We’ve had a lot of fun in the past by poking at Christian leaders who flee their sinking ships. Today’s post examines another Christian who’s recently done exactly that. Thom Rainer just retired from LifeWay, the publishing and propaganda arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Immediately afterward, he plunged full-time into his new old hustle. That hustle will benefit exactly one person: himself. I’ll show you what he’s up to and why it won’t help Christianity at all–and why he probably won’t care either way.
A Strategic Movement to the Rear.
For about 13 years, Thom Rainer worked as the President and CEO of LifeWay. LifeWay, of course, is the iconic SBC publishing business. They used to operate brick-and-mortar bookshops, but under Rainer’s watch that all fell completely apart.
Then, last year, he announced his impending retirement.
According to him, he felt that at 63 he was simply getting too old for the business. He says he felt that younger blood than his would be required to meet LifeWay’s future challenges. Oh, but lest you think he was retiring because LifeWay’s numbers had tanked for years, rest easy! Unnamed people had told him, “in fact,” that he is “leading better than ever!” He hadn’t lost a bit of his leadership mojo!
The reason for his retirement ran along the usual lines we expect for someone quitting under less-than-favorable circumstances. Yep! He said, “I want to maximize my time with family in this next phase of life.”
That excuse is all but a joke in corporate circles by now–and for a reason.
Then, as in right after he issued that corporate-ese excuse, as in in his next breath almost, Rainer snuck in a caveat: “God willing,” he’d also be pursuing a new career as a CHURCH REVITALIZER!
Y’all, no gods at all had anything to do with that notion. By the time he gave that speech, Thom Rainer had been painstakingly setting up his exit strategy for years.
So last week, when LifeWay appointed a Colorado pastor named Ben Mandrell to be its new President and CEO, Rainer rode off into the sunset of his next gig. (See endnote about the new guy.)
However, Rainer didn’t spend much time at all being a totally-devoted famblee man, and his age sure didn’t stop him from taking up that new career.
(I had a feeling that he’d go this route.)
But it’s not really a new new gig, now, is it?
Not really, no. As I said, he’s been busy creating and developing the market for this business for years–even while he led LifeWay to its near-complete collapse.
First, Here’s How a Revitalization Business Works.
I woke the cats up laughing when I got my first look at Thom Rainer’s revitalization business. Y’all, it’s just. So. BASIC. Indeed, we’ve seen this kinda setup a few times before.
Here’s how a revitalization business works:
- First and foremost, create a business name that sounds like it has answers to pastors’ thorny questions. Make up a name like… I dunno… like “Church Answers.”
- Make sure the site looks really slick and promises that whatever’s wrong, this business can make it right again.
- Write ad copy implying that this business has proven experience and solid, tangible statistics backing up its various recommendations. Nobody will ever ask to see any of it.
- Offer tiers of support. Nobody’s gonna wanna spend almost USD$100/month for a “Gold Tier” (or whatever unearthly amount these nuts charge for “Platinum Tier,” which is apparently full–sorry, pastors!). But if the business offers something like a “Silver Tier” for about $10/month, then pastors might consider that almost like a Bankruptcy Insurance payment.
- Keep the plates spinning. Put the members into forums where they all collide together, pretend to answer each other’s questions, and try to solve their own problems with the dubious “resources” and generic “ministry advice” on offer. (LPT: When messed-up people get messed-up together, that’s the dead opposite of support.)
- Rest easy in the knowledge that nobody ever asks for solid figures about how effective any of this nonsense is in real life.
Don’t forget the media blitz either! Podcasts, blog posts, and interviews can get the business into public awareness. Sure, that same blitz also makes onlookers keenly aware of exactly how dysfunctional fundagelical churches really are (which will soon constitute Part III of this mini-series). Whatever. You can’t have everything. As long as the money comes in, I don’t think Thom Rainer or his pals care about the fallout otherwise.
The Sad Truth About Revitalization.
Soon, we’ll explore the ins and outs of this industry. For now, though, I want to point to one super-important fact about church revitalization:
Nobody offering these services can engage honestly with why Christianity is failing. That’s really the Achilles heel of the whole business. Thom Rainer sure won’t be breaking the combo there.
Instead, these so-called experts offer rationalizations meant to protect Christians’ fragile egos from the honest truth of what they’ve done to themselves. The revitalizers will still blame these churches, yes, of course. But they’ll blame them for the wrong stuff.
After blaming churches for Jesus-ing all wrong, these hucksters then offer a totally-for-sure tried-and-true path to redemption for the churches paying them. This path always amounts to Jesus-ing harder and drilling down harder on the culture wars and the tactics that have already failed them.
These hucksters’ lists of solutions will have nothing to do with why those churches declined, and so will have no positive impact at all beyond prolonging the death agonies of any church group that pays for this bad advice.
But such efforts will keep these churches busy and make them feel like they’re doing something. Ultimately, nobody will ever hold revitalization faux-experts accountable for their advice or assessments.
How Thom Rainer Prepared His Own Way.
It took me an embarrassing amount of time for me to realize exactly what was going on with Thom Rainer.
I still remember the first time I thought to myself, Self, why is this guy working for LifeWay and also doing “consultation” work for declining churches? Is LifeWay aware he’s doing this? Are they really okay with it?
Here’s how these thoughts came to me.
See, Rainer keeps a blog. On that blog, he wrote about visiting a church in serious decline. This visit occurred in 2003. He described his visit as a consultation performed for money. His goal: establishing reasons for this particular church’s sharp decline in membership and attendance.
He “worked with the church for three weeks.” Naturally, we never learn what that “work” involved. Afterward, he told the person paying him that the church had about five years left of life. He was wrong, however. His client’s church struggled on for at total of ten years before ultimately closing in 2013.
You know without me saying so that Thom Rainer got his money all the same, right?
Conflicts of Interest, Yet Again.
So yeah, Thom Rainer has always talked constantly about his consultation work–like here.
LifeWay hired him in 2005. If he’s been offering himself as a consultant since at least 2003 (and he seems to have registered churchanswers.com in 2011), that sounds to me like a teeny-weeny conflict of interest with his new LifeWay duties. But I’ve never heard of anybody suggesting he quit talking up his consultations. As with Ben Mandrell, his self-promotion might have had a lot to do with LifeWay’s decision to hire him!
Oh, sure, I expected them not to care what Ed Stetzer was doing. (I doubt there’s a single smidgen of love lost between him and his old bosses.) But Thom Rainer was LifeWay’s president-and-CEO dude and the visible face of their organization, and he’s been laying the tracks for this revitalization gig for years and years.
Whatever LifeWay paid him as a salary, the sheer name recognition he gained as their leader is what has really set this guy up for life. He will not pass away destitute. No way. In a world where Paige Patterson can still reasonably hope for some kind of reinstatement in his tribe despite a new lawsuit against him, even the most earth-shattering scandal won’t alter that fate.
See, powerful men in the Christian Right need to renounce the culture wars for their pals to reject them.
But It’s Not Like It Matters (To The Revitalizers).
Toxic Christians are authoritarians. And authoritarians love love love listicles, buzzwords, busy-work, and the appearance of improvement over anything approaching real change. With that in mind, nobody should be surprised at the sudden popularity of the revitalization trend. The real surprise is that it took Christians this long to make it a thriving cottage industry.
As Christianity itself continues to decline, we can expect the leaders in the religion to polarize along two lines. One set of leaders will flail ever more frantically to find the magic Easy button that reverses their own particular group’s decline.
The other will set themselves up as faux-experts to serve those frantic flailers.
But as more and more of them try to do that, the market will glut. It probably already has. Churches will need to make some command decisions with their quickly-dwindling resources, as well. Sooner or later, someone might even notice that these revitalizers don’t seem to have a great track record.
It seems to me that Thom Rainer will be fine either way. He’s one of the few hucksters with the name recognition to invoke automatic trust in fundagelicals.
Don’t worry about Thom Rainer.
Ah’m sure we ain’t heard the last of his adventures. No, sirree.
NEXT UP: Lord Snow Presides on Monday! Then, a quick exploration of why revitalization has become Christianity’s newest cottage industry–and exactly why it’s doomed to fail. See you next time!
So, about Ben Mandrell: I guarantee you’ve never heard of him. Until landing the new job, he was the pastor of a tiny church in the Denver suburb of Arvada, Colorado. At the SBC’s Annual Meeting this year, he gave a speech at the Pastor’s Conference. Seriously, he has no qualifications whatsoever in publishing or media or marketing or anything else that might be useful. But he grew his church’s membership from 250 attendees per week to 1600 and boy howdy is he good at deploying buzzwords, which is apparently all anybody needs to lead a tottering old giant into its new future as a purely-digital publishing house.
Mandrell says that his first order of business at the new job will be “listening to, caring for and connecting with” the remaining employees of LifeWay. Yep. This is gonna be good. We’ll look at him later on sometime. How could we NOT? (Back to the post!)
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