If you spend any time at all on social media, you may have noticed an increasingly common type of video being shared. The context tends to be either the well groomed worship room of an affluent Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church, or the worn wood pulpit and sawdust floor schtick of the old mission hall. The preacher will generally be white, male, corpulent, and extremely irate. The content can range from raging polemics against social or doctrinal evils, to the jubilant ‘Haymen’ of a particularly savoury section of sermon. The reason for these videos being shared is seldom celebration of, or affiliation with, the preacher’s manner or message, but a sarcastic rejection or ridicule of what is being preached and the way it is being presented.
In this post I want to reflect a little on what we are doing when we laugh at, groan, or link to these IFB preachers, and to suggest that we ought to be careful in how we handle them:
1. We are watching pulpit porn
If we are absolutely honest with ourselves, there is something highly entertaining about watching the antics and histrionics of IFB videos. Individual ‘pastors’ carry their own unique approaches, but there are certain things that their sermons carry in common. There is the hopelessly insecure individual raging against the rest of the world, showcasing an arsenal of ploys and tactics to assert dominance and enforce compliance; there is the weak theology, the hopeless resort to empty forms and fashions; there is the weak-minded adherence to tradition, with no truth and no text to be found in what is said.
All of this exaggeration and over realised behaviour, these caricatures of what a servant of God should say and do, are making preaching into porn; introducing a quick hit of something subversive, transgressive, and tackily exotic into our day. In the frisson of quietly despising the content of these videos, while being compelled to watch more and more of them, we are trading the benefit of dwelling on what is good and honourable for the kick of dwelling on what is gross and reprehensible. Despite our best protests otherwise, these are entertainment videos, they are the WWE of the homiletical world, but our laughter might be blocking the lament which should be ours that such men are at large, that they are speaking in God’s name, and that people are sincerely deceived and enslaved by such messages and behaviours. As with porn, the seeming gain of getting something from such material comes at a terrible cost – the renown of Christ’s name, and the welfare of the souls of real people.
2. We are promoting this kind of preaching
Sharing material on our social media accounts is a strange business, psychologically and spiritually. We have become so accustomed to tweeting what we’re eating, sharing what we’re enjoying, creating banners of what we are reading, that we have lost sight of the reality of propagation every time we click share, or post a link. We have become marketers of ideas and ideologies, of the priorities of groups and lobbies, and all the while we believe that we are being creative. We have turned communication into a conveyer belt of commodities, a fact which is not lost on large corporations who know just how to make us spread their name and fame at no cost to themselves.
Everything I show and share on social media is publicity – positive and negative. In terms of IFB preachers, while I might be quietly ridiculing them, while I might be holding them up to the mutual scorn of my ‘tribe’, I am at the same time giving them an ever bigger platform. The IFB preacher who spits tacks at his congregation, who rasps and reels on the adrenaline rush of false rhetoric, does not believe himself to be a parody, but a preacher. When I invite my friends to laugh at some blasphemous clown standing on a seat and proclaiming his own greatness, or waving a flag while stating that ‘the devil can’t have my children’ (one assumes this is ideologically and not biologically), I am allowing their voice to be heard by more and more people.
In Screwtape fashion, one might imagine an inversion of Paul’s determination to rejoice where Christ is preached, whether through sympathy with his chains or to spite him in them. As long as the gospel goes out, motive is secondary. Likewise, as long as Christ is defamed, as long as unbelievers see preachers as empty headed firebrands assailing people with prejudice in the absence of truth, then Satan is pretty happy with the optics. That retweet of mine might be inviting friends of the gospel to laugh, but it might just as well be inviting those disenchanted with Christianity to walk further away. To give airtime to men who claim to be preachers but are pedalling personality, power, and politics is to turn the volume of their voice up just a little higher in the world.
3. We are virtue signalling the virtue signalling of others
One thing IFB preachers excel at is inviting mutual scorn on their opponents from the congregations who must endure their ‘ministry’. The old tropes are rolled out about KJV-Onlyism, about anti-Calvinism, about the ills of feminism, and evil of liberalism in all of its social manifestations. These themes are chosen because the preacher is really engaging in a form of virtue signalling, opening up on safe ground and soft targets so that his audience will be entertained by the unique thrill of co-belligerence. These preachers are content to make their messages hang entirely on themes which they abominate, so that their hearers will affirm them, give to them, and see in them a figure who stands for their deeply held prejudices.
We might imagine ourselves to be cool and urbane in sharing the shock of IFB videos with our world, but the irony is that we are mirroring the very virtue signalling on which such presentations run. We don’t share IFB clips to rebuke the preachers in question, we do not offer extensive critique, we are not warning our followers about issues which immediately endanger them. Instead, we are beating out the bounds of our own orthdoxies, we are assuring ourselves and our followers that we are beyond this kind of tomfoolery, that we are more sophisticated and theologically rounded than the redundancy which such preachers represent.
In so doing we are neither serving God, nor his people – we are bolstering our own sense of not being what our friends abominate in IFB circles. In a sense we are issuing a statement to our followers, ‘thank God we are not like these men, thank God we are trained and trusted enough to laugh and gasp at such things’. In all of this I have to ask myself what purpose such sharing serves, especially given the potential for damage that it entails.