In Christianese, mission drift describes a congregation’s slow slide into basically a vaguely-Jesus-flavored country club. Obviously, no evangelical pastors want to be accused of allowing that slide to happen! Sam Rainer has offered those pastors a listicle of signs to watch for, so that never happens to their congregation. But the list illustrates something else, too. And it’s not something that makes evangelicals look good at all.

(Movie night invitation for Discord.) Info about St. Mark’s Feast and how he ties in with Venice. The 1094 miracle recovery! The rosebud video, which is neat to watch. Also tons more holidays on April 25!)

(This post first appeared on Patreon on 4/25/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too, and both should be public by the time you see this. <3)

Mission drift is like “getting nibbled to death by ducks”

In business and fields of study, mission drift describes the process of gradually becoming completely distracted and sidetracked away from one’s stated goals.

For example, a call center might have a stated goal of seeking high customer satisfaction. That is their mission: to provide satisfying support for customers. But maybe they get sidetracked into laser-focusing on short handle times on agents’ calls. Unfortunately, super-short handle times tank customer satisfaction. So that call center’s management may chase the handle-time dragon for a long time, then realize their customer satisfaction scores are in the toilet. They have drifted from their mission, and it’ll be tough to get back on track again.

Inc. Magazine sums up mission drift very well:

[M]ission drift isn’t something that happens all at once. Think of it more as being nibbled to death by ducks. It happens one little decision at a time, where you go astray by just a bit. Maybe it’s a decision about chasing revenue from a customer that doesn’t really fit with your mission. It doesn’t seem like a big deal at the time. But, when you add that decision up with all the others like it, you can’t believe how you got where you ended up.

When I was active in it, folks in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) talked about a similar idea as well: period drift. That’s when you start out with a tight focus on a particular historical period you wanted to study and recreate, but then get completely distracted by interesting ideas from other periods. (A friend of mine started at as an early-Elizabethan courtier, but period drift eventually led him into 10th-century Arabic. And then late Roman Empire. And then Italian Ren(aissance).)

Similarly to mission drift and period drift, mission drift for a church describes a congregation’s gradual loss of focus on 24/7, 100-and-crazy-percent Jesus-ing.

Where mission drift fits into Christianity

For the most part, we find this interesting bit of Christianese in the more sales- and recruitment-oriented flavors of the religion. So yes, this phrase is mostly an evangelical thing.

In mission drift, a congregation gradually loses its focus on intense 24/7 Jesus-ing. Over time, that loss of Jesus-focus impacts their zeal for recruitment. For evangelicals, who literally define themselves by their drive to recruit new people for their churches, mission drift represents far more than an absolute tragedy. It means they’ve forgotten their first love (as the Christianese has it; it’s from Revelation 2:4, which in turn evokes Jeremiah 2).

That first love is not Jesus himself. It’s more like that rush of euphoric joy Christians feel upon becoming safe at last from Hell, and the white-hot drive to get as many other people to safety as they can before they die. So losing that first love means that these Christians no longer feel euphoric joy at going to Heaven, and very little drive to recruit others to their churches.

A congregation facing mission drift becomes more like a social club than anything else. It isn’t growing much if at all, unless the club itself attracts people all on its own. And some do. A church that isn’t focused on recruitment for Jesus reasons might still offer high-quality perks and activities to its members that they can’t really find anywhere else. Or perhaps the people in the club itself are so supportive, compassionate, and enjoyable to be around that new people naturally want to join.

I haven’t personally ever seen such a congregation. Usually, they’re the dead opposite. That said, it’s a big beautiful world. Who knows what strange wonders might exist somewhere in it?

In the wild: How mission drift happens

Mission drift is one of those topics that crops up in evangelical circles every few years. It keeps coming up because nobody has ever figured out how to solve it.

In 2014, Peter Greer may have kick-started the trend with his book Mission Drift. It sought to teach Christian leaders about the signs of drift and offer ways to prevent or correct it.

Overall, evangelicals welcomed the book. One called it “worth the read.” The Gospel Coalition (TGC), a hard-right Calvinist evangelical group, also really liked it. In fact, they used their review of it as a springboard to criticize many evangelical leaders and institutions they felt had drifted off-mission. All of them feel that mission drift occurs when leaders get too excited by secular measures of success.

Around 2017, Samuel Deuth wrote about mission drift. He bills himself as “a follower of Jesus” who pastors a church with the oh-so-Millennial name “Awaken.” In his post, he begins by asking his fellow pastors, “When is the last time you reminded your team and congregation about the mission of The Church?” And by that, of course, he means the so-called Great Commission, which is to say nonstop recruitment. Deuth strongly feels that churches drift off mission when their tanks get low on Jesus Power.

In 2021, Chuck Lawless offered us nine sources of blame for mission drift. Among others, he blames church infighting, a lack of cohesive teamwork, and poor leadership.

In 2022, Joe Souza blamed mission drift on churches becoming more about taking than giving. He also blamed “inward focus,” meaning focus on pleasing current members rather than recruiting new ones, as well as infighting and hypocrisy.

In 2022, someone held a whole conference on the topic of mission drift.

I’ve got no clue when Ken Adam of discipleship.org wrote his post. But in it, he blamed mission drift on the three Cs: Confusion, Comfort, and Complacency.

And at some point, someone even started a website called “mission-driven.com.” I’ve no idea what it might have said, beyond contrasting “mission driven” with “mission drift.” Whatever radical new ideas it might have offered, the site is long, long gone.

And now, Sam Rainer has some thoughts about mission drift

Recently, I noticed that Baptist Press now does some kind of 3-minute update on their site. That’s the official site of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In yesterday’s update, they refer to something called the “Baptist Press Toolbox.” I’d never heard of that, so I got curious. They were talking about a new post by Sam Rainer about mission drift. They’d just added it to their “BP Toolbox.”

It might have been added yesterday, but Sam Rainer wrote the original in 2020 for Church Answers. That’s the website his dad Thom lets him piddle around in. It’s a private business that helps panicked pastors to revitalize their dying churches. Thom started it, but I reckon he’s wanting to slow down a bit in his old age. I hope this new responsibility at least makes Sam feel a little more powerful.

At the time he first published it, Sam also seeded the article around to other Christian sites like Christian Post, which appears to print literally anything any evangelical hands to them. And as Thom did years ago, Sam has now resurrected his older post for Baptist Press. As far as I can tell, it is the exact same post each time, with exactly the same wording and even emphases.

Like the other posts I’ve cited, Sam offers us a listicle. It contains 8 signs of mission drift, each of which consists in turn of Sam blaming churches and their leaders for not Jesus-ing hard enough.

Round up the usual suspects!

Really, it’s a blah listicle. It blames all the usual SBC suspects:

  • Not enough Jesus chatter in the pews
  • Way too little money spent funding missionary efforts
  • Too few sermons and hand-wringing about all the countries on Earth that aren’t Jesus-ing like evangelicals do
  • An unwelcoming atmosphere for potential new recruits
  • Too much focus on older congregants and their “preferences”
  • Way way way too little personal evangelism

And we know why Baptist Press ran it yesterday, too.

The SBC is clearly still panicking about its ongoing decline. We already know most of the numbers for 2022, so we know that they haven’t come close to bouncing back from their pandemic crash. Their baptism numbers had been tanking for years already, but in 2020 it collapsed to almost half what it’d been in 2019—from 235k to 123k. Last year, they managed 154k. That stat might recover a bit more this year, but I’ll be genuinely surprised if they ever see 200k again.

(Their annual reports can be found here. To find baptism numbers, search for “baptisms” in the PDFs.)

For years now, the SBC’s leaders have been trying to get the flocks to fix the decline through personal evangelism. That’s person-to-person recruiting, often performed by amateurs on an impromptu basis. Alas for those leaders, the harder they push for personal evangelism, the harder the flocks seem to dig in their heels and refuse to do it.

Their big Jamboree is happening in just a couple of months here. I’m sure they’d like to have some good news (pun unintended) to report for it.

But then Sam accidentally lands on something so true and real that it destroys the entire evangelical facade

Before he goes into his blame game, though, Sam accidentally reveals something that blows the evangelical facade wide open (emphases in original):

I have yet to see a church drift towards God’s mission. The current of apathy always pulls away.

That little truth-bomb caught my eye in a major way.

It’s true, of course. I’ve never seen a church or an individual Christian drift into greater and greater heights of Jesus-ing. When drift occurs, it’s always away from zeal and fervor.

But why is it like that?

I’ve seen people drift into vegetarianism and even veganism. It seems to happen a lot, in fact. When I used to haunt veg*n boards (the asterisk means both vegans and vegetarians), a lot of people marveled at how slowly and subconsciously they’d begun eating less and less meat and animal products. Then one day, they realized they hadn’t eaten any of that in ages.

I’ve also seen people drift into lifestyle kinks. It happens much the same way. One day, they wake up in a pile of naked people in a bed and realize they haven’t been away from the scene for more than a day in months.

Many folks drift into relationships in the same way.

But I’m trying really hard here and can’t remember anybody drifting into more intense Jesus-ing. They may drift into cults, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. They’re not drifting into regular prayer routines or into a newfound focus on evangelism. To get those habits captured, churches and Christians must set out deliberately to do it. They must conscientiously break ground and lay tracks, and then studiously drive only on those new tracks instead of the old ones. At any moment, the habit could escape from them again.

Christians’ natural inclination, their baseline, is always to slack off from devotions, not to get more into them.

But wait.

I thought Jesus literally lives inside them…?

Why the drift only goes in one direction

How does a literal god inside you become something ho-hum and mundane?

It doesn’t.

But Christians don’t actually have that. What they have instead is the belief that a literal god lives inside them, informing their thoughts and influencing their behavior—and occasionally breaking the laws of physics and cause-and-effect on their behalf.

Unfortunately, the universe doesn’t look in the slightest like it should if that belief were true. The belief doesn’t reflect reality. Unless Christians can really work themselves up, they won’t feel any different after converting than they did beforehand. We see them talking about it constantly in the context of baptism:

One church even cautions new recruits about feeling like they need to feel changed after baptism:

Being baptized is an action you take after receiving forgiveness and putting your faith in Jesus Christ. People can have a variety of emotional responses – some more expressive than others. Accepting Jesus as your Savior and Lord is like opening your hands to receive God’s gift; your emotional response to the gift does not change whether you received it. It may take some time, life experiences, and understanding of the many facets of that gift before you develop more sentiments.

None of them want to say why this is, though. If their beliefs were true, they wouldn’t ever need to dance around and around the truth like this. There’d be a shocking difference, and it’d happen every time. You can’t tell me that it wouldn’t feel ever-so-slightly different when a real live omnimax god suddenly possesses you. It’s not possible.

Similarly, if Hell were verifiably real and Christians really knew the only way to escape eternal torture there, then you can’t tell me they wouldn’t all be frantic to show their concrete evidence to others and save them as well.

The truth about Christianity, reflected in mission drift

No, it’s just that once again, Christians’ behavior reflects what’s actually happening in their religion.

Some Christians are extremely good at working themselves up. They’re the ones who’ll get their Jesus thrill-ride ticket punched hard. Others aren’t nearly as emotionally-flexible or as suggestible as that, and they won’t feel much at all—because there is nothing to feel except whatever they can drum up by themselves.

(Man alive, I wish someone had told me that when I converted to Pentecostalism. It would have saved me a lot of anguish and self-blame. Why wasn’t I getting zapped by Jesus Power like my Evil Ex Biff always seemed to be? Why did I never feel euphoric like all those people at the altar calls every Sunday? Did Jesus just not like me like he liked them? Was I really that terrible of a Christian? And the answer was simply that they were better at working themselves up than I was and apparently still am—or, of course, that they were lying.)

There’s a big difference between how secular businesses and churches experience mission drift. Businesses don’t last long if they set impossible goals that they can’t even measure, then lay down roadmaps for getting there that don’t actually work. But churches do exactly that all the time. They must, because otherwise they’re admitting that they know it’s all just a fiction.

That’s what it’s all about: Working oneself up to believe the hype

And then they must do a silly dance when converts slam face-first into the wall of reality after being baptized.

Oh no, there’s absolutely now a god living inside you. You just might not feel different. Some people don’t! Why? Oh, um, it’s a mystery! Maybe Jesus is holding back for now. Keep Jesus-ing, because you never know when he’ll finally give you that thrill we all say we feel!

(If the condition lasts too long, the hapless Christian who mentions their ongoing lack of Jesus thrills might hear the first hinted accusations of sinfulness.)

So sure, yes, of course some few converts will catch the evangelism bug and become very zealous recruiters. Most, however, won’t. Christianity is this thing they think about and do in certain situations, but most of the time they just act like regular people would in whatever situations they get into.

Because they are just regular people. It might worry them that they’re not feeling all the rah-rah that others report, but they swallow down their disappointment. For a while, at least, it works.

Eventually, they may learn what so many of us have:

There’s no god at the center of Christianity. In the heart of a Christian, there’s nothing there but a human doing their best to muddle through this life.

And that’s more than enough all by itself.

It must be, because that’s all we’ve really got.

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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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