Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about Madison Cawthorn and his failed evangelism attempts with what he calls ‘religious Jews.’ For all his TRUE CHRISTIAN™ bluster and all the Jesus Power he imagines himself to have, he just can’t persuade ‘religious Jews’ to buy his product. He blames his failure on everything except the real reasons, of course. Today, let me show you why evangelism fails so hard as a recruitment tactic these days, and why fundagelical leaders don’t seem interested in achieving success with it.
Evangelism as Salesmanship.
Fundagelicals often bristle at the description of their tribe’s various groups as a business. Alas for them, I can’t see them as anything else. For all their tax perks and lofty behavior, individual churches operate exactly as businesses do. Shoddy ones, poorly-run ones, yes, ones lacking proper oversight, yes, but businesses nonetheless.
Like every business, churches need customers. More than that, they need steady, reliable, repeat customers. To get those customers, they engage in the same marketing and advertising that other businesses use. They’re way less effective at customer retention than secular businesses usually are — and way worse at churn reduction, sure. But overall, church leaders worry about the same kind of stuff that secular business owners do.
Denominational leaders behave exactly like corporate C-suite bigwigs. Pastors behave exactly like franchise owners. Those pastors’ flocks strongly resemble the drones of every multi-level marketing scheme I’ve ever seen.
Professional evangelists remind me of the snake-oil hucksters at the top of these schemes.
Today, we’re mostly looking at the amateur evangelists in fundagelicalism: the rank-and-file being pushed increasingly hard by their Dear Leaders to make sales using person-to-person, or personal, evangelism.
The Evangelism Product.
Interestingly, even professional evangelists don’t tend to understand what they’re actually trying to sell. The amateur ones understand even less of their real purpose.
Evangelists insist that they’re trying to persuade their targets of the truth of Christianity. Here are some examples of this blahblah from the wild:
- An evangelical essayist declares that evangelism involves “proclaiming the Gospel – the good news about Jesus Christ which is God’s power to save all who believe it and turn from sin to follow him.” This is the one I operated under. It’s probably the most common definition for the term.
- Wikipedia’s crowdsourced definition declares that the purpose of evangelism is “to share the message and teachings of Jesus Christ.”
- A 1945 journal article tells us that evangelists seek to “put men, women, and children in touch with the living God who came in Jesus to seek and to save that which was lost.”
- This Zondervan writer tells us that evangelism seeks to “proclaim the gospel with the hope that our audience responds by trusting, repenting, and following and obeying Jesus.”
- And this writer for North American Mission Board (NAMB) has no idea how to define evangelism. He tells us that “various ways” exist to define it. However, he never tells us what any of those various definitions are.
These writers all think that they’re trying to persuade people of the truth of their religion’s claims.
But they are all deceiving themselves. Here is the real definition for evangelism:
Evangelism is the process of persuading a target to become an active member of the evangelist’s particular tribe. Its purpose has never been anything else.
The Evangelism End Goal (Isn’t Belief).
When evangelists set about trying to PROVE YES PROVE their claims to a target, that’s only the barest beginning of the evangelism process. Indeed, evangelists think they must demonstrate that truth before moving on to their real purpose, which is recruitment to their own particular tribe.
When evangelists persuade someone of their wackadoodle claims, they seek to spark a pressing need in that target. The need they create through their manipulation can only be met through joining that evangelist’s particular tribe as an active member. Only this particular tribe will meet that artificially-stoked need.
Every evangelist’s sales pitch operates like a cattle chute. It leads only to one destination: that one evangelist’s tribe. If it leads the target to another tribe, something’s gone hideously wrong.
Like imagine a fundagelical evangelist’s target accepts the claims themselves, but then decides to become a Jehovah’s Witness or a Catholic — or adopts some absolutely heretical belief, like Trinitarianism.
Will our theoretical evangelist be happy in this case?
No! Our evangelist needs that target to join the correct Christian tribe, which is to say the evangelist’s own tribe.
You don’t hear Christians talking much about this misfire, but it happened a few times to my friends when I was in college. It was always a really cringey, embarrassing situation. Nobody wanted to admit that our stated evangelism goal was different from our actual goal. Usually our response ran along these lines: Great, now let’s finish the job and get them saved!
Seriously, Belief is Irrelevant.
In truth, fundagelicals don’t even care if the target fully buys into their pre-sales pitch at all. The participation is what they want. Active buy-in to the claims is secondary — if not irrelevant.
I’ve encountered countless stories in fundagelical folklore about atheists attending their churches and bigotry jamborees for years — without converting. Usually, the stories involve them converting way after they began attending their church, but imagine all the years between those points.
Fundagelicals won’t refuse active participation from anybody, unless of course the participant refuses to play along with their culture wars or acts like they think they’re the equals of TRUE CHRISTIANS™. The people in that church will view participation as a sale in and of itself, as long as it lasts for the long haul — because that’s what they’re actually seeking anyway: participation over the long haul.
Belief becomes important in evangelism only as a way of shuttling the target across to participation in the tribe.
And It’s For the Best.
Evangelism as a whole reminds me of a real-world comedy of errors.
Fundagelicals don’t normally understand why they, themselves believe in their own claims. Many think their claims are beyond-obviously true, thanks to relentless Christian marketing. In their post-truth haze, they usually don’t understand real-world facts or the process of evaluating claims at all. Sometimes they can’t even accurately identify what a claim even looks like!
So it’s impossible for fundagelicals to understand why anybody would ever reject their sales pitches.
It’s even harder for fundagelicals to accept their own similarity to secular businesses, or their real purpose in trying to score evangelism sales in the first place.
Not More Than They Are.
That’s because fundagelicals desperately ache to be way more than just a slowly dying cutthroat business competing against many others just like it in a steadily-shrinking market pool.
Oh, they don’t want to be just a bunch of amateur salespeople using disastrously unworkable tactics (and poorly using them at that). They don’t want to be just a bunch of wingnuts who believe stuff that never, ever tethers to reality.
And they especially don’t want to engage with exactly why their business model is collapsing around their (tickled) ears.
That’s why their marketing campaigns and sales tactics tend to look so surreal from the outside. None of it is designed to return success at its own stated goals. Instead, it’s designed to maintain a steady count of butts-in-pews (BIPs). The butts involved are those of the salespeople, that’s all.
So don’t look for evangelism to make any positive changes anytime soon. Heck, I don’t ever expect fundagelicals even to recognize its real purpose, much less to try to alter its processes to make it more effective.
I reckon that’s good news we could all use right about now!
NEXT UP: LSP! Then: Why evangelism is so disrespectful as a process, and why that’s a feature, not a bug. See you tomorrow!
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