Reading Time: 9 minutes (Credit: GPS 56, CC license.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Lately we’ve been talking about some stuff Al Mohler said a while ago about a pair of twin brothers who left their evangelical home church to become ministers in other Christian denominations. Their defection from the tribe really upset Mr. Mohler, who had a variety of opinions to voice on the topic of defection generally. Nothing he said was unusual at all in right-wing Christianity, which is why we’re looking so closely at the ideas involved.

Today we’ll be talking about the increasingly-frantic attempts fundagelicals are making to understand and address the ever-increasing defections of young people from their ranks, and why those attempts are doomed to fail.

(Credit: GPS 56, CC license.)
(Credit: GPS 56, CC license.)

In his podcast, Al Mohler asserted something that might at first blush seem downright startling: that properly-indoctrinated Christians almost never leave the faith, while poorly-indoctrinated ones almost always do. As Baptist News relays it:

Mohler said occasionally a “well-taught” young person will at some point later in life depart from the faith, “but for those who are not well-taught, it’s not just a possibility, it’s a probability. . . I raise this article simply because every single evangelical parent needs to take it as a serious challenge, because every single evangelical church has to understand this story is telling us in one sense what we’re up against.”

He even for good measure says that if his tribe’s parents don’t get their act together and indoctrinate their little hearts out, they will “fail now in the responsibility to raise up the next generation in the faith, to defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” (Don’t get overexcited; these kinds of sky-is-falling proclamations aren’t that uncommon among high-end fundagelical leaders. It doesn’t mean things are really that dire. It often simply means that the speaker wants to light a fire under his listeners’ hind ends.)

But it’s not a startling assertion at all. It fits in perfectly with Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) ideology and is becoming an increasingly-popular explanation about why so many young people are leaving the denomination (and religion as a whole).

Al Mohler is riffing off of a popular Bible verse in his tirade, one that most ex-Christians will be quite familiar with–Proverbs 22:6:

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. (King James Version)

Fundagelicals often see this verse as an exhortation for them to indoctrinate children while they’re very young into their parents’ ideology. The idea is that if adults can properly “train up a child” about something, then that child will become used to ideas and concepts about not just religion but also about all aspects of life, and that child will be very unlikely to reject that indoctrination later.

Unfortunately, there are a number of serious issues with this train of thought.

The Importance of Indoctrination.

The crucial importance of getting to people while they’re really young cannot be overstated. After shaking a finger at parents who are not “greatly concerned about their child’s spiritual maturity,” one pastor opines: “Getting [one’s children] up before school to pray, family devotions and church attendance is vital during these early years.” This urgency can be found in many church writings sprinkled among their impotent threats and bluster.

One of Al Mohler’s tribe-mates at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Philip McKinney II, seems to agree entirely with that urgency while setting up a bullet-pointed checklist of things parents should do to indoctrinate their children. Like his peers, he thought this indoctrination should happen as early as possible. Moreover, Mr. McKinney also makes the point repeatedly that every bit of a child’s education should ideally be preparing that child for their adult life as a Christian (and as Mr. Mohler would doubtless interject here, the correct kind of Christian, since it does that adult no good at all, in his eyes, to become Anglican or Catholic like those brothers did!).

Speaking glowingly of the “Jewish tradition” that his denomination seems to have such a boner for, Mr. McKinney writes: “God gave to [Jewish] parents the primary responsibility of passing on the faith to their children, and this happened largely in the home.” Under his “implications for Christian formation” section, he continues, “We must be intentional about the Christian formation process in children from a very early age,” putting the primary responsibility for “training up a child” on parents.

(Oh, and did you catch that he didn’t like using the word “indoctrination,” instead consistently referring to indoctrination as “the Christian formation process”? He makes it sound like scientists in a lab swirling chemicals in a beaker to form life, but it’s quite clear that what he means is “indoctrination.” I find that sort of dancing-around very dishonest.)

We’ll return to this essay in a moment, but for now, I just want to make the point that this feeling of urgency around indoctrinating kids is not coming out of thin air. The Southern Baptist Convention itself traces this sense of urgency back for decades at least.

The Flip Side of the Indoctrination Coin.

It’s all but a given among fundagelicals by now that if Christians can thoroughly indoctrinate a child well enough, then that child won’t stray from the “light” later in life. And the converse is taken as true as well, as this apologetics site makes clear. A child who isn’t properly indoctrinated is doomed.

Those are the two ideas that Al Mohler is drilling down upon in his podcast about those twins, and they are the ideas that his entire end of the religion is running with.

If proper indoctrination leads to lifelong devotion, then obviously the visible sign of proper indoctrination is lifelong devotion. In other words, any Christian who has been properly indoctrinated in childhood will manifest that indoctrination by remaining Christian for life. And a person who was not correctly indoctrinated will almost certainly leave the religion later in life.

See, that’s how you can tell if someone was indoctrinated correctly: they will currently still be Christian. And that’s how you can tell if someone was not indoctrinated correctly: they will have left the religion. (You’ll notice that this strange definition is also how they can tell who’s a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ or not, though as with childhood indoctrination, their stated definitions and real ones differ quite a bit–as we’ll talk about in a minute.)

These two delusional ideas have been getting more and more deeply-entrenched in fundagelical thought ever since the larger denominations finally realized that why yes, they have a goddamned catastrophe problem with retaining their young people. Ed Stetzer himself, the director of Lifeway Research and therefore another big name in the Southern Baptist Convention, has been on a tear for years making wild speculations about why he thinks his denomination’s young folks are fleeing his churches as fast and as far as their little feet can bear them.

And unsurprisingly, he–like his peers–comes up with answers that mean that his tribe is doing everything correctly, and that the blame must lay elsewhere for this mass defection he’s seeing and so therefore the last thing he needs to worry about is that his ideology and message might be ever so slightly incorrect or in need of any revision whatsoever.

One can all but hear one of these folks finishing yet another op-ed or blog post and going “Whew! Glad we got that all settled out! IT’S ALL THEIR FAULT! Who wants to hit the barbecue buffet down the road?”

The Happy Christian Illusion, Retention Edition.

When Al Mohler and his pals lay out this ideal evangelical life-script here, they’re talking about a particular Christian narrative, one that forms a sort of storyline for people born to parents who belong to his denomination.

In this narrative, a child gets born, and ideally is completely, thoroughly, utterly indoctrinated into Christianity, at which point all that child’s questions about the religion are satisfactorily and factually answered–since of course all questions one might ever have about Christianity are able to be thus answered. The child grows up into a confident, totally secure Christian adult who can weather all those myriad tests of the faith with ease and grace, and who moves through the various fundagelical life-stages at the correct and proper times: marriage, parenthood, and aging, then finally to die in the traces as a saint and “go meet Jesus in Heaven.”

Al Mohler seems to have forgotten about the second narrative about Christian indoctrination: the one about people who convert in from other faiths.

As just one small detail that fundagelical leaders have forgotten, someone who converts to fundagelical Christianity from some other religion/ideology didn’t have the benefit all this careful tutelage that Christian leaders all seem totally convinced is absolutely necessary to have even the vaguest hope of retaining a child once he or she is grown. Indeed, some of the biggest names in my old denomination were men who’d converted to Pentecostalism from Catholicism or even (gasp!) Mormonism.*

The entire narrative they tell about indoctrination totally breaks down when it comes to converts. One might reasonably argue that an ex-Catholic convert (like I was!) wouldn’t have much fundagelical indoctrination in their childhood. But people are expected not to notice that sort of thing. They’re especially not supposed to wonder why a religion that seems to be based solely around “soul-winning” seems to think that only children bred, born, and raised in TRUE CHRISTIAN™ households going gung-ho on their indoctrination efforts have any hope of staying in the religion for a lifetime.

Evaluating the Claim.

If we were to organize fundagelical ideas about indoctrination into an equation, it’d look like this: “Extremely fervent, constant indoctrination efforts in a child’s early life makes a young person more likely to stay Christian later.”

One could also refine the equation a bit: it needs to not only be constant and fervent, but as Al Mohler’d quickly add, it must also be the correct sort of indoctrination. And as Ed Stetzer said, it has to produce in the child “first-hand faith”, whatever that means.

That last bit wasn’t me being snarky; it was me highlighting the exact problem here. Christian leaders don’t tend to be really clear about exactly what they mean or how they can tell that their ideas are true or false. That isn’t a problem just in the SBC, of course. Barna Group famously has a lot of trouble with asking the right questions and using the right definitions of words, preferring to ask questions in a way that will let their tribe think that their message is still perfect and that the problem is in how people aren’t doing something right.

Ed Stetzer, Al Mohler, Barna Group, Lifeway, and lots of other Christians and groups think they have this way of ensuring that parents can raise children who stay Christian for life. They think that if the adults in children’s lives do the right things, that children won’t “depart from it” when they get older. If parents give children “a first-hand faith” when they’re young, then they’ll find Christianity relevant and meaningful all their lives. Indeed, if you look at the comments on Mr. Stetzer’s blog post, you’ll see tons of other people who have their own little theories about what keeps young people in the religion.

None of them really have the faintest idea what they’re talking about, though. Nor are they ready yet to figure out the truth. The comforting delusions they’re repeating among themselves are still too appealing.

But the truth still whispers from its wretched, dusty little corner:

Even after all that “first-hand faith” instilling, even after all that indoctrination, even after all those Bible studies and church services and youth group meetings, even after convincing children that prayer works and that miracles happen, even after writing libraries’ worth of books trying to help young people square reality with their indoctrination, those children are still leaving as soon as they can manage, and there seems to be absolutely nothing that Christian leaders or parents can do to stem that tidal wave.

Worse, most people couldn’t tell the difference between Christians and non-Christians.

How often have ex-Christians been asked if they’re Christian because they seem so happy, peaceful, or put-together? And how often have people been shocked that a particularly degenerate or nasty person was deeply religious? Worse, how often do ex-Christians come from deeply religious homes or were extremely fervent in their youth?

The answer to all of those questions is “way more often than Christians should feel comfortable knowing.” Not only does hardcore indoctrination not produce a lifelong Christian, but it doesn’t even produce a person who could even be reliably identified as a Christian. It makes their efforts to sneak indoctrination into schools all the more mystifying, doesn’t it?**

I’ll give Al Mohler a dollar if he can even consistently point out any child of any religion and say for sure if that kid will be Christian at age 50 or not, just by looking at how that kid was raised. I don’t think he can do it, and I think he knows he can’t either. But that’s not the point. The point isn’t to fix the problem. The point is to protect their ideology from challenges.

Reality hardly even matters in that situation.

So there you have it, the theories Christians have about what produces a lifelong Christian and what produces a defector. Now that we’re on the same page about their devotion to these ideas, we can tackle the question of who they’re blaming for what they perceive as a failure to do all the right things correctly. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this blaming routine of theirs isn’t just something they apply to indoctrination. It’s part of the fundagelical way of life. I want to give it the time it deserves. We’ll meet up this weekend–bring your blamin’ pants! (Those are like “Fighting Trousers” but nowhere near as cool.)

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* That big church I attended at first was started by a man who famously got disillusioned with the Assemblies of God for reasons given variously as “catching ministers boozing it up after-hours at revivals” and “having big problems with the AoG’s major racism problem,” with the implication that a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ denomination would never, ever face those sorts of hypocrisies. Nope, never ever!

** I say this especially after considering the chirpy exhortations one can find online alone telling such authority figures that they have the “privilege and obligation” to “demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit” at work; that writer may realize that it’s illegal to indoctrinate schoolchildren, but her peers aren’t nearly as interested in following the law as she is.

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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,...