Thom Rainer used to confuse me a lot. I didn’t understand why he kept writing these absolutely surreal WTF posts. Eventually, I worked out what he was doing. But that hasn’t made his posts less surreal and WTF. Today, we’ve got a new essay from Thom Rainer to consider. In it, he expresses his sense of optimism about his religion’s fortunes this year. Let’s see why he feels so optimistic–and see if we can suss out if these are good reasons to feel optimistic.
(Incidentally, Thom Rainer wrote his essay in December, so it came out before “Abuse of Faith.” Oopsie! His imaginary friend appears to have forgotten to tell him that report was coming down the pike when he wrote his listicle. Either way, we’re a few months into 2019 now, so I thought this would be interesting to look over. In 2020, we’ll come back to it and see how his predictions panned out.)
Everyone, Remain Calm!
Thom Rainer works–for a bit longer at least–as the leader of the Lifeway division of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Lifeway is the SBC’s propaganda and publishing arm.
And gang, Lifeway isn’t doing very well right now. Rainer made some really bad business decisions recently that appear to have led to a quit-or-be-fired situation. Consequently, he’s retiring very soon. (Yep. He wants to spend more time with his family.)
In so many ways, Thom Rainer reminds me of the character Chip Diller from 1978’s Animal House. In this iconic comedy, Chip Diller represents the voice of hard authoritarianism. He joins a ruthless authoritarian fraternity, does his best to hassle the fun-loving guys who are his frat’s biggest enemies, and seeks to buck himself as far up the ladder of power as he can. He even endures physical abuse to gain access to greater personal power.
While Chip endures his hazing abuse, the hero frat inducts its own new members by showing them an awesome time.
At the end of the movie, Chip shows up again. This time, he wears a military uniform and tries to help allay the chaos caused by the hero frat. “Remain calm!” he cries out to the townsfolk fleeing past him in panic. “All is well!” They ignore him, because all is not well.
At the movie’s end, we learn that Chip Diller becomes an ultra-fundie missionary. Who’s shocked?
That’s exactly how I see Thom Rainer. Absolutely nothing about his religion looks good right now. I see no sign whatsoever for optimism. Christianity hasn’t even hit the bottom of its decline yet. However, there he stands shouting for calm!
And all is not well!
Not One but TEN Reasons.
On December 17, Thom Rainer wrote an essay on his official site. He titled it “Ten Reasons I Am Optimistic About Churches in 2019.” To start, he offers up an anecdote. See, “through a series of God-blessed events,” an ailing church reversed their decline. Then he asserts that he’s heard lots of those anecdotes lately. As a result, he thinks that Christianity has finally rounded its corner. Yep, things are looking up!
Because it’d really help him out, we’ll ignore the well-known cognitive bias called frequency illusion, better known perhaps as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. When we’re thinking of something specific, we feel like we encounter it all over the place–and we remember those encounters better at such times. Thom Rainer apparently doesn’t know this cognitive bias exists, any more than most Christians like him do. This specific bias might explain quite a few words from the Lord handed to mystified congregants during altar calls. (If you’ve never heard this Christianese, here’s a Christian link explaining the basic concepts.)
Interestingly, Thom Rainer never offers readers any objective reasons to accept his opinion.
The Ten Reasons, Briefly Listed.
- More church leaders admit their churches are struggling.
- Churches increasingly connect with their local communities.
- He sees significant evidence of “greater Great Commission obedience.”
- “Toxic church behavior is less tolerated.”
- Church revitalization has become a major movement.
- “More young pastors feel called to lead a church revitalization.”
- More church leaders seek coaching and consultations to save their churches.
- Churches work together to fulfill Great Commission goals.
- Churches view church planting and revitalization as important instead of focusing on just one task exclusively.
- More churches embrace the multi-venue movement.
For ease of discussion, I’ll be tackling these by theme, not by number. Also, remember, most of these changes Thom Rainer perceives are anecdotal. We’ll assume his perceptions describe reality, though honestly that’s being really generous.
The New Normal (Is Not a Reason to Cheer).
Numbers 1 and 2 on Rainer’s list simply describe the new normal for churches.
Perhaps thousands of churches close every year, most of them small. In times past, Christians themselves destroyed anybody who pointed out that churches were starting to struggle. A pastor whose church struggled was seen very much as suffering from divine disapproval. Nowadays, pastors probably feel safer in talking about their struggles. I don’t see this new normal as a reason to feel optimistic. It’s happening despite toxic Christians‘ tradition of brutal retaliation against those who show weakness.
As part of their attempt to stay relevant, churches increasingly reach out to their local communities. As folks say, too little too late. One of the most heartbreaking parts of a church closure involves the few remaining congregants to these churches. They always talk about how their lives revolved around their church. But they’re one of the few people who can say that.
Meanwhile, most of the rest of the community probably has no idea what flavor of Christianity that church even favors. So their reaching-out derives from pure, panic-driven desperation. It’s a frantic flailing more than anything else.
Toxic Behavior? Less Tolerated? Dafuq?
Number 4 celebrates what Rainer sees as a culture less likely to tolerate “toxic church behavior.”
Let’s all share a good belly laugh there.
Christianity has been polarizing and growing ever more extremist for years. The SBC’s leadership has slowly morphed into a Rogues’ Gallery lineup of villains, bullies, and swivel-eyed opportunists. They’ve been protecting each other from accusations of abuse for years. Who remains to safeguard the flocks from these predators?
Thom Rainer thinks “bully and toxic leadership” constitute big problems for churches because these issues get “swept under the rug.” For what it’s worth, he’s correct. Of course, they constitute even bigger problems for Christianity itself, especially his preferred flavor of ultra-authoritarian Christianity. At their heart, these problems represent a big ole raised middle finger to his entire ideology.
However, don’t miss Rainer’s hamfisted attempt to distance himself from this problem. He uses a passive construction to describe this sweeping-under-the-rug process. This construction avoids naming the culprits committing this action.
Ultimately, he’s not ready yet to engage with toxic church leadership. Worse, though, he doesn’t cite any actual moves his tribe is making now toward ending toxic behavior. Nope, they’re just more willing to talk about it. As happy as Rainer is here, I don’t see this as a reason to “celebrate” as his anecdotal pastor pal does. As we’ll see soon, authoritarians often make big noises about change. However, they rarely follow through.
Speaking of Which.
In that same vein, numbers 3, 8, and 9 center on big talk and no action.
Notice the weasel-wording going on here. In #3, a small survey of “church leaders” discovered that “the number one area” those pastors want to improve is “evangelism and outward focus.” That’s pure nonsense wording. It means absolutely nothing. As Yoda once said, Do or do not. There is no try.
Similarly to community relevance efforts, above, #8 simply reflects growing desperation on the part of Rainer’s tribe. In decades past, different flavors of Christians had the luxury of infighting and bickering with each other. Nowadays, though, they don’t enjoy those kinds of numbers.
Also, the causes bringing these nutbars together tend to center around the culture wars. When I hear about big multi-denomination alliances involving evangelicals, usually it’s in the context of a hardline conservative political push–or for evangelism purposes. Occasionally, I see a more compassion-based alliance, like Ecumenical Advocacy Days. But evangelicals in particular view any overly-broad alliance with deep suspicion.
Then there’s this. As we know, when Christians push their culture wars, they actually hurt themselves. That kind of increasing politicization alienates Christians on both sides of the red-blue divide. Thus, these alliances Rainer likes might actually backfire dramatically.
Oh Wow, A New Buzzword! Thanks, We Hate It!
For a while now, we’ve talked about the authoritarian Christian adoration of buzzwords and catchphrases. These advertising aids help them organize their thoughts–and stop unwanted ones. One of the latest hot new buzzwords is revitalization. Though I’ve yet to see a thorough definition of the term, it appears to mean the process by which a church recovers from a serious slump and begins to grow again. In fact, a new cottage industry springs up before our very eyes to sell various materials aimed at helping pastors through this process.
And on Rainer’s list, numbers 5,6,7, and 9 deal with this buzzword.
As I see it, the way-biggest problem with all of these materials on the market is the same problem that apologetics has, and any number of other similar ideas have (like all the new forms of youth ministry). Literally nobody has any objective evidence for the efficacy of any of this stuff. Christians have a long-standing tradition of rushing into the next new big hotness without any clue about that hotness’ ability to deliver on its marketing hype.
So yes, since big-name Christian leaders tell pastors that revitalization will help them reverse their slumps, of course pastors will all glom on the idea. They don’t even know exactly what it is. But they’re desperate.
(Also, did you notice that somehow “Jesus” rarely commands older pastors to seek revitalization? Do they just know better than to buy into new hype?)
The Sheer Desperation of Multi-Site Churches.
Around 2014, I began hearing noise about multi-site churches. These are simply single churches that meet across different locations at the same time (many use video screens to transmit the main pastor’s sermon to each site). The idea took off quite quickly in Christianity in the 1990s. Thom Rainer’s liked this idea for a while now, at least as of 2014. In 2016, he wrote another post on the topic. At that time, he felt that single-site churches were seriously in decline. Well, he’s still banging that drum.
And #10 on Thom Rainer’s list asserts that more and more of these sorts of churches are opening in America, which means fewer churches should be closing.
We’ll have to talk later on about multi-site churches, because the marketing hype is really strong with this one. For now, I’ll just note that despite Rainer’s enthusiasm regarding multi-site churches, they don’t appear to have helped with his religion’s decline at all. Since he never connects the dots between “opening a multi-site church” and “reversing churn rates,” the idea remains part of Thom Rainer’s big Santa bag full of magical thinking.
You know, he could really bolster his assertions here by simply including some statistics about how many of these churches exist now (the latest stats I found were from 2014). The SBC’s own last two Annual Reports don’t even mention these formats of churches.
“An Incredible Year.”
Thom Rainer ends by insisting,
These are exciting days to be a church leader and church member. . . I really believe it: 2019 will be an incredible year for thousands of churches. I can’t wait to see what God will do.
So far, “God’s” been slow to move on the decline of his religion in a part of the world that many evangelicals view as the Chosen Land 2.0. I wonder if Thom Rainer is doing that thing I used to do as a Christian: say something that wasn’t true, something I desperately hoped would come true, all in hopes that my god would reach down and make it true.
In Christian-Land, Christians understand and applaud that sort of wishful thinking. They call it stepping out in faith, or (as my tribe described it, though I know now that’s not standard) speaking truth to power. But out here in Reality-Land, Rainer looks like an ignorant idjit–or worse, like a liar.
He may well be seeking to persuade his agitated flocks to stick around despite seeing their ship sinking all around them. Remember, authoritarians generally have an obsession with being on the winning team. Between their dislike of losing and the recent huge scandal unearthed by “Abuse of Faith,” his optimism might be a teensy-weensy bit misplaced.
Rainer might also be setting up a sort of to-do list here for his readers who work in ministry. The list reads a lot like a blueprint.
What the list does not sound like is any reason at all to think his religion’s decline might be reaching a midpoint.
My Own Optimism.
What I see, when I behold Christianity, looks like a religion whose leaders desperately flail and thrash trying to find something, anything, that can successfully turn the tide—as long as they can do that without changing the system they cherish more than anything. I see those leaders struggling to come to grips with a new normal that increasingly strips their dominance away, and trying to put into play half-assed pretenses of reform that don’t fool anybody but themselves.
Worst of all, I see those leaders making a lot of mouth-noises about their intentions, but those noises never seem to translate into anything helpful for their religion. Most of them can’t even engage with why their decline is even happening!
So what I’m saying here is that yes, I see lots of reasons to feel optimistic about 2019. It’s just that it’s not Thom Rainer and his pals who have reasons to feel that way. They’ll be very lucky if 2019 even represents a slowdown for their decline.
NEXT UP: OMG you guys, I found a phrase that horks a whole bunch of Christians beyond all logical comprehension. Like seriously, they’re getting more and more grumpy about it. Join me next time for a deep dive into the newest pushback phrase that toxic Christians hate–and what it means for their religion.
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