As Christianity continues to decline and more news comes out that is anything but encouraging, Thom Rainer has come out with yet another blog post trying to staunch the hemorrhaging blood from evangelical churches. This time around, he’s attacking Christian pastors who make excuses about boosting church attendance. Today we’ll be exploring not only the attempt but why he made it. There’s a reason for it, and it has very little to do with actually doing anything meaningful about Christianity’s ongoing decline.

(This post first appeared on Patreon on 9/13/2022. If you’d like early access to posts, please consider becoming a patron!)

A timely listicle

Really, Thom Rainer’s blog listicle is just another sign of the times for Christianity. It’s called:

Five (Seemingly) Well-Intending Sentences That Are Hurting the Church

By “the Church,” of course, Thom Rainer means the entirety of Christendom, not any individual or particular church group or building. In Christianese, even the term “church” (minus the “the” and the capitalization) can mean a group that meets in a church, or the building itself. So here, Thom Rainer means that these “sentences” hurt Christianity as a whole.

I can see why he’s concerned. Not only did Pew Research come out with a new study just today that sounds absolutely devastating, but the American Bible Society recently put out their 2022 State of the Bible report that contains some equally bad news about Gen Z.

In short, America continues to become more secular by the year, while Christian affiliation continues to fall. Christians can’t even keep pace with population growth. Though a surprising number of unaffiliated people do convert into Christianity, they simply can’t outweigh the number of Christians leaving it.

I’m not sure if Thom Rainer wrote his listicle post before or after those two studies came out. Sometimes, he likes to rerun older posts. But either way, this post is surprisingly timely.

Church attendance is becoming more and more of an issue for Christian leaders

Even before the pandemic, church attendance was becoming a big issue for Christian leaders. In 2018, Gallup found that the number of people admitting they seldom or never attend church rose to 48% of respondents, while people claiming to attend weekly or almost every week declined to 38% of respondents. That same year, another group of Christian researchers at pinned Americans’ actual church attendance rates at around 17% of the population.

This why researchers have changed the definition of “regular churchgoer.” It used to mean being in church almost every Sunday. Nowadays, we learn from, someone can qualify as a regular churchgoer if they just show up “three out of every eight Sundays.” That means missing over half of a church’s Sunday services! How times have changed..!

And then in 2020, of course, the pandemic wreaked utter havoc on those already anemic numbers. From what I can see, even adding digital options to churches’ lineups came nowhere near setting things right again. Pastors haven’t even figured out how to count digital attendance, and without strict and scrupulous oversight it seems to me like they might just try to present digital attendance as (shall we put it gently) optimistically and aspirationally as possible. As Cary Nieuwhof put it:

I’m also a little saddened to read hundreds of comments from other church leaders who jumped on the stat that 49% of churches are growing with suspicion and cynicism, asking everything from whether 3 second Facebook views count, whether pastors are using exaggerated multipliers, and whether any of this is real at all.

Then, he laments how awful it is that anyone’s initial response to these reports is “suspicion.”

(I think suspicion needs to be the rule with Christians, especially when they’re discussing their religion. In fact, we need to distrust Christian claims about anything until they are proven true with objective receipts. So far, Jesus has proven himself singularly unconcerned with his followers’ shocking, incredible dishonesty.)

Churches must focus on increasing church attendance

Like every other religious ministry in the world, churches are, at heart, businesses. They must balance their books every month just like every other business. Likewise, their incoming funds must equal or exceed the outgoing bills.

Since churches get the vast majority of their money from their congregations, church attendance is obviously going to be high up on their list of concerns!

When congregants decide to skip church, they usually also keep their money at home with them. Irregular attendees aren’t as invested in their churches as regular ones. And when they eschew church attendance altogether, that is going to seriously impact the income of their former church.

A church can grow its income in two ways, therefore: by getting existing congregants to attend more regularly, or by adding new congregants to boost numbers that way.

That’s harder than it sounds, though

A church is always going to be bleeding members. Sometimes, this happens when members pass away or move. These might be considered virtuous excuses for their absences. Most of the time, churches lose members when they switch affiliations or simply decide to stop attending any church at all.

And wow, Americans in particular do love to church-hop. About half of Americans have looked for a new church at some point, according to a 2016 Pew Research report. Of those who’ve switched, only about a third did so due to a move. But whatever church they join, without concerted recruitment efforts it won’t be enough to add substantially to the attendance rolls.

If a church is not working its collective ass off to find new blood, the congregation will dissolve through simple attrition. The problem is that Christians hate recruiting new people for their churches. Only a very, very few are naturally gifted with the people skills needed to do that with regularity. (Christians say such rare birds have the spiritual gift of evangelism, though almost all authorities in the religion insist that everyone needs to evangelize regardless.)

For years now, Christian leaders have begged the flocks to do more recruitment. And for years in turn, the flocks have nodded along in agreement, then quietly refused to do it.

When we look at this listicle, it seems like Thom Rainer has discovered that some pastors choose to focus on not rocking the boat with their existing congregations.

Thom Rainer is very upset about church attendance

In his listicle, Thom Rainer names five “well-intentioned” sentences that he thinks are poor excuses to ignore church attendance. One of these might come from laypeople, but all the others are from pastors. All of them, he thinks, need to stop.

1) “The church is not the building; it’s the people.”

2) “Our church is a discipleship church rather than an evangelistic church.”

3) “Jesus and I get along just fine by ourselves.”

4) “It’s not how many are attending; it’s how many we are sending.”

5) “We need to grow in discipleship before we start a new church or a new campus.”

And oh boy, y’all, he is at this thunderous, no-excuses taskmaster best here. Generalissimo Thom is my favorite Thom. Y’all, he will brook no excuses! None! How dare anybody think that church attendance is optional! Or that boosting church attendance isn’t essential!

But he has to approach the matter carefully. He can’t just flat-out say why churches must bring in new recruits with regularity, nor why they must focus on recruitment nowadays more than ever. He can’t reveal the nature of churches as businesses with bottom lines and budgets. Instead, he has to couch it all in the most careful Christianese imaginable. He’s what he has to say about the second item:

In other words, our church and its members are not reaching people with the gospel. But we will pretend it’s okay and say our members are growing more deeply as believers. The New Testament clearly affirms that a maturing disciple is an evangelistic disciple.

Whew. I’ll give him this: he’s good at Jesus-ifying secular business ideas.

Oooh, check out this fire and brimstone!

And I get why Thom Rainer speaks here to pastors, not to laypeople. His entire business model is a pastor-facing one. He doesn’t really talk to laypeople at all in his writing; instead, he addresses pastors.

Pastors, not laypeople, purchase his books and attend his seminars. So it’s kind of weird that he included that third item about “Jesus and I” in the first place. I guess he just wanted to get this dig in and couldn’t find a better way to do it:

No, you don’t. Jesus wants you to get off your idle posture and connect with other believers. From Acts 2 to Revelation 3, the Bible is about the local church or written in the context of the local church. The local church is God’s plan A, and he didn’t give us a plan B.

My goodness, our little kitten has claws!

But it won’t really work.

Why shaming and chiding pastors won’t work at all

Pastors don’t typically leave money sitting on the table. If there’s a reasonable way to find money for their churches, they’ll pursue it. Sometimes, they get a little stuck in their ways, just like secular business owners might, and maybe they’ll need a Kitchen Nightmares visit from an expert who can shake them loose and get them set on a better path.

I don’t believe for a second that Thom Rainer is that expert for failing churches. At the same time, I can’t blame pastors for believing his self-marketing and trying his methods. After all, there really isn’t much rigorous, trustworthy, methodologically sound research regarding church growth. Instead, the field consists of self-interested hucksters all the way down. And that’s all evangelicals would trust anyway.

But overall, if pastors decide to focus on their existing congregations, I trust them to understand that if they don’t, then their existing income will dribble away through neglect. If they know for sure they at least have these 50 people in hand (or however large their congregations are), I can easily see why they choose to do their best to hold onto those people and keep their commitments and loyalty secure.

More to the point, if a pastor’s existing congregation has firmly stated a boundary around evangelism and have already decided upon their preferred level of church involvement, and that pastor continues to push hard for more church attendance and for increased evangelism to boost attendance numbers, then that congregation may well abandon the church anyway.

In a suddenly hostile environment where church growth seems as much luck of the draw and golden-boy pastors’ overwhelming personal charisma as anything else, the pastors of non-growing churches are damned by Thom Rainer no matter what they do. They might as well play it safe by not angering or alienating their current congregations.

This listicle might just be pastors being polite to nosey outsiders

In a lot of ways, Thom Rainer’s listicle sounds like polite brush-offs by pastors to nosey outsiders like him. And I think he realizes that, because here’s how he ends his post:

The Apostle Paul was clear that the life of a Christian would be challenging, even painful. Among other things, Paul was beaten, imprisoned, confronted by angry mobs, shipwrecked, worked to exhaustion, forced to endure sleepless nights, and deprived of food (see 2 Corinthians 6:5).

Our life is to be one of obedience. The five sentences above are usually clever verbiage to cloak disobedience.

You can almost hear his snide accusation:

What, you slacking pastors aren’t willing to face hardship for Jesus? Not willing to be TRUE CHRISTIANS™ by doing the stuff Generalissimo Thom thinks you should be doing? You’re just giving excuses! Get with the program! Do as I say! Or else you’re not Jesus-ing right! Sure, you might end up homeless and destitute, with your family alongside you in the streets.

Who cares? JESUS HARDER, you slackers!

The social costs of trying to boost church attendance (won’t be paid by Thom Rainer)

But if some intimidated pastors take his advice and actually push their flocks to evangelize harder, or they don’t do their requisite feather-soothing and chin-scratching of their congregants, and their churches fire them, you can bet on one thing above all. Thom Rainer won’t send any of them any of his money to help them get by until they find their next gig.

Like we see with pastors demanding the flocks evangelize, the costs of following those instructions are borne by those carrying them out, while their Dear Leaders reap their meager rewards. It doesn’t matter at all if the flocks lose all their friends, their jobs, their families’ love, or anything else. If even one of them finds a new recruit, their leader will be overjoyed.

And if none of them do and they still suffer all those consequences, well, that’s just what the Bible said would happen to TRUE CHRISTIANS™. They need to get out there and sell harder. Don’t stop obeying now! That big win is just around the corner! They’re about to go really big. Thom Rainer can feel it!

Meanwhile, Thom Rainer’s got their money. He’s paying his bills regardless of whether his advice works or not. It’s not like he’ll refund any pastors who lose their jobs and shirts after giving in to his demands.

That’s all this listicle is about, and all this entire new industry of church revitalization has ever been about:

Making people like Thom Rainer money while the Christian money train is still running.

It won’t always be running, after all.

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.


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