ve read a number of his columns from across the years. He’s always said the same exact thing, and that thing is exactly what his denomination has always said:
We’re doing everything right, just not enough of it and not fervently enough. We just need to do more of what we have been doing, except more of it and harder, and at some point Jesus will totally swoop in to do the rest.
The SBC’s been lecturing its leaders and adherents all this time, chiding them for never doing enough, and yet somehow the situation hasn’t changed at all. Ed Stetzer’s been looking down his nose at all those fake Christians in his churches for years, and somehow hasn’t managed to turn any substantial number of them into TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like himself)–though he appears to be happy enough to take their tithes and have them warm his churches’ pews. Worst of all, a number of the people who are leaving appear to have been the very fervent, well-indoctrinated Jesus-lovers that he and his pals think should have been fairly immune to deconversion.
His colleague Al Mohler has already weighed in on the topic of Christian churn, but he hasn’t yet tackled the specific PRRI survey that I’ve seen. He doesn’t need to, though. He’s always come down firmly on the side of doing everything the same except harder and more often. And that’s generally what I’m seeing from other leaders in other denominations. I’ve focused here on Baptists, but that’s really only because they’re the loudest and biggest denomination around. They’re not saying anything different from any other fundagelical group out there, or even anything different from individual Christians. Everyone’s got an opinion! If you check out comments on those links, you’ll see that their commenters, as well, are totally convinced that the problem is that Christians aren’t being fervent and evangelistic enough either–and that any change in either stance or strategy can only result in further losses.
And yet despite their leaders’ frantic efforts to recapture membership and stay the course, despite their most fervent adherents’ finger-wagging and determination to dig in their heels, Christians are deconverting in a tidal wave. The ones who remain are less fervent overall–attending church less often, giving less money, and even disagreeing with major doctrines like literalism.
Increasingly, they’re also opting out of right-wing Christianity’s social platforms and culture wars. But that still leaves a lot of Christians who are drilling down on those platforms and battles.
They’re caught in a vicious cycle.
Ed’s in Trouble. Must be Tuesday.
A vicious cycle (or circle) is what is formed when the results of an action lead to something bad happening, which causes more of the same action to happen, which leads to more of the bad thing happening. One famous vicious cycle can be seen in short-term payday loans: a poor person gets a payday loan to stretch their meager paycheck a few days by taking out a small, super-high-interest loan against their next paycheck, but the cost of getting the loan is so precipitously high that their next paycheck is way too small to live on after the loan is repaid–so they have to get another payday loan immediately after repaying the old one. Very poor people often rely on these loans to get by even when they totally understand how predatory the loans’ terms are. (John Oliver has very famously discussed why these loans are so bad.)
Most of us have also heard the old saying that irrationality can be defined as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. (Yeah, yeah, I know the quote is actually usually given as “insanity.”) When we catch ourselves doing that, we need to stop and ask how we got stuck in that loop–and try to break out of it.
Sometimes we’re operating on erroneous or outdated information, or we don’t want to receive new input. Maybe what we really want is to keep doing what we’re doing, or maybe we’re scared to try something different. Maybe we’re even scared of what’ll happen if we succeed. Sometimes our old programming is so entrenched–and our innermost desires and fears are so powerful–that not even the threat of failure is enough to spark us to change.
One way you can tell that someone really wants to break free of a vicious cycle is that they start taking concrete steps to figure out why they keep failing–and they use that information to make concrete and tangible changes to their thinking and behavior so they can stop repeating the same actions over and over again.
When we want to fix a problem, we try to figure out why it’s happening and what we’re doing that we need to change, and then we make that change. We see if the change worked, and if not, we go back to the well by working out why it didn’t produce the results we expected. Every one of us does this mini-scientific process to some extent in our personal lives, no matter what we believe about the supernatural. But often we have a blind spot about some problems–something that’s stopping us from fully evaluating our own behavior, or that keeps us from fully identifying that a problem exists at all or that we have any role at all in either causing or solving it.
To make matters worse, sometimes people say they want to solve a problem but don’t want a solution as much as they say or think they do. Sometimes they complain mightily that the problem is happening and that they can’t seem to fix it. But they clearly don’t want to solve it enough to be willing to dig into why it’s happening or to learn new behavioral patterns in order to change anything. Sometimes just the complaining itself is what rewards them, or feeling like they’re putting in a ton of effort into solving the problem even if it’s not producing the results they say they want. Or they find a way to rationalize the failures they’re experiencing, or make peace with those failures (both of which we’ll talk about soon).
Right-wing Christians may say they desperately want to reverse the tide of their religion’s hemorrhaging membership and power, but they really don’t–not yet, at least. They only recently began to admit that the problem exists at all; before then, they were rationalizing that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed, or saying that it was just a blip against overall trends. They haven’t yet been able to really engage with why it’s happening. They can’t really acknowledge, either, their own role in causing the problem. So they’re still at that stage where they’re mischaracterizing the situation and blaming the wrong people–and fully expecting magic to fix the problem (see: Pam Stenzel, an abstinence-only preacher who is well aware that the miseducation she provides doesn’t actually lower the rates of teen sex or pregnancy).
And even if they could figure out why their message is being rejected and what they’re doing to contribute to their loss of dominance, I’m not sure they’d be willing to make any changes to what they’re doing. They are literally doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, and they’re damned proud of that fact.
So right-wing Christianity has a slew of policies and practices that are really odious, ignorant, counterproductive, repulsive, and toxic. Those policies are directly and indirectly causing a high level of churn from the ranks of existing members. But the religion’s leaders’ response to that churn is to drill down harder on their policies and make their practices even more constrictive and draconian, which in turn ensures that more and more people will start questioning their supernatural claims and subsequently reject their overreach, which in turn polarizes those remaining even further and makes them drill down even harder…
It’s simply breathtaking, isn’t it?
They haven’t left anything to chance here, have they?
But that’s not the worst part.
No Soup for Ed.
The worst part of it all is knowing that Christian leaders really can’t do anything different at this point. They’ve spent decades convincing their overly-trusting flocks that change is compromise–and compromise is evil. Now that they must either adapt or completely lose relevance as a group, they find themselves in the teeth of a real dilemma.
If they concede that their various teachings simply don’t work in the real world, they’ll outrage their existing believers–many of whom were born under those rules to parents who had already bought into them entirely. But if they don’t make that concession, they’ll continue to bleed believers who realize how ridiculous and toxic those teachings are–and will continue to be rejected by non-believers who can easily see how false their claims are and disastrous their teachings would be to live under.
I can spare them no sympathy.
I know that the crueler dilemma is the one they visit upon their adherents. Either Christians must deny reality and struggle every single day of their lives under rules that don’t make sense and can never work in reality, or they must reject those rules and thereby face a penalty worse than anything non-believers could ever imagine.
Little wonder, in the face of crushing retaliation from both their supernatural leaders and earthly ones, so many of them are still doubling and drilling down on tactics that have repeatedly shown themselves to be worse than useless. The alternative is literally worse than being single forever. As those remaining Christians continue to see more and more of their peers reject these views and go on to live better lives, I hope very much that they find the courage to make the changes they need to make in order to be happy.
It’s pretty sad when a pair of cartoon mice can realize that what they’ve been doing for years just isn’t giving them the results they desire, but that a bunch of decently-educated human beings can’t work that out after so many more years of failure.
The Brain: Pinky, are you pondering.. you know.
Pinky: I think so, Brain, but, uh, something about a duck.
Brain: You’re probably an idiot, Pinky. Tonight’s plan is.. Ah, who cares. Five’ll get you ten it’s a stinker like all the others.
Pinky and the Brain, “The Pinky and the Brain Reunion Special”
I’m not just writing this today to point and laugh: “hurr durr, lookit the dumb Christians.” That’d be the last thing I’d want to waste my time doing, even if I thought Christians were, as a group, dumb, which I don’t.
If you take nothing else from here today, then I hope you’ll take this: Use your finite time on this planet in a way that you won’t regret. Learn from what Christians are going through. If you recognize the signs of a vicious cycle in your own life, try to resolve any blind spots that are preventing your success so you can move forward.
This one life may be our only shot, and I for one want to make it worth the living.