When we talked about the 2018 Annual Report of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), I mentioned their blueprint for the coming year. Today, I want to show you more about that blueprint. It’s downright insidious–and it will fail, like everything else the SBC does–and for the same reasons. And I’ll show you why this campaign might matter to us.
“TESTIFY: Go. Stand. Speak.”
Every Annual Report that the SBC produces bears a theme. This theme dictates their direction as a group for the whole following year or two. Once they’ve made their decision, their top leaders all play to that theme.
Their 2015 and 2016 Annual Reports organized along the theme of some kind of new Great Awakening. For 2017, the Annual Report bore the title “PRAY…For Such a Time as This.” (Most of their themes come from Bible verses; in the last one, for example, they helpfully inform us that the phrase comes from Luke 11:1/Esther 4:14.)
If you read the reports (and who wouldn’t want to indulge in such comedy gold?), you’ll quickly notice that all the sermons and exhortations in the reports all fall along those lines. For example, in 2017, we notice on page 85 that Steve Gaines, their then-president, asked his sheep to fast and pray for the 21 days leading up to the Bigotry Jamboree. And much of the proceedings deal with prayer that year, even more than usual.
Well, in 2018 they went with a far more direct theme. This time around, it’s “TESTIFY: Go. Stand. Speak.”
Testifying, in Christianese.
Testifying is Christianese. It means to get out there and sell a particular flavor of Christianity to people. That “go, stand, speak” bit just adds some potent Jesus flavoring to the demand.
This year’s report theme reveals pure, unfiltered panic on the part of the SBC’s leaders. They tried all the nicer stuff, and all it got them was steeper and steeper declines. (Check out p. 167 of the 2018 report. They sold off a big chunk of their real estate last year, y’all, and that’s as real as it gets for religious leaders.)
Now we see those leaders making a direct demand that the flocks get serious about selling their religion. Moreover, by linking the request to a Bible verse, they imply that anybody who doesn’t get out there and SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY will be disappointing Baby Jesus–and maybe even risking Hell through that disobedience.
(It’s just so weird that a religion of love ends up containing so many threats.)
And if those poor wretches hope to escape that message, they will be sorely disappointed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the SBC push a marketing campaign this hard. It is everywhere. I got an inkling of it last year, when Ed Stetzer (who was ending his time with the SBC’s publishing and propaganda arm, LifeWay, around then) published an open letter to non-Christians about why all their TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pals might be inviting them to church with more fervor that Easter.
As we suspected even then and gained confirmation of recently, he had actually aimed the letter more to his tribe of Christians. He’d wanted to give the skittish sheep tacit permission to get out there and sell.
Christian Evangelism Methods.
A lot of different Christian sales techniques exist in the world, but they boil down to a few distinct types, it seems to me.
- Mass Marketing. This is where we find huge copy runs of fliers, goodie bags left at doors, newspaper ads, and tracts hidden in libraries and bathrooms. It’s hugely ineffective, inefficient, and scattershot, but has the advantage of being almost completely non-confrontational.
- Arousing interest. The salesperson floats a variety of intriguing claims but doesn’t directly tie them to a sales pitch. The goal here is to make prospects feel so curious that they approach the salesperson for a sales pitch. It’s usually more personal than mass marketing is, but in evangelism terms, it suffers serious flaws.
- Direct selling. Sometimes this goes by other names–outbound sales, interrupt marketing, cold calls. It all comes down to the salesperson approaching a prospect, commanding their attention, and then launching into a pitch.
And the SBC has clearly decided that the first two techniques simply ain’t producing the results they want.
The problem is, the people who join their ranks and stay there tend to be authoritarian followers.
Bob Altemeyer wrote the definitive guide to authoritarian followers–and it’s free online! There, we learn that such people tend to be extremely submissive to authority figures, aggressive when acting at those leaders’ command, and conventional in their outlook.
But it’s a little more complicated than that.
They submit when the stakes aren’t too high. They show aggression when it’s completely safe to do so and against victims they know can’t fight back. And they revel in conventionality when it favors and benefits themselves.
It’s almost hilarious–almost–that the SBC’s leaders have been busily, dedicatedly honing one of the world’s biggest pearl-clutching bunches of bullies, entitlement-minded hothouse orchids, and passive-aggressive, belligerent cowards for forty years, and now they want genuine sacrifice and fortitude from people that they have specifically groomed to be constitutionally incapable of giving them either. (How many Southern Baptists actually fasted for any part of that 21 days in 2017, including the guy setting the challenge? I’m guessing roughly zero.)
And when those leaders demand that sacrifice and fortitude over something that will, without question, backfire hard on the flocks, the flocks will–I guarantee it–do what they always do in these cases.
They’ll ignore or try to game the demand.
See, as fervent as they might feel, those flocks already know that unwanted sales pitches wreck relationships. The moment a would-be evangelist steps forward with an unwanted direct sales pitch, that person has just told their prospect any number of things that will likely spell the alteration or even the end of the relationship.
- You’re not friends; your relationship is that of a salesperson and their prospect.
- Your desires and clear boundaries don’t matter to the salesperson.
- Once the seal’s broken on a sales attempt, more will follow.
- Anything you say to the salesperson can and will be used against you.
- If the salesperson ever becomes truly convinced that you simply won’t ever purchase their product, they’ll probably vanish from your life forever, so they can spend their time on more fruitful prospects.
And remember two very important things here.
First, SBC leaders don’t care about their followers’ relationships. They might even rejoice that their members’ relationship circles are tightening ever more through the loss of dangerously non-fundagelical friends.
Second, those SBC leaders will not be suffering any of those losses themselves. They run none of the risks. But they gain all of the rewards.
Thus fortified, let’s plunge into the post I saw that inspired this whole topic.
The Shame Game.
Our Dysfunctionality Poster Child for today is Keith Shorter, a Southern Baptist pastor from Easley, South Carolina. His church is a fairly large one in its town of 20,000 people or so. As one would expect, it is a deeply, deeply fundagelical church. Keith Shorter recently served as the president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention (a subset of the SBC), so you know he’s going to be a full-bore culture warrior and a company man. (That said, his church, like many others, minimizes its SBC affiliation.)
Well, Keith Shorter took time out of his busy schedule to write a downright distasteful essay for Baptist Press recently. It’s called “The guy I failed to witness to,” and it is one of the most nakedly manipulative pieces of trash I’ve seen come out of a Christian leader since, well, hmm, since last week I guess. Hey, that’s still impressively bad.
Remember, the SBC’s laser focus right now has locked on the idea of pushing the flocks to do more direct selling–to jeopardize their relationships and take some very serious risks for no hope of reward and many expectations of unwanted repercussions. They want the salespeople to always be closing.
Always Be Closing.
When I think about the motivation of salespeople, I always think about this iconic scene from the 1992 movie Glengarry Glen Ross.
Glengarry Glen Ross. (NSFW language.)
The SBC’s leaders must see this scene and weep to imagine Blake as an evangelist.
Keith Shorter is no Alec Baldwin–much less a Blake. But bless his cotton socks, he tries so hard.
His “Most Obvious Failure.” Really. He Says So.
Shorter begins his essay by asking his readers,
Have you ever felt like God wanted you to witness to someone, but you just couldn’t open your mouth?
Then he dives into a time when, apparently, that happened to him. He describes an incident in his seminary-student years in Texas. While at work loading stuff in a warehouse, he got a clear impression that his god totally wanted him to make a sales pitch to a coworker or customer or something. The man was friendly toward him, and even asked him a question that Shorter considers to have been a divine opening for a sales pitch.
When he finally made his way to the loading dock, he looked at me and said, “So, do you have any good news for me today?”
File that under r/ThatHappened if you like. Chances are more than good that the greeting wasn’t nearly so on-the-nose. I lived in Texas probably at the time Shorter attended seminary, and I can tell you that isn’t a common greeting.
Whatever the greeting really sounded like, Shorter froze. He couldn’t actually issue the divinely-required sales pitch. Instead, he made awkward small talk, after which he informs us that he’s absolutely never felt like such a failure in his life.
A (Not-So-) Sweet Summer Child.
Shorter has been beating himself up for what sounds like decades for this one failure to act upon divine command. Personally, I question whether or not this could seriously be considered the very worst thing he’s ever done in his life. I’m betting he’s made loads of mistakes that were way worse–and caused more grief to himself and others–than this unexpected triumph of good manners over indoctrination. Because that’s all it is.
But Shorter didn’t choose this incident at random. He–like most of the SBC’s leaders–knows very well that most of their members come into contact with non-members at work more than anywhere else. So if they’re going to go fishing, their best chance of encountering fish will be on the work dock.
Ofcourse, most workplaces frown very seriously on workplace proselytization like he describes as his disobeyed divine command. It creates a hostile work environment, could be seen as stealing time from the employer, and generally causes way more ill-will among coworkers than it could ever offset in results (and even other Christians try to persuade their more wild-eyed peers to be better than that). Many workplaces actually put rules in place to prevent employees from causing that kind of friction. In some situations, it might even be illegal.
But sales-minded Christians constantly seek to skirt such rules. To them, the ends always justify the means. Shorter needs the flocks to feel like it’s okay to fish off of the work dock–and that not fishing off the work dock will make Jesus upset with them.
Yes, A Human Being Stymied a God’s Divine, Ineffable Plan.
The bigger problem Shorter has here is that his church website makes crystal-clear that he believes in the usual omnimax god that most Christians do. However, Shorter makes it sound a lot like his god didn’t know he’d fluff the “opportunity” as presented, and also like he’d personally sent that guy to Hell.
Well gyarsh, Shaggy, all he kin do now is jus’ hope against all hope that somehow, against all odds, some brave Christian might come along behind him one day to complete that sales pitch and close that sale.
Maybe it’ll even be someone like one of his SBC readers, who’ll look up from their screen with a sudden jolt of divine understanding. “Why yes,” that reader might even say. “Yes, *I* shall climb on that chariot. I won’t let you down, Kei–er, Jesus.”
I wish I possessed the vocabulary to convey my complete contempt for Christians who use such ham-handed shaming tactics to push their followers around. I’m doing my best, but I don’t feel like I’ve half scratched the surface.
The Same Old Exhortations, Now With More Buzzwords.
Shorter rounds out his exhortation with the usual keywords and talking points. I do notice he allows–a little bit at least–for Jesus Aura evangelism. In the end, though, it’s always going to come down to getting their prospects to sign on the line which is dotted. He tells his readers–completely without any backing from reality–that they will never regret making an unwanted sales pitch.
(THAT, BY THE WAY, IS A STONE-COLD LIE.)
Instead, he insists, they will regret, as he does, not making one. You know my expectations for fundagelicals have hit rock bottom when at least he doesn’t seem to be Calvinist floats through my mind.
He thinly veils a threat: their erstwhile recruits will go to Hell, and it will be all their fault for not being more pushy. I doubt any of his readers will miss that implication. If anything, they will agree with some of his talking points here, and that agreement may lull them into accepting obviously untested ideas. Why yes! Our god DOES open doors! Why yes! We DO have “good news!” Why yes! If I do what he does, I CAN be just as successful as he is!
(Speaking of success, they’ll never even wonder why he doesn’t ever mention in his essay just how successful he’s been at soulwinning, or exactly why they should consider his approach over someone else’s.)
Why This Evangelism Push Matters.
I’m not one to just point and laugh at a Christian who is behaving in a ridiculous or boorish manner. It’s fun, sure, but gang, we’d never get anything else done if that’s all we did.
And it turns out that the forces that caused this guy’s outburst might just matter to at least some of us.
I fully expect that the coming year will contain nonstop appeals just like this one.
Keith Shorter is, like his pals in the SBC, frantic to reverse a decline that is now cruising into its second decade. Money ain’t infinite. The SBC will hit a place at some point–if they haven’t already–where they have to make some major command decisions about what gets funded and what doesn’t. Along with teaching their flocks the cardinal fundagelical virtues of willful ignorance, belligerence, and bullying, the SBC’s leaders have also taught those flocks that Team Jesus doesn’t lose, ever. And they’re already losing a lot of their battles lately. They need to reverse that decline before even the densest of their sheep start figuring out how to read a scoreboard.
Evangelism, As Compared To Negging.
And evangelism is really a numbers game more than anything. It’s like negging–it only works on a scant tiny percentage of its victims. The SBC’s leaders need their flocks to make so many attempts that they capture that tiny percentage. They’re willing to destroy their flocks’ limited social capital to do it. They’ll happily burn relationships to the ground and salt the earth of their own credibility, if that’s what it takes to become dominant again.
If you live in an area dominated by Southern Baptists, or count some of their number among your friends, family, and loved ones–or coworkers–don’t be too surprised if you notice a small uptick in evangelism attempts directed your way.
It won’t be huge. But it’ll probably be noticeable.
NEXT UP: The harm of false promises. See you soon!
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This is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. (NSFW language.)