Goodness, this god needs a lot of help
How Christians engage, or rather don't engage, with the reality of their god's utter helplessness.
Recently, the official news site of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) wrung their hands over their looming shortage of professional evangelists. Really, they’re running short on pastors, too, as well as pew-warmers. But another of their current concerns involves evangelists. Their solution centers around trying extra-hard to recruit new evangelists. But they phrase their recruiting as helping future evangelists realize they have a calling to enter this profession. Considering what a calling is in Christianese, this story gave me quite a chuckle. Apparently, the god of the entire universe desperately needs his puny human followers to help him out—a lot, and often, and at great personal cost to themselves.
Christianese 101: Callings
Christianese is the jargon that Christians, particularly evangelicals, use among themselves. Often, it makes little to no sense to outsiders to their culture.
A calling is a divinely-sent work order for Christians. To Catholics, a calling usually involves professional ministry (priests, nuns, etc) or marriage. However, to Protestants it can involve the same, plus literally any other job. When I was Pentecostal, I knew people who thought their calling involved joining various secular professions or opening nominally-secular businesses.
For evangelical women, callings often revolve only around marriage and motherhood—or staying single for Jesus.
At all times, only Jesus sends Christians their callings. That’s why they call it that. They envision Jesus calling them to do this-and-such.
Despite the imagery that comes to mind with being called, though, the reality looks very different. In truth, Jesus is quite coy. Apparently, he almost never communicates directly with his followers. Rather than hearing “their master’s voice,” so to speak, Christians go by their feelings—and utilize the same career-finding metrics that everyone else uses (aptitudes, liking for the tasks involved in that profession, yearning for income and status, etc).
More prosaically, an authority figure can also communicate a divine calling to someone of lower status.
As you can imagine, young Christians often feel very frustrated at not being able to discern just what Jesus wants them to do with their lives.
Evangelists differ from missionaries
In a recent Baptist Press article, we learn that the SBC is fretting over its looming shortage of professional evangelists.
Of course, evangelicals can be defined as a group by their insistence that all Christians should evangelize. They call this kind of evangelism personal evangelism. Amateurs perform it, usually on an ad hoc basis. However, many evangelical churches and denominations also sponsor professional evangelists. These evangelists get paid to go around and recruit for sympathetic churches for specific, set periods of time.
Though the two do share similarities, evangelists differ from missionaries in several key ways. Missionaries go to specific areas far from their homes, and they stay there for a while (long-term or short-term). There, they try to persuade locals to join the group of their sponsors. Often, they are there long enough to onboard recruits into their new faith.
By contrast, professional evangelists travel around. At their gigs, they try to persuade people to join whatever local group paid for that visit. They also work with many people at a time. Once their gig ends, they leave those local groups to get new recruits onboarded.
Local groups are supposed to be recruiting on their own anyway with personal evangelism and church-run evangelism events. Professional evangelists help by concentrating specifically on one task—and developing the specific skillset needed to succeed at least sporadically at it.
So, the SBC is sending evangelists to find more evangelists. And to do that, they’re trying to convince young SBC-lings that their divinely-ordered calling is professional evangelism.
How to help a god find evangelists
Alas for the SBC, “at least 15” of their professional evangelists have died in the past 10 years. Sixty-two professional evangelists remain in their official group, but this still represents a crisis to the denomination. The SBC faces an ongoing and deepening decline that they just can’t stop, much less reverse. Losing so many evangelists must make the situation feel even direr.
Of course, evangelicals very much buy into the idea of divine callings. But evangelicals also buy into the idea of having to help people figure out their callings.
Here’s how one of those 62 evangelists describes how they help their god find more evangelists:
The remaining 62 members of Southern Baptist Evangelists actively look for the next generation of evangelists “through personal contact, mentorship, one-on-one relationships and encouragement.”Amy Stockwell for Baptist Press
She went on to blame her tribemates for not listening to their divine callings:
“The worth and work of the evangelist – a unique and specific calling in the body of Christ – is rarely taught, encouraged or presented in our churches, colleges and seminaries as a calling to ministry that has validity, priority or importance,” Stockwell said. “It is vital that we as Southern Baptists decide that God’s priorities in this area should also be our own.”Amy Stockwell for Baptist Press
Maybe you have already guessed why this article caught my attention in such a major way.
The god who needs help, and a lot of it
Obviously, these evangelicals’ god wants new evangelists. That goes without saying. Obviously, he does.
However, he has somehow grievously failed to call enough people on his own. Or, the people thus called are too oblivious to his voice. Or, they just don’t care enough about his big ineffable plan for humanity to do as they’re told.
So, these 62 professional evangelists must help their god. They must “actively” seek more people to fill out their ranks. And then, they must persuade those people to join up despite the stated difficulties and hardships of such a career.
We see similar thinking behind Christians’ political polarization. They know their god won’t just appoint the President he wants without enough votes from themselves. Nor will he simply eliminate elective abortions from the world without their help to criminalize, stigmatize, and punish everyone involved.
Aw, it’s so sweet of Christians to help out their omniscient, omnipresent, all-powerful god like that!
What does a god need with
a starship evangelism recruiters?
The trope namer of the day comes from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. In this movie, the crew of the Enterprise encounters what they believe to be an analog of the Christian god, which the movie calls “the creator.” Eventually, this supposed god appears to the crew to demand they bring their ship closer to his location. He wants to use this ship to travel around the universe.
Then, Captain Kirk asks: “What does a god need with a starship?”
It’s a damned fine question. A real live god should not need a starship at all. But, this one does.
This one also doesn’t automatically know who his visitors are. And he does not appreciate being confronted by the reality of his existence as a non-god.
The reason this scene grabs me so hard is that it reminds me of my own past in Christianity, as well as what I see in Christianity today. It really illustrates the stark divide between Christians’ beliefs about their supposed god’s nature and their actual engagement with what they think is their god.
On the one hand, they insist that he is the god who created quarks and quasars, who orders every atom and molecule in the galaxy, and who sometimes meddles in the laws of physics and causality for the benefit of his beloved followers.
But on the other hand, Christians demonstrate by their actions that they know perfectly well their god couldn’t manage to arrange a visit to the potty without them helping him every step of the way.
Why a god needs so much help, according to his followers, sort of
Smart Christians construct a faith for themselves that cannot actually be tested in any objective way, much less found deeply contradictory to their claims. Less-smart Christians get around the problem of their religion not doing anything they claim by compartmentalizing away all the ways that it completely fails to fulfill their claims about it, then arguing about how its failure to live up to those claims is proof that their claims are true.
In this second group, we find a great many Christians. Usually, they ask why their god needs them to do certain things, but then avoid answering that question.
As an example, consider a 2016 post from Lifeway, the publishing and research arm of the SBC. In it, Ronnie Floyd wrote about “Why Evangelism Is Important.” (He means personal evangelism). Interestingly, Floyd thinks personal evangelism accomplishes interesting things like “shar[ing] hope” and “shar[ing] the good news of salvation, forgiveness, and grace.” But ultimately, as his first paragraph indicates, it’s important most of all simply because his god told Christians to do it.
Similarly, the big evangelical site Got Questions gave five reasons for performing personal evangelism. Four imply direct benefits to the personal evangelists themselves. The fifth? Their god wants them to do it.
A far more pressing question from some Calvinists
The Calvinist site Reasonable Theology asks a more pressing question. They believe their god specifically calls some, but not all, people to salvation, and that whoever he calls will absolutely feel compelled to join up. If he has already called those people and they’re 100% definitely going to join the religion anyway, then why would he need anyone to evangelize at those folks? They’re literally destined to join!
Like the rest of our sources, though, they utterly fail to answer their own question in any meaningful way. Cuz the boss said so rings quite hollow, as do the rest of their predestination-all-the-way-down rationalizations. They may complain about compartmentalization as an accepted coping mechanism for their tribe, as they do here:
The trouble with this and other difficult theological questions is that we like to be able to resolve everything and keep things reconciled in our own minds. Our tendency is to reject or minimize one of the two ends of the equation in order to do so.
In reality, things are often more difficult than that. We end up where [Charles] Spurgeon ended up when he said, “If I see in God’s Book two truths which I cannot square with one another, I believe them both,” and that can be a very uncomfortable spot to be.Reasonable Theology, being perfectly reasonable as usual; see also Ligonier’s similar answer
But that really is where Calvinists usually land, and where they must. As hard as they try to make these two points of belief, predestination and the necessity of evangelism, “non-contradictory,” they are still very much contradictory. (Indeed, Calvinists, compared to other sorts of Christians, have a tougher row to hoe regarding contradictory claims about their god’s supposed power and his actual demonstrated capabilities).
A criticism that reveals too much
We constantly see Christians acting like they know their god can’t do anything on his own. For all the let go and let God, Christians always act like they’re well aware that anything that actually happens will do so only with their assistance. In fact, we find a great deal of criticism of let go and let God in evangelical writing for that exact reason:
- Biola University: this philosophy introduces “an implicit passivity” in Christians. “The Apostle Paul would disagree” with let go and let God.
- Got Questions: Christians who go for this idea “adopt a sort of spiritual inertia” that apparently contradicts the rest of the Bible.
- The Gospel Coalition: this “devilish,” “hollow theology” implies that “faith is a force field against trouble.” Worse (to that writer), it implies that Christians “let” their god do anything.
- Grace Church New Jersey: it’s a catchy phrase, but it implies that Christians who really trust their god must stop doing anything and “allow God to do all the work.”
- And counterpoint: A Christian radio show offers five Bible verses they think support let go and let God.
None of these criticisms sound like how my Pentecostal tribe engaged with the concept. We were still all actively doing stuff even though we very much believed in let go and let God. These evangelicals likely act and thought more or less as we did. They just don’t like calling what they’re doing by this phrase. And in their criticisms, they all reveal that they know very well that accomplishing anything for their god means doing all the hands-on work for him.
Despite their criticism, Christians still seem unable to engage with exactly why their god even needs all that work done by his followers.
But why would he need humans’ help?
Back in my day, some of us thought our god allowed us to help him. He was like a mom letting her toddler run the vacuum cleaner sometimes. He knew we liked to feel useful. (And if we did a good job, maybe he’d let us help him again one day)! If we failed, he’d work his will regardless.
For what it’s worth, I don’t see that talk nowadays. Maybe evangelicals figured out how bad it made their god—and their callings—sound to normies.
These days, Christians don’t have much of an answer for why their god needs so much help from them. They may have certain pet explanations for the Problem of Evil, like their appeal to freedom of choice, even if the Biblical god never cared about that. They have similar pet explanations for why the world seems so physically imperfect sometimes, like Creationists’ punt to sinful breakage, even if magic remains the only way “sinfulness” could affect such major (and instant) physical changes in the world’s animals.
But I’ve never heard any explanation that suffices for why an omnimax god needs human help to get his will accomplished on Earth.
If he can magic up a 20-spot on the sidewalk for a broke and struggling Christian, if he can magically heal acne for an evangelical lass’ wedding day, if he can give his followers post-conversion personality makeovers, if he can create spontaneous magical gold fillings for dentally-challenged Christians, and he’s omnimax, then there’s no reason whatsoever he couldn’t cure cancer overnight. Or cause every person in the world to wake up converted tomorrow. Or even remove all evil impulses from all living humans forever.
If he’s not an omnimax god, then yes, it makes sense that his followers must help him a lot. But if he’s supposed to be omnimax, then we are right to ask: what does a god need with
a starship evangelism recruitment help?
NEXT UP: Gee, y’all, Gen Z has such a “hunger for God’s word!” That must be why they’re beating down church doors to join up.