Every new generation, it seems, has its advice for getting their generation back to church. It always comes down to Jesus-ing harder, too. This time around, it’s a Gen Z person giving this wide-eyed advice. But as good as it sounds to the people giving it, and to the ones nodding along with it, it’s a fool’s errand. It won’t happen, and it can’t happen—because of the nature of fundagelicalism itself. Let’s look at what it means to Jesus harder, and then let’s explore why fundagelicals keep latching onto this idea as the way to save their tribe from irrelevance.
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Millennial Christian: “Just Jesus harder!” Gen Z Christian: “Just Jesus harder!”
Years ago, Rachel Held Evans wrote what I consider to be the iconic just Jesus harder, y’all post. It’s what made me perk up and start listening for this exact message. She wrote it way back in 2013, before evangelicals really even accepted that they even were in decline.
After correctly outlining all the problems with evangelicalism that cause Millennials to reject and leave church culture, she says in that post, invariably some older evangelical pastor will decide that the answer here is to have “hipper worship bands.” She writes:
What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith.
It was heartfelt, and I won’t fault her for that. I’m sure she meant well. To her, just as it does for all similar advice-givers in Christendom, the answer to bringing their generation into church culture again is to land on a faith that looks like their own particular ideal form of Christianity.
Weird how that works.
I saw tons of that advice when Millennials were younger. And now, we have Gen Z giving it too.
What it means to Jesus harder
In Christianity, almost nothing is a monolith. No beliefs can be said to be universal, except perhaps these:
- There might be a god of some kind.
- Jesus is somehow important in the grand scheme of things.
In the wild and wacky world of Christianity, Christians adopt a variety of claims that amount to a package of beliefs. Then, they all too often declare that this package is the One True Way to Be Christian.
Of course, a lot of Christians accept other packages as valid ways to be Christian. They just prefer theirs. At most, deep down they might think they’ve arrived at the best way to do it. As my extremely-Catholic grandmother once said of charismatic Catholics, “They’re not like us.” And that’s all that she said.
But whatever Christians’ packages of belief tell them to do, it’s all busy work of one kind or another. One package might require the reciting of canned prayers with the help of a strand of special beads. Another might require speaking in tongues as evidence of
spiritual imaginary rebirth. Still another might require extensive studying of the Bible in “the original Greek and Hebrew,” or regular church attendance.
(We’re using the real definition here of being there for every service, not the one most religious researchers have adopted out of necessity, which is showing up at least three out of every eight Sunday mornings.)
When Christians think about getting more intense about their beliefs, they don’t think about doing the stuff Jesus actually supposedly told them to do, like giving away everything they have or making a regular habit of comforting widows and clothing orphans. Instead, they pursue whatever busy-work their package prescribes.
It doesn’t do much at all for them as human beings. For that matter, it does nothing for their fellow human beings. They’re not even doing anything real. They’re just, well, Jesus-ing harder.
The fun begins when they start thinking that all it’ll take to rescue Christianity from decline is for everyone else to Jesus harder—just like they do.
A well-indoctrinated Gen Z has advice for church leaders now
I found this post, “How to Get Gen Z to Church,” over at The Gospel Coalition (TGC). TGC is a hard-right-wing, culture-war-embracing, bigoted-and-sexist-for-Jesus, literalist and inerrantist, intensely-Calvinist fundagelical site. Its mostly-Millennial writers and editors can be counted upon to have the worst hot takes imaginable on any topic. But they got a brand-new writer, Kyla Hardee, to write this one. It’s her one and so far only post on TGC.
In her bio blurb on the site, we learn that she’s a college student who writes a very chirpy blog about how she Jesus-es super-hard. When I checked out her blog, the first thing I noticed is her bigoted hot take on same-sex marriage. She still thinks love is nothing but a set of actions, so it should be completely under a person’s control. Oh dear.
Gal’s indoctrinated hard. I was too at her age, so I know how that goes.
When I was right about her age, in fact, my beliefs collided hard with the anguish and suffering of a gay friend of mine who very clearly would have happily controlled his feelings if that’d been remotely possible. I wonder if hers would do the same, or if she’d just drill down more on her bigotry. I wonder how many gay people she needs to meet to realize that her indoctrination is simply wrong there, and from there to wonder what else it gets wrong. (Hint: everything.)
In her equally-chirpy TGC post, she reveals an equally head-desking non-solution to evangelical decline: Just Jesus harder, everyone!
Why Gen Z leaves church culture, according to a well-indoctrinated Gen Z
Kyla Hardee begins her post with the usual scary statistics about how few Gen Z people bother with Christianity or church culture these days. She gets those statistics from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) publisher Lifeway, or from TGC itself, but overall they’re correct. Gen Z is the least Christian generation in America since we began measuring such things.
But her takeaway from all these statistics is mind-bogglingly dense. Y’all, she knows exactly why Gen Z doesn’t want to get involved with church!
Our culture allures us with the lie of self-sufficiency. It tells us we can live life on our own. It feeds us the myth that satisfaction can be found outside of God and his people.
Except “our culture” does nothing of the sort, and her flavor of Christianity certainly won’t solve that problem. If she could talk to any ex-Christians, she’d quickly discover that the trend of ex-Christians feeling much better about life isn’t a “myth” at all. Nor that nobody leaves due to wishing to pursue “the lie of self-sufficiency.”
Her product doesn’t do what she thinks it does, that’s all. People increasingly recognize that. Gen Z people in particular don’t have time to waste on products that require lots of resources but give nothing back, and so they leave.
How to solve Gen Z’s problem: Just Jesus harder!
After that wide-eyed exploration of The Big Problem Here, Hardee offers up some pseudo-solutions. She doesn’t think any of these will work, of course. Rather, she offers them to rile up the audience before giving them exactly what they began reading her post to hear. I love this manipulation so much I’m going to reprint all of it:
Do we need more appealing church services, an updated building, or new programs? Does the church need to compromise on core doctrines to draw younger generations? Should churches be more tolerant and accepting?
No, at the root of the church dropout rate is an unbiblical view of the church and God’s people. Instead, Gen Z needs a right understanding of the church, its purpose, and our desperate need for the body of Christ.
[That sound you just heard is Mr. Captain laughing his ass off.]
See? It’s just that easy! Gen Z kids just don’t understand how valuable and important church culture is. Once fundagelicals correct their grievous ignorance, they’ll flood into churches! And to communicate this importance, churches must Jesus harder than they have ever Jesus-ed before:
With good intentions, many church leaders go to great lengths to get Gen Z in the door. But Gen Z will only stay in church if our desires transcend that of this world. Trying to attract us by making services cool, programs exciting, and social opportunities abundant can miscommunicate the purpose of the church. The purpose isn’t to draw those who are so attracted to the world that they want their local church to reflect it but to invite those who desire to be different to be transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It’s helpful to consider how to engage Gen Z, but ultimately, the church will only be appealing to Gen Z when we embrace the things that God embraces. We will love the local church when we love what God loves and value what he values.
The sheer arrogant obliviousness here echoes what we’ve heard so many times out of her tribemates. Missionaries and evangelists in particular think that The Big Problem Here is that people just don’t understand their product.
Who I blame for this entire TGC post
Please understand, I don’t entirely blame Kyla Hardee herself for this unseemly display of naivete. Of course not. She’s just parroting what her Dear Leaders have taught her. Rather, I lay the blame for her bees-headed chirping at their feet, not hers. She’s only telling her elders what they want to hear.
And TGC completely threw her overboard by letting this post run, no doubt because they knew damned well that it was, indeed, what their readers desperately want to hear a Gen Z fundagelical saying. They used this girl as a mouthpiece, and I don’t like that at all.
We see something similar in SBC warblings about child baptism. When I was a Southern Baptist myself, in the mid-1980s, they recoiled at the idea of dunking a child under the age of about 14. But now that they’re desperate for baptisms, they’ll happily dunk kids in preschool—or younger.
It’s started to become clear to me that dunking a child too young to understand what’s happening results in a teen who sees through Christianity’s smoke and mirrors earlier, and who leaves church—and often Christianity itself—more reliably the moment they get old enough to do so.
But instead of looking at what too-early baptism does to the majority of kids who experience it, SBC-lings seek out the very, very few older Christians who claim that early baptism totally set them on the road of lifelong Jesus-ing. Though some SBC church leaders (like the SBC-affiliated Crosspointe Church in Georgia) recognize this as a legitimate problem, SBC leaders who run programs that push hard on early baptism talk about it only in the most glowing terms.
One pastor who vehemently defends the practice even hand-waves away the children he baptizes who leave church later. They weren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™, obviously! But he admits he hasn’t ever actually studied the results of his “paedobaptism,” for some weird reason. So he has no idea what percentage leave, nor why, even as he “hazard[s] a guess” that more child-baptizees leave than adults.
Similarly, most Gen Z people reject church culture. Instead of talking to some of them about why they aren’t interested, they found one of the few Gen Z people who is thoroughly indoctrinated to spew nonstop talking points that she erroneously believes are objectively true.
How we can recognize pandering
When I talk about nonstop talking points and dogwhistles, I mean it. Kyla Hardee starts building her fundagelical street cred in her second paragraph, with all that “lie of self-sufficiency” garbage. She is indoctrinated enough to really believe that nobody can find “satisfaction” in life without using her one and only product: active membership in a church that offers her package of beliefs.
Then, she launches into her well-of-course-not pseudo-questions. Gosh, she asks, all kitten-eyed, do churches need to “compromise on core doctrines,” which likely means all that culture-war bullshit she embraces, or do they maybe need to appeal to Gen Z’s values more?
No, she declares. No. Gen Z people are simply wrong. They just need educating, and then they will want to join fundagelical churches! But at the same time, church congregations must Jesus harder than they ever have, so that Gen Z folks recognize the truth of all those talking points when they inevitably visit a fundagelical church.
Throughout her post, she layers in more talking points she’s learned, like this chestnut about “accountability” midway through her exhortation:
Scoffing at authority and law isn’t only common but expected and celebrated. We don’t want accountability or others telling us what to do in a world that feeds us the lie we can be whoever we want and do whatever we want.
I think she’d struggle to find many Gen Z people who actually think they can “be whoever we want and do whatever we want.” Nobody thinks that. Nobody has ever thought that in previous generations, either, but that hasn’t stopped fundagelical leaders from teaching this lie to impressionable young adults. (Further, one might add that fundagelicals themselves obviously despise being told what to do. Just consider those bakeries that refused to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples!)
When Hardee slips in this alarming display of boundary-violating at the end, it’s hardly even surprising:
What if we began to share our sins with other believers, praying with one another and keeping each other accountable?
EEEEEK. And yes, her church does indeed mention operating with a membership covenant (in item VI, “The church,” on page 5). Every church I’ve seen doing that has sprouted abuse scandals, so this doesn’t bode well.
What is missing from this exhortation to Jesus harder
Of course, Kyla Hardee has entirely failed to offer any reason whatsoever why Gen Z people would even want to become members of any fundagelical church. She herself offers none even in her own case. She’s there because she believes that Jesus ordered her to be there. Oh, and she thinks it’s her duty to spend her precious finite resources to help her church. Seriously:
So what keeps me coming back to the church? I go out of joyful obedience to God but also in an attitude of humble service.
But she doesn’t describe anything that she gets out of this experience beyond getting harped at by her fellow congregants for any wrongthink she expresses, and of course feeling like she’s doing what is required to stay in Jesus’ good graces. She can name-check other TGC members like Mark Dever as much as she wants about how totally necessary her product is, but it’s just hype without substance.
Her product is important because Jesus said it was, and because she thinks it is. Her religious leaders taught her that it is. If Gen Z disagrees because they can perceive that it’s a waste of time and clearly not relevant to their lives, then they just don’t understand things like she does. Like her leaders do.
In fact, she tells her mostly-Millennial readers that they just need to keep doing exactly what they’re already doing, just do more of it and harder. Easy, right?
All the real effort in this equation comes from Gen Z people themselves. Gen Z needs to understand. To be educated. To come regardless of how they feel and what they experience at church. And to serve, endlessly, and to submit to thoughtcrime examinations from other church members. Most of all, to obey.
All of that suits older fundagelicals down to the ground.
Gen Z, not so much.
If advice to Jesus harder worked, fundagelicals wouldn’t be in decline
The convenient part of Jesus-ing harder is that nobody ever measures what it actually means in lived reality. It just means to do more of the busy-work that particular Christian leaders prescribe. It has no observable markers of success, and nobody ever bothers to test how effective it is.
Usually, Jesus-ing harder simply comes down to shows of greater obedience to fundagelical leaders. That, at least, seems more observable—I suppose. Dysfunctional authoritarian leaders always teach that more obedience will fix any and all problems in the tribe.
But if fundagelicals were willing to obey more, they’d already have done it. Disobedience—seeking it, valuing it, evading the repercussions of it, flaunting it—is woven deeply into the fabric of their underlying beliefs.
At the same time, Jesus-ing harder has become such an indelible part of some packages of belief, like fundagelicalism itself, that nobody dares question its actual objective truth value. It’s simply become part of their overall message, and in their broken system, the message is always perfect and absolutely unquestionable.
So anybody can offer this advice to fundagelicals. They’ll always nod along with it in perfect harmony. Nobody ever stops to wonder about churches that seem to be doing fine despite not Jesus-ing hard at all, of course. Lots of megachurches in particular don’t Jesus the way that fundagelicals think is so necessary for growth. At best, they’re SBC lite. Usually, they aren’t even that hardcore.
One of the few megachurches I can remember that Jesus-ed exactly the way that TGC prescribes was Mars Hill. And back in 2014, after a solid decade or so of dominating fundagelical headlines, it combusted in a glorious cascade-failure wave of abuse and plagiarism accusations against its leader and founder, Mark Driscoll.
Sidebar: Wait, do churches grow when they Jesus harder? Or when they don’t?
Fundagelicals sniff down their noses at megachurches and say they’re growing precisely because they’re not Jesus-ing hard enough. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ think they’re too easy to belong to, and that their demands are far too easily met. In fact, here’s what one fundagelical has to say about the SBC-affiliated Saddleback Church and its growth:
My personal rule of thumb is that if the church, book, etc. is loved by everyone, then I need to look closely for the problem. That may sound cynical. Maybe it is. But churches like Saddleback lure people in with friendliness and self-help styled sermons. They water down the gospel, downplay sin, and cater to worldly preferences instead of focusing on biblical principles.
That is a common perception in fundagelicalism, too. But forget about that now. Right now, TGC is focused on growth as a result of Jesus-ing really hard. They’re promising that churches that Jesus hard enough will get more Gen Z recruits than they know what to do with.
When that fails to pan out, I’m sure we’ll see a chirpy, well-indoctrinated Gen Alpha in ten years writing exactly what Rachel Held Evans did in 2013, and what Kyla Hardee has written in 2022.
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