Hi and welcome back! While checking out Thom Rainer’s doings for those recent posts about his book Autopsy of a Deceased Church, I ran across this little gem he wrote in 2018 to advertise his new gig. I’ve already got Christian leaders’ self-interest on my mind lately, so it caught my attention. In his 2018 blog post, he warned his readers that American churches were cruising toward a ‘tipping point.’ Today, let me show you what Thom Rainer meant by that — and how his song-and-dance patter has changed since then.
“American Churches Are at a Tipping Point.”
The blog post in question comes to us from December 2018, just a few months after Thom Rainer officially retired from his longtime LifeWay leadership position. He titled it “American Churches Are at a Tipping Point.”
In the post, he began with a real SHOTS FIRED paragraph — aimed right at evangelicals’ sense of dominance:
If current trajectories continue, American churches will pass a tipping point. Our congregations will begin a likely unstoppable path toward decline that will rival many European churches of the past century. If there is not a significant movement of revitalization, there will be an accelerated rate of decline and death.
Oh noes! He moves on to assure us that luckily, “many leaders” have already begun to “revitalize” their churches to avoid that awful fate.
Gosh, revitalization sounds vitally important, then! Yes, in fact it is of dire importance and the only thing possible that can save Christianity.
But however can churches possibly accomplish such a monumental task? How can they hope to have it done in time to avoid utter irrelevance?
Do not fear, gentle reader. Thom Rainer will tell us.
After all, only he can.
What’s a Tipping Point?
Oh, it’s serious business.
A tipping point is that exact place in a situation where a specific outcome becomes inevitable. And in recent years, evangelicals have begun focusing on this idea.
I found a fair number of opinion posts from evangelical pastors and writers who were convinced of the exact same thing as Thom Rainer here. Many, like this fella, specifically mentioned a 2000 book from Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Point, as their inspiration. In his book, Gladwell begins with a description of fashionistas who suddenly and randomly drove a sudden national resurgence of love for Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s.
Most Christians I found assumed that the “tipping point” would involve the end of the world, like this guy who wrote a whole three-part series on the topic around March without actually saying anything substantive or suggesting any tangible action. (If you just can’t live without the third part of the series, it’s here.) I even found one pastor who thought the “tipping point” had occurred at Jesus’ supposed death.
But here’s Thom Rainer warning Christians in 2018 that if they don’t act soon-and-very-soon, Christianity will hit a tipping point of its own — and from there, tumble from dominance forever. I’m sure his invocation of the state of Christian decline in Europe was fully calculated to goose the sheep; I’ve heard a number of Christians mention that decline as well.
And thankfully for evangelicals, Thom Rainer has the solution those churches need!
In evangelicalism, revitalization is Christianese for increasing a church’s membership rolls, activities, and energy levels. It’s not the same thing as a revival, which is a big preaching party churches put on to attract brand-new converts (and poach believers). A revitalization is much more internalized.
And thankfully, Thom Rainer’s new business just so happens to cater to churches who become persuaded of the need to revitalize! He thinks they just need three things:
- Correct TRUE CHRISTIAN™ doctrinal stances
- The right attitude (ie: not selfish, territorial, and nasty)
- An array of outreach efforts designed to draw in visitors and capture their business
In his December 2018 blog post, he coyly avoids spending much time on any of these three items. He’s just teasing, winding up for his sales pitch. He needs the flocks to be worried and tense, ready to be told what their problem is so he can magically solve it.
And the Pitch!
Indeed, right after frightening them and laying out the roadmap he insists will totally work, he asks his readers:
Do you and your church desire to be a part of this movement of leaders, members, and churches committed to the ministry of greater church health and revitalization? Join us at RevitalizeNetwork.org.
If you’re wondering, the link goes to a nonprofit aimed at helping churches grow and survive in these trying times. They operate with “recommended giving” donations that look suspiciously like monthly dues. Thom Rainer operates this nonprofit as its Principal Officer, according to GuideStar, and has his official real business, Church Answers, listed as one of the group’s “Other Partners.”
A bunch of very prominent Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) businesses and schools appear on the page with that business, including LifeWay (Rainer’s former employer, the SBC research/publishing division), North American Mission Board (NAMB, an SBC outreach division with the worst name ever), Brentwood Baptist (an SBC church Rainer seems to have attended in the past), and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (an SBC school that hired Thom Rainer recently as a part-time professor).
In fact, it looks like every single partner listed has a personal or professional tie to Thom Rainer himself.
I’m not a finance type person or business expert so this is only my opinion, but dang, that looks like a minefield of conflicted interests to me. The SBC can be a real good ol’ boys network, but this just takes the cake.
But then, a funny thing happened to Thom Rainer on the way to evangelical superstardom.
A Shift in Tone and Message.
I wanted to get a feel for where the 2018 post sat in his overall writing around that time. When I first pulled up the first (most recent) pages in his blog, I saw nothing of the doom-and-gloom found in that “tipping point” post.
Here’s the page of blog posts from the end of 2018. The theme fits pretty well, with lots of listicles about the stuff pastors deal with as the managers of their little country clubs.
But slowly, he moves toward revitalization as his bread-and-butter business product. He published a retrospective in April 2019, a listicle of “6 things we have learned since the publication of Autopsy.” Near it, we find posts answering questions about revitalization. Other posts advise on the sorts of business problems pastors face.
Another, from May 2019, assures site visitors that group prayer is totally leading churches to realize they need the revitalization services that Thom Rainer just so happens to offer. “Sign up here today. Space is limited!” he writes at the end of it.
Lately, he’s been running a lot of posts about pandemic-related church problems. One funny August post from a Rainer associate insists that if a church doesn’t Jesus super-hard at guests, they’ve “utterly failed.” It ends with a link to a webinar series that guy’s running.
But d’you know what we really don’t see, in all the stuff that comes after that “tipping point” post?
Cries of doom-and-gloom and “tipping points.” Predictions of the end of Christian dominance. Comparisons to European Christianity’s decline.
Just skimming Church Answers’ recent blog posts, you’d never guess that American Christians were in an inexorable decline at all.
The Winning Team (Is His Team).
As I perused the Church Answers blog, it struck me:
Thom Rainer isn’t actually in the business of revitalizing churches.
Instead, he’s in the business of selling churches materials and programs that he promises will totally revitalize them.
In Autopsy, Thom Rainer gives away the game. He begins the book with a story about one of his side gigs (p. 5):
The reality was that most of the members did not want me there. They were not about to pay a consultant to tell them what they refused to hear. Only when a benevolent member offered to foot my entire bill did the congregation grudgingly agree to retain me.
Rainer makes one fact implicitly crystal-clear in this story:
He got paid, whatever that dying church did or didn’t do with his advice to them.
And indeed, that church died. Oh, it didn’t die when he said it would. He gave it “five years at most.” However, it muddled along for ten before closing.
By then, Thom Rainer was long, long gone with that generous guy’s money.
Thom Rainer’s Thing.
Does Thom Rainer really care about churches’ fortunes?
I think he does, in his way. He’s given no sign that he doesn’t.
But he also knows that he has no other way to make a living except through selling this one thing to this one group.
For Thom Rainer, his thing is church revitalization. It’s where he’s staked his fortunes, the idea that informs all of his business ventures. And I wish churches’ managers knew enough to ask just how effective his programs are. Right now, they’re doing the equivalent of entirely basing their spending decisions on a huckster’s patter.
Why, this brochure simply must be absolutely truthful! No business seeking Christians’ money would ever be less than completely frank about their product’s effectiveness!
If the patter sounds good, Christians can be counted upon to throw money at the huckster involved.
Playing to Fears — and Denying the Worst One.
Any church pastor in America not panicking right now about retention and churn is an idiot, so Thom Rainer’s definitely picked the right field in which to plant his stake. The pandemic only increased the amount of worry for these pastors. I noticed that he’s definitely playing to those new fears as well.
However, he had it mostly right in 2018, though he was too late; the tipping point had probably already come and gone years earlier. But dire predictions of inexorable decline don’t sell webinars and monthly subscriptions — er, sorry, donations. Catchy listicles do, clearly.
It’s fascinating to me to see this very public-facing Christian leader grow and evolve into the position he occupies in the evangelical world — maneuvering he’s done without any of the flocks even noticing.
NEXT UP: What that tipping point probably looked like, and why no number of webinars and monthly donations will bring Christianity back to dominance. See you tomorrow!
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