While exploring my new hometown, I caught sight of a sign for a churchy-sounding financial-planning ministry. Its name was so vague that I had to get my phone out right then and there to figure out what it really was. And I soon did. They’re a financial ministry, you see, that totally exists to help churches with financial and administrative services. But in truth, they’re more like just a basic loan agency that caters to churches in one particular denomination. Learning this fact got me thinking about the idea of Christian ministry in general, and well, here we are. Today, let’s take a closer look at how Christians use the idea of ministry to set themselves up in business.
Back in the saddle, for now
Hello, everyone, and welcome back! I regret that you can’t hear my words this time — I’ve no clue where my recording equipment is right now. Everything is topsy-turvy. I expected to be here a week, but it turns out that estimate was grievously overlong and we’re actually moving into the real apartment today. I’ve got to dash in a few minutes to get all the stuff I put away back into satchels and boxes, but I wanted to sit down and touch base with everyone!
I’m learning fast that Oregon has been hit with climate change just like everywhere else. Air conditioning is a must here. But almost no places have central air. It forces residents to either suffer in the heat or go buy their own air conditioning units.
So Yr Loyal &etc Corr. is doing fine right now. I’m happily chilling in air conditioning! Things will be busy this weekend, but overall they’re shaping up. I’m so glad to be out of Idaho for good. Oregon is a breath of fresh air in more ways than just its amazing scenery. I’m among people who value the same things I value. That feels good in a way I hadn’t anticipated, but treasure already.
Before we start today’s post, a big huge thank you to my patrons and supporters! That support makes this blog and my work possible. Thank you for everything.
And now, let’s zoom in on this financial ministry.
The ministry that clued me in
Yesterday, Mr. Captain and I were driving around our new hometown. Along the way, while we were turning around in a business park, I spotted a sign for a business. It sounded very churchy, so I looked it up on my phone. I soon located its official website, which was filled with more churchy language and allusions to financial and administrative services.
Mr. Captain is long used to my mental frolics afield. He glanced over to me as I laughed at my phone. “What is it?” he asked. When I told him, he just laughed again. He didn’t have to say that’ll be a blog post, won’t it, because he knew.
We both did.
This business was called a ministry. But really, it was a Jesus-flavored business. Even as I typed its name into my browser address bar, a dropdown appeared listing it as “a loan agency.” That’s what it basically really is: a loan agency. They do other stuff related to financial planning, but loans are front and center on their page. And they follow all the same rules, as far as I could ascertain.
They just use ministry language and Christian buzzwords to get out in front of all the other businesses that Christians in their denomination might patronize for these needs.
What ministries are — and what Christians often make them mean
Officially, a ministry is something related to pastoring, preaching, evangelism, or charity work, all done through a church or parachurch group. The people performing these tasks get called ministers. They imply that Jesus himself super-duper wants them to do this work, often even that he personally decided to give them marching orders to do it.
My Evil Ex Biff used to call them professional Christians, and his #1 goal in life was to be one himself. These folks got paid to go be Christian all day! Nothing sounded better to him.
But a ministry can also be all kinds of other things. It could be volunteering to teach Sunday School classes. It could involve cleaning the church building after services every week. Or it could even look like the kind of fake counseling that evangelicals prefer when their marriages go south.
So absolutely yes, a ministry could look exactly like a secular business. There are probably Christians who do HVAC repair for a living who call their business a ministry. At least, there’s a church out there (archive) that was recently hoping to find one:
If you check out the original link (relink), don’t miss the pro/anti-Trump argument that erupted in the comments. It was glorious.
Christians keep doing this ‘ministry’ thing like nobody will call them on it
This Jesus-flavored business I found yesterday reminded me of a kerfuffle that erupted on the Eugene, Oregon subreddit some months ago. A guy wrote a chirpy post about wanting to move to Eugene from his current hometown of Atlanta. But he didn’t know what he and his wife would do for money! Oh! He had an idea! Since he was in seminary, he figured he’d open a church in Eugene! Wouldn’t that be grand? They could help the homeless or widows or something! What did the subredditors think of this wonderful idea for a ministry?
Well, they did not like it at all. The moderator himself told the OP (original poster) to “please take your superstitious mythological space dictator grandpa elsewhere.” You can see some of the other replies on the original link, here, along with OP’s indignant replies. Almost nobody encouraged the idea.
The link I just gave you doesn’t show the guy’s name, but I had it at one point. When I looked into his posting history, I learned that he was a Calvinist/Reformed seminary student who was fully on board with his tribe’s culture wars and crusades against human rights.
This kind of behavior works only while a Christian is among their tribe. Once outside of it, some people will still go along with the farce. But this crowd had had enough of people like Calvinist Lad. They made sure he knew it.
And he thought he’d have an angle here with this ministry idea
Calvinist Lad didn’t like the pushback. So, he reacted with the usual defensiveness and ego-stung narcissism that we expect out of TRUE CHRISTIANS™. He was just outraged and indignant over the fact that his status as a potential minister and TRUE CHRISTIAN™ didn’t automatically earn him deference from non-Christians.
After he’d fully confirmed exactly why nobody in Eugene should have wanted him pastoring a church there, he finally flounced and DFE’d (Delete Fucking Everything).
What he particularly disliked were accusations that he was just using this ministry idea to give him money to survive in a new town. It was crystal-clear, both from his OP and his replies, that what he really wanted to do was move to the Pacific Northwest. The ministry thing was just a way to rationalize the move — and earn money without having to get a real job.
(Looking over the original link’s replies, it also seems clear that Calvinist Lad had a vague understanding that his exact denominational leanings might be a problem for various reasons, including that another church of his affiliation already operated in Eugene, so he was studiously avoiding naming it. I don’t understand the coy act. I figured it out almost immediately from his post history.)
Ministry really is just another angle
When I talk about Christians and their angles, I’m talking about a quick easy money solution that they think will solve every one of their problems. The term comes from a scene in Heavy Metal, the one with the trial. Every time the defendant’s lawyer freaks out at him, he tells the guy to calm down. He has an angle that the lawyer just doesn’t know about.
That angle turns out to be Hanover Fiste. Fiste comes to the witness stand as a character witness for the defendant. This testimony, the defendant tells his lawyer, will fully exonerate him. Instead of just living a decent life, the defendant commits all kinds of crimes and then expects Fiste’s testimony to help him get away with it all.
My Evil Ex, Biff, was full of these angle ideas. He seemed to work harder coming up with them than he would have had to work just doing things the normal way. Our entire move to Japan was one of his angles. He had this idea that he’d become this big-name missionary who absolutely turned Japan upside-down spiritually. And gosh, operating a ministry there would be so much more fun — er, Jesus-y — than working at a job! Of course, it was I who had to actually work while we were there, while he palled around with old Japanese guys playing go all day long at the senior community center — er, sorry, while he planted seeds among those poor heathen Japanese people.
Like a lot of people who go in for angles, he also had a few ideas for bringing a lucrative lawsuit against various people and organizations, then living off the lawsuit’s proceeds rather than getting a job.
Using ministry language to sneak past Christians’ risk-assessment mechanisms
Most Christians compartmentalize their thinking. In other words, they maintain separate mental boxes for Christian stuff and secular stuff. They don’t use the same mental processes and mechanisms in these boxes. One box gets a whole different set of operational rules than the other.
It’s how those who believe in false claims get by in life. If I tried to tell a Christian that Apollo loves them and they could know he was real because the sun exists, they’d judge that claim by the secular-box rules. They’d rightly reject it out of hand. But if I told them that Jesus is totally real because sunsets are beautiful, they’d nod along and say yes, oh yes indeed, that is definitely PROOF YES PROOF that Jesus is real.
This is how you might see a Christian business person who makes reasonably good decisions in secular life, but gets involved in obviously sketchy religious stuff. That’s why multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) often get called Mormons Losing Money schemes.
Jesus language and ministry-related jargon bypass critical thinking in people who are already dangerously close to not having much of it in the first place.
Cynically using ministry buzzwords to bypass critical thinking
This is why so many MLMs based in America pander heavily to evangelicals. Pushing tons of Jesus claims into an MLM’s recruitment pitch forces the pitch into the Jesus box. And that shift leads marks to evaluate it by the rules of the Jesus box, not the secular one.
Similarly, someone like Greg Stier, who pushes youth-ministry products that absolutely do not work at all, latched onto this ministry conceptualization and pushes it hard. Normally, people would push back hard against his claims about his products. They’d want proof that any of the programs he shills can do what he claims.
But nobody needs proof of anything in the Jesus box. Anecdotes (also known as anecdata) work just fine as PROOF YES PROOF. So do logical fallacies like the above-mentioned argument from beauty. Untrustworthy pseudo-research from biased, conflict-of-interest-addled pseudo-research groups fills in for objective evaluations.
And when all else fails, an operation like the loan agency I mentioned at the beginning of the post, which operate in all ways like an actual secular business and must follow secular business rules for their industry, load up on Jesus language to steer other ministry leaders to them instead of going to secular business. In that way, these buzzwords function just like a Jesus fish on a business sign.
The underworld of Christian ministries
All of this stuff works to prop up a massive set of interconnected businesses who couldn’t make it in the actual secular business world, nor in the metaphorical marketplaces of their ostensible products. It’s a bit like how evangelical-pandering movies work by now; they’re awful in every objective way, with lackluster performances, terrible plots and pacing, no real narrative structure, and a tendency to ramrod their messages into audiences.
But because they pander to evangelicals and tell them what they most want to hear, evangelicals love them. Heck, they’ll argue till the cows come home (and then long past that point) with anyone criticizing their beloved movies. I’ve been there myself many times on the other side of that exchange, with a furious Christian who thinks they can explain a movie to me in such a way as to make me agree with their own high opinion of it.
Evangelicals’ ferocious loyalty to these terrible movies has led to the creation of an entire sub-par movie industry working in a downmarket parallel alongside regular Hollywood movies. Evangelical movies have their very own set of stars, subculture, audience, expectations, rules, and tropes.
And it’d all be almost unintelligible to secular audiences.
That’s how most ministry stuff works in Christendom. Even loan agencies like the one I found yesterday use this language to get to the forefront of Christians’ minds. Chances are very good that a church in its specific denomination that needs financial help will seek them out first, before talking to a bank or other secular loan agency.
The cosmic error of trusting ministry language too much
Long, long ago, I was a perky lil Pentecostal lass. And I made this mistake too!
Around 1989 (when I was 19), my 1980 Olds Cutlass with wow-lots-o’-miles began acting up, sagging, and losing oomph. And you can bet I just knew I needed a Christian mechanic who wouldn’t steer me wrong. I fully believed my tribe’s mythology, both the supernatural and natural stuff. So, it would not have occurred to me to trust my Flying Brick, my Superior Romulan Warship, to anyone but a good Christian.
Enter “Mama,” who ran a repair shop in the suburb in which I lived. She festooned her shop with Jesus symbolism and used Christianese constantly in conversation, as did her sons, who worked there. This repair shop was her ministry, don’t ya know! And she promised me she could get my car up and going again. It just needed its springs replaced! Hooray!
Well, that repair cost considerably more than I’d expected. Worse, the repair lasted only a few days before the car began to sag again. The acceleration problems persisted. Suddenly, the problem was the engine itself: my V6 needed to be replaced.
Mama promised it’d be more cost-effective to fix it than to just get another car. She’d take care of me.
That repair, as you might expect, also cost way more than her estimate. And the shop replaced my transverse 6 with a V6, which caused other problems later, and I had to partially pay for another repair to the springs.
My car worked at last, but I really could have bought a whole new car for what I paid for this clunker’s repair. When I dared to mention my shock at the final price, “Mama” sulked and Jesus-shamed me until I apologized and hugged her.
It is not a fun memory.
So yes. I’d made the mistake of thinking a fellow Christian would never take me for a ride.
But I’d need a few more lessons, it seemed, to fully learn the concepts necessary.
(See also: This bizarro-world account of a similar incident. I’d love to know what he somehow left out of this story.)
Beware of ministries, especially in the secular world
When we encounter any secular business that claims to be a ministry, we need to tread extra-carefully around that place and the people operating it. They may be perfectly fine, like I’m sure this loan agency follows loan-agency rules, but we need to be sure to evaluate them with our secular-box and not any religious-box style of thinking.
But it goes further than that, this cautionary note.
Most of the people who read my work aren’t very religious. At the very least, they don’t tend to agree with evangelical-style religion. But they may have compartmentalization all the same.
After I deconverted, I still had that compartmentalization going on around, of all groups, Macintosh users. For the longest time, I could not even imagine a Mac user doing me wrong. On the bus ride fleeing from Biff, I met a guy who looked like the most disreputable hippie ever — but he had a Mac laptop, a rare commodity in 1995, which made him seem completely trustworthy to me.
Luckily, he was. But that entire situation could have gone way different if he hadn’t been, and I hadn’t realized it because I was judging him by a set of rules that weren’t as rigorous as they would have been if he’d been a PC user. Or, goodness gracious, a computer illiterate.
And I still didn’t learn!
Years later, I joined Facebook because my first blog gig, Patheos, required it. There, I happily joined a group of Facebook atheists. I was curious about how such groups operated. And wow, that effort went seriously sour when they turned out to be MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists). I’d thought atheists, especially ex-Christian atheists, were uniformly evolved and enlightened. But these guys proved me very wrong!
Being in a good group doesn’t guarantee that someone is going to treat us right or be dependable or a good friend to have, any more than being a ministry means everyone involved is making true claims about what they do, how effective it is, and how necessary it is to Christians’ lives.
Just be aware of the boxes we’re using, is what I’m saying.
How you can support Roll to Disbelieve
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