Hi! Recently, we’ve been talking about personal evangelism. By this term, Christians mean face-to-face, person-to-person sales pitches for Jesus. And most Christians really dislike doing it. In past posts, we discussed statistics and some reasons for that reluctance. Today, let me reveal some harsh truths for Christian leaders about a long-standing and fully-justified reluctance that is quickly turning into a crisis for them.
Evangelical Churn In a Gathering Storm.
Around 1969, Jeffrey Hadden published The Gathering Storm in the Churches. In this landmark book, he described a growing gap between Christian laity and their leaders regarding what each group understood to be the nature of their religion and their expectations regarding their counterparts.
Some time ago, I encountered Lambchop talking about this book on Thom Rainer’s website. There, she links up a quote from it that delivers a death-blow to pastors’ hopes for revitalization:
Clergy have come to see the church as an institution for challenging man to new hopes and new visions of a better world. Laity on the other hand, are in large part committed to the view that the church should be a source of comfort for them in a troubled world. They are essentially consumers rather than producers of the church’s love and concern for the world, and the large majority deeply resent clergymen’s efforts to remake the church.
Indeed, the author asserts that Christians join and remain members of churches to get their own needs met. They do not join or stick around to meet anybody else’s needs. Definitely, they don’t join or stick around to humbly serve their leaders by performing physical or emotional labor. Their pastors might imagine and even preach messages around this notion, but the flocks sure don’t agree with ’em.
Unfortunately for Christian leaders, that gap still exists and has only increased in depth and severity. By now, it affects almost every dynamic within Christianity.
And Christian leaders created it. Even today, they perpetuate it. I don’t think they realize it’s what’s brought them to this point.
Flying Over the Territory.
Well before Hadden sat down to write his book, that gap already existed. Perhaps Christian leaders didn’t realize it yet, but it was why they were already having trouble getting the flocks to evangelize.
Here’s a basic rundown of the situation over the past few decades:
- 2014: The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) blames members’ unwillingness to evangelize on their leaders’ poor example. Their surreal solution: recommending that pastors do more personal evangelism. That way, in theory, the flocks learned and imitated what they saw.
- 2013: Barna Group notes that evangelism seems to be “going out of style.”
- 2012: Some Christian guy asks if “the personal evangelism ship” has already “sailed.” Immediately, he then answers himself with a resounding NO–but dangit, he has to step in to show Christians how to do it.
- 2007: Someone lectures the flocks on “What Evangelism Isn’t.” Apparently, he thought some folks had questions.
- 1998: A guy publishes a “how-to book on personal evangelism.”
Oh, and remember C.S. Lovett’s soulwinning book that we looked at not long ago? He published its first edition in 1959–the height of Christian dominance after the Red Scare. Even then, Lovett spends the book’s first 30-40 pages psyching up the reader to get out there and SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY. Very obviously, Christians needed that pep talk.
And guess what?
Not much has changed about their reluctance!
A Shift in Priorities.
Back in C.S. Lovett’s salad days, Christianity–and evangelicalism in particular–held uncontested dominance over much of America. Even now, in way too many parts of America, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ feel perfectly entitled to abuse non-Christians at will. For that matter, wherever religious zealots possess too much power, they behave like that. Weirdly, their gods always completely approve of everything they want to do.
In an environment so coercive, recruitment takes care of itself–as does retention. If any flare-ups of dissent occur, they can be handled easily enough through the engineering of a moral panic–and a clamping-down on anyone who advocates for basic human rights and dignity.
So until recent years, Christians’ reluctance to evangelize didn’t change too much. Nor did their incompetence at it when they did attempt it.
When that dominance faded, however, reality shed unwanted light on a lot of Christians’ more delusional self-perceptions.
Cultural dominance and unwarranted power both artificially inflated Christianity’s numbers and successes–and masked its many shortcomings.
Before their loss of dominance, members and leaders alike in the religion might have thought that they dominated through their own virtues, or perhaps due to the imagined superiority of their ideology. Often (like in my Pentecostal denomination), Christians believed they held dominance because their god had handed them that power to achieve his ends.
Right made might, one might say!
In the wake of ongoing losses in both numbers and dominance, however, Christians have had great difficulty in perceiving–much less accepting–that no, it was the dominance itself that had made them appear to be so successful.
They’d gotten everything bass-ackward.
The Greed and Fear at the Heart of Christianity.
And here’s what emerged as the religion’s reality at that point:
People don’t join Christianity because it’s just so, I dunno man, DIFFERENT somehow.
Oh, I mean some might. Marketing hype can be powerful that way and it’s a big beautiful weird world.
But overall and in general, no. Despite Christians’ extensive mythology about the religion’s imagined early growth, the general public has never thought Christians were paragons of virtue, love, compassion, or honesty. Rather, we’ve always known them for their hypocrisy.
Thus driven by the coercive effects of dominance itself, recruits in the past wanted a piece of that dominance. Or they feared the brutal, retaliatory “Christian love” that would fall upon them for refusing Christians’ sales pitches.
Now Christians must sell their religion in other ways. They terrorize their marks with visions of Hell, or they push the authoritarian buttons of correctness. Occasionally, they sell the religion’s community aspect, which can have a strong effect on people who’ve never hung around Christian communities, I suppose.
The “Free Gift” Mentality.
Imagine a friend offered you a free lottery ticket. Would you take it? You’ve got nothing to lose—it’s free! Too busy? Oh, but if you win—you win millions. You’ve got nothing to lose and millions to gain, so why not take the ticket? Of course you’d take it.
Evangelists sell their religion’s imagined benefits as a “free gift,” not as “an opportunity to work hard for no pay on behalf of the group.” Nope! Instead, Christianity gives people stuff. The sales pitches almost never include all the volunteer work and resource outlay that Christian leaders and groups will soon demand of their new members.
Christian evangelists promise to connect recruits with free gifts, with cures-for-what-ails-them, with solutions, with structure, with programs for the kids, with miraculous aid from the supernatural, with joy/happiness/whatever.
In fact, do you remember those church invitations I talked about recently? Not one of them contained a single word about recruits having to do any volunteer work after conversion. Not one! In their limited copy space, they instead sold safety from Hell, eternal life in Heaven, and maybe free rides to church.
So when pastors start demanding evangelism of members, of course they’re gonna balk like mules. That ain’t what they signed up for.
Evangelism in the Age of IMA GET MINE.
Christian leaders know that marketing ploys built around greed and fear can be devastatingly effective.
What’s hilarious is that they don’t the flocks’ subsequent reluctance to go out and evangelize after having been won through those appeals to their greed and fear.
For the few who sincerely wish to win souls, the sheer lack of adequate education and training to that end can be agonizing. Those few quickly discover that evangelism training functions as reinforcement for the evangelists’ own indoctrination or as virtue-signals to those susceptible to the same appeals–not as genuine persuasion to those who do not already fully believe.
That’s because the flocks came into the group specifically to take resources for themselves. Expending effort on others’ behalf–even if it’s just learning what non-Christians are really like and what really might persuade them–represents resources they aren’t taking for themselves.
Christian leaders sounded a horn and raised a banner drawing exactly these sorts of followers to themselves. I feel no sympathy whatsoever for their plight.
And Who’s Gonna MAKE ‘Em?
By far the most devastating reason of all behind why Christian laypeople don’t evangelize is this:
With every passing year, their leaders lose just a little more power over not only general culture, but also their own followers. By now, there ain’t jack they can do to make their followers do anything.
Aside from really control-hungry sects like Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW), Christian pastors can’t force their flocks to do anything they don’t want to do. Oh, I’m sure that some cultish leader out there somewhere has groomed followers well enough to extract that level of obedience from even the most reluctant members of the group. I’ve also heard often about parents forcing their kids to participate in evangelism. Other than those examples, though, I’ve never heard of any major Christian group whose leaders can force adult members to evangelize–or retaliate against those who don’t.
Instead, Christian leaders find themselves negotiating with their followers.
They wheedle–encourage–inspire–fling shame–deploy threats of damnation for those not evangelized–whatever they think might work. To that end, they keep coming up with hilarious and cringeworthy new ways to try to manipulate the flocks into wanting to do this thing that most Christians believe is their god’s #1 “commission” for his followers.
And sure, yeah, we’ve been talking for ages about the various ways that those leaders develop to try to increase member evangelism. Weirdly enough, though, none of their efforts ever make much of a change in the situation.
At most, their followers will nod and smile–and then continue to blithely ignore any unwanted demands.
The Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging.
Missionaries complain about rice Christians, who join their religion only to gain material benefits from the missionaries. When the benefits stop flowing, the converts stop showing up.
But Christians back home commit exactly the same “sin.”
What’s more, they always have.
As I’ve shown you above, Christians don’t join Christianity because they ache to contribute service to the religion’s advancement. Thanks to exactly how Christians sell the religion to others, new members are likely to view a subsequent demand for evangelism as a major bait-and-switch–and one they can safely ignore.
As we see in the book Divided By Faith:
If we accept the oftentimes reasonable proposition that most people seek the greatest benefit for the least cost, they will seek meaning and belonging with the least change possible. Thus, if they can go to either the Church of Meaning and Belonging, or the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, most people choose the former. It provides benefit for less cost.
By the same token, the leaders of Christian groups quickly learn that they can’t rock the boat too much. Congregations resent–deeply–too much lecturing and too many assignments. If pastors persist, their churches might just sack them–or the group might bleed members who leave in search of less-demanding churches.
Ultimately, Christian leaders can only lead where their flocks wish to follow.
So they shouldn’t look for much to change regarding personal evangelism.
NEXT UP: The promise that Christian evangelists make that they can’t fulfill in a million years. But first, we’ll have a Super Special and then on Monday our Lord Snow Presides (LSP). See you soon!
Please Support What I Do!
Come join us on Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter, and our forum at rolltodisbelieve.com! (Also Instagram, where I mostly post cat pictures. Seriously, that’s about 99% of my insta. No rants, no sermons, just Bumble and Bother being adorable.)
If you like what you see, I gratefully welcome your support. Please consider becoming one of my monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve for as little as $1/month! My PayPal is firstname.lastname@example.org (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips. You can also support this blog through my Amazon Affiliate link–and, of course, by liking and sharing my posts on social media! Thank you for anything you wish to do. <3