Two recent stories about prayer come to us from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)—and both reveal evangelicals’ false narratives around it. Worse, one of those stories represents nothing less than naked opportunism at the expense of the growing number of people suffering through the new conflict/war between Israel and Hamas. It’s as disgusting as it is self-serving and predatory. But really, should we expect anything better these days out of the desperate leaders of this increasingly-irrelevant denomination?
The SBC thinks evangelicals need more help with prayer
Our first story comes to us from a post made to the SBC’s “Baptist Press Toolbox.” This is apparently a resource center for SBC-lings who need to learn how to Jesus. It’s called “How to spend a day in prayer” and it’s written by one Kie Bowman. This past March, Bowman retired as his church’s lead pastor, though he retains a hold on power through the title of “Senior Pastor Emeritus” there.
Somewhere along the way, Bowman apparently became the SBC’s official National Director of Prayer. I’m not sure what this obvious sinecure involves exactly, but it’s another busy-work project for the denomination’s powerful Executive Committee (EC). They got orders in 2021 to start a prayer ministry project of some sort. You can find information about the order on page 63, item #7, of their 2021 Annual Report:
7. Assist churches through elevating the ministry of prayer.
Provide strategic leadership to lift up and promote coordinated prayer for spiritual awakening, ministry effectiveness, and the completion of the Great Commission.
The underlining in the original means that this item is new. They’ve never really had an official Ministry of Prayer.
The guy leading this new prayer project
In his new capacity, Kie Bowman writes a lot of posts about how to pray, when to pray, and what to address in prayer. Back when he got the gig, he also stated his intention to hold “training events” and “powerful prayer gatherings.” I haven’t seen much of those.
Mostly, it seems more like he writes fanfic about evangelicals’ most-treasured narratives around prayer, and then everyone pretends he’s totally for realsies on point. Dude doesn’t even try to make his ideas sound plausible. They are entirely the product of undiluted Low Christianity folklore. (Low Christianity is the less ritualistic, less scholarly/critical, more magical-thinking-oriented end of the religion.)
It’s not even half surprising, either, that this guy is what the Old Guard decided would calm everyone down in the midst of their huge sex-abuse crisis, which was taking on a life of its own by mid-2021.
And yes, Bowman’s definitely Old Guard. Nobody in the Pretend Progressives would talk up Ronnie Floyd (a bigtime Old Guard leader and the ex-commander of the EC) like Bowman does in this 2021 post about the new ministry department, nor present this new project as a wonderful solution for the SBC’s various woes. As Bowman put it in that 2021 post:
Prayer appears so ubiquitous it seems to be everywhere and belongs to everyone and therefore it can be taken for granted. In our case, the danger is not that we don’t believe in prayer, but that we haven’t intentionally harnessed our energies.
See? The problem with prayer is not that it doesn’t actually do anything in the real world. No, the Big Problem Here is that SBC-lings aren’t working together with all the praying they do! All they have to do, to make the magic work at last, is harness their energies together. Somehow, in almost 2000 years of Christianity being a thing, nobody has thought of this strategy yet.
Yes, he’s basically suggesting that SBC-lings make like Captain Planet to defeat their enemies:
The timing of Bowman’s recent essay and his new position is quite curious to me, coming as it does amid the SBC’s ongoing sex-abuse crisis.
A quick timeline of the SBC’s sex-abuse crisis
In 2019, the Houston Chronicle ran their groundbreaking report about the SBC’s sex-abuse crisis. Their journalists called the report “Abuse of Faith.” It was a good title. They’d uncovered hundreds of victims—mostly underage girls at the time—and many dozens of predatory sex abusers hiding in SBC ministry at all levels of power. Worse, the Chronicle uncovered evidence that the SBC’s denominational leaders and biggest-name pastors not only knew about this abuse, but actively helped shuffle predators around churches to shield them from any legal or professional consequences.
At first, the SBC tried its usual tactics. Their then-President, J.D. Greear (a megachurch pastor himself), cried crocodile tears about how very very sad and surprised he was about all of it. He forgot to mention that the Chronicle had told him about the investigation at least a solid month before running the story.
But that year at their big Annual Meeting, it was obvious that the flocks weren’t having it. They wanted real and definitive action to be taken. They wanted abusers held accountable, along with anyone who’d ever helped them escape justice.
The SBC had already been aligning into two different camps, and this crisis crystallized that alignment. These two factions wasted no time in outlining their plans for dealing with the crisis (neither name is formal; they’re just what I call them):
- The Old Guard wanted to Jesus harder, since Jesusing harder has always fixed everything forever.
- The Pretend Progressives made halfhearted mouth-noises about real reform to prevent more sex abuse and to hold abusers accountable. Of note, everything on this abbreviated timeline happened under a Pretend Progressive SBC President.
In 2020, Russell Moore—a Pretend Progressive who led the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC)—infuriated the Old Guard by pushing for reform. The Old Guard, which at this point almost completely controlled the EC, very nearly fired him.
In 2021, the flocks demanded a full, transparent investigation at the Annual Meeting. A few months later in October, the EC (which now contained more Pretend Progressives) voted to help that investigation happen. Ronnie Floyd, the Old Guard president of the EC, immediately quit his post in response. They still haven’t found a new one. At least they’d driven Russell Moore out earlier in June.
In 2022, the EC reached a settlement with a prominent sex-abuse victim, Jennifer Lyell. That summer, they also released the full investigation’s final report. Not long after, they also released their unofficial secret database of SBC ministers accused or convicted of sex abuse.
Now in 2023, the SBC has made a few halfhearted steps toward the reforms demanded and promised years earlier. Every inch forward happens at the cost of the Old Guard’s kicking and screaming. The Old Guard has lost a number of very pivotal battles to the Pretend Progressives, sure. These days, though, both factions are clearly much more concerned with women pastors.
All told, the flocks stayed on topic for far longer than I ever expected. But their Dear Leaders got their way in the end.
In dysfunctional authoritarian groups like theirs, it couldn’t have ended in any other way.
Self-congratulatory hogwash about prayer
So with all that lore and backstory behind us, let’s turn our attention again to the latest post by Kie Bowman (relink). In it, Bowman tries to advise SBC-lings how to pray for literally an entire day.
As you might expect, it’s an overblown exhalation of pure corn-flecked bullshit. One can just imagine how self-important Bowman felt while advising SBC-lings to be extra, dextra careful about how they go about their prayathon. First, they must make sure everyone in their lives knows that they will be unavailable that day BECAUSE THEY WILL BE PRAYING ALL DAY LONG, OKAY? ALL DAY! ALLLLL OF IT!
Spending a day in prayer requires both spiritual devotion and practical preparation. For instance, your family and others close to you will need to know you will be unavailable during your day of prayer. In fact, the day needs to be written on your calendar for numerous reasons, primarily to avoid distractions.
Then, go through rituals designed to heighten how important this prayathon really is:
Disconnect the phone. Ignore your iPad, laptop, television, and other unwanted interferences. Your entire focus should be on God and your devotion to Him.
Choose your materials ahead of time. You will want your Bible (avoid the temptation of an electronic version – this is a time to go old-school). Take a notebook to capture thoughts and impressions as the Spirit speaks to you.
Remember, though, we’re talking here about people who can’t even agree on what they need to do to stop the constant sex-abusing of children in their own churches. They have constant scandals erupting in their denomination around yet more sex abuse uncovered. Their church leaders still get caught to this day shielding sex abusers.
But sure, okay, they need to get super duper ostentatious about prayer now! That’s what’ll fix everything!
Eventually, Bowman gets down to seriously suggesting that SBC-lings pray for “no less than three hours, but six or seven hours is better.” He also very earnestly informs SBC-lings that they must be very careful about inviting others to the prayathon:
If anyone in your group doesn’t understand that every minute of your day is a precious escape from the ordinary and, therefore, not intended for conversation with others, avoid them.
It’s impossible not to laugh at how utterly self-important he is. But he’s doing it for a reason, and it’s not just because it’s how he earns money these days.
And the god who requires all this useless busy-work prayer
Bowman’s just tickling SBC-lings’ itching ears. He’s just spoon-feeding them their own folklore about prayer.
In Low Christianity folklore, prayer is magic. It is a hotline to Jesus himself. And Jesus stands by waiting with held breath for every single call from his followers. In response, he moves the heavens and Earth—and breaks all the laws of reality itself—at their request.
In fact, the greater the number of Christians praying, goes the thinking, the more likely their prayers will be granted. Sure, Jesus already knows ahead of time exactly what he’s gonna do till the eventual heat death of the universe, but somehow their asking changes his mind about some things. Or doesn’t. Sometimes, he just wants to hear them beg for basic care like food, health care, and safety. He’s really loving that way.
In the real world, however, prayer is the classic illustration of magical thinking. This term means doing stuff that the doer thinks will influence a real-world outcome, but which doesn’t affect that outcome at all. It’s why the Scarlet Witch looks absolutely ridiculous working her magic without CGI:
Out here in Reality-Land, we know that you can gesture at falling rocks all you want. But if you’re standing under them, you will take serious damage regardless. That about covers
flybys prayer, I guess.
But what of the god who demands this nonstop prayer from his followers? What kind of mewling, narcissistic god even wants that kind of nonstop attention? Doesn’t he already know what he’s going to do?
For that matter, he should also know that his followers’ lives are super-duper-short compared to eternity. But he wants them to waste big portions of it talking to him. Why doesn’t he want them to focus on charity work with that level of care?
What a stupid, poorly-focused god. What ridiculous, poorly-chosen priorities. And what hypocritical followers, restricting their care for others to ceiling-babble in hopes that Jesus does that thankless chore for them.
Why it’s easy to focus on prayer instead of real action
It comes down to this:
Every hour spent praying Bowman-style is another hour that evangelicals don’t need to spend comforting the mourning, feeding the hungry, clothing the nekkid, or clamoring for justice for the abused. It’s their grand, cosmic substitute for being decent human beings. Even Jesus himself admonished his followers about using such substitutes. He even threatened them with Hell if they disobeyed:
You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘Do not murder’ and ‘Anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to the fire of hell.
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
Reconcile quickly with your adversary, while you are still on the way to court. Otherwise, he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. [Matthew 5:21-26; see also Luke 12:57]
(Not that I think anyone actually said this to anybody or that Jesus is even a spirit who does magic nowadays, but Christians are supposed to think so!)
Centuries ago, Christians successfully squirmed free of this direct command. Very few of them take it seriously now, with evangelicals far less and hardline evangelicals not at all. That last crowd didn’t join up and stick around to be kind to poor people and do charity work. No, any hardline evangelicals who are voluntarily part of the tribe by now are there because this flavor of Christianity flatters them, makes them feel important, grants them easy access to unfettered power, and requires absolutely nothing from them that they don’t want to give.
That’s why Item #7 on page 63 of the 2021 Annual Report is a new Ministry of Prayer, and not a Ministry of GETTING SHIT DONE AT LONG LAST.
And that brings us to the truly disgusting part of the prayer narrative—the second story of this night.
The SBC calls for “urgent” prayer for the Middle East!
For many decades now, since at least the 1950s I’d reckon, evangelicals have had a hard-on for Israel. When Israel became a country in 1948, the Endtimes clock began counting down. That event and that date were absolutely instrumental to evangelicals’ fantasies. The Endtimes, after all, would happen within that generation.
Gosh, Cas, I hear you asking, how long is a generation supposed to be? That answer varies, but usually evangelicals settle on 40 years. Boy oh boy, did they ever have egg on their faces when 1988 came and went without the Rapture! Without that one-generation tether, their Rapture predictions have been getting progressively more goofy as the years have advanced. At the same time, the Middle East has done its thing as if no gods at all have ever been involved in their region or their people’s lives.
Now Israel is understandably supermegapissed at Hamas for their invasion this week. They are promising retribution.
The entire conflict is well above my pay grade. I’m not here to Amateur Hour my way through what must be a very thorny geopolitical problem. I’m completely aghast at the barbaric cruelty that began this current conflict, and I’m equally aghast at the retribution that already sheds more innocent blood. I have always wanted Israel/Jews and Muslims/Palestinians to resolve their differences without involving injustice and bloodshed. That outcome seems further away from us than ever. Sometimes, there just aren’t any good guys on the field.
But don’t worry, everyone!
The SBC’s International Missionary Board (IMB, the not-quite-so-corrupt counterpart to the North American Mission Board (NAMB, lmao)) has swung into action! Yes indeed! Crisis averted:
IMB issue calls to prayer for Holy Land, persecuted church
Yay, it’ll all be okay now! Here’s what the IMB had to say today about this recent horror:
As we watch devastating events taking place in the Holy Land, we are not mere spectators. We don’t just see headlines. We see people. Right now they are injured, frightened, missing. They are lost.
As this crisis unfolds, we will not ignore it. We will not be silent. We will not stand still.
Nice! Sounds like they’re ready at last to put some marching boots on their feet, right? So, what shall they do while they’re “not stand[ing] still?” What action shall they take, specifically?
We will cry out to God on their behalf, asking Him to bring about true peace as only He can. Join us now as we pray, together.
As their post progresses, we realize they ultimately want only one thing from Jesus:
For the SBC to come out of this horrifying situation with more recruits than ever.
I’m not kidding or exaggerating or using hyperbole. That’s what the SBC hopes Jesus will do about Israel/Hamas: turn it into a mass evangelism event to beat the Great Awakening.
It’s a good thing their god doesn’t exist. The notion of a god “blessing” the SBC with tons of converts amid this fighting horrifies me beyond words. If he needed Hamas militants to murder schoolchildren hiding in a basement and brutally rape innocent young women to death in order to score converts for Southern Baptists, then he is a really terrible and weak god.
What the actual hell is happening
Here’s the grand master list of what the IMB wants SBC-lings to pray for super-duper-hard (maybe even all day, like Kie Bowman suggested one day previously!):
- “Physical needs.” The IMB doesn’t suggest donating to charity efforts or doing anything. Instead, the IMB wants SBC-lings to talk to their ceilings very hard and ask Jesus to “bless” aid workers and “provide opportunities for them to share His love.” That last bit means evangelism.
- “Lostness.” Obviously, there are tons of Muslims and Jews in that area. The IMB wants SBC-lings to pray “that God will use current events to draw the lost into a relationship with His Son.” That also means evangelism.
- “Gospel access.” Noting that “believers,” meaning evangelicals like themselves, are in the area, the IMB asks SBC-lings to pray “that believers will have attitudes of peace amid the current situation” so that the heathens around them “will ask them about the peace they have in times of trouble.” As you might guess, this too means evangelism.
- “The Church.” When capitalized like that, it means Christians generally. The IMB wants SBC-lings to pray that local Christians in Israel/Gaza “will seek to share and be the light of Jesus to their neighbors.” And that means evangelism too.
There’s a second generic section following this one that asks SBC-lings to pray for persecuted Christians. I think that’s just boilerplate, since it talks about some November prayer shindig. But it just makes the IMB’s post worse. Out of everyone I think needs divine help right now, I wouldn’t even think to name poor widdle evangelicals who FAFO in countries that don’t like them.
If prayer really did anything magical, then the SBC’s sex-abuse crisis wouldn’t ever have happened. But here we are, with the SBC wanting prayer for converts in this new crisis, and very little focus paid anymore on that earlier devastating PR disaster. At least nobody can blame this new fight on the SBC’s own hand-picked pastors.
I hope prayer is all they do forevermore
If you hadn’t guessed already, yes, I’m way past sickened by this IMB post today in Baptist Press. These are the people who want to rule over all of us heathens. They want to dominate our lives and make us live by idiotic, poorly-drawn-up rules that they can’t even follow. They want to take over our country and make it into their own personal Republic of Gilead. And now there’s this huge conflict in Israel, and all they can think about is how many converts they hope to make amid it all.
This, right here, is a living part of why the SBC is falling apart as a denomination. This, right here, is why people who know evangelicals don’t like them much. They are predatory and desperate to reverse their decades-old decline, and that makes them particularly dangerous right now. Their leaders are likely celebrating that the whole sex-abuse crisis will fade away under the storm of violence around Israel.
I guess we can be thankful that all their biggest-name leaders are suggesting right now is simply talking to the ceiling. We could have all gotten really unlucky: They might have decided to try to do something real. Who even knows what might have happened if they had thrown real money at those four goals? Or multiplied their missionary efforts to make it happen? Or sought to buy politicians in the region to speak for their evangelism interests?
Gosh, we scraped by just barely, didn’t we? Christians who rely on magical thinking aren’t a problem for anyone, really, as long as they don’t decide they need to help poor widdle overworked Jesus along a little by taking matters into their own hands.
Today’s story is really ultimately about people who want to think of themselves as good people who do good things, but without all the awful work involved in actually doing them. As pointless as prayer ultimately is in terms of doing real things in Reality-Land, it’ll make those doing it feel very important to Jesus, and give them good feelings of Having Done Something Very Definitive Here.
That’s all they ever wanted, clearly, even if it contradicts every single one of their claims about themselves and their god.
If you want to help in real ways:
- Red Cross
- Doctors Without Borders
- CNN’s fundraiser
- Time’s big list of charities active in the region
(Disclosure: I regularly donate to Doctors Without Borders, but I have no formal relationship with any charity.)
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