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We’ve been talking lately about the rash of church closures in America. A figure of 6,000-10,000 closings a year began circulating online recently, and it’s got a lot of Christians in a tizzy! Well, today let’s see what their big grand plan is to reverse that trend. (Spoiler: What they’re suggesting won’t help, and I’ll show you why, too!)

Christian leaders, lately.

Facing Facts.

Some years ago–right about when this blog began, in fact–I began noticing a downward trend in Christian membership numbers. Surveys and Christians’ internal reports hinted tantalizingly at a decline. Increasingly, journalists hesitated less and less to name prominent Christian leaders caught in hypocrisy. And the anecdotal reports trickled, then poured in about people who’d awakened to the same truth that I had years ago: that Christianity’s claims weren’t true, that nothing in the religion was what adherents claimed it to be. Moreover, many other Christians weren’t deconverting, but leaving all the same.

Very few Christians saw what I did, though. They sneered at me when I told them what I saw happening. Oh, yeah, they showered me with that “Christian love” that has so rightly made them and their religion a laughingstock. They couldn’t cope with the idea that their religion had begun to decline. But the signs continued to peek out at the world through the curtains.

For a while, I entertained the idea that Christian leaders could reverse that decline. I didn’t know how long they had. I just knew that it couldn’t be very long. But if they couldn’t face up to the fact that a decline was in fact happening, then they would lose precious days they needed to fix the problems causing the decline.

Moving One Step Over.

Then the 2015 Pew Religious Landscape Survey came out and settled Christians’ hash. Mostly. It painted the decline in ways that even most Christians could understand: the greying-in-place of Christian congregations, the hemorrhage of members (many of whom become Nones and atheists, never to return), and most devastatingly, the fact that mostly younger people were fleeing the moment they could manage the trick. Christian congregations had always counted on the next generation of younger members to carry the torch forward. Now their older members held out torches that mostly went untaken.

So Christians at least (mostly) accepted that a decline was happening. But then they launched into a campaign of disinformation to stick their heads in the sand about why it was happening and who exactly was leaving.

That’s where they stalled out.

Alarmism and Veiled Threats.

Now they have this new figure about church closures. The figure of 6,000-10,000 churches closing a year came out of nowhere, it seems, but it’s been getting plastered everywhere across right-wing Christian sites and blogs and social media. Further, nobody appears to know exactly how this number got determined or who-all determined it.

But dangit, it’s a big ol’ scary ol’ dadgum ol’ number, and it serves Christian leaders’ interest to push it.

Now, it might seem a little counterintuitive to overstate church closures. If someone tried to alarm me by overstating a situation, it’d have the opposite effect of whatever was desired. I tend to bristle when someone does that and I’m sure most folks react in much the same way. But the Christians getting themselves worked up over this figure tend to be authoritarian followers, which means they tend to be passive in most situations. They need a lot of prodding to get up and do the stuff their leaders want them to do. And then they tend to be task-oriented, which is a nice way to say they need every single little step and sub-step spelled out to the letter or they freeze like deer in the headlights.

As a consequence, their leaders figured out a long time ago that the best way to get the flocks moving is to employ super-alarmist, super-inflamed rhetoric. Get the flocks scared or enraged, and yep, they’ll move. They’ll move nice and quicklike.

Thom Rainer: Second Prize Is You’re Fired.

With all that in mind, let’s start with Thom Rainer’s advice to the flocks. I determined earlier that the 6,000-10,000 figure likely comes from him, though that’s not a 100% certainty. Initially, he started with 7,000-10,000 before revising the figure, but he never revealed why that I could find.

In the two posts linked above, he offers “advice to dying churches.” For a while now, he and his fellow Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders have yammered about this topic. They sometimes use the term revitalization in such advice–and a few of them have even left their positions with the denomination’s main office to start offering pricey online educational courses concerning how to reverse a church’s decline.

In Rainer’s first post, from June 12, 2017, he reveals the “six stages of grief” he sees in churches that are withering away. He offers only veiled suggestions for reversing a decline. Can you spot them?

  • In “Denial,” he hints that churches decline because they begin to perform less evangelism.
  • His “Recalibration” has the church starting new programs or doubling down on existing ones instead of seeking genuine change.
  • “Anger” blames church leaders and members alike for blaming everyone but themselves for their decline.

Ironically, of course, everything he describes in this post could just as well apply to his denomination as a whole. Oopsie! But everything seems to boil down to him blaming churches for performing less evangelism.

Thom Rainer: Hope, but Not Really.

In Thom Rainer’s second post, from January 16, 2018, he offers what he claims is “hope for dying churches.” He begins by informing readers that “unless our congregations make some dramatic changes,” the rate of closures will only increase.

Did you notice that finger of blame leveled at the members of dying churches? I sure did. I don’t think those members will miss that blame, either. He continues, “we are hindered by our own lack of commitment, selflessness, and evangelistic urgency.”

See? If the sheep would only get on the stick with sales, then everything would work out fine.

His suggestions, however, do not represent “dramatic changes.” In fact, he appears to be suggesting here exactly what he earlier accused churches of doing to cause their decline! His ideas simply drill down on the standard-issue fundagelical stuff:

  • Don’t re-examine any stated goals the group holds.
  • Everyone needs to think harder at the ceiling and do so more often. It’s magic!
  • Drill down harder on the doctrines that leaders insist are unchanging forever (except when they change).
  • Don’t even think of leaving the culture wars.
  • Sell harder. Indoctrinate more brutally.
  • System dysfunctional? Recruit more members! That always works.

If I didn’t know Thom Rainer’s tribe as well as I do, I’d feel mystified about how anything in this second post represents “dramatic changes.” It doesn’t even vary from the SBC’s strategy from three years earlier.

And the Other Suggestions.

Remember I mentioned the InfoWars guy who plastered his response posts across dozens of Christian sites? His suggestions follow the general flow of Christian commenters across the Christ-o-Sphere. He implies that fundagelicals will fix everything if they just start forcing their kids to attend church as a family–whether they like it or not.

The vast majority of Christian commenters I saw online had similar opinions. Most, like this forum’s residents, tend to blame churches themselves for various reasons. Christians elsewhere snidely suggested that “maybe they should start preaching the actual word again,” while another whined about “an ever growing portion of society that looks down on Christianity and Christians.” (Obviously, that loss of esteem could not have anything to do with how hateful and hypocritical so many of them are.)

I noticed an overwhelming sadness expressed as well, though. Many Christians mentioned their deep disappointment that church culture had started losing its uniqueness in American culture. Some expressed that disappointment in slurs against the groups they hate. Others blamed “cultural marxism” or megachurches or the relaxation of behavioral demands. (That last topic is on our dance card, too.)

Why None of This Stuff Will Help.

Almost none this 2018 chatter differs from the 2015 chatter. And very little of the 2015 chatter differed from what I heard in previous years.

Nobody in Christianity understands why the decline is happening, so their suggestions all tend to be the same tedious flailing. Their culture has constructed itself a narrative about why people join–and leave–churches. That narrative doesn’t fit what’s actually happening.

Many different things seem to be causing Christians to pull away from their churches.

  • Some of them leave because they get enraged that their congregation isn’t quite as bigoted and hateful as it used to be. They call this process of growing compassion “diluting/not preaching the word” in Christianese.
  • Many of them leave because they abruptly realize just how bigoted and hateful their congregation really is. They tend to assess the situation as “Jesus wasn’t there anymore” and the like.
  • Still others withdraw when they realize that their resources (time and money) are far better spent elsewhere. Church isn’t relevant to them anymore.
  • And yes, a growing number realize that the religion’s claims simply aren’t true–and they don’t want to affiliate with Christianity anymore in that case.

And Christian leaders really can’t address any of these situations in any constructive way.

The Painted-In Corner.

Church pastors painted themselves into a corner. They aim to hit a sweet spot of savage bigotry and preening shows of sweetness, but they can’t please everybody. Even if they wanted to be on the right side of history, which is by no means true, moving toward that ideal would cost them who-even-knows how many followers. Those followers have shown many times that they are happy to disaffiliate entirely before accepting any pastor’s assessment that bigotry-for-Jesus is missing the mark and that the culture wars are decimating Christians’ credibility in America. Years ago, their leaders successfully indoctrinated them to believe that bigotry and culture wars are what TRUE CHRISTIANS™ must believe.

I don’t think Christian leaders can untangle that programming and reprogram their followers in time for it to matter.

Nor do I think they can find a way to become culturally relevant after coasting so long on the power of coercion that kept them from having to care about being irrelevant for so long. I cringe just watching them try to do it.

So far, Christians are suggesting forcing people to attend church, pushing more unwanted sales pitches at us, or grabbing for more power in government. And that’s all to the good–for us. They keep showing us how easily overreach, belligerence, and coercion come to their hands. This effort will only remind us of how dangerous it would be to allow Christians to regain dominance.

(Photo credit: Aavtar Singh, CC.)

NEXT UP: We have a Lord Snow Presides on Monday, and then a peek at Prosperity Gospel! It plays a huge role in the decline of Christianity as well as the rise of some very unsavory cultural developments happening alongside that decline. See you soon!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...