Yes, evangelism is definitely sales

We compare sales to evangelism, find they're identical, and see why that bothers evangelism-minded Christians so much.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Recently, I wrote about evangelicals offering a sole product–active membership in their groups–that is seriously declining in demand. If evangelicals could engage with that reality, they’d have a much easier time addressing it. But they can’t. For a variety of reasons, thinking of evangelism as sales and group membership as a product just makes them bristle. Today, let’s take a walk through the reasons why evangelicals hate the truth about evangelism.

(As we talk about evangelism as a sales process, bear in mind that the product being sold is active membership in the evangelist’s own group. Most evangelists don’t realize this, and think their product is “Jesus.” It isn’t. They simply must first convince targets to buy into their beliefs, since non-believers rarely purchase active church membership. Also, the term “evangelism-minded Christians” refers to the very, very few Christians who do a lot of person-to-person evangelism and make it a focus.)

Sharing vs sales

Imagine your favorite restaurant. Then, imagine that you went out with friends to this place last night, and you had one of the best dining experiences of your life. Most of us would be brimming over with a desire to share this fantastic experience with those other folks. So, you might talk about:

  • what food you ate and saw on offer
  • ambience (decorations, music, table settings, etc)
  • the quality of service
  • how much fun you had

In turn, all you want from your listeners is for them to be as pleased as you are with the whole experience.

Now, imagine that you want to convince those listeners to eat at that same restaurant. You don’t want to simply offer an opinion about the place. Rather, you want your listeners to expend their own time and money to eat there.

Suddenly, you’ve shifted from sharing an experience to initiating a sales engagement. The more money and time you want from your listener, the harder it’ll be to convince them to hand ’em over. So, you’ll need a whole different set of skills to get what you now want.

The dynamics of sharing and sales couldn’t be more different. And y’all, it has always tickled me pink that evangelism-minded Christians fight as hard as they do against any insinuation that what they’re doing is selling, not sharing.

The salespeople who hate being in sales

Even Christians who accept evangelism as sales have to step very lightly around the egos of their peers when discussing the matter. Really, I’ve only ever found a few Christians who seem comfortable with acknowledging evangelism as a sales process. (Most, like this lady, appear to be professional salespeople themselves.)

Consider this 2008 post from Relevant:

We fail to realize that whether we want it to be true or not, Jesus is a product that we are selling.

I know, I know, we don’t like this terminology. It cheapens what Jesus is really about. But regardless of whether we see it this way as insiders or not, this is how others see us.

Relevant, emphasis in original

That writer quickly rushed to offer this clarification, however:

This doesn’t mean that we have to go and treat Jesus like a product to be sold for profit. We know that Jesus is far more than that.

Relevant

That post’s goal was to make evangelism-minded Christians resolve to be less hypocritical. See, if Christians act like they at least pretend they believe what they claim is the ultimate, capital-T TRUTH, then their targets will totally respond by “buy[ing] in.”

[NARRATOR: Alas, Relevant’s Millennial audience continued to be hypocrites. Christianity’s decline–already in motion–only accelerated. Evangelism-minded Christians began bristling even harder against accusations that they were involved in ickie sales. And lifestyle evangelism, which is what Relevant’s pushing here, fails to work to this very day.]

Why evangelists hate thinking they’re actually salespeople

It’s not hard at all to find Christians online everywhere complaining about the mere notion that evangelism involves selling something to someone.

Reading their accounts, I understand why.

Evangelism-minded Christians like to think of themselves as lofty, ascended, exalted people who had the very fine wisdom and sense to recognize the capital-T TRUTH when it presented itself. Now enlightened and evolved, they seek to enlighten the subhumans around themselves.

What these fine creatures have is not simply a product, thenkyewveddymuch. No, no! They did not walk up and down the aisles of the Marketplace of Religions, checking the ingredients list and marketing packets for each potential religion, before selecting the product that worked best for themselves. Ew, how very plebeian!

No, what they have is a conspiracy theory glorious worldview that does all kinds of astonishing things for believers.

And they jus’ wanna shaaaaaaaare this life-changing discovery with all those sinnnnnnnerrrrrrs.

That’s how intellectual dishonesty is born.

Why evangelism-minded Christians can’t call what they do “selling”

Nobody sensible fully trusts salespeople in full sales mode. Everybody knows that salespeople will say and do whatever it takes to score the sale–right up to the limits of the law, and sometimes even beyond that. That said, when we engage with salespeople, we know how that dynamic works. We know we can reject the pitch whenever we like; we don’t owe the salesperson anything.

Besides that, we can clearly ascertain the motivations of salespeople. We know why they’re trying to sell us this thing: our purchase benefits them in a tangible way. And we also know that the salesperson is, ultimately, accountable only to their own business superiors–not to us. If it comes to betraying the interests of one or the other, the sales target is the one who’ll get it in the shorts.

Sharing sounds a whole lot less predatory and self-serving than selling. So for many decades now, evangelism-minded Christians have defined what they do as “sharing.” Sharing sounds a lot more like the restaurant example above: someone who really enjoys something just telling others about it, with no stake or vested interest in what the listener will think of that information or what they’ll do with it. Evangelism is nothing like that.

To seal the deal, “sharing” makes it sound like the evangelist is just talking about their product out of the goodness of their heart–not because they stand to gain (sometimes very grand) tangible benefits from making a sale for their group. This term obscures the salesperson’s relationship with the product’s producers and owners.

Of course, evangelism–sales–is completely different from sharing.

I makeded dis.

That said, evangelism-minded Christians have never felt that words must mean particular things.

Sales hostility in the wild

We can see this anti-salesmanship mindset on display all over the internet. Consider, for example, this 2010 essay from the Christian site First Things. In it, Joe Carter (an editor for that site) expresses his disdain for evangelism that brushes up too closely against sales:

God might use prayer cards or religious tracts to bring the lost to salvation and redemption. He might use young men looking to win the souls of people they don’t bother to get to know. But I suspect that he’d prefer that we introduce him as a person rather than hawk him like a car dealer selling six-year-old Chevies. I think he’d rather the good news be shared rather than sold.

Joe Carter, First Things

Gosh, he wistfully sighs in his essay, if only Christians would shaaaaaare their faith! If only Christians would get to know their targets before slamming a turn-or-burn sales pitch in front of them!

I reckon he’s forgotten that when Christians try to go that route, they make even fewer sales than their more bombastic peers.

Fibbing about the motivations of sales

Since then, nothing’s really changed. Evangelicals in particular are still trying very hard to convince the flocks that “sharing” their faith is nothing like “selling” Christians’ actual product–precisely so those flocks will get the courage to do more selling.

One of the ways that those leaders seek to redefine evangelism as “sharing” is to obfuscate the motivations of an evangelist.

In sales, a salesperson’s motivations are glaringly obvious. They want to make a sale because it tangibly benefits them. So, first and foremost, Christian leaders try to convince the flocks that evangelism doesn’t give them any rewards besides good feelings. Yep! They’re just sharing the good news! Nope, there’s nothing in it for them at all! As one missionary-training site puts it:

It is helpful as we train people to have them learn a method of evangelism. We teach them how to share their testimony and the Jesus story. It builds confidence and competency. This is important. But in training, always start with the trainee’s heart. Evangelism starts there. People sense whether you love them. They know if you are sharing the gospel to “convert” them, or because you genuinely care about them.

DMMS Frontier Missions

Unfortunately, salesmanship destroys genuine friendship. There’s not a way for evangelists to sell with only love for others as a motivation, because sales is not compatible with authentic two-way relationship.

Why salespeople can’t be friends with their targets

Once one person gets made into a target whose buy-in benefits the other person, their relationship dynamic irrevocably changes. Just as we can’t truly love that which we fear, we can’t fully trust a salesperson to prioritize our best interests the way a real friend would–or to play fair, be honest, or even be a safe harbor for our own honesty.

Not many Christians seem to talk about losing friends through evangelism, but here’s one such story. After clumsily pitching her product at a dear friend, the friendship dissolved almost immediately.

And this failed evangelist knows why, too:

In my evangelistic efforts, I had crossed over from being a real friend to being a missionary whose only apparent aim was to convert her. I can only guess that she may have felt a little used and dehumanized. As far as she could see, I no longer valued her intrinsically as a person and a friend, but only as a recipient of my Good News.

And that was so far from the truth. Marie was a brilliant person, a gifted writer, and a devoted and warmhearted friend. I genuinely liked her. After I totally botched things up with her, I found I missed her terribly. I missed her unique sense of humour and the fun conversations we had in the campus Subway. I had messed that all up when I decided to make her my religious project.

Becoming Peculiar, emphases in original

This evangelist’s religious leaders had fired her up with all kinds of manipulative rhetoric. In her post, she calls that revival event “life-changing.” She says it sparked “newly-acquired fire” in her heart for evangelism.

And thanks to her leaders, who will themselves never be faced with any consequences for their flocks’ failures, our evangelist lost something that she can never, ever recover–all because sales has no place in friendship.

The rewards of evangelism

Salespeople stand to gain rewards–often significant ones–from making a sale. Those rewards motivate salespeople. If not for the rewards, those salespeople would go find something else to do!

And because evangelism is sales, the same holds true for evangelists.

A while ago, I ran across this disingenuous question on Quora:

Do atheists ever consider Christian testimony as being true, considering we have no reason to lie to them?

Quora

All I could say to myself was Oh, dear.

If this hapless questioner is sincere and not Just Asking Questions, then they might be the only Christian around who hasn’t given this question much thought. In truth, Christians reap significant rewards for any attempts at evangelism they can manage to do.

Obviously, in secular sales the rewards are things like money and awards. In evangelism, those can certainly be rewards as well. But rewards can also be leadership opportunities at the church, gaining esteem from the congregation and its leaders, getting speaking and teaching opportunities, even launching a career as a paid evangelist!

And by the way, the evangelist in question need not even be successful. Simply making the attempt can garner these rewards.

Even a temporary break in suffering can be a reward for sales attempts

Of course, one other important reward for aspiring evangelists is temporary freedom from guilt, shame, and coercion. Christian leaders spend a lot of time trying to push their unwilling flocks into evangelism. As their religion’s cultural decline continues, those efforts will only intensify.

Often, then, Christians make evangelism attempts because they feel very guilty for not doing enough for Team Jesus. They’ll pick a target who doesn’t have too strong of a relationship with them, trot out a few lines, and hope for the best. If the relationship dissolves, hopefully it wasn’t that strong to begin with.

That’s a best-case story. The worst case looks a lot more like the heartbreaking account I showed you above: a young Christian gets all fired up, heads for their best friend, evangelizes them, and loses a very important relationship.

The odds game

But Christian leaders are playing the odds game here–one using the relationships of their congregations as gambling chips. They know that almost all personal evangelism attempts fail. They’re just hoping that a tiny percentage will succeed–and from there, turn into regular customers of their product.

They might seriously need more sales, but the one thing those leaders won’t do is engage honestly with evangelism’s sales aspects. Thus, they’ll never equip their erstwhile evangelists with real sales techniques that actually have a chance of working.

It’s like Christians get set up to fail.

And thus, the flocks will continue to dread evangelism–and yet feel obligated to do it–and then fail almost every time. (But once an evangelism attempt fails, of course, their leaders can work with that failure too.)

So to the leaders, at least, this whole situation is a win-win. Who cares what the flocks think?

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...