Christians like to imagine people are 'hungry for the word,' but reality says something entirely different about the matter.
The other day, I was reading various Christian predictions of the future and noticed something. These predictions almost all included one phrase in common: hungry for the Word. The phrase is classic Christianese: it means that non-Christians eagerly devour sales pitches from evangelists and join up as quickly as they can.
If that image seems to run very counter to what actually happens, there’s a reason for that. In the Christ-o-sphere, people have always been hungry for the Word, even if in reality they reject Christian sales pitches now more than ever.
How it started: hungry for the Word
The phrase hungry for the Word may be an invention of John Wesley (1703-1791), a revered theologian. He founded Methodism, traveled around as a preacher, and fought against Calvinist ideas like predestination. A journal he wrote in the mid-1700s contains this phrase:
I rode to Sunderland, and preached in the shell of their house. The people of this town likewise are hungry for the word, and receive it with all gladness.Rev. J. Wesley’s Journal, June 1759, p. 29
By “the word,” he seems to have meant both the Bible and his preaching about the Bible. Evangelicals call both of these “the word of God,” though technically only the first should count. (A church that “preaches the word” is one that teaches doctrines that the judging Christian likes).
This was the phrase’s first appearance in print that I could find. Slowly, though, it picked up steam. By 1799, we see another Christian memoir, this time from a German Calvinist: Johannes Evangelista Gossner (1773-1858). And he wrote of Martin Boos (1762-1825), a Catholic theologian:
The general character of the students in the Gymnasium afforded him [Boos] little satisfaction. With scarcely an exception, they were wild and reckless, and hardened against religious impressions. Yet after labouring among them for some months he was gratified by the desire they manifested to obtain copies of the Scriptures. “The students, both lay and ecclesiastical,” he says, “appear becoming more hungry for the Word of Life, and have already taken forty copies.”The Life of Martin Boos, J.E. Gossner, 1799, pp 174-175
You might notice that “word” got capitalized somewhere between 1759 and 1799. Indeed, Christians might love this phrase, but they’re not entirely sure what to do with that last word in it.
After that slow adoption, we see dozens of references to the phrase between 1800-1850. Between 1850-1900, it exploded in popularity. Though mentions trickled to a near-death between 1950-2000, since 2000 the phrase has soared to even greater popularity.
And how it’s going lately
Here are some in-the-wild quotes to show how Christians use the phrase hungry for the word.
These [Bible] studies were written for serious Bible students who are hungry for the Word of God and chosen by Him to receive nourishment.Guided Bible Studies For Hungry Christians: 001 Foundation, Joanne Holstein and Kathy McFarland, 2004.
The mature Christians are hungry for the Word of God to be preached and taught to them, so they can have the opportunity to present it to others. [. . .] They may not like it. That’s just too bad. This is the very reason why the Lord has given the Church leaders.A Pastor’s Biblical Formula for Preaching the Word of God, Kenneth W. Rucker, 2011.
Speaking of that Rucker fellow, someone by that name and profession turns out to be part of the Oath Keepers and a major QAnon conspiracy spreader.
We can now see why Kind [King? sic? They are in fact talking about King David] David is always hungry for the Word of God. To him that is the best food, nourishing, motivating and empowering.Knowing God’s Word, Sony Eguabor, 2016
As I picture Saint Elizabeth of Hungary hungry for the Word of God; hungry for all that God has in store for her, I cannot help but picture in my mind the song “Take Me In”.And the Word Became Flesh: And Dwelt Among Us, Holly Hoffman Thomas, 2018. The song is by Petra from 1989.
Of course, these examples all tend to describe already-converted Christians. At worst, they belonged to the wrong flavors of the religion or were insufficiently fervent (according to those judging them).
Of late, though, I’m seeing a shift in usage. Now, it also describes people who aren’t really Christian at all.
The heathens that missionaries insist are hungry for the word
From a missionary to the tiny island nation of Vanuatu:
The students here are all extremely hungry for the Word. I have never seen people so hungry for the Word in all my life! It’s like they were starving, and I’m feeding them the first food they have ever eaten.Adventures with Jesus: A Journal of My World Missionary Travels, Cherri Campbell, 2020
Here’s another missionary, this time to an African country:
She was gracious and hungry for the Word of God. She said, “Mumfandise, what can I do to be saved?” I took time to explain to them the Word of God. After a long conversation with the five wives, with hunger and with grace, they one by one asked Jesus to forgive them of their sin.No Turning Back, Stephen Fisher, 2019
Since we are now in the modern age, we also find this phrase online. Here, for example, a Liberian village disavows its “spiritual darkness”:
The villagers’ hunger for the Word spilled out as they eagerly reached for Bibles and asked questions about changing their occultic practices.“A village hungry for the Word,” Christian Aid Ministries, 2021. The post pointedly doesn’t say that these oh-so-hungry villagers ever permanently abandoned said “occultic practices.” In fact, the post ends with requests for prayer to that effect.
Elsewhere, we find a 2016 post on Billy Graham’s site describing Cuba as “hungry for the Word of God.” The post refers to Cubans as “always hungry” for “Biblical literature.” As of 2021, Cuba is 61% Christian. In 2019, Cuba constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion for residents. At that time, its leaders also described Cuba as “secular.”
And in April 2022, we see some missionaries describing those they seek to recruit as “hungry for the Word.” The same language is found here on a 7th Day Adventist site, as well as on a 2020 newsletter and here on a Lifeway blog post. And it all describes the same phenomenon.
John Wesley would have been proud to see it.
Special topics in Christianese: Thom Rainer and his fans like hungry for the word
The all-time winner for phrase adoration might just be Thom Rainer. One constantly sees variations of hungry for the word in his writing, as well as in his comments. Thom Rainer, who previously led publishing and sorta-research house Lifeway for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), takes it as read that evangelicals’ targets are all eager to hear about TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. Interestingly, he and his fanbase clearly think that evangelicals themselves are hungry for the word. Here are just a few examples of what I mean:
- “Secret Church: The Hunger for God’s Word” (2011). Lifeway, which was led at the time by Thom Rainer, helped to sponsor this six-hour-long Bible study and prayer meeting. Attendance figures for it convinced Rainer that evangelicals were totally hungry for the word. Worth noting: that year, according to the SBC’s own Annual Report for 2012, the denomination did see a small uptick in baptisms in 2011. However, they lost over 150k members and opened fewer churches than in the previous year. Church attendance declined slightly as well.
- “David Platt: An Interview About Secret Church” (2011). This is the guy behind the “Secret Church” in the previous item. He’s surprisingly, even shockingly young. When asked about the “massive interest” in his project, he humblebrags that “there’s really nothing special or creative about it,” just that “people are hungry for the Word.” All he’s doing, he insists, is studying “the Word” and then praying “for our persecuted brothers and sisters.” Why, as he puts it, “the Word itself does the work!”
- “Five Reasons Why Churches Are Dying and Declining Faster Today” (2016). This listicle generated a lot of comments. However, Kelly Wiley had a reason to offer that she felt was “the major reason for the decline.” To her, “as in Amos 8:11 there is a famine in the land for the Word of God.” She felt that congregations aren’t as “hungry for the Word of God” as they’d been before, which leads to pastors not having time to “pray and study” for good, exciting sermons. (She shows up here as well to comment something very similar. She’s upset with a previous commenter who favors very short sermons.)
- “Seven Common Reasons Churches Have a Dramatic Decline in Attendance” (2017). Here, Rainer offers another listicle. A commenter, Clark, takes exception to the listicle. In Clark’s opinion, people are “hungry for the Word to be taught and preached,” but not if it’s boring. He thinks Rainer should have included boring sermons.
Gosh, it’s hard to believe that the SBC has been in a decades-long decline that has only worsened in recent years. To hear them talking, one could easily assume that they’re having trouble building enough churches to hold all the Christians aching to learn how to do real-deal TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. The opposite, alas for them, is closer to reality.
The Jesus Aura: They’re just so different!
All of these sources use hungry for the word to play upon Christians’ conceptualization of their faith as magnetically attractive to other. They like to imagine they have a sort of Jesus Aura shining around them. This aura supposedly confuses and astounds heathens, who apparently just don’t know what to make of it. To heathens, these Christians are just so, I dunno, different, we guess, we just don’t understand why.
I get this “so different” wording from a heathen teen character in the evangelical-written 2015 movie God’s Club. He develops a crush on the teen daughter of the protagonist; father and daughter are both fervent to the point of caricature. When pressed for a reason for his crush, that’s basically his reply. The evangelical target audience must have exploded in joy upon hearing it.
Similarly, Christians love to imagine that their religion is amazingly compelling to those encountering it for the first time. They love thinking that their religion is completely unique, that it is the only objectively-real, truth-based religion in the world, and that it, therefore, offers believers something that no other religion possibly can.
In reality, no positive differences exist between Christians and non-Christians. Ronald J. Sider already blew the lid off that myth in his 2005 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. Worse, heathens are as likely to attribute extreme kindness and rules-following to vegetarianism or Buddhism as to Christianity.
Worse still, all those claims of evangelistic success turn out to be little more than wishful thinking. Especially when it comes to cultures that aren’t awash in Christian ideas, it’s next to impossible (which I highly recommend reading) for even long-term missionaries to score any real converts.
So whatever Christians imagine their Jesus Aura is, it sure doesn’t look like that to non-Christians!
Amid years of decline, prophecies emerge to give Christians hope (and shear them of money)
The reason this phrase is on my mind lately is that last week, I listened to a Jim Bakker show. I found the link while researching a post for OnlySky last week, the one about evangelicals dreaming of payback. The Christian at the center of that story, Gene Bailey, turns out to have very deep and tight ties to Jim Bakker. In fact, Bailey worked for Bakker for a while and attended some school Bakker ran for budding evangelists! Nowadays, Bailey pastors somewhere and makes frequent guest appearances on Bakker’s new show.
And on one of those shows in March 2021, “We are on the cusp of a Great Awakening,” Bailey rattled off at the mouth for quite a while about his vision of evangelistic success and shocking persecution in the immediate future. I had it on in the background while I did something useful, and I jotted down notes when something interesting happened.
In this case, at around 20 minutes Bailey declares, with no evidence presented, that people were “so hungry to hear the Word of God.” He didn’t elaborate, however. Nor did he need to do so, with Jim Bakker and their audience.
This topic was already on my mind from a post written even earlier. In that story, an evangelical student group hired another strikingly-young evangelist to deliver a recruitment speech to a bunch of public high school students. The adult guardian of one of the group members declared confidently to ABC News, “The kids want it [forced evangelism in public schools] and they’re ready for change in the right direction,” as if her flavor of Christianity could ever provide that with its broken roadmap. In that same ABCNews story, the evangelist himself asserted that the students in the region “really need the Lord.”
Neither adult used the magic phrase of the day, but the ideas behind it were clearly dancing at the edges of their minds.
As it turned out, we were not, in fact, “on the cusp of a Great Awakening”
Gene Bailey was wrong, however. As “so hungry” as he imagined Americans were “to hear the Word of God,” 2021 doesn’t appear to have reversed Christianity’s decline at all. Evangelicals continue to tank in both sales and churn rate. But it’s not just the SBC that’s declining, nor even evangelicalism itself. It’s Christianity as a whole.
Every year, more and more American Christians opt out of membership with their churches, and those churches simply can’t recruit enough people to fill their empty seats. I’ve seen no reputable sources whatsoever claiming that Christians have any chance of even stabilizing their decline in the next few years, much less reversing it. Instead, I see sources like this one tracking the ever-rising number of unaffiliated Americans and ever-shrinking Christian groups.
Of course, “unaffiliated,” as a label, can include deconverted ex-Christians, yes, but it can also include Christians who have deliberately opted out of church life. Though some practice solo, many of them live according to a more or less secular outlook. I call this group churchless believers, and there are a bunch of ’em. Sometimes, they’re frustrated with the local church scene. At other times, they’re upset with their flavor of religion as a whole. Some of them leave the door open to return to active church membership one day. Many others accept that they have no interest at all in ever returning to that status.
What’s not happening here is any Christian leader having marked success in wooing them back to active status.
As for heathens, we have turned out to be singularly immune, as a general rule, to evangelists’ so-called “good news.”
Thus, 2021 passed without Gene Bailey’s prophesied “Great Awakening.” 2022 is nearly halfway finished, and I see no indications so far of one occurring this year either. Nor am I seeing any persecution of any Christians for just being Christians, as their fantasies and martyrbations go.
Perhaps Bailey’s yet another false prophet. If so, he’s yet another one who will never face any blowback for it from the Christians who are so hungry for the word that they consider themselves bound by its commands.