Last week I mentioned offhandedly that Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president J.D. Greear has a plan that he thinks will reverse the denomination’s decade-ish-long decline. Well, he had one anyway. Like a lot of other things Christians talk about, this plan is not what it seems.
(BTW, all blockquotes’ emphases come from their original sources. I don’t use scare quotes or add emphases without warning you.)
The Winning Team.
J.D. Greear probably sounded like a dream come true to the upper-ups of the SBC. He’s a firm culture warrior, sure. Even better, though, he’s young, charismatic, and leads a megachurch.
Megachurches are about the only kind of church that’s growing these days. The Christians admiring them tend to ignore the fact that these churches grow because they cannibalize smaller churches. When one comes into the area, it offers potential members a dazzling array of services, amenities, and activities. Their younger-than-average leaders tend to espouse doctrines and a social atmosphere that are, shall we gently say, less demanding (and more accessible) than those of the average fundagelical church.
Small churches simply can’t compete. One by one, their members mysteriously receive “divine” instructions to switch to the megachurch. Since by remarkable coincidence that’s what they wanted to do anyway, they drift away. (As the authors of Divided by Faith told us, you know which option wins every time when a Christian has a choice between the Church of Meaning and Belonging and the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging.)
Over at the megachurch, meanwhile, leaders and members all act like their growth comes from their superior Jesus Auras. Growth and success, to most Christians, indicates divine approval of what they’re doing. So Jesus must extra-approve of their megachurch (just like he’s totes happy with Amway, AdvoCare, and other MLM scams).
HOORAY TEAM JESUS!
An Unsurprising Win.
Back in June, we found J.D. Greear forming up the policy positions he’d take leading up to the election. Both candidates this year offered a focus on drilling-down on the SBC’s version of “the Gospel,” sure. His opponent Ken Hemphill talked about revitalization, by which he meant fortifying SBC member churches. By contrast, J.D. Greear pointed to a battle plan of redoubled recruitment efforts and tons of new clubhouses.
I snarked ’em both. Even so, it’s easy to see why the SBC’s voting members who were “in the room” wanted Greear over Hemphill.
Now ensconced, Greear’s main goal now appears to be turning the SBC itself into an extension of his megachurch, the Summit. Certainly, the voters of the SBC believe that if they can bottle that lightning, the SBC as a whole
might will grow again.
So what was “Pastor J.D.” telling the Summit’s Christians to do, exactly?
Well, back in March, shortly after he threw his hat into the ring for the SBC presidency, he wrote an exhortation on his blog for his church flock.
This blog post represents every single thing wrong with his tribe.
Crank Up Your Cringe Engines.
Greear titles his post “Who’s Your One? Recovering the Primacy of Personal Evangelism.”
He begins it with a shareable quote from a French poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the author of the classic story The Little Prince. Here’s the quote:
If you want to convince men to build ships, don’t pass out shipbuilding manuals. Don’t organize them into labor groups and hand out wood. Teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
So Greear aims, with his blog post, to inspire his flocks to “yearn” to evangelize. Next, he flat-out states The Big Problem Here:
Our problem is not that we haven’t found the right program that enables us to reach the world. Our problem is that we don’t yearn to see lost people saved and God’s glory spread over the earth bad enough to build whatever ships are required to reach people for Christ.
Like a lot of the delusional thinking and self-deception practiced by Christians, his assertion is half right and half pants-on-head nucking futs.
I’ve got every single one of their past 30 or so Annual Reports saved on my hard drive. I’m slowly collating a spreadsheet of stats from them about stuff like Beach Reach and baptism numbers. And the SBC’s emphasis on evangelism stands front and center in all of them.
Like take 1996, since that’s the one I have open right now. 1996 was a damn good year for the SBC: increased baptisms, membership, and church numbers across the board–except for Sunday School enrollment, which dropped a bit. On page 97 of that year’s annual report, we find a huge section about their desire to sell harder to Jewish people. On page 117, we see a motion to amend their “Bold Mission Thrust Denominational Emphasis Plan” to include their firm support of evangelism in rural churches. (It failed because the denomination’s leaders thought they already drilled down hard enough on evangelism.) We find on pages 124-125 increasing budget allocations for evangelism in key areas.
The SBC focuses almost entirely on making sales. They enshrine evangelism into their “Vision” and “Mission Statement.” Their handout “Meet Southern Baptists” features a photo of a baptism right up top, and their first paragraph includes a blurb about their desire to make customers of every person on Earth. Indeed, most of the brochure talks up their desire to recruit new members.
Plus, Southern Baptists are that flavor of Christian we call fundagelical. They present themselves as gung-ho believers in a literal supernatural sky daddy who loves them and grants them miracles on a constant basis. They think he drops everything to come chat with them whenever they think very hard about him, that he hand-picked their spouses before they were even born, and that he has a unique, specific plan for their lives that they can discern and put into motion to glorify him and advance his “kingdom.”
And yet the flocks steadfastly refuse to sell the product more than they do.
How J.D. Greear Decided to Inspire the Flocks to Sell More Often.
Curiously, Greear asserts in his March essay a slight shift in emphasis that is key to both his presidency and his battle plan:
The criteria upon which our churches should measure their success is by how many Christians are actively winning souls and training them to win the multitudes. . . Without this one thing, we fail.
Did you notice that shift? Instead of the traditional metric, how many people join up, he goes the other direction. He wants churches to judge themselves by their sales efforts, not their results. I don’t know about you, but I find that extremely curious.
Of course, he takes that position because he takes for granted that literally the only thing holding back a huge nationwide revival for the SBC is its members’ weird lack of enthusiasm for making sales pitches.
He offers four reasons for why he thinks Southern Baptists aren’t selling their product as often as they used to:
- the SBC faces long-running declines in baptisms and membership
- churches “lack a clear evangelism strategy”
- churches have replaced evangelism with other programs
- current-but-unnamed fundagelical “preaching heroes” don’t stress evangelism enough
#1 reverses cause and effect. The rest are identical and represent effects of the decline, not causes of it.
And His Solutions.
But don’t worry! He’s got a solution list! (And it bothers me that his number of solutions doesn’t match the number of problems.)
- “a spiritual awakening” that leads to the flocks feeling the burn again
- pastors must “model” this urgency (do not miss his hilarious example here)
- churches must “celebrate the right things,” which in this case means their few successful salespeople
- pastors must “create a yearning for evangelism” in the flocks
- Christians must “do whatever it takes to reach the lost,” with a bonus red-handed lie from Paige Patterson
So basically, three of the items in his solution list are identical (#1, #4, #5), one is difficult-to-impossible given pastors’ ever-dwindling resources (#2), and one is doable but bizarre (#3).
I see no way whatsoever for this plan to fail. Nope! None.
A Winning Strategy?
Then he presents what is possibly the creepiest goddamned suggestion I have heard lately out of a Christian. And gang, that’s a tough competition. This might actually beat Preston Sprinkle’s opportunistic, dishonest “coffee dates.” Here it is:
Recently, at The Summit Church, we tried something similar. We asked each member of our congregation to identify one person they could pray for and seek to bring to Christ over the year. The phrase we kept repeating was, “Who’s your one?”
He says that his megachurch did this and identifies it as a wild success:
Because of this intentional push toward evangelism, we ended up baptizing 700 people last year.
But I sure wonder if anybody in the SBC’s top leadership bothered to follow up on this astonishing claim of success, or if they just heard it, believed it, and didn’t worry their pretty little heads about it anymore.
(PS: Didja catch that “intentional” buzzword?)
Wherein Yr. Loyal &Etc. Captain Does What the SBC Didn’t.
Shyeah, right. We know exactly what the SBC’s usual response looks like. So let’s fact-check for a moment.
Greear doesn’t tell us how many people his church baptizes normally in a year. He doesn’t even tell us exactly what year it was. We also don’t know if something else was going on that year that might have had a big impact on recruitment. And he doesn’t tell us if his church is still using this strategy. He just says Summit “tried” this strategy, which implies that this was a past-tense effort and not an ongoing one.
I can tell you that he sure didn’t try this strategy in 2017. Their annual report is up and 2017’s numbers look roughly the same as their 2015 numbers:
Baptisms, 2015: 562
Baptisms, 2017: 542
First-time visitors, 2015: 5097
First-time visitors, 2017: 4322
Average weekend attendance, 2015: 8928 (they also say 10k+ attended their January 6 service and 11k+ attended Easter and Christmas 2015 services)
Average weekend attendance, 2017: 9973 (extended stats not provided)
Incidentally, for a church adding over 500 people a year to its rolls, it’s kinda weird that their average attendance only went up by a net 1000 in those three years (2015, 2016, 2017). We don’t get told how many people drift away or flounce out each year, but that’s normal–churches do NOT happily hand out that kind of info, weirdly enough!
Wait, When Was This Again?
And we know for absolute sure that they weren’t trying this tactic in 2018, because his post was written in March and there is no way this guy had baptized 700 people by then.
(Spoiler: it sounds like they tried it in 2014. I found a video sermon from that year involving the phrase. So by “recently,” Greear means four years ago. Rather tellingly, I couldn’t find any numbers for 2014 for Summit. And FFS, it wasn’t even Greear’s sermon.)
Ultimately, Greear makes 700 people sound like a lot, but it isn’t like a monumental avalanche of success compared to his average. I find his phrasing dishonest, especially because of the total lack of details accompanying the claim. (But who’s shocked to encounter a dishonest fundagelical these days?)
But I’m more curious about something else that is way more pressing.
The Stupendously Successful Tactic They Just Never Tried Again.
If this “Who’s Your One” tactic was that successful, then why didn’t they keep using it? Or if they did, then why are their baptism numbers since 2014 nowhere near that good?
I mean, he hints that they’re still doing it in a story from a Christian site about the SBC’s 2017 Annual Meeting. But I could find no other mentions of it except for that 2014 sermon–and Greear’s gloating blog posts about its success years later.
So J.D. Greear hit upon this stupendously successful landmark strategy that he and his megachurch just decided never to use again?
Yeah, that sounds like a fabbo way to increase those numbers, guys. Yep. Fabbo.
It’s For the Best.
Let me assure you, however: it’s very much for the best that Greear’s church appears to have decided never to use their soopur-sekrit noo-kyou-lurr weppin ever again, because it is amazingly creepy.
I know you’re itching to dive into the whole non-consensual nature of the tactic itself. And I can refuse you (almost) nothing. So let’s do this thing.
This tactic is shockingly, amazingly, horrifyingly creepy and invasive.
From the sound of things, Greear asked his flocks to each think of one person they wanted to “save.” He does not mention anywhere that these human fix-it projects knew that they had just become some fundagelical’s secret obsession. Greear asked his sheep to think very hard at the ceiling about their crush and to “seek to bring [this crush] to Christ.” That sounds like he wanted them to perform all the usual unwanted sales pitching that we all know and loathe. He says it in Christianese, though, which sounds defanged and innocuous.
But to me, what he’s describing sounds more like stalking.
Dear “Pastor J.D.,” I’d Rather Not Be Any Christian’s “Your One,” FYVM.
I’ve been the focus of fundagelicals convinced that “Jesus” had told them to make me their special project. It’s a little scary, especially given how quick fundagelicals are to rush to using threats to force compliance from their victims–and how sullen and passive-aggressive they get when their sales pitches fail.
If Christians could keep their little projects totally to themselves, that’d be one thing. But we know quite well that they have found half-a-dozen ways to wiggle around Matthew 6:6.
And OH MY WOW, that is so not what Greear’s church leaders advocated, anyway. Here’s the transcript of
J.D. Greear’s Jason Gaston’s 2014 sermon, complete with a sheerly awful attempt to create an extended parable metaphor from an unnamed book he’d read six years earlier.
In his extended and awful metaphor, Gaston specifically insults and then discards so-called “lifestyle evangelism.” Oh no, see, he wants active salespeople who will cast their nets. Summit members would not escape the hook through their Jesus Auras. They had to specifically get “fishing.”
But Gaston and Greear don’t ever tell their flocks to obtain the consent of the DIY projects themselves. I think it’d blow Christians’ minds to think they even needed to do so.
That’s why they’ve evolved elaborate–and equally awful–metaphors to give themselves permission to ignore consent altogether. They talk about their evangelism in terms of pushing people away from oncoming buses, of handing passengers parachutes on downward-spiraling crashing airplanes, of diving in to save drowning swimmers, of more besides along the same lines. They share one essential theme:
THERE’S NO TIME AT ALL TO ASK FOR CONSENT FIRST! It’s an emergency!
In Reality-Land, sensible people know to be damned leery of any rationalization that appears to give someone permission to mistreat others and violate their consent. In Christian-Land, though, people welcome these self-serving rationalizations with open arms and cries of unalloyed joy.
I’m quite thankful that clearly this campaign never really took off, and eventually got forgotten. In that way, it’s like pretty much every other evangelism initiative that Christians brag about. But I don’t think they discarded it because of its disturbing non-consensual overtones.
Good News, Everybody!
And gang, what I’m talking about today–the weird (and dishonest-sounding) hype around an evangelism technique that got discarded–represents great news–for us.
It means that the flocks know something their leaders won’t admit. Their shepherds can force-feed them whatever initiatives they like. They can shame their sheep however they wish and obtain their mouth-noises of agreement. Ultimately, however, the flocks will just do what they always do these days, which is whatever they damned well please. I’m nothing but happy with this clear evidence that at least some of ’em value their social capital more than they value compliance with their leaders’ demands.
It also means that the SBC’s leaders still refuse to admit that their product is unsellable and their current sales strategies are one solid fail after another. Maybe they don’t need to. It’s not like their flocks will be able to hold them accountable for bad instructions–and that’s if they wanted to try in the first place.
A campaign slogan pretending to be a sales tactic
For that matter, “Who’s Your One?” is more of a campaign slogan than anything else. J.D. Greear’s entire focus for the first half of 2018 seems like it was bent on gaining the office denied him once already–he admits as much in his Facebook post from January gloating about how his acceptance of nomination generated traffic that “broke” his personal site. In that Facebook update, he also makes sure to mention the supposed success of “Who’s Your One?” — two months before the post we dissected today!
Maybe he wanted it to be a catchphrase or something? But as we’ll see next time, he doesn’t mention it at all in his October 4th post. Maybe its function had been fulfilled.
And that brings us to….
NEXT UP: Now secure in his crown, J.D. Greear offers up some concrete strategies for salesmanship, thus contradicting his earlier denigration of the same in his March post. Let’s see how his suggestions stack up in Part Deux of our topic–next time! See you soon.
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