Monday, June 1, 2015

What Are Some Problems with Christian Evangelism?

            Now and then, one of my Christian friends will post some blog or article to their social media accounts in which a writer attempts to analyze issues within Christian evangelism. These are pretty much always authored by Christian evangelizers, and usually revolve around what it is the author feels the evangelists are doing wrong and/or what they believe such proselytizers ought to do to improve their outcomes. This one is a fairly recent example of the breed, titled “Five Problems with Christian Evangelism (and What to Do Instead).” Since it contains a lot of the elements shared by many similar articles, I figured I’d use it as an example for the sake of my discussion here. And the discussion I want to have is an outside perspective on these sorts of articles.

            So what are this author’s five problems? Allow me to summarize.

1)      We talk too much

The author chides evangelists for being more interested in telling their Jesus story than taking an interest in other people.

2)      Our script is tired

People are tired of hearing the same old stories from Christian evangelists. They’ve heard it all before.

3)      People think we’re bullies

The author thinks the message that we’re getting from Christian evangelists is that we need to become like them, or else…

4)      We haven’t earned the right

Basically, the idea here is that the author feels people react poorly to being evangelized by strangers they have no reason to trust. So get to know people and take an interest in them before proselytizing.

5)      People don’t see the difference

This criticism focuses on how people perceive Christians as being just like anybody else (at best), and therefore see no reason to think joining them will make a positive difference in ther own lives.


            Now, with all of that out of the way, what does the author recommend to do differently? Here are his two suggestions:

1)      Practice service evangelism.

The crux of this suggestion is that instead of going out and trying to convince people, Christians should become helpers of people across all kinds of social boundaries. The idea being that people will be so impressed with your helpfulness that they will want to find out what motivates you and then join the team.

2)      Treat it like a 12-step program

“Recovery” is something you do every day. You may “earn the right” (see above) to invite a new member to join you, but you shouldn’t pressure them.


            There are a plethora of similar articles exploring why various evangelism efforts may be failing, why church attendance is dropping, why young people seem less engaged with their religion, etcetera. They may have different takes on what is going wrong, or different suggestions for what to do (reference popular culture more/less, or make services more/less about entertainment, take more of a personal interest in the subjects of your evangelism, make friends with people before evangelizing, or don’t discuss facts – that last is one of my favorites). But the sampling of such articles I have read are very similar in one respect: they’re all about tone, not about content. They’re not about what believers say, they’re about how they say it. They all make the unquestioned assumption that people don’t want to hear your message (yet again) because they don’t like the presentation or presenter, rather than because they have made a reasoned rejection of the message itself.

            I know I’m not the target audience for these articles, obviously, but in a way I think that might put me in a position to give a bit of outsider perspective. So, what I would like to do is borrow the author’s format and list five problems I see with Christian evangelism – even (perhaps especially) of the “more friendly” sort embodied by his article. I will follow it up with my own suggestions of what new tactics it might be worthwhile to adopt.

1)      It devalues genuine relationships.

The author, and writers of many similar articles, advocates getting to know people, befriending them, earning their trust, and then proselytizing. This approach sounds lovely if your goal is to be a more successful evangelizer. Of course, it sounds deceitful and underhanded if you’re on the receiving end. The advice is essentially to build a relationship on the false pretense that you’re genuinely drawn to the company of the other person, when your true goal is to forge an emotional connection you can exploit to foist your religious agenda on them. I suppose a genuine respect and friendship might accidentally grow out of such a cynical beginning, but the odds aren’t good. The target certainly would have every right to feel deceived and betrayed should they ever discover the real motivation.

2)      It ignores the possibility that any other world view might be valid.

Interestingly, advice of this sort usually doesn’t even pay lip service to the idea that the “unsaved” target might have valid reasons for not already having accepted what the evangelist is trying to sell them. The focus is on how you can get to know them and slip past their emotional barriers before launching a surprise assault on their world view. These articles take it as axiomatic that your targets can be changed by you, but you can’t possibly be changed by them.

3)      It isn’t evidently true.

This is kind of a big one. Many of the articles giving advice on effective evangelism explicitly advise the proselytizer to avoid discussing facts. Which seems like a very odd piece of advice to give someone you think is trying to spread capital-T truth. In the words of atheist activist Aron Ra “The truth is what the facts are.” If you need to avoid the facts in order to spread your viewpoint, that is an admission that it can’t really be supported as true. Which makes the entire enterprise dishonest from the core.

4)      You target our children

Many evangelism efforts explicitly go after the children of nonbelievers and/or parents of different faiths. Witness the never-ending battles to plaster public schools with explicitly Christian messages and social pressures. Religious institutions already have plenty of opportunity to preach their messages, what with there being more churches than schools in this country. But the schools are targeted because they give something churches can’t give: access to a population of other people’s children isolated from the influence and protection of parents who might shield them from predatory proselytization efforts. Children are, by and large, more vulnerable to emotional manipulation (especially the horrific threats that are a primary tool of many evangelism efforts) and less able to separate fact from fantasy than are adults, which makes them prime targets for religious conversion. But I think we can all agree that there are few better ways to raise the ire of a parent than to target their children for something they see as harmful.

5)      The message, not the messenger

This is the other thing that gets ignored in the evangelism advice, and it’s the big elephant in the room for a lot of atheists: the content. Believe it or not, in America most adults have heard the message of Christianity. Or more accurately, the messages of the Christianities, since there are literally thousands of variations that simply cannot be parsed as to which is the “correct” form (yes, I know, it’s yours). Many of us have concluded that the message(s) is at best a relatively benign untruth, and at worst a horrific tool of manipulation, degradation, and hate-fueled tribalism, depending on which interpretation is presented and how strongly it is followed. Liking or disliking the way the story is presented, or the person presenting it, is just not a factor. There is no end of people I like, admire and even love that are Christian; I just think they’re wrong about their god. There are a number of people I dislike who are atheists, and that means absolutely nothing to me when it comes to evaluating the god claim. I don’t particularly care if the message is presented in dry recitation, or with electric guitar accompaniment. Content isn’t an afterthought; it is the only thing that matters.


            So now that I’ve laid out a (not exhaustive) list of five problems I see with Christian evangelism, I’m sure you’re dying to know what my suggestions are for doing it better. The first suggestion should come as no surprise: I’d rather you stopped doing it at all. But I also know that, for many forms of the faith, that’s not really an option. So I’ll give my second piece of advice: be honest and straightforward with people. Discuss the facts, and do so with adults with whom you have been fully honest about your intentions. Be prepared to take their viewpoint as seriously as you expect them to take yours, and if they don’t want to have that conversation, respect that decision. If someone tells you they still don’t believe, accept that they’re probably telling you the truth. And please, don’t ever use a false guise of friendship as a vehicle for proselytization.

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