Last time we met up, I showed you how evangelical leaders are dealing with ongoing declines in church attendance. Mostly, they’re just insisting up and down that church attendance is not optional, people! Hey, that approach works in apologetics! So why shouldn’t it work everywhere? But an apologetics-consuming audience is far different from one composed of regular evangelical pew-warmers. Regular evangelical pew-warmers are consumers of an entirely different kind, and the product pastors sell increasingly doesn’t appeal to them.
Today, though, let’s check out an intriguing attempt to market church attendance as a tangible benefit to attendees. The Gospel Coalition (TGC) has tasked someone with coming up with those benefits. And bless his li’l cotton socks, he sure tries to make his arguments sound convincing.
(From introduction: Regular church attendance definitions from Lifeway and in the real world; Trevin Wax’s 2019 TGC post about church attendance; Skibidi Toilet video and general information about this Gen Alpha meme; The Color of Pomegranates.)
(This post first went live on Patreon on 8/10/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too and should be available as you read this <3)
Now we get a TGC post that sort of promises benefits to church attendance
This post is from February 12, 2023, from Steve Bateman. He’s an older guy who graduated from Southern Baptist and hardline Calvinist seminaries, and he has worked as a pastor for about the past 30 years. His post is called “9 Benefits of Faithful Church Attendance.”
We don’t get too many listicles these days! They are a blast from the recent past: solid mid-2010s fare. And it promises to reveal a host of benefits that come to Christians who regularly attend church.
After whisking through the usual surveys and polls about declining church attendance, Bateman asserts that “the answer” here is not “to lower expectations” made of church members, but rather “to clarify the high expectations that come with church membership.” But like the other writers, Bateman now has to carve out virtuous exceptions to his ideas. “Fevers and occasional family vacations” get King Steve’s gracious allowance to skip church. As for the promises he’s about to make, he must set forth some asterisked terms and conditions:
- The promised benefits only flow to members of churches that are “faithful to the gospel.” That’s Christianese for the doctrinal stances and teachings that King Steve himself thinks are essential. Fakey-fake faker churches won’t produce these benefits. No sirree.
- He concedes that these benefits aren’t a real guarantee. Like with prayer, success seems to be a matter of sheer chance.
Clearly, he’s never studied this question to any great degree, nor even wishes to. All he’s got are “undeniable correlation between weekly church attendance and positive benefits.”
But they’re hardly undeniable. And even if they were, correlations are not causation. Since he’s got zero extra-biblical sources to support any of his promised benefits, we can safely disregard every one of them. It’s more than possible that he, as a pastor, likes to imagine that these are real benefits. His own cognitive biases will make note of things confirming his opinions and ignore things that contradict them. Without studying the question and keeping track of successes and misses, Bateman has no way of knowing that anything he’s blathering here is actually true.
The 9 supposed benefits of church attendance
Here are Steve Bateman’s 9 supposed benefits of church attendance:
“1. Church attendance pleases and glorifies God.” He offers Bible verses here, but he can’t tell us what it looks like when his god is pleased or not. He also asserts that humans were “made to worship” his particular god. However, he doesn’t show us any objective, credible support for that frankly astonishing and narcissistic claim.
“2. Church attendance is an act of love to your neighbor.” He paraphrases Martin Luther King, Jr., here: “God doesn’t need you to go to church, but your neighbors do.” But we know churches are full of bullies and awful people, so obviously someone’s not lovin’ someone here. Most people show up to church, do their Jesusing, and leave. It’d be remarkable if someone knew every single other congregant there. The bigger the church, the less connection there seems to be.
And megachurch members seem to like it that way. A long time ago, the leader of Willow Creek Community Church, Bill Hybels, designed his church’s social system and services to appeal to people who just want to melt into a huge crowd. He did it because that’s what his information-gathering pre-marketing phase indicated that potential members really wanted.
“3. Church attendance can make you smarter.” This one’s a definite (and quite hilarious) reach. He comes by this notion because of the Bible studying that he thinks should occur during church services. If reading increases children’s intelligence and protects adults’ cognitive function, then he concludes that studying the Bible fulfills both functions. Alas for him, what happens during church services, even TRUE CHRISTIAN™ ones, is not the kind of critical reading that boosts thinking skills. If he wants Bible readings and light, shallow pseudo-studies at church to count as the kind of reading that accomplishes those claimed goals, then he is under the burden of proof to show us so.
I’d like to remind us here of Hitchens’ Razor:
That which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
Attempting to use SCIENCE! to support religious claims
“4. Church attendance can make you healthier.” This, too, is a reach. He classifies it as “stewardship theology,” which is Christianese. Here, it means taking care of one’s body because it belongs to Jesus.
Bateman cites a couple of studies regarding church membership, but none of them can make the point that church attendance in and of itself makes attendees healthier. This is not a causation situation, but a loose correlation: The kind of person who attends church may also engage in healthy habits that non-churchgoers don’t do. The main study he cites doesn’t appear to have had a control group or a test group of non-attenders who were persuaded to attend for the purposes of the study. It just studied churchgoers’ and non-churchgoers’ stress levels.
“5. Church attendance can make you happier.” This item suffers from the exact same issues as #4. It also flies in the face of most churches’ reality.
“6. Church attendance can make you more generous.” A few facts: the giving of church members generally goes straight to their own church. And almost all of those donations go straight back into the church itself.
Some studies indicate that church attenders are very generous even to secular causes and if so, then that’s great. But let’s remember that most charities in the United States are, in fact, religious in nature and that Christian leaders for centuries held a stranglehold over the engines of charity. And let’s also remember that this is another correlation-not-causation situation. As Time noted back in 2013, this generosity seems more closely tied to social standing than religious fervor. And as we’ll see in a minute, often this help comes with a whole lot of strings attached
“7. Church attendance can protect your marriage.” Considering the disgustingly authoritarian and misogynistic marriage rules that hardline Calvinists insist on, I find this extremely unlikely. It’s been old news for years that evangelicals divorce about as often as anybody else, and maybe even more often. The ones who don’t divorce seem miserable more often than joyously in love. When I was Pentecostal, those rules were nowhere near as strict—and I still didn’t know more than a couple of couples who were really happy together.
Evangelical leaders in Bateman’s end of the Christian pool get around this fact by simply defining a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ as someone who wouldn’t get divorced. I’m not kidding. A couple of examples: Got Questions, and even TGC itself back in 2012. Therefore, all those evangelicals getting divorced can’t possibly be TRUE CHRISTIANS™! Because TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are so incredibly conservative, pious, fervent, and committed to their ideology and churches that they… would… NEVER.
This kind of circular reasoning works for them in so many places.
The weirdest assertion about church attendance that I have ever seen
“8. Church attendance can limit the power of the state.” This is the last thing TGC really wants. By now, their brand of hardline Calvinist Christianity is simply a totalitarian theocratic political movement lightly frosted with Jesusy language to legitimize its adherents’ lust for power. The only way I can imagine regular church attendance limiting the power of the state is by increasing the power of church leaders relative to the power of the state over them.
However, that doesn’t seem to be where Bateman is leading us. He asserts:
Faithful churches lead members to love God, each other, their communities, and their enemies. The cumulative effect of countless acts of self-denying love reduces crime, divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, racism, poverty, injustice, recidivism, ignorance, hunger, homelessness, lawsuits, abortions, fatherlessness, the negative effects of natural disasters, and other problems the government is expected to address.
Holy shit, not one bit of that’s true. Not a single bit of it, not from start to finish. It’s a breathtaking flight of fancy. The reality works in the opposite direction. His first mistake is thinking that his flavor of evangelicalism practices “countless acts of self-denying love.” In truth, I’d say that his flavor of evangelicalism leads to increases in all of the dysfunction he names.
If his assertions were true, then the Deep South would be a model of functionality and compassion, rather than the hellhole of addiction, crime, abuse, racism, poverty, injustice, hunger, and all the rest of that stuff that it is. All by itself, the Deep South functions as a dealbreaker contradiction to Christian claims.
So I must ask: Has Bateman never actually attended an evangelical church? Has he never hung out in a really evangelical-dominated small town, especially as a vocal non-Christian? If evangelicals are not kept very carefully harnessed with laws and real oversight and accountability—rather than the substitutes they’ve crafted within their subculture—they very quickly spiral into horrific abuse and cruelty.
Further, not only do evangelical churches—particularly the hateful, spiteful, racist, bigoted, control-hungry ones in Bateman’s end of the Christianity pool—tend to absolutely despise the poor and needy, but they weaponize the tiny bit of charity they do. These evangelicals often force recipients to sit through sermons and do religious busy-work to get piddling amounts of help, only give help to those they deem deserving of their largesse, and generally only go about that help with an underlying agenda to recruit new members for their churches.
Even if all the evangelicals that meet King Steve Bateman’s rigorous standards as TRUE CHRISTIANS™ ever decided to give utterly selflessly to whoever needs it without even thinking about recruitment, there is no way whatsoever that they could meet the vast and growing need for help in the United States alone. Depending on how one defines the term, evangelicals as a group comprise less than 35% of the population here. I suspect the percentage is closer to 10-15%. Using Bateman’s definition of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, that number would be even smaller.
Either which way, evangelicals do not tend to be overwhelmingly wealthy. And we already know that Bateman does not consider all evangelicals to be “faithful to the gospel.”
Aaaand the funniest assertion of all about church attendance’s benefits
“9. Church attendance can protect your family against delusional thinking.” Yes, he goes there.
Here, let’s just laugh in QAnon and the attempts to revive the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s.
The truth: Nobody is more gullible than an evangelical, and nowhere are evangelicals more gullible than at church. Regular church-attending evangelicals do seem more likely to obey their pastor. But if that pastor dares to speak against a conspiracy theory they themselves embrace, those flocks will likely decide that he (yes, “he” in this flavor of evangelicalism) isn’t “faithful to the gospel.” And they’ll leave to find a pastor who is.
Even if this hypothetical pastor and the flocks avoid the obvious conspiracy theories around QAnon and the Satanic Panic, this end of evangelicalism is just a big raft of conspiracy theories woven together. The Rapture, the Endtimes, beliefs about demons in general, miracle claims and more are all simply long-running, well-accepted delusions.
But the delusions Bateman’s thinking about aren’t conspiracy theories or false beliefs about election fraud and chemtrails. Rather, he’s envisioning literal social progress, which he sees as diametrically opposed to his shining-church-on-a-hill fantasy of evangelical-dominated America.
And now, the threats for disobedience come out
Though #9 pretends to be a promise, it’s more like a threat. Here, Steve Bateman writes himself a little fire insurance to make sure the flocks heed his demands for increased church attendance. That phrase is Christianese, incidentally. It specifically refers to how many Christians see salvation mostly as protection from Hell. (And to be fair, almost all Hell-believers fall into this exact line of thinking.)
It’s a bunch of pure appeal to consequences blather. He’s failed to make an effective case otherwise, so now he’s using threats to ensure compliance anyway. And here’s the threat in question, aimed at the children of TRUE CHRISTIANS™, though he doesn’t make that clear until a couple more paragraphs down. At first, it sounds like he’s talking about adults here:
When a culture reaches a certain level of moral rebellion, God’s wrath comes in the form of delusional thinking as he gives them up “to a debased mind” (Rom. 1:28).
It’s a detachment from historical, anatomical, hormonal, genetic, logical, etymological, and sociological reality to say a man can marry a man, a woman can marry a woman, a man can be a woman, or a woman can be a man. This is delusional thinking.
You heard the man! When church attendance dips, then people will be kind to LGBT people and stop trying to harass and persecute them. After making that outcome sound like absolute madness, he tells us:
If that assessment sounds odd or offensive, it’s because our generation has been conditioned to believe things that aren’t true.
And well, yes, that’s absolutely true. In fact, evangelicals are the ones we can thank for that. For years now, scholars have been studying white American evangelicals’ role in creating a post-truth American society whose members seem incapable of spotting false claims. Out of all the flavors of Christianity, moreover, evangelicals might hold the most beliefs that simply aren’t true. The more fervent and hardline the evangelical, the more false beliefs that Christian must embrace.
Naturally, TGC’s position on post-truth America is that there’s no such thing as being post-truth. They don’t even wonder what “post-truth” means before they completely mangle its real meaning into a strawman they can defeat. It’s a hilarious bit of equivocation, a favorite strategy of flim-flam artists: Everyone’s saying America is “post-truth.” But since Jesus is the ultimate truth, America can never really be “post-truth.”
It’s only after weirdly snarking “things that aren’t true” that he gets around to telling us that this threat is mostly aimed at children growing up outside TRUE CHRISTIAN™ churches.
Then, Bateman offers up some Jesusy Bible verses, insists that church attendance totes comes with tons of benefits even if he has failed to make that case in any of the ones he asserted, and finally his post comes to a clattering end.
Building (poor) excuses for failure into these marketing promises
Now, Bateman has already built some remarkable excuses for failure into his promises.
First and foremost, he could easily say that the churches that do not produce the benefits he promises just aren’t Jesusing correctly. They aren’t “faithful to the gospel” that he himself considers TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.
But at that point, we have to remind him that there is no one single accepted list of TRUE CHRISTIAN™ beliefs. There are only Christians who who think that their Doctrinal Yardstick is the only acceptable standard. I guarantee the people he thinks aren’t Jesusing correctly would say the same of him.
I also guarantee you this: He can’t predict at all which TRUE CHRISTIAN™ churches would show these benefits and which wouldn’t. He could give us a list of churches he thinks are “faithful to the gospel,” and we could track them for scandals, hypocrisies, and abuses. I bet a sizeable number of them would turn out to not provide his promised benefits.
Making matter worse, plenty of congregations falling outside his definition of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ actually do care about the poor and disadvantaged. I personally know of a small nondenominational church that donates 25% of its members’ donations to agenda-free charities like food pantries and meal services. Its members consider themselves evangelical and born-again, but they’re about the nicest congregation I’ve ever personally encountered. Their first pastor, a generous and kind lady (YES) with a downright cosmic and sublime vision of the divine intersecting with humanity, taught them well. They’ve even got a thriving youth group.
Though this sweet, generous little congregation would never meet King Steve’s approval as TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who are “faithful to the gospel,” they have already achieved almost all of the promises he makes to adherents of his own flavor of the religion. So if churches that aren’t “faithful to the gospel” can achieve those promises while almost no churches that fit that description do, what are we to think of the reliability of anything Bateman says?
But Bateman has built another excuse for failure into his marketing at this point. It’s just random! I mean gosh, who even KNOWS why or how or under what circumstances it works, GYAHH! So all those nasty, abuse-prone hardline Calvinists I’ve encountered might be “faithful to the gospel,” but who even knows why Jesus chose not to sprinkle his magic pixie dust on them!
Alas for Bateman, he lives by an ideology that just isn’t true in reality. So it’s super-easy for him to forget that in the real world, we have ways of figuring out the processes by which systems work. So if the benefits are really that random and impossible to reliably predict, then there’s really no reason to waste one’s time attending church. One could find some other activities that would lead to tangible benefits for less time, money, and hassle.
Christian marketing sucks: Benefits of church attendance edition
In general, marketing attempts in hardline evangelicalism fall flat on their faces. Evangelical leaders know that consumers in today’s religious marketplace want a real-world, tangible return on their resource investments. As the leader of a large, apparently-prosperous church, Steve Bateman must be well aware of that reality.
But his only product is active membership in his church. That’s it. That’s what he’s got. And purchase of that product really only benefits a few people: Him and his staff. It might also give warm fuzzies to a few members of his congregation. Overall, though, it’s going to be an imbalanced equation to many others.
So he’s got to puff it up however he can.
When we examine these attempts to sell his product, we discover that he makes a lot of concessions between the lines that he probably doesn’t want us to notice. In the end, there aren’t any benefits of church attendance that one couldn’t find elsewhere for fewer resources, especially if one does not wish to tangle with hardline Calvinist evangelicals.
Ultimately, I chose this topic for a reason. It wasn’t so we could point and laugh at a delusional evangelical leader who is trying his darndest to prop up his quickly-eroding customer base, though obviously there’s some of that going on. No, it’s because hucksters like these are not only found in evangelicalism. There are lots of people out there who would love to sell all of us all sorts of stuff that exists mostly to siphon off some of our finite money, attention, and time.
If folks can learn to spot the dishonesty and wishful thinking in evangelicals’ marketing attempts, then hopefully they’ll be well-equipped to see it elsewhere.
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