I know I give Thom Rainer a lot of criticism, but as we swashbucklers used to say in the SCA, if he’s gonna stick that foot out there for me, I’m gonna take it. He’s been on a tear of late telling his flocks why Christian churches are emptying and how to fill them up again. As usual, his advice is pure wishful thinking wrapped around a tiny germ of truth. In this case, however, that germ is actually vitally important–even if it’s not the one he thinks he’s working with.
Some of his latest screeds have caught my eye because they tie into a lot of things we’ve been talking about lately. I know a lot of folks reading this blog are either halfway out of the religion or else newly-deconverted. It can take a while to really understand what happened to us, especially if we were involved in the really fervent end of the religion.
What I’ll show you today is something it took me a really long time to notice: Christians’ lack of self-awareness is bringing them to a downright revealing series of ideas about how to reverse their religion’s catastrophic decline in numbers.
You see, Thom Rainer’s totally got it all figured out. Christians just need to communicate more with their pastors!
Still Looking Out for #1.
Thom Rainer’s blog post “Seven Areas Where Pastors Have Failed at Reading Minds” is worth the read just to get a feel for how frustrated pastors in fundagelical churches are these days. It’s largely their own fault, sure, but still, that is a lot of frustration to see boiling up from the page.
After having spent a few decades indoctrinating Christians with the idea that churches should be meeting their needs, leaders now find themselves in a quandary because they can’t meet the needs that their adherents have developed.
The seeker-driven (or -oriented) model got popular in churches in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a loose governing philosophy of wanting to be accessible and friendly to people, especially people who aren’t very strongly indoctrinated or aren’t fully converted yet. Churches that subscribe to this philosophy tend to be entertainment-oriented, have lots of programs for members, and have a theology that isn’t too demanding to live by or too difficult to understand.
As you’d doubtless guess, this whole idea makes fundagelicals absolutely furious! But as much as they sniff down their noses at this “watering down” of their hardline message, even they can’t deny that the model has been very effective. For all the blather they can bloviate about how church members serve the church rather than the other way around, and oh there is a lot of that blather and always has been, most Christians, when confronted with two potential churches to join, will pick the larger church with the greater number of amenities offered and the lowest perceived cost of membership.
All churches are to some extent focused on meeting parishioners’ needs and likely always have been. Otherwise, nobody would become members of any of them. But until recently, churches as a whole didn’t have all that many options for parishioners. Now the number of amenities has simply skyrocketed, and with it Christians’ expectations.
Megachurches very famously include tons of programs for their members–including bands for musicians, social clubs revolving around everything imaginable that isn’t off-limits to that denomination, programs for children of all ages, and even support groups for people who might just need to talk about their problems. Some even have coffee shops, bookstores, publishing companies, and cafes; the one I attended was in the process of buying I kid you not, a bowling alley when I stopped going there.
Even smaller churches boast at least basic children’s programs; most wouldn’t even dream of not having at least a few others. And this is the situation we find even in the smaller fundagelical churches that most strongly lambast the seeker-driven model; one rapidly gets the impression that what they’re objecting to isn’t the concept of meeting members’ needs, but the nature and number of services being offered and requested. The direction of that exchange rolls from members up to leaders rather than from the leaders themselves offering whatever they think best down to parishioners, who then are expected to damned well take it and shut up and be grateful they got anything at all.
Thom Rainer is railing about a social change that, like prosperity gospel, is starting to seep into even the most hardline, anti-seeker-oriented churches. One can hardly even imagine the outrage that a fundagelical pastor might feel upon realizing that he’s not so much a shepherd of sheep as a paid employee of people he may well see as entitled, pushy, unreasonable customers. But Mr. Rainer’s response to this situation is beyond-surreal: he advises parishioners to communicate more with their pastors about what they need and shames them for expecting their pastors to be mind readers.
The problem here is not the suggestion that communication is important. Hell, in an ideal world we would all be communicating with the people around us about what we need.
It’s that he’s not living in an ideal world and neither are the people looking up to him. He’s living instead in the world he and his fellow leaders have made.
And that world is not one where honesty can easily happen.
A Strange Inconsistency.
In “Seven Areas,” Thom Rainer is talking to a population of people who genuinely feel that they have a real live god living inside them who informs their thoughts and actions. This god is the epitome of love, mercy, forgiveness, and justice–and also a being of infinite jealousy, wrath, anger, and brutality.
Beauty… and danger.
Strangely, someone is far more likely to see the latter than the former from members of his tribe–and the more fervent those members are, it seems the more likely we are to see that side of them.
I wouldn’t blame a pastor for wondering why his parishioners, who seem so gung-ho about Jesus and sing so sweetly about him every Sunday, can possibly be so savage, petty, cruel, and nasty to everyone. I sure wondered that, and I wasn’t even ever more than a volunteer. And it’s not like non-Christians are shy these days about expressing our confusion about this weird hypocrisy–just yesterday in comments we were talking about an interesting link about how Christians have a reputation for not tipping restaurant waitstaff, and I don’t think it escaped anyone’s attention that many of the Christians commenting on that link were largely trying to rationalize their boorish behavior so they could keep doing it.
A few people on that link even commented about how disturbing it was that so many Christians had to be “challenged,” “shamed,” goaded, or otherwise socially-pressured to tip waitstaff. And it is disturbing. But what it is not is surprising. Something that really shouldn’t be any kind of struggle, something that ought to be a total no-brainer, is apparently completely beyond many Christians’ ability to grasp, but nobody’s really all that shocked when a Christian behaves that way.
When Christians are asked to grow a little empathy and treat others with kindness and decency, a great many of them are simply unable to do it. They react with pique and anger at the very idea that they should, and even greater pique and anger when other people criticize them for that glaring inability. Indeed, I get my most offended drive-by Christians on this blog when I level my most scathing criticisms at their tribe. (But notably, their outrage is confined to trying to get me to shut up, rather than on fixing the problem I’ve identified, which only makes their hypocrisy seem more glaring.)
In the same way, Thom Rainer has to tell his tribe to “communicate” with their pastor about their needs. That tells me three things: first, that there is no infinite being of love, wisdom, and mercy inhabiting his people; second, that even apart from their supernatural claims, his people are not demonstrably better people as a group than non-Christians are.
But third, it tells me that the church leaders he’s lecturing here might not have a complete and accurate picture of what their congregations think of them and where they stand in that culture.
An Unsafe Harbor.
Honesty is important to most of us–even to fundagelicals. I genuinely think that most of us, when presented with a situation that we don’t like or a need that we have, will very willingly communicate honestly about the situation or need.
We will, that is, unless something is hindering us.
When one person simply isn’t very forthcoming to us, then, well, we’ve uncovered someone who needs to work on their communication skills. It happens. But when every single person we encounter refuses to communicate with us or is being dishonest with us, then we’ve got to start looking at whether we’re doing something to inhibit that level of dialogue or if we’ve somehow stumbled into or created an environment that isn’t conducive to clear, honest communication. We might also wonder if the other person feels like asking for stuff is pointless because they’re always refused or disappointed.
Very unfortunately, Christianity is rife with people who actively resist any suggestion of dialogue and who maintain an environment that actively discourages people from communicating anything that the group’s leaders or most influential members might not like.
This impression is not helped by Thom Rainer’s characterization of the situation as the pastors being expected to “read minds.” By phrasing it that way, he is issuing a very distinct and unmistakable judgment that his flocks won’t miss: that they are being totally unreasonable, if not completely out of order, for being upset with their pastors for missing important occasions, not picking up on someone’s desire that they visit sick family members, or not realizing someone has an emotional need for one-on-one time with their pastor.
But none of those situations really sounds that unreasonable to me. With churches only shrinking over time, parishioners can’t be blamed for thinking that their pastors should have more time to spend doing the things they think are important, or knowing basic facts about the congregation. In a religion that increasingly emphasizes a reliance on magical thinking, one can’t be blamed, either, for thinking that even if someone doesn’t really notice something with their eyes, “God” could magically communicate that detail to his followers when the situation requires it. Indeed, this exact trope is one of their favorite miracle stories, I’ve noticed; very often such a story involves a Christian knowing some detail that nobody could possibly have told them, or has a Christian walking up to someone and out of nowhere giving them a divine message of encouragement or admonition.
Consequently, I really couldn’t fault any of the parishioners in Thom Rainer’s list; at most, they’re guilty of not understanding how busy even a small church’s pastor can get or not knowing just how strapped for people and money their group is. They do sound pretty small-minded, vengeful, and petty, but their actual needs and concerns don’t sound that off-base. I wonder, too, if mayyyyyybe there’s a little bit of hyperbole or exaggeration–or outright mischaracterization–going on here, since I know that criticism-averse people like fundagelicals often distort events to suit their narratives and self-image. The alternative is that churches are just full of raging sociopaths, and even someone who blogs about religion for a living might have a little trouble accepting that idea.
The Punishment They Face.
One gets the distinct impression that the door to communication is not being opened further by Thom Rainer, but rather closed more tightly. His treatment of these parishioners almost smacks of gaslighting. He’s all but punishing them for expressing displeasure–and sowing contempt and division by pitting pastors against congregations in a way I don’t think those people are really going to recover from once that dynamic gets entrenched in place.
The question at that point becomes, just as it did with the tipping situation, why those parishioners aren’t being more direct and communicative already without being shamed into it.
In a truly functional and well-oiled social system that kind of communication blossoms without shaming, without goading, and without entreaties. When such communication is absent, it doesn’t speak to a system’s wonderful-ness; it speaks to that system’s shameful failure and forthcoming breakdown. That’s why communication and dissent must be protected and nurtured, encouraged and rewarded even when it’s something we totally don’t want to hear.
Christianity is simply not that kind of system. That kind of protectiveness simply can’t happen.
Ex-Christians know exactly what a fundagelical pastor’s response all too frequently looks like in the face of a directly-stated need. We know exactly how our peers in church react when told that we need something from them. We know precisely what the response is when we cry out for help, or criticize anything we see, or call out a need we perceive. We know what to expect when we make a suggestion about doing something–anything, sometimes–differently. Oh, there is little in the world that’s as savage as the retaliation a brave soul can expect for offering honest and open communication to a church full of Jesus-worshiping TRUE CHRISTIANS™, if that communication runs contrary to what they want to hear.
Thom Rainer and his pals have spent decades creating exactly the broken system we behold today. And now that system is starting to fail. Without the power of coercion to keep people quiet and in place, Christians are doing what people should damned well be doing when a group fails utterly to meet their needs: they’re leaving.
And all Mr. Rainer and his fellow fundagelical leaders can do is try to shame them for not doing exactly the thing that they know–or sense–will only get them punished bigtime, then blame them for leaving when they finally give up trying to make that relationship work. What he ought to be doing is asking what he and his pals did to help make those seven groups of parishioners not be able to or want to communicate with their pastors, not shaming them for not having done so. Instead, he’s wagging his finger at people who, if they try to follow his advice, are all but guaranteed to be shamed, disappointed, and hurt even more than if they’d just kept their heads down.
It’s hard even to put into words just how much this strategy is already backfiring.
And as long as Christians look to Thom Rainer to help them fix the problem, nothing’s going to improve. (So… a win? But at great cost.)
Even these guys can learn! Maybe there’s hope for us all.
Next time I want to talk about self-awareness, because Thom Rainer’s signal trait is a total lack of it. Most of that lot seem afflicted in similar fashion, but nowhere do we see that shortcoming demonstrated so visibly as when they talk about how they relate to guests in their ranks. See you then!