Over on Freebooksy the other day, I ran across a guide for evangelical parents, How to Raise Kids that Follow Christ not Culture. It’s not new. In fact, it was first published in 2014. But Freebooksy was pushing it just this past week, so I’m guessing someone officially involved with it thinks its content is still applicable today. It’s about how evangelical parents can ensure that their kids become fervent, lifelong Christians. And in its weird little way, it is still applicable—just not in the way that evangelical parents should ever want.
(From introduction: Senise peppers. About the Denisovans. The deer tooth necklace find. Isolate your own leftovers’ DNA! The Nature paper describing the DNA extraction technique. Ancient North Eurasians. Tarim Mummies.)
(This post first appeared on Patreon on 5/9/2023. Its audio cast lives there too, and should be available by the time you see this!)
Everyone, meet today’s guide to worried evangelical parents: Mark Musser
Interestingly, Mark Musser isn’t the usual completely unqualified hack offering advice to evangelicals, much less to evangelical parents. His bio at Amazon informs us that he’s actually been educated in the ways of childhood education:
Mark has a Masters in Christian Education, a Masters in Secondary Education Curriculum and Instruction, and has earned more than 100 Continuing Education Credits in the area of children and youth development, family dynamics, conflict-resolution within the family, discipleship in the home, effective discipline, parenting teenagers, dealing with different personalities, etc. He is further trained and certified through the National Center for Fathering (See: www.fathers.com) to lead various seminars and workshops.
Around 2014 when this book was first published, I was noticing a rash of extremely young and inexperienced evangelical men offering
terrible disastrous sage, Jesus-y advice to other evangelical men about how to conduct themselves in marriage. So this bio is refreshing. Of the fathering website mentioned, I see a very obviously evangelical section of it, but overall it’s not overtly religious.
We don’t know exactly where Musser got his qualifications, of course. At least some of it is Christian, so everything he’s learned could easily simply be evangelicals’ substandard, ineffective versions of psychology and family counseling. But overall, he’s more qualified than we normally see around here.
What Mark Musser didn’t mention in his Amazon bio (is important)
I’ve noticed that a great many overtly-religious evangelicals tend to leave out the overtly-religious parts of their qualifications. They do this especially when they want secular people to purchase their products. (I still get a laugh out of all the confused secular reviewers who didn’t realize until they purchased and read it that The Love Dare was top-to-bottom evangelical buzzwords and evangelism pitches.)
And Mark Musser does much the same thing.
In the book, Musser mentions that he once pastored a small church in Wisconsin. You’ll find that claim nowhere on the Amazon listing or bio. So I located it—along with a 2004 sermon he contributed to Sermon Central. That church is so small that it doesn’t even have a website. If it didn’t look nicely-kept-up in Google Maps, I wouldn’t even think it was still alive. It looks like his main duty there was holding funerals for his very elderly flocks.
He doesn’t really show up anywhere else. There’s another pastor named Mark Musser who shows up in different places, but his photo looks markedly different from our Mark Musser.
This is how Mark Musser’s mind operates
It always amazes me to see the horrific things evangelicals tell us about themselves. They want to impress people with how Jesus-y and wise and funny they are, but their anecdotes reveal the opposite. In this case, I found this anecdote on the listing for another of his books, The Christ-Centered Home. Without further ado, here is how Musser managed to horrify me before I’d even opened today’s book.
See, when Musser’s son Kyle was four years old, the kid heard or thought of a silly joke: “Why did the dog sit in the shade? Answer: Because he didn’t want to be a hotdog.”
As small children do, Kyle decided to tell the joke repeatedly. If it was funny once, it’ll be funny the thousandth time, right? Eventually, though, his dad threatened him with abandonment if he didn’t stop:
Finally, I had to sadly inform him that the joke had run its course. If he used the joke any longer, he would be sent to a special institution where kids were not allowed to play video games.“From the Inside Flap,” Amazon listing for The Christ-Centered Home
Just imagine being the four-year-old child hearing that threat! Abandonment is what little children fear most.
But it gets worse. According to Musser’s bio, he’s fostered almost 30 children. So I wonder if that child already had foster siblings—thus making him at least a little aware of exactly what that threat meant. Real child psychologists tell us that threatening small children with abandonment can seriously mess them up for life. (Also: this Reddit thread. I wonder if Musser would insist that it was just a joke, GYAAH.)
Remember, Musser issued this heartbreaking threat over a dumb little-kid joke.
Even wilder, he offers this anecdote to us as an example of why it’s totally okay for him to repeat things to his child all the time, but never okay for the child to do it to him:
I bring this up because, when it comes to the things of God, we should be like Kyle and his joke. Whenever I tell Kyle something about God or His Word and he says, “Dad, you’ve told me this already,” I see that as a victory. He remembers! Then I reply, “And you’ll hear it again sometime in the future too!”
Rules for thee, never for me. Might makes right. It’s never too early to start indoctrinating children in the most fundamental rules in modern evangelicalism, I suppose.
This really doesn’t bode well for his advice, does it?
Evangelical parents have reasons to feel concerned
Of course, even back in 2014, evangelical parents had plenty of reason to fear that their kids might leave the faith. Though the full scope of their decline wasn’t known yet, church leaders were already anecdotally lamenting the steady drain of what they call young people (pronounced as one word, yunpippo, and typically meaning people 15 to 29 years old) from their churches. I was already seeing their blog posts and social-media discussions on the topic.
Musser’s book doesn’t discuss any of the usual scary statistics that evangelical hucksters sling around. But the Amazon listing for The Christ-Centered Home sure does:
A survey done by The Barna Group found that “parents typically have no plan for the spiritual development of their children; do not consider it a priority, have little or no training in how to nurture a child’s faith, have no related standards or goals that they are seeking to satisfy, and experience no accountability for their efforts.”
The results of this are tragic. Recent reports have discovered that between 75% and 85% of children who grow up in evangelical homes leave the church by their sophomore year of college. Every day our children are bombarded by the culture and its message, yet they are not daily receiving the truth and message of Christ. Leaving the church to do that a few scant hours a week does little to combat the culture’s sway.
The Barna Group quote from the first paragraph comes from a 2003 survey they conducted. Barna Group is a for-profit marketing business that sells evangelical materials primarily targeted at frantic church leaders and parents. In this case, they were marketing founder George Barna’s 2003 book about “transforming children into spiritual champions.”
As for those “recent reports,” for years Cold Case Christianity has maintained a database of evangelical decline. In 2001, they recorded a Southern Baptist leader making a similar claim: 70-88% of teens leave Southern Baptist churches by their sophomore year of college. Of interest, this was the only site that accepted the facts of evangelicals’ decline early on. (Until 2015, evangelicals fought those facts tooth and nail; we only heard anecdotes about it.) It’s very likely that this Southern Baptist claim is the source of Musser’s “recent reports.”
Even now, evangelicals deploy similar statistics to peddle their useless advice to fretful evangelical parents and youth leaders.
In its own listing, today’s book just scares potential evangelical purchasers by invoking visions of secular culture stealing their darlings away:
Being a Christian parent in today’s world is no easy task. It seems everything in the culture is set against raising kids that honor God, stand for truth, and impact the world for Christ. This creates fear and doubt.
Something something remnant, something something falling away…
Evangelical parents want to keep their kids’ fandom zeal alive
Last time we met up, we talked about Christianity as a fandom. Parents who are intense members of any fandom might nurture dreams of their kids following in their footsteps.
Evangelicals like to style themselves as the most zealous and devoted of all Christians, so they go double on the fandom score. So here, evangelical parents want their kids to be equally intense members of this fandom as well. They’re aware that most kids won’t be, though they certainly hope their kids will be the exceptions to that rule.
Once evangelicals’ kids are out of college, however—and often even before that—parents’ influence on them becomes sharply limited. At that stage of their lives, children often decide that they’re no longer interested in their parents’ fandom. And all too often, evangelical parents take that disinterest as a declaration of war—or an editorial comment regarding the quality of their parenting.
Other fandoms aren’t nearly so intense. One guy, Colin Walker, wrote movingly of his father’s interest in model trains. Walker, however, soon became a die-hard Star Wars fan instead. Now an adult, he knows his dad is sad that his son didn’t become a model train hobbyist too, but he doesn’t indicate that his dad disowned him over it or that they fight about it. Now that he himself is going to be a father, he hopes only to nurture and support his future child’s interests—whatever they might be (“unless it involves cryptocurrency”).
One only wishes that evangelical parents could be so chill.
Why evangelical parents can’t just be chill
As we mentioned last time, though, no Star Wars fan is going to threaten non-fans with eternal torture in Hell for not worshiping Baby Yoda. Nor will many Star Wars-obsessed parents regard a child’s disinterest as a declaration of war or an editorial comment.
The evangelical fandom promises that anyone who rejects the fandom will suffer. Often, that suffering begins with parents’ retaliatory removal of financial and emotional support. The fandom also makes threats of apostates’ eternal suffering during an imaginary life-after-death in the imaginary realm of Hell.
But the parents will also suffer if their children reject the fandom. Just for a start, they will feel anguished that their children will suffer in Hell forever. Often, they will blame themselves for their kids’ rejection of the fandom. Of course, other people in their religious community will be sure to blame them as well for parenting incorrectly somehow. And there’s never any shortage of different guesses about how these parents erred, either.
The implication in evangelicalism is that if parents follow all the right steps, they will produce children who remain in the fandom for life. Very, very seldom have I seen evangelical parenting guides that concede that even if evangelical parents do everything perfectly, their kids will still likely abandon their faith as soon as they physically can.
We won’t find that concession in the book we’re examining today, How to Raise Kids that Follow Christ Not Culture.
What Mark Musser suggests that evangelical parents do to prevent children’s apostasy
This book is just like every other parenting guide aimed at evangelicals. I’ll just whisk through its main suggestions, since none of them are really unique and many actually overlap.
- Make sure your children really truly mean their prayers, Bible readings, and devotions. Otherwise, your kids will look at porn online.
- Carefully insulate your little darlings from anything that contradicts their indoctrination, especially porn.
- Act as Jesus-y as you possibly can. Make sure your kids see you praying and reading the Bible with regularity.
- Talk to the ceiling every chance you get. This step is especially impactful when done within earshot of a child who doesn’t want to talk to you. You can “pray” about them.
- Study the Bible every chance you get. That 100% ensures that you will totally act more Jesus-y, since greater obedience always follows understanding of the Bible, as the night the day.
- Always attend church. But make sure it’s a proper TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church.
- Make kids do house chores. (Musser’s very proud of having made his son rake leaves, vacuum, fold laundry, and clean toilets from the age of five. Holy shitballs.) Also, make them donate part of their allowance and earnings to charity and send them on short-term mission trips to impoverished countries. All of this stuff will totally give them “servant hearts” that will make them overjoyed to serve others as TRUE CHRISTIANS™ should.
- Get to know your kids very well. Don’t let them have too much privacy or any secrets. (Though by this, he generally means keeping track of what sites online children visit. Parents must ensure kids are not looking at—you guessed it—porn).
- Discipline children properly; don’t abuse them though. Make expectations clear, have consistent and appropriate consequences for disobedience, and offer them clear, consistent boundaries. It’s not an awful suggestion, but bear in mind that this section begins with a terrible faux-joke about a kid asking for water and his dad threatening to spank him if he keeps asking. SO FUNNY HAHA LMFAO!
- Be very involved in your child’s life. I know this one sounds exactly like #8, but I guess he wanted 10 points on his listicle.
When I talk about something being pretty much of a muchness, this listicle could be that saying’s poster child.
It’s worth noting that Musser himself admits he falls down hard on a number of these steps. Interestingly, he also consistently neglects to tell evangelical parents what they should do if their kids don’t want to pray or read the Bible or donate to charity or attend church.
How effective will this book be for evangelical parents? (SPOILER: Not super very.)
You might have already noticed the main problem facing Musser and his listicle:
Not one thing on this list apostasy-proofs evangelical parents’ children. Many ex-Christians and exvangelicals hail from households that did all of these things and more.
His second problem is that he very obviously thinks that looking at unapproved websites, particularly pornographic ones, will deconvert kids. He spends a lot of this book talking about the dangers of porn. But I don’t think that’s true at all, based on years of observing evangelicals and being part of the ex-Christian community. I’ve never heard an extimony talk about porn sites having any great impact on an evangelical kid’s faith. Indeed, plenty of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ look at porn.
Worse, Musser’s not the first evangelical to offer exactly these same suggestions. He certainly won’t be the last. Since he first published this book in 2014, evangelical parents have gotten nothing but nonstop bad news regarding keeping their kids in the fandom. Absolutely nothing these parents or their church leaders do seems to help with retention at all.
But that doesn’t stop those church leaders, along with self-appointed experts, from shoving advice at parents that they promise will work.
Forcing religion on kids who already suspect that it’s evil or fake will only propel them out of the evangelical fandom faster. And consider Musser’s suggestion in #7 to send children on short-term mission trips (STMs). STM hucksters and trip organizers certainly agree with him regarding the value of these trips. However, I’ve never once seen any study correlating this poor-ism and wasted money with greater young-adult retention. Though I’ve no official data either way, I strongly suspect that they might actually have the opposite impact, the same as baptizing children way too young.
But I guess evangelicals need to feel like they’re doing something here
The truth about evangelical children’s apostasy is simple: No parent can completely insulate a child from the real facts that contradict evangelicals’ claims. With every passing year, children get more savvy in evaluating marketing claims—and less willing to compartmentalize their beliefs or belong to groups that hurt people, especially marginalized people.
And to a certain extent, evangelical parents can’t force their kids to stay evangelical against their wills. If those kids are already out on their own, their parents have lost almost all of their threatening and bargaining power.
Unfortunately, evangelicals simply don’t have any way to sell their kids a fandom they actually want: one that generally treats people well and values its members, makes no false claims, and is worth the price of membership. Star Wars—and countless other communities and fandoms—can offer all of that. And if their kids don’t wanna cosplay Boba Fett, their parents won’t take it as a sign of poor parenting.
It’s been gratifying and pleasing to see each successive wave of young adults rejecting Christianity in greater and greater numbers. When those young adults have their own children, they’ll raise them without religion—making it exceedingly unlikely that those children will ever be indoctrinated in the first place. So when those children grow up and have children of their own, secularization will only accelerate.
I like thinking that parenting guides like this one will, in the future, be considered by scholars to be part of a series of desperate last-gasp evangelical attempts to recapture Gen Z before it was lost forever.
Hey, a Space Princess can dream!
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