It feels like I’ve known about Carey Nieuwhof for ages and ages now. He haunts the Christ-o-sphere offering panicky evangelical pastors surefire tips about making their churches grow again. Such advice represents the newest post-Christian-America cottage industry, it seems. Though he has written perhaps hundreds of blog posts discussing church attendance, once we take a look at them they all seem to contain exactly the same blaming and reframing.
In short, Carey Nieuwhof wants evangelicals to just Jesus harder at church, please, and he claims nothing else will work to halt churches’ continuing decline.
(This post went live on Patreon on 9/21/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too, and both should be publicly available by the time you see this note!)
Everyone, meet Carey Nieuwhof
Though he’s been around for just ages now, Carey Nieuwhof’s situation was surprisingly hard to suss out. In addition to writing books and blog posts and doing a podcast, he’s also the founding pastor of a typical Millennial-aimed Canadian church complex called, I kid you not, Connexus. The church seems to have opened somewhere before 2013, with Nieuwhof taking a lesser role around 2015. Their staff page currently lists him as their “Founding Pastor” still. Connexus has two locations in Ontario, though, and neither one features him as a main pastor.
Though Nieuwhof also tries very hard to sound like a decent human of an evangelical, Nieuwhof’s general beliefs and company mark him as a typical one there, too. His church’s vaguely-worded, obfuscated-to-11 beliefs page marks him as an inerrantist, meaning he mistakenly thinks that the Bible contains no errors whatsoever. They’re also Trinitarian heretics, but that demon-inspired bit of Papist paganism is pretty normal too for evangelicals, alas. I’ve seen him connected professionally to toxic and controlling asshats like Tim Keller and Andy Stanley, too, so we know exactly what company he keeps.
Nieuwhof’s blog is where we’ll be hanging out most today. Way back in the 2010s, the Roaring Teens, he had a thriving comment section there. That’s long gone, of course.
What’s really funny is that he’s stripped away invitations to readers to comment on that blog, too. To use just one example, a 2015 post we’ll briefly touch on in a minute, “10 Reasons Even Committed Church Attenders Are Attending Church Less Often,” originally had a multi-paragraph section at the end asking readers what they’d add to his listicle. It garnered almost 600 comments on Disqus, but they’re gone now. I didn’t see any of his posts’ commboxes archived on Disqus, either. It’s possible I’m just not seeing them and they’re there, of course. He might have moved domains, or any number of other things could have happened. However, nobody in his end of the Christ-o-sphere seems to like comments at all anymore, so I’m guessing they’re vaporized.
(By contrast, I did my best to make sure Disqus kept all our old discussions from Patheos. Here’s the commbox from the 2019 post I wrote after I recovered from gallbladder surgery. As far as I can tell, all our discussions survived.)
Nieuwhof’s LinkedIn also tells us that he is a “former lawyer.” That’s an interesting embellishment. On another site, he tells us himself that he never practiced law. Rather, he enrolled in seminary right after finishing law school. See, Jesus told him a few years and wasted dollars too late that he actually wanted Nieuwhof to be a pastor, not a lawyer! Whoops! What a kidder!
In so many ways, then, Cary Nieuwhof is a completely unremarkable denizen of the Christ-o-sphere. That said, his blog routinely pissed off the chest-thumping, bellowing, pugnacious sort of evangelicals. That contented me. Evangelicals sometimes forget that they’re not a monolith.
What Carey Nieuwhof thinks is causing churches’ problems
Like a lot of these late-stage-capitalism kind of evangelical leaders, Nieuwhof has been beating the same drums for years about church attendance declines.
For today’s discussion, I rounded up a number of Nieuwhof’s posts over the years. At some point, he stripped away the dates from his posts. That is his right, of course. OnlySky did that to mine, too. It’s just the style nowadays. As I mentioned, he also stripped away his Disqus comment sections. But those Disqus commboxes exploded his engagement before they vanished. That means that the Wayback Machine auto-crawler caught the meat of the posts, at least. So we have dated backups of almost all of the older posts.
As we go, we’ll hear the tune of those drums.
Carey Nieuwhof thinks that The Big Problem Here is that church leaders aren’t asking enough of congregants or structuring their churches correctly. And he thinks congregants themselves just aren’t Jesusing correctly. He likes to style his criticisms as “born of love,” just like the ones he thinks his hero Tim Keller apparently used to offer. Considering how little Keller really understood of real love, somehow I doubt that. But we’ll see. As I said, he used to mightily piss off fundagelical blowhards. He can’t be all wrong. Can he?
Hm. Well, maybe he can.
A decidedly one-sided “relationship-not-a-religion”
In 2013, Nieuwhof wrote a blog post about ways that Christians could feel more “connected” to Jesus. It really is an artifact of its time. Accordingly, it contains all of the mistakes about atheism and deconversion that we expect evangelicals to make. But then it also offers surefire guaranteed-to-work tricks that Christians can perform that will totally and without a single doubt work to draw them into a feeling of intimacy with their god.
That said, it really isn’t much different from what my Pentecostal pastor taught in the 1980s and 1990s. In this 2013 post, Nieuwhof writes that most people want to grow spiritually, but gosh don’t ya know, they’re just not sure how to do it! So he offers up five potential problems blocking Christians from that growth:
- They don’t know “what they mean by ‘God'” in the first place.
- They’re not sure how connecting to this being works.
- Aww, they don’t have anybody to “share spiritual questions or experiences with.”
- They don’t live in a way that suggests they actually believe what they say they believe.
- And they “don’t know how to find God in life’s toughest moments.”
What’s hilarious here is that all of these problems have one very good explanation: There’s no god in the middle of Christianity to make its supernatural stuff work. So yes, obviously, nobody knows how to quantify or define “God.” He’s not real. He’s imaginary. They can’t connect to an imaginary being, and they know they’ll sound a little silly if they talk to others about any fantasies they have that suggest anything different. In particular, it’s in “life’s toughest moments” that many people see these truths most clearly. That’s when the Faith Pool is at its lowest water mark.
This 2013 post isn’t particularly about church attendance. But it’s a very interesting hint about what Nieuwhof wants out of a congregation. In addition, he uses the post as an invitation to some preaching series that his church was about to begin.
In 2015, Carey Nieuwhof notices a drop in church attendance…
It took a while for evangelicals as a group to accept that they were indeed in decline. They really didn’t like that idea! But by 2015, they had achieved that awareness at last. That year, Carey Nieuwhof wrote a listicle of reasons why “even committed church attenders are attending church less often.”
It’s an interesting look at what evangelical leaders were thinking at the time. And it completely leaves out the real reason why church attendance has been tanking for decades. Here’s what he offers:
- More affluence, which gives churchgoers more play time and play options. (But see this paper from 2012: “No Money, No Honey, No Church.” In reality, attendance might work in the opposite direction.)
- Kiddie sports. No, really.
- “Blended and single parent families” that make counting attendance difficult as kids shuttle between parents and families negotiate where they’ll attend. Again, really. He says this.
- “Online Options.” Even in 2015, years before the pandemic, he noted online churches as a trend that’d be sticking around.
- “The Cultural Disappearance of Guilt.” Oh, he was so very close on this one. But then, he swung and whiffed.
- “Self-Directed Spirituality.” Jeez, let people think that a real live god is personally talking to them, and they start doing all kinds of weird things!
- “Failure To See A Direct Benefit.” Again, so very close.
- “Valuing Attendance Over Engagement.” This’ll be an ongoing drumbeat for Nieuwhof.
- “A Massive Culture Shift.” Of note, he doesn’t say what culture is shifting toward. He just says it’s shifting. And I mean it was, but it’s still weird that he didn’t talk about what was happening.
That culture shift at the end is the real reason for the decline in church attendance. Here’s why:
Church and Christian affiliation became optional after many, many centuries of being completely obligatory. As soon as Americans could do so safely, they revealed their religious priorities through their actions.
…Which he promptly blames on mean congregations
But then, in another post around 2015-2016, Nieuwhof blames existing church attendees and congregations for the drop in church attendance. Here are their sins, which were keeping “especially Millennials” away from churches:
- “Irrelevance, Hypocrisy, and Moral Failure.” He chides church leaders and advises them that “it’s more than possible to create a counterculture of integrity and grace.” Weirdly, that didn’t happen.
- “God Is Missing in the Church.” To fix this problem, Nieuwhof advises church leaders to take his advice about “spiritual maturity” —and to practice “discipleship.” I’m not sure what he means by the term; his linked 2014 post on the topic is utterly useless and vague. But in most kinds of evangelicalism nowadays, it is a particularly controlling and dysfunctional form of authoritarianism. Evangelical leaders and blowhards just love discipleship, but it’s really a recipe for abuse and overreach. I’m sure Nieuwhof would just say they’re all doing it wrong.
- “Legitimate Doubt Is Prohibited.” True, and it still is. Even in Nieuwhof’s touchy-feely ultra-Jesusy-woobie-woo church it almost certainly is. Out of every flavor of Christianity, evangelicalism cannot withstand “legitimate doubt.” Doubt must concern itself with approved topics only, express itself in approved ways only, and clear up in an approvable amount of time in the only approved way.
- “They’re not Learning About God.” I’m just repeating the capitalizations as he served ’em, folks. And this one’s also true, but not for the reasons Nieuwhof imagines.
- “They’re not Finding Community.” But it’s always been that way. Christian mythology loves to imagine an ideal form of the religion, and in that ideal form the congregations practice ultimate community. Reality has always worked in the other direction.
He bases this listicle on some market research Barna released in 2014. That might be a big part of why he couldn’t perceive what was happening in Christianity at the time. Barna isn’t doing legitimate, unbiased research like a university might. Rather, they’re developing products with these surveys.
…And then blames those leaving for their “consumerism”
Are you getting the feeling yet that Carey Nieuwhof is just writing whatever will get him attention? This might convince you, then, if nothing else has.
Having blamed congregations, affluence, kiddie sports, and cultural shifts for churches’ attendance drop, around 2016-2017 Nieuwhof went after the people who had completely severed ties with church culture. The attempts he makes at emotional manipulation are just stellar.
Without giving his targets even one single good reason to rejoin church, Nieuwhof hammers at doctrinal points and reframes shit to look like chocolate cake:
- “First if you’re a Christian, church is not something you go to. It’s something you are.” Therefore, Christians must attend church. Period. King Carey will brook no further conversation on this point.
- “Maybe What Bothers You Should Actually Amaze You.” Sure, churches are full of absolutely awful hypocrites who see congregations as hunting grounds for new prey. Christians need to put themselves in harm’s way of these hypocrites anyway, because maybe their imaginary friend will work through them to fix those people. (Not shown: Jesus fixing his own goddamned followers himself, or church leaders making their churches safe for new recruits.)
- “The Ultimate Consumerism Isn’t Going to Church… It’s Walking Away From It.” Without citing any sources, Nieuwhof asserts that solo Christians are less effective than grouped ones. And wanting to Jesus in one’s own way and in one’s own time somehow represents “consumerism,” which is bad, I suppose? He also demands that his targets “Be willing to lose your job, your home, your family and even your life because you follow Jesus.” JFC, this guy. He’s in no danger of any of that himself, but he’s happy to demand it of others. If some foolish Christians take his advice and crash and burn, I doubt he’ll write checks for their bills till they get back on their feet. Christianity is the safest religion in America to pursue.
- “The Church Has Helped Even Those Who Resent The Church.” He doesn’t mean really helping anyone. He means that people who don’t like church might attend a service at some point and “come to know Jesus” through that.
Also without any citations, Nieuwhof insists that “a brand new era desperately needs” the product he sells (active church membership in his flavor of Christianity). Yes, because desperate need always manifests as a protracted and endless decline in membership, credibility, and cultural power. When I’m looking to measure a marketplace’s desperate need for a certain product, I know I always look for a cataclysmic drop in sales.
Carey Nieuwhof just wants everyone to Jesus harder please
Around 2019, Nieuwhof published a blog post that clickbaited the idea of not attending church. I wonder if he’s proud of his title for it:
Why Attending Church No Longer Makes Sense
Oh, that’s a shots fired title for sure! Early in the post, Nieuwhof admits that if he’s not performing a specific leadership task at his church on a particular Sunday, he struggles with justifying attending at all:
I still carry about 30 Sundays a year of teaching and work on some senior level projects, but that leaves me much freer than I’ve ever been on a Sunday morning. Sure, sometimes I host the service or have other roles, but more often than I’ve ever experienced before, I’m free on a Sunday. Which means I’m often an attender. So I feel what the culture is feeling more than ever before.
And on those Sundays when I have no official role, I’m plagued with the question “Why go to church?” [. . .]
Increasingly, I’m convinced there’s no point to merely attending. You drive all the way in to connect with three or four songs, hear the message and then head home. All of that you could almost do by yourself in a much more convenient way.
Slip on Spotify and grab the message via podcast or on demand and boom, you’re covered.
Then, he hits readers with the gotcha zinger:
He doesn’t want readers to just attend church. He doesn’t just want them to consume entertainment product, leave, and then arrive the next Sunday for more entertainment product.
No, he wants church attendees to actively participate and add to the experience for everyone else too!
As we go along in this post, he repeats a lot of the ideas we’ve seen already. He tells readers, “You don’t attend church. You are the church.” That makes as much concrete sense as his gauzy take on “discipleship,” which means it makes none at all. It’s just an evangelical deepity that’s supposed to sound incredibly thought-provoking, but in reality it just brings home what an incredible failure church culture is.
Why this new blahblah exhortation won’t work either
Carey Nieuwhof wants a Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging. But what evangelical Christianity has—and has always had—is a Church of Meaning and Belonging.
That phrasing comes from a great book about evangelical racism, Divided by Faith. In essence, the authors of that book explain that if given a choice between working hard for something and just declaring they have it by fiat, evangelicals will always choose the latter. They don’t want to sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging. They want to just have it.
Anyone who tries to order evangelicals to join the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging is reckoning without their millions of hosts. The tiny percentage of Christians who would naturally want to follow all Nieuwhof’s advice that we’ve seen today are already doing it, or perhaps simply need a little goosing to do more of it. All the rest will simply ignore this newest exhortation.
They’ll ignore it because Carey Nieuwhof is not the High King of Evangelicalism, nor the Pope, nor even the Exalted Grand Poobah of All That is Jesusy. He can’t do a thing to them if they ignore him. Even if he’s using the term “discipleship” in the usual evangelical way, his congregants never lose their civil liberties or their rights. They can just leave his church if he gets out of hand with his demands. Or lie to him about obeying.
As Christianity flails through the 2020s and beyond
As I mentioned, that last post was published around 2019. It’s made the rounds many times since on social media, which is how the Roll to Disbelieve community ran across it. And nothing’s changed since they were published. The pandemic only highlighted just how impotent Christian leaders are to deal with their decline.
But a truth shines forth amid all that decline:
The further Christianity declines, the more it becomes obvious that only temporal power kept it alive as long as it’s lasted.
Nieuwhof lacks that power. He’ll never have it, in fact. But maybe that doesn’t matter at all.
Over the years, he’s blamed all kinds of forces and people for his religion’s decline. Often, his blaming sounds contradictory, or he blames people who have no power whatsoever to affect how a church operates, or he has a let them eat cake mentality about exactly how pastors will put into action what he promises for sure will work.
In the end, he makes his money whether or not his ideas actually work. Like apologists, these church revitalizers won’t ever be penalized if their marks lose everything trying to make their suggestions work.
(As one big example, check out this 2019ish post of his that didn’t make the cut. It’s like he thinks the pastors of small churches have unlimited power and money to put his suggestions into action.)
The result of ultra hardcore Jesusing 24/7/365
No wonder Nieuwhof showed up on a story from Baptist News Global to talk about evangelicals “wandering the wilderness” in 2021. In that story, he talks about his brush with pastoral burnout, and I’m not surprised at all to hear he experienced that.
Despite all that super-Jesusy writing we’ve seen up till now, this story reveals that the man behind the keyboard was suffering intensely. He describes depression, impatience, and intense emotional pain. Though he insists he didn’t do anything really off-limits, he confesses that even his integrity and character suffered.
That is what happens when people throw themselves into Jesusing that hard all the time.
Remember, most Christians won’t Jesus that hard. They’ve already gotten the lucky golden ticket, whatever they think it is: safety from Hell, church connections, or whatever else. But the ones who take that blahblah seriously will throw themselves into it.
And they will suffer.
The evangelical church paradigm has next to no understanding of burnout or its prevention. Its leaders just know they need a lot of people to make their weekly three-ring circus viable, and there are never enough volunteers.
Without a real god in the middle of Christianity to sustain that gogogogogo action all the time, the results of such intense Jesusing are sadly and predictably human.
Though it seems unlikely that Carey Nieuwhof will have that large an impact on evangelicalism going forward (given that he had such a small one in the past), there are lots of hucksters just like him selling their own form of 24/7/365 hardcore Jesusing. And there are still entirely too many Christians making the dire mistake of trusting them. That’s why I wanted to talk about this guy today: he’s a good example of the trope, that’s all.
Once he finally goes away, more will take his place. There’s a place for these hucksters in the new age of Christian decline, and that place’s evangelicals always want their ears tickled.
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