Hi and welcome back! Our dear friend Ficino sent along a link recently that made me smile as much as it made me sigh. It reminded me a lot of that recent fire insurance post. See, Mark Wingfield wrote a lovely column for Baptist News Global about how transactional religion has led evangelicals to become transactional in their politics as well. Duh, right? Well, in some ways he understands the problem his tribe faces. In many others, he’s still just as confined by his culture as they are. Today, let’s check out an evangelical who wants his tribe to totally change to be something they’ve never been, to fix one of their worst shortcomings as a group.
(All emphases in quoted material come from original cited sources. I don’t use scare quotes, either, without a heads-up. Churn and retention are business terms that describe the loss or retention of existing customers over the long term. And ‘The Big Problem Here’ is my mocking term for the over-simplification of a serious issue. Christians do that a lot, usually so they can then offer a completely unworkable non-solution to their misdiagnosed problem.)
Everyone, Meet Mark Wingfield.
In April, Baptist News Global (BNG) hired Mark Wingfield to be their executive director and publisher. In their announcement, the site praised his history as a “Baptist journalist,” which is apparently a real thing. He’s been on BNG’s board of directors since 2012. In addition, Wingfield works as the associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas and has written a few books that mostly focus on evangelicals’ beloved culture wars.
In a lot of ways, Wingfield sounds like he’s trying to do better than the average fundagelical old white dude. His church recently decided to embrace LGBT congregants, and they seem serious about it, too, by allowing these congregants to become leaders (including pastors) and get married in their sanctuary. He also wrote a book to clear up his tribe’s general misconceptions about LGBT people and tries to spread the word about trans people being just regular people that deserve full human rights and civil liberties.
Of course, LGBT people can speak for themselves without a white-dude interpreter. I hope his work centers them as much as possible. That said, I also know that evangelicals trust such information more when it’s uttered by an almighty white dude. In this regard, evangelicals remind me of that scene in Galaxy Quest where Gwen functions as the interpreter for the ship’s computer, even though the computer’s voice is perfectly intelligible to everyone and it presumably could communicate with any member of the crew:
So overall, it sounds like Mark Wingfield is making an effort to do better than his peers in leadership. That’s refreshing to see after encountering white-dude-leader after white-dude-leader clamping down harder on the tribe’s culture wars.
Unfortunately, as we’ll see, he’s still hidebound in one very important way.
The Lopsided Transaction.
Mark Wingfield called his December 1 post “How transactional faith led evangelicals to embrace transactional politics.” It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: a post about how the transactional nature of evangelicals’ religion has bled into their politics.
He’s only a few years older than I am, and I remember the same things he’s talking about here:
Rooted in our frontier evangelism mindset, Baptists and other iterations of crusading Christianity came to place so much emphasis on “getting saved” that we acted as though faith is merely a transaction to be completed, like making a deposit at the bank or signing a contract for a house.
In the revivals of my youth — and even into seminary days — I recall hearing earnest preachers urge us to get serious and “do business” with God. In hindsight, I see now how common that business language was; it seemed so natural then that I barely noticed.
Transactional faith says if we do one thing God wants, God will in turn do what we want. Or the opposite: God makes an offer to us, and we must accept the terms of the contract in order to get the heavenly reward. The “just sign here” equivalent becomes the Sinner’s Prayer.
However, I’m not sure I could call this style of salesmanship simply transactional. I mean, it is that, yes: people give Jesus something, and he gives them a reward in turn. That’s the heart of prosperity gospel. But it’s far more like extortion than a simple sales transaction:
Nice soul you got there… It’d be such shame if anything, I dunno, HAPPENED to it, am I right? Yeah. Play nice with Jesus, or he’ll make very sure you suffer for your refusal.
He’s making an offer you can’t refuse.
(Except neither the soul nor the god nor the afterlife even exist. Evangelicals might as well be threatening people with coal in their stocking at Christmas.)
But okay, let’s just say for sake of argument: evangelism is a fear-based transaction. Fine.
The Fire Insurance Tactic That Worked Great For a While.
Mark Wingfield knows that his tribe pushes very hard for transactions to be made with their new customers. He writes:
Of course, as every good salesperson knows, the best way to get someone to buy your product, to sign the contract, to make the transaction, is to make them afraid of the consequences for saying no. [. . .]
For the fundamental faith transaction, the scare tactic has to be hell — and not just the idea of hell, not just a figurative hell, not just a lack of heaven, but actual flames-and-torment-for-eternity hell.
He seems pleased enough to tell us that this approach “has worked pretty well for a couple hundred years.” Yes. A couple hundred years. Pretty well.
In other words, this extortion tactic represents evangelicals’ main sales strategy. It was probably there from the start.
Fear sells, after all. Wingfield tells us he knows this truth in his column.
But fear leads to transactional thinking. That’s a bad thing, to Mark Wingfield.
Oh, I mean, he acknowledges that it gets customers in through the front doors. That part’s just great! But dangit, customer retention is now tanking hard. To Wingfield, this rising churn rate reflects a failure in discipleship.
And evangelicals don’t disciple enough or correctly because they consider their job done after that initial sales transaction. Thus, he wants them to fix that.
Mark Wingfield and His Car Dealership Analogy.
Mark Wingfield thinks that transactional relationships are often distressingly one-sided. Also, the people within them can be incapable of perceiving the long-term ramifications of their daily short-term decisions. A morally-iffy or one-sided decision today can seriously damage a sales relationship for years down the road.
Indeed, that’s what he sees happening with evangelicals’ political decisions.
He compares evangelicals’ relationship with their bought-and-paid-for politicians to that of automobile buyers and their car dealership. A great car dealership, he asserts, sacrifices momentary gains if it means better long-term gains down the road.
That’s how evangelicals should be, he tells us. Yes, they should be like a great car dealership seeking lifetime raving customers, instead of a fly-by-night place trying to nickel-and-dime buyers who’ll never return.
I mean, I agree. Overall. Sorta.
But evangelicals aren’t focused on customer service. Instead, they’re chasing Donald Trump, and they’re doing it specifically, openly, and explicitly because he’s promised to hand them dominion over the entire country if they will only lick his boots shiny enough (and dominion, after all, means never having to care about customer service):
For the first time in 40 years, evangelicals finally got the transaction they wanted. Trump taught them how to turn the tables so the First Amendment itself — even Scripture itself — no longer had to stand in the way of their domination. No wonder they didn’t want him to get fired from the car dealership.
Now, it’s not that he’s completely wrong here, either!
Transactional relationships can certainly be one-sided. Yes, they are indeed a very poor way of maintaining customer loyalty over the long term.
He’s just missing a very, very important point here in his rush to (mis)diagnose The Big Problem Here.
The Grand Solution to The Big Problem Here.
Hold onto your hats. I know this is going to be super shocking:
Mark Wingfield wants the tribe to start Jesus-ing correctly.
After conceding that his tribe’s been this hypocritical and short-term-fixated for literal centuries, Wingfield thinks there’s some way to turn evangelicals around to be the Jesus-y Jesus-ers he just knows they can be.
For example, he thinks he can goose them into caring about discipling, which is a fancy way to say intense, one-on-one indoctrination.
Evangelicals think discipling cuts down on churn. I’m not so sure. Whether it does or doesn’t, evangelicals don’t really like doing actual Jesus work and discipling involves a lot of man-hours from the flocks, so there’s not a real way to adequately test the idea. What I can say is that the various Christian businesses selling discipling packages sure think it works awesomely, when evangelicals can be prodded into doing it.
Notching the Bible Cover.
Also, Wingfield wants evangelicals to start caring about “relationships, not transactions.” In fact, he concludes his post thusly:
In the meantime, the reputation of the Christian church across America has been damaged by this kind of transactional theology. We’ve got a lot of work to do now if we want to restore trust and keep people coming back. We’ve got to work on relationships, not transactions.
Otherwise, it’s going to be hard to make customers for life everlasting.
Quick question: Since when did evangelicals EVER care about relationships?
And why should they now?
I realize Mark Wingfield is trying to be a decent human being and he wants his tribe to go and do likewise. But it feels like he’s pushing for this sea-change of heart because it’s wrecking his tribe’s sales metrics, not because it’s just the right thing to do.
Also, evangelicals haven’t been ever able to do anything like this suggestion, not for literal centuries. Wingfield’s already told us he knows that. But sure, dude, yeah, they’ll just suddenly become totally the opposite of what they’ve been for hundreds of years. Yep. Just like that.
He did it, y’all! He’s saved Jesus-Land!
Misdiagnosing The Big Problem Here.
I’ve said this before, but maybe it bears repeating.
Donald Trump didn’t wreck anything or even really change anything.
Really, all he did was reveal the truth. His pandering and their overwhelming, idolatrous response to it became a stark light revealing the reality of evangelicalism. He showed the whole world just how cruel, nasty, vengeful, entitled, bigoted, and petty evangelicals can be. He took all their restraining bolts off so evangelicals could run free and unfettered like pretty, malevolent robot ponies. And oh, that is exactly what they did. And they still do.
At the same time, evangelical scandals erupt out of the news literally every single day. Evangelical leaders simply lack the cultural clout they used to have that kept these scandals from reaching the headlines. So today, somewhere, a news site is running a fresh story about an evangelical pastor or youth minister or deacon getting caught with their hand in the wrong cookie jar. If we’re lucky, everyone involved in that scandal will be more or less consenting and absolutely of-age. But that’s by no means a sure thing.
Transactional thinking did not cause any of these two situations to become things. It did not cause evangelicals’ declines in membership or credibility, either.
Mark Wingfield rillyrillyrilly wants this to be The Big Problem Here. Then, they could just put an end to their transactional thinking and that’d end their big decline, Hooray Team Jesus!
Why the Customers Keep Leaving.
However, by Mark Wingfield’s own admission, evangelicals have been like this for literal centuries. And they were not in decline for almost all of that period.
They only began losing members and credibility since about 2006, by my estimate. I’m pretty sure they were still totes transactional before that, and they remain so today.
The answer he needs — and cannot perceive — lies within the cruel heart of coercive power.
Evangelicals used to hold a helluva lot of cultural power. People rejected their control-grabs at their own risk. The retaliation dissenters faced at the hands of these TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (and still do, in all too many areas) could be downright grotesque. Thanks to the moral panics evangelical leaders started and stoked, Americans equated patriotism with religious fervor — and conversely, a lack of religious fervor with sedition and treachery and all kinds of awful traits.
But gradually, evangelicals began losing that unearned power. It became safer for people to leave their groups and reject their sales pitches and control-grabs. Americans even began to perceive evangelicals’ attempts to regain dominance as over-the-top and distasteful.
Evangelicals have not changed a bit since 2006, except to become considerably worse in every single direction. However, they can no longer force everyone to comply with their demands. And people don’t tend to want to buy what they’re offering otherwise.
In a nutshell, that’s why evangelicalism, and indeed Christianity as a whole, is now in a well-deserved decline. The product evangelicals offer isn’t worth the resources they demand. They’ve always made up for that lack of natural market demand with sheer blustering dominance. Now they don’t have that dominance to throw around, and their sales lately reflect that breathtaking cultural shift.
Without coercive power, Christianity cannot achieve and maintain dominance.
The Poor Investment.
If Mark Wingfield wants a better car dealership-related metaphor for what’s going on with his tribe lately, I’d humbly offer this one instead:
Evangelicalism reminds me of an exorbitantly-expensive car dealership operated by some of the most abusive, sleazy, dishonest, and nasty salespeople on the planet. Not only that, but their advertising about their cars is completely and demonstrably false: these overpriced cars break down constantly, utterly lack the feature-sets claimed, and randomly emit a gas that harms any passengers riding in them — especially children.
Many years ago, King Conjob, the owner of the dealership, managed to get a bylaw passed in his town forcing all residents to purchase their cars from him. Now that bylaw’s abolished. Other laws allow his former customers to return their cars or abandon them — with no repercussions at all. As well, now they can buy cars from wherever they wish, or go without cars if they prefer.
Even worse, he can no longer stop the local news from reporting on the poor quality of his cars or the harm they’re doing to their riders.
The townsfolks’ response to these legal and cultural changes has overwhelmingly been to avoid the dealership and its cars like the plague they truly are.
The Poor Analysis.
One of King Conjob’s metaphorical salespeople — a nicer one than most — wants to turn the dealership’s fortunes around. They’ve never been any different from what they are right now and neither have their cars, but he just knows they can be one of those really great awesome car dealerships if they just try!
Worriedly, this salesman thinks and thinks and thinks about solutions.
Finally, he arrives at an analysis — along with a strategy:
I’ve got it! The Big Problem Here is that we’re whisking too quickly through our sales processes!
Instead, our dealership needs to train drivers better in how to drive our cars. We need to be more hands-on and involved in our customers’ lives.
Yes. That will totally ensure that people stay our customers for life. That will fix everything. They won’t even notice that our cars are lemons after that, nor think we charge too much, nor ever think our cars are potentially dangerous to them and their kids.
We won’t have to change anything — just add a few fillips to our existing sales process that used to work so well!
Hooray! We saved the dealership!
[metaphor vignette ends with a gaseous explosion]
And the Lack of Introspection.
Y’all, I know I tease evangelicals for their The Big Problem Here mentality, but this went past ridiculous into ludicrous territory even for them.
But this is what evangelicals get for cultivating a tribe that absolutely cannot self-introspect or do any serious work to improve in tangible ways. This is exactly the tribe their Dear Leaders wanted, and exactly the tribe they got.
That said, Mark Wingfield is a much nicer evangelical than the norm.
I hope he does manage to change a few minds — or in Christianese, that he’ll convict a few people.
It’s just that he ain’t gonna be able to do much of that if he can’t accept what his tribe’s problems really are, or face the facts about what they’re really up against in this decline of theirs.
Evangelicals are, by nature, transactional people. That’s how they think and what they prefer most in their interpersonal engagements. If they weren’t like that, they wouldn’t last long in evangelicalism.
To any precious poppets seeking to change that trait, I say good luck — because they will certainly need it.
NEXT UP: Why authoritarians like transactional thinking, and why discipling won’t ever catch on as a result. See you tomorrow! <3
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