Thom Rainer functions as a living, breathing, nonstop rebuttal to evangelical claims. Back in Ye Olden Daies of evangelical power, he reigned as the leader of Lifeway Christian Resources, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) propaganda and publishing arm. During that time, Lifeway tanked in sales. Once he scare-quotes ‘retired,’ he immediately started up a church revitalization business called Church Answers.
Nowadays, he seems to be trying to capture his golden days as a well-known evangelical leader. He’s busy warning his fellow evangelicals of ‘9 dangerous fault lines’ that threaten churches in 2024. Let’s check out his warnings—and wonder together why Jesus seems so completely disinterested in helping his very favorite followers these days.
(This post was published on Patreon on 1/9/2024. Its audio ‘cast lives there too!)
A quick refresher about Thom Rainer
Thom Rainer once led Lifeway Christian Resources. That’s the propaganda and publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). As Lifeway’s leader, Rainer enjoyed a very high-visibility, front-facing role interfacing with the public. If SBC people were movie stars, I’d rate him as an A level celebrity at the time. Chances are good that any evangelical you asked at the time knew who he was.
One of his favorite activities involved offering laughably bad advice to evangelical leaders. He acted like he had alllllllll the “church answers.” And he sold that act with excellent soft skills. (Credit where it’s due, right?)
Unfortunately, Thom Rainer was a far better rah-rah man than a leader. Lifeway declined precipitously under his rule. They had to downsize in every single direction under him. They closed their brick-and-mortar shops in favor of an online-only presence and sold off a huge chunk of their best downtown-Nashville real estate.
Around 2018-2019, Rainer retired from Lifeway. But many people, including me, suspected that he made that move instead of waiting for Lifeway to simply fire him. That retirement didn’t last long, either. I don’t think the retirement-cake plates had even dried on the rack before he announced his new church-revitalization business, Church Answers.
And a quick note about church revitalization in general
Church revitalization is one of the new cottage industries seeking to capitalize on Christianity’s ongoing decline. These “revitalizers” teach panicky church leaders how to fix their congregations’ sagging membership numbers. In reality, those pastors might as well consult astrologers for help (archive, and yes, there is such a thing as business astrology).
This new cottage industry has been around for about five years. In that time, it has utterly failed to end Christianity’s decline or to bolster congregation sizes.
The reason that church revitalization has utterly failed to end evangelicals’ ongoing decline is simple:
Evangelical leaders don’t want to make the changes they must make to really fix their decline. They want to keep doing what they’re doing and somehow make that be enough. At most, they’ll accept exhortations to Jesus harder or suggestions to exert more control over church members.
Thom Rainer clearly knows this fact. To use the Christianese, he tickles his tribe’s itching ears. That means he tells them only what they want to hear. As I said, he’s got soft skills galore. I’ve no objection to his personality; he’s a really nice guy overall. Way back when, he engaged very well with heathens in his then-blog’s commbox. He was one of the few evangelical leaders who’d give us the time of day. But his tribe freaked out about it, so I guess he had to stop.
Incidentally, his useless nepo baby Sam Rainer now runs much of Church Answers. Junior has nowhere near the chill and affability of his dad. I don’t think he liked me telling him that some years back.
Thom Rainer knows how to get evangelicals’ attention: Tell them the sky is falling!
The title of Thom Rainer’s original post (OP) is “9 dangerous fault lines for churches in 2024” (archive). It ran on Christian Post on December 31, 2023. Like a lot of these sorts of warning/prophecy posts, it seeks to frighten evangelicals about the potential pitfalls for the year ahead.
He begins by describing tsunamis. I strongly suspect he’s subtly referring to the Philippine tsunami that occurred in early December. Apparently, he very recently learned a lot about tsunamis that set him back on his heels:
Just the other night, what started as a quick dive into tsunami videos turned into a full hour of awe with a dash of trepidation.
He’s not wrong. As our planet’s tectonic plates smash up against each other at their fault lines, they unleash a torrent of disasters. Tsunamis are a spiked barb at the end of an earthquake’s tail. They’re horrifying to watch in action.
In his OP, Thom Rainer compares these real-world fault lines to problems he perceives within evangelicalism.
On the one hand, I am hopeful for local congregations. I continue to see God working in countless churches. Those stories remind me that He is not done with us. On the other hand, I see numerous warnings, more than I can remember in my lifetime. I call those warnings “fault lines.” If ignored, those fault lines can result in earthquakes which will produce deadly tsunamis.
That first bit is boilerplate blahblah from the evangelical blahblah factory. No evangelical prognosticator can omit them. If someone forgets, one of the flocks will be sure to remind them that some churches somewhere are somehow flourishing.
It’s not an awesome comparison, as evangelical comparisons go. Earthquakes and tsunamis kill people and destroy entire communities. Church closures don’t affect many people at all. Often, their vacant buildings get repurposed in some lovely way.
But Thom Rainer is pushing hard on alarm here. He wants evangelicals to take his warnings as seriously as they might a real live fault line.
Thom Rainer’s first fault line: ‘Denial’
Our OP assures us that these “fault lines” are given in no particular order. But its first, “denial,” covers literally everything else in the list. Out of all evangelical psychological failures, denial rules the school. Of it, Thom Rainer writes:
It’s the church version of “see no evil.” But ignoring issues doesn’t make them vanish — they become bigger.
On that note, I’d love to know just how much Thom Rainer knew about the SBC’s huge sex abuse scandal—and when he learned it.
Evangelicals’ faith runs along the same lines as faith in anything else. They have a faith pool fed by faith-renewing faucets, and a drain of faith-refuting observations and experiences. Denial covers up that drain. It allows evangelicals to ignore and hand-wave away all the real-world stuff that contradicts their claims.
But denial does far more than preserve faith. It allows huge problems to fester in evangelical churches. It allows evangelicals to ignore and cover up their leaders’ most hypocritical behavior. Without denial, no evangelical group can grow very large. I base this observation on another one: I’ve yet to encounter any evangelical group larger than about 500 people whose leadership isn’t festering with hypocrisy.
Evangelicals can no more eradicate denial from their ranks than they could hypocrisy. Without denial, evangelicals as they are today could not exist.
It’s very strange, though, that Jesus seems perfectly content to allow denial to be a “dangerous fault line” in his favorite churches.
Thom Rainer’s second fault line: ‘Complexity and busyness’
I admit, this one made me laugh. It reminded me very much of the last online game I staffed. Thom Rainer writes:
Have you ever seen a church try to spin too many plates? Spoiler alert: they crash. I spoke with the leadership of a church with fewer than 40 in attendance. The church had 9 committees and 15 programs and ministries. Their members were so busy spinning those plates that they had no time to reach those in their community. Obviously, this church is declining and probably dying.
Evangelicals can no longer rely on childbearing to maintain their churches’ congregation size, and their churn is through the roof. So recruitment isn’t an option. It’s a requirement.
Unfortunately, evangelicals despise recruitment. They consistently refuse to do it.
I’ve seen this situation before in a nonreligious context. That last online game I staffed functioned a lot like that. Its recruitment rates were never awful. Unfortunately, new players didn’t stick around for long due to overall staff dysfunction. That dysfunction led me and about half of the other staffers to quit. Suddenly, the game needed a lot of staff very quickly. What they got was nowhere near the quality of those who’d left, which only exacerbated player churn and a further exodus of higher-quality staffers.
Some months later, I heard that the game had a flotilla of somewhere around 30 staff for a playerbase that hit at max 10 people online at peak hours. The game limped along for many painful, cringey years before its newest leader deliberately mangled its codebase before quitting. By then, its staff had largely been its only playerbase for a long time.
If evangelicals could learn, I’d advise them to learn from that anecdote. But they can’t, so I won’t.
Let’s consider the church Thom Rainer mentions in his own anecdote. If that pastor even whispers a syllable about downsizing the committees, programs, and ministries in that church, he is going to have a mutiny on his hands. Every one of those committees, programs, and ministries represents power-jockeying and ladder-climbing to its most devoted members. That is why that pastor has even 40 people still attending. Without that busy work holding them there, those people would decide that “Jesus” is totally telling them to “use their gifts” at some other church. He cares very passionately about that, at least!
The problem evangelicals face isn’t a lack of recruitment effort on the part of congregants. It’s their utter inability to offer recruits and members alike functional groups that are worth joining and sticking around for.
And considering Thom Rainer’s past advice to church leaders (archive) to get recruits and members involved in committees, programs, and ministries to keep them attending church, it’s a little weird he’s criticizing this very strategy now.
In a minute, though, we’ll see him outdoing himself on this count.
Thom Rainer’s third fault line: ‘Silver bullet obsession’
This next warning, too, represents a fundamental part of today’s evangelicalism:
Many churches think if they get the “perfect” pastor, everything will be fine. That pastor must be married with 2.7 kids, 42 years old, and have 25 years of pastoral experience. In some cases, the silver bullet is an era instead of a person. If our church just did everything like it did in the 1980s or 1990s, all of our problems will go away.
What Thom Rainer describes here is simply magical thinking. And evangelicals excel at magical thinking. Their entire ideology and worldview boils down to magical thinking being real.
It’s not at all strange for evangelicals to look back at a time when they had more cultural power and members, pick out some aspect of that scenario as its root cause, and try to recreate it. They’re inherently incapable of understanding exactly why they lost so much cultural power and members. So they inevitably land on a red herring false reason that flatters them and makes them feel good.
I’ve read evangelical writing from the 1940s that thought this same way. In the 1946 book As We Were, Bellamy Partridge constantly laments the decline in Christian cultural power that he’s seen in his lifetime. He blames it on urbanization and technology. If people would just move back to their rural towns and focus again on church as the center of their lives and communities, he feels, everything would be so much better!
Multiply Partridge’s lament by about 20, and you’ve got modern evangelicals. Each of them has some private bugbear they think is responsible for Christianity’s decline. None of them really knows the real reason for it: Christians’ growing inability to force people to join and support churches—and punish those who refuse. And thus, none of them understands the only thing that could fix that problem (in the absence of Christians gaining that temporal power back again, of course): Make churches something people want to join and support.
But not even Jesus seems to be able to help them there.
Thom Rainer’s fourth fault line: ‘Evangelistic ignorance’
This one’s been an evangelical obsession for a decade and counting now. Thom Rainer writes:
In many churches we help, our consulting and coaching team has to define “evangelism.” Only 5% of churches have any type of true evangelism initiative where the church intentionally reaches people in their communities with the gospel. We can no longer grow our churches with biological growth and transfer growth only. Evangelism means we will reach people with conversion growth.
As mentioned, conversion growth is the kind church leaders want most nowadays. Typically, this involves poaching Christians from other churches or infecting lapsed Christians with the Jesus bug. Evangelicals don’t like to consider evangelism in those two contexts, though. It makes their product look vastly less appealing in the context of their most highly-prized targets: Heathens with no prior involvement in their religion.
Whatever target Thom Rainer imagines here, though, evangelicals hate evangelism.
They don’t wanna. Their pastors can’t make them do it.
And Jesus doesn’t seem to care either way.
Thom Rainer’s fifth fault line: ‘Staffing for the year 2004’
This criticism sounds valid:
Too many churches hire staff like it’s 20 years ago. Their job descriptions fit well in an earlier era. Churches can also be extraordinarily slow in moving to a bi-vocational or co-vocational model of staff ministry. Some positions are no longer needed, and others can be filled virtually.
It’s weird to think that “20 years ago” was 2004 now. So I can’t blame evangelicals for running churches like it’s still 2004.
Incidentally, bi-vocational/co-vocational just means “pastors with day jobs.” As churches shrink, so do their tithes. More and more congregations find they can’t afford to pay for a building and a full-time minister. A seminary degree no longer guarantees a decent living.
Churches must get increasingly creative to survive. This item functions, therefore, as a sort of permission slip. Alas, congregations will rightly see such downsizing as an admission of defeat.
Jesus clearly likes this situation, though, or he wouldn’t allow it.
Thom Rainer’s sixth fault line: ‘Doctrinal deviation’
Try not to laugh at this one:
Much has been written about the leftward slide of mainline denominations over several decades. Our team at Church Answers has been using the same church survey since 1996, and we are seeing an alarming increase in doctrinal deviation in self-described evangelical churches. For example, more church members in these churches are unwilling to affirm the doctrine of exclusivity. They are denying Christ’s own words in John 14:6 [here] where He said unequivocally that He is the only way of salvation.
In a way, yes, much indeed has been written about that. In another, LOL, LMAO even, and no. At first, Christianity’s decline affected mostly mainline churches. Soon enough, evangelicals caught up and overtook them in decline. About the only churches growing these days are megachurches. These tend to hold beliefs that Thom Rainer-style evangelicals don’t like.
So churches close even though they Jesus exactly as Thom Rainer likes best. And completely mainline churches grow despite holding beliefs he dislikes.
Those two simple facts tell us the truth. A church’s doctrinal beliefs have nothing whatsoever to do with its growth or decline. Its functionality matters far more. And its ability to offer members what they want at a price they like matters most of all. But evangelicals loathe such facts. Their worldview says that the only churches that can grow are those Jesus likes best. Therefore, only churches with the correct beliefs can grow. And therefore, only evangelical churches can grow.
When reminded that megachurches exist, evangelicals start talking about megachurch pastors selling a “watered-down gospel” and tickling itching ears. The sheer contradiction these churches represent gets cast away to denial.
Jesus is so very lucky to have today’s evangelicals. Thank goodness for Christians that he made the perfect set of doctrinal beliefs so easy to ascertain from the Bible! (/s)
Thom Rainer’s seventh fault line: ‘Ignoring toxicity’
This item really belongs up there with denial as well:
Church toxicity is often denied or ignored. Our team recently received a plea to work with a church that had lost two-thirds of its attendance in just a few months. They refused to deal with a toxic member who ultimately ran off the pastor. Church members were already leaving regularly because of the toxic church member. When he succeeded in forcing the pastor out, one-half of the attendance left in a week. The toxic member is still at the church.
Ever heard of the Five Geek Social Fallacies (archive)? Well, evangelicals suffer from their own version of them. If a “toxic member” has gathered the right kind of allies and clout at a church, there’s not much anyone can do about the situation but leave. I’m not surprised at all to learn that Rainer’s story ends with that person still there.
In the book we reviewed a while ago, This Present Darkness, one of its major plots involved a “toxic member” trying to run off the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastor and hero. There, the pastor/hero narrowly won that fight. In real life, the preexisting “toxic member” usually wins.
Also, right-wing, hardline evangelicals often engage in a deliberate form of sabotage called steeplejacking. This strategy drives away church members they dislike. It also stacks a church with like-minded people.
It’s strange that Jesus allows any toxic people to destroy churches like this.
Thom Rainer’s eighth fault line: ‘Deferred maintenance’
Not a metaphor. A literal reference to building and equipment maintenance:
Many churches have delayed maintaining and repairing facilities, grounds, and equipment. They find themselves in a position where they cannot afford to pay for repairs today. Sadly, I spoke to several church leaders who feel like their church will close in 2024 because they cannot pay for even the minimal repairs needed.
Often, cash-strapped churches delay maintenance like that. Obviously, the results tend to be much bigger bills down the line.
I’m not sure what Thom Rainer wants here. If churches can’t afford maintenance, they sure won’t be able to summon the necessary money for it out of thin air.
It’s very weird that Jesus doesn’t help those churches out.
And one last completely contradictory fault line: ‘Lack of priority of groups’
Earlier, Thom Rainer criticized churches for having way more than necessary groups, projects, and ministries. Now, he tells us that churches need lots of them all:
One clear trend we see today is that healthier churches tend to focus more on groups: small groups, Sunday school classes, community groups, life groups, etc. Those who participate in groups tend to give more, attend worship more frequently, be more involved in ministries, and serve with joy. Failure to give priority to groups is a certain sign of a fault line.
So which is it? Churches need groups, just not too many or too few?
Of course, Thom Rainer never offers his readers any ratios to guide them here. And Jesus is silent on the matter.
Jesus isn’t helping evangelicals these days
Long ago, at the height of their cultural power and membership, evangelicals began equating church growth to Jesus’ approval. The churches Jesus liked best grew. The ones he liked least evaporated.
In the case of the SBC, that’s why their most important elected leaders tend to come from megachurch pulpits. The ones who don’t at least have growing churches of their own.
Alas, congregations grow both within and outside of Thom Rainer-style evangelicalism
So really, we can easily infer that Jesus doesn’t really prefer any modern flavor of Christianity. Either that, or he doesn’t actually talk constantly to his followers. Or else he doesn’t exist at all, and all these churches and pastors are just doing the very best they can in an ideology lacking any relationship with reality.
The real fault lines I perceive in evangelicalism have nothing to do with their Jesus-osity, their doctrinal beliefs, the number of committees they have, or any of that stuff. They’re just generally unpleasant, control-hungry people inhabiting unpleasant, controlling groups and making unpleasant, controlling demands of their members. Without their leaders regaining enough temporal power to force people to put up with that entire situation, there’s just not a way for them to reverse their decline.
It took centuries for pagan religions to dissolve once Christian leaders began gaining that kind of power. It’ll take centuries for Christianity to do the same, I’m sure. We’re a long way from evangelicals even becoming culturally irrelevant, and longer still from them holding outsized amounts of political power.
But I don’t think any omnimax gods are going to step in to save evangelicals from themselves at any point in the future. They’ll decline just like every other religion has declined in human history, for the same reasons and in the same manner. One day, our descendants will marvel at Christians attending church in the same way that we marvel at Mithraic pagans chanting in their hidden tauroctonies. Hopefully by then, we’ll have matured as a species past the thinking required to buy into religious claims of any kind.
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