Intentional Ministries: When Congregations Are Pastors' Worst Problem

This pastor's suggestion made me laugh because it's hard to imagine any evangelical church in decline even being capable of putting his suggestions into action.

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Hi and welcome back! Lately, I’ve been thinking about this 2019 column by Ryan Burge. In it, he told evangelicals how their churches can totally ‘reach’ young adults: intentional hospitality to the parents of young children. His suggestion made me laugh because it’s hard to imagine any evangelical church in decline even being capable of putting his suggestions into action. In this way, such churches can resemble other volunteer efforts struggling to survive: its own existing members can become its leaders’ very worst problem when it comes to reversing declines and encouraging growth.

(Markus Spiske.) Credit: Markus Spiske / Unsplash

The Dictators of Online Groups.

Not long ago, I ran across this hilarious bit of Reddit drama. Basically, a volunteer mod at a video-game subreddit very unfairly laid the moderation hammer down on a commenter in their sub. The commenter didn’t appreciate it. Neither did the other commenters in that subreddit (or “sub”). Members there deluged the sub with so many snarky comments and critical memes that the sub had to shut down temporarily to process everything and decide how to react.

I loved the first comment in that Reddit link:

The last person you want volunteering to moderate a community is someone who volunteers to moderate a community.

And this is so, so, so, so incredibly true. It’s like that in a lot of places. I once got really turned off from an online game I loved because of a self-important volunteer moderator who loved flexing power at users’ expense. Since I write really good complaint letters, the game’s owners were appropriately horrified and things changed in Mod-Land after that.

But the victims of tin-pot dictators are not always so lucky. Many groups’ social structures are hopelessly dysfunctional, as we talked about with Willow Creek Community Church. In such groups, abusers can operate without fear and often right out in the open.

The Intentional Power They Seek.

In similar ways, we see abusive administrators and moderators in a number of other venues. This abuse can quickly sour even the largest communities.

In 2017, Ars Technica told us about an interesting study done along those lines (link). Researchers reviewed 100k comments made by Wikipedia editors. They were looking for abusive comments made to attack fellow site members and writers. And they discovered that 9% of all of the attacks in 2015 came from 34 users. Just a tiny number of users caused that huge amount of toxicity!

As well, many of the attacks — 30% of the total — came from registered users who regularly contributed edits to the site. Clearly, established users felt very comfortable making these attacks. Most interestingly, fewer than 20% of the attacks garnered their creators any kind of warning. So the chances were very small that any one abusive person would face any kind of pushback or repercussions for their behavior.

(I couldn’t find any official response from Wikipedia’s owners to this paper. If you know of one, I’d love to see it!)

I’d already heard rumors for years about this exact kind of abusiveness, which is why I never made an account on Wikipedia. Indeed, Wikipedia’s leaders have tracked their site’s flaws (and overall decline) for years — and several other critical sites (like Wikipediocracy) regularly post about serious hypocrisy within Wikipedia.

And this brings us to a truly rich source of abuse: evangelical churches.

(Not) Playing the Biggest Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game Of All.

In 2019, Ryan Burge wrote a guest column for the evangelical, ultra-culture-warrior site Barna Group. This for-profit business conducts research that I view as seriously flawed and sketchy. Then, it sells people interpretations/commentary on those results. Often, that commentary seems designed to stoke dread in evangelical readers — but it also exists to give evangelicals false hope that it’s totally possible to reverse their decline.

The main demographic Barna targets for these products is frantic evangelical pastors flailing around in a panic to address church membership decline. Thus, a lot of Barna Group’s products center around strategies that these pastors can deploy in hopes of reversing that decline.

In this case, Ryan Burge offers advice and insight to pastors regarding the nonstop, ongoing exodus of young adults (typically reckoned as being between 18-30ish years old) from Christian churches. He found that in previous generations, young adults seemed to ramp up their church attendance starting around age 26. That effect grew less dramatic with each generation. But in people born between 1980 and 1984, there really wasn’t an increase — in fact, by age 26 people in that cohort began attending church way less often.

These people Burge tracked are basically Millennials. We’re on Gen Z by now, and they attend even less than Millennials ever did. One researcher, Christel Manning, even flatly declared in 2019: “Generation Z is the least religious generation.”

So obviously, pastors are looking at their aging, shrinking flocks, and they’re terribly worried. Unfortunately for them, they’re turning to businesses like Barna Group to tell them how to reverse those trends.

‘Intentional’ Stuff — Again.

In response to this whole situation with Millennials dropping out of church, Ryan Burge offers that old chestnut of evangelical wisdom, intentionality. We’ve seen that strategy many times before. It’s been an evangelical buzzword for a while!

Intentionality basically means faking sincerity. Yep! Once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made in sales!

Any time you see evangelicals talk about intentional anything, they just mean an extra-strong dollop of that thing. Intentionality is supposed to get normies’ attention. The evangelicals doing it think it’ll finally score them some sales. Instead of accidentally acting all Jesus-y around marks, the salesperson specifically does stuff that will specifically dazzle their marks with their brightly-shining Jesus Aura.

(See also: Intentional evangelism: Yay, another doomed attempt to save Christianity.)

Ultimately, intentional evangelism means conjuring extra-sincerity in hopes of getting something for it from someone who is not otherwise inclined to give it away. Similarly, friendship evangelism involves making specific overtures of friendship toward someone to make a sale. In both cases, if the salesperson doesn’t get what they want, the behavior ends. (Usually, it ends instantly upon rejection, too.)

Boy, nothing sounds more sincere than doing something ostentatious with the express purpose of scoring sales, does it?

How Intentional Ministry Works Here.

In his post, Ryan Burge offers a potential path to reversed decline:

I think one path forward is for churches to become intentional about providing welcoming and engaging spaces for parents of infants and toddlers. [Source]

This intentionality translates into free childcare, support for the mothers of young children, and other such programs. It also translates into a congregation becoming more welcoming toward parents with young children. He says of those parents:

And, if they find a church to be a welcoming space when their children are still toddlers, it stands to reason that they will be more likely to continue their attendance as their children grow older.

I mean, I’d want some evidence supporting this “stands to reason” notion. It doesn’t follow at all, in my opinion. Heck, the American birthrate has been declining for years — making parents a much smaller target market in the first place.

But overall, none of that’s terrible advice. Groups that want to recruit people from any particular target demographic would be well-advised to offer things those people want at prices they’re willing to pay. That’s Sales-n-Recruitment 101 right there.

The problem with this suggestion, of course, is — as it always has been — evangelicals themselves. 

Why Intentional Hospitality Fails So Hard.

If evangelical churches could ever actually address their nonstop child sex-abuse scandals, and if they could ever actually institute effective child safety protocols that we could actually be sure they’d always 100% enforce, and if they were actually willing to try this strategy for enough time to make it matter, then this suggestion could really work. I’m sure that a number of evangelical-friendly parents might find these churches to be oases of compassion and relief.

If evangelicals themselves could be counted upon to be generous, compassionate, and kind toward the parents of young children, however, then Ryan Burge’s advice wouldn’t be necessary. They’d already be doing all of this stuff.

Of the churches that decide to give this tactic a try, chances are very good these programs won’t last long. The volunteers will be deluged with kids they don’t like and parents whose affiliation and loyalty are far from settled.

And being nice to strangers? Oh, forget it.

That congregation’s natural inclinations will kick in sooner or later. And unfortunately, most evangelical churches are cesspits full of terrible people — which makes evangelical churches nonstop ‘jerk factories‘ and drama mills.

Nasty People Don’t Like Being Nice.

The natural inclinations of awful people tend to be awful. And such people can make an innocent visit to a neighborhood church into a horror story those guests will remember for years.

This ‘church visitor horror story’ is particularly relevant to us: it involves a family testing out a new church. The church members were snooty and standoffish — and their Sunday School staff literally “pretended [the daughter] wasn’t there.” Decades later, the tale ends thusly: “Today her and her husband are not involved in any church at all.”

The tone of that ending was just perfect. It implicitly asks who’s even shocked.

In fact, evangelicals are so accustomed to hearing that their behavior drives away potential recruits that it’s often the very first thing they tend to zero in on when they cold-read those who reject them out of hand. Some ‘bad apple’ at church must have hurt you, they guess. And let’s be fair. It’s always a safe guess!

The pastor of this ‘horror story’ church had to be banging his head against his desk when he heard that tale and realized his own church had been responsible.

However, the solutions always involve evangelicals acting in artificial ways they don’t like. Even on that horror story page, the site intones at readers that “it’s not going to be easy” to turn around a snooty, standoffish church. It’ll mean, they declare self-importantly, “offending” that congregation and having “some hard conversations.” Oh yes, it’ll even mean “some difficult work on what should be the basics of human decency.”

Huh! So much for evangelicals being better people than non-Christians!

Reining In Abusive Volunteers, in Reality-Land.

The video-game situation on Reddit (relink) has a good ending. Perhaps the sheer volume of complaints the sub owners received led them to seriously reevaluate things.

Those sub owners ended up issuing a long statement about the incident (link). In it, they announced plans to redirect their moderators toward better practices. These include clearly stating expectations for both users and mods. They also fired the mod who’d abused power in the first place — and reversed all that person’s moderation decisions. And, of course, they apologized profusely to the user who’d been done wrong.

That’s a level of accountability that I appreciate. (And overall, their users seem to appreciate it, too.) And we would never, ever see that kind of response from any evangelical church these days. It just wouldn’t happen. Indeed, it categorically couldn’t.

Evangelicals still don’t like the idea of being salespeople. They despise having to be worth the joining. They bristle at the very idea of having to offer something people want at prices they want to pay.

The last evangelical you should want doing intentional anything in their religion is the person volunteering to do it. To them, such positions usually mean nothing more than power obtained over others.

The Folks Who’d Rather Be Lords in Hell Than Intentional Salespeople in Heaven.

Oh, evangelicals would far rather be ambassadors, even though they profoundly aren’t even that. Or even better, lords of their realm. Ambassadors get to sail right past the laws of their assigned countries and hobnob with lords. Lords, of course, get to set laws for vast numbers of other people.

But salespeople? That sets evangelicals right back on their heels. Evangelicals don’t want to be salespeople. That makes them the supplicants in the seller-customer relationship. That status all but implies constant rejection — and often for reasons they can’t and shouldn’t control.

Unfortunately for Ryan Burge and all the people making similar suggestions at evangelicals, their generally narcissistic, toxic, and authoritarian nature means that even if they ever try to enact these suggestions, they’ll make galactic disasters of it somehow.

In this case, the moment an evangelical church found out that actually, all these childcare and parental-relief programs don’t translate into increased attendance, those programs would end. They were only doing it to drum up attendance, not to be kind to parents.

And so, like all other intentional ministries, this one would get dumped by the wayside the moment it failed to deliver what the salespeople wanted.


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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,...