I was already planning to offer us a special treat today: an evangelism fail that illustrates perfectly what’s going on in Christianity right now. And the timing couldn’t be better. The recent incursion of Christian trolls we’ve seen around here highlights the failure of evangelism even more effectively than if they’d never shown up at all. But we needn’t look so close to home to see that Christians are flailing for lack of effective marketing and sales techniques. Today I’ll show you the religion’s newest failure: incarnational evangelism.
Oh Yay, Another Admonition to Christians to Jesus Harder.
Christian thought leaders1 are a lot like salespeople. They are well aware of what doesn’t work to score sales. But unlike salespeople, they don’t take that understanding as far as working out what does. Generally speaking, all of their advice is going to boil down to everyone just needs to Jesus harder.
I often mock evangelism-minded toxic Christians by summarizing their efforts as Jesusing harder. By that I mean that they want people to drill down harder on the stuff that their leaders have already told them to do. They’re not analyzing why those instructions have failed or why their people seem so unwilling to do this stuff. Instead, they restrict themselves to admonishing their people to take one for the team and do stuff they’ve already demonstrated that they don’t want to do.
If people would only Jesus harder, then everything would be great again. The religion would right itself. People would start joining up again. People would stop leaving so often. Jesus would be so happy with his people if they’d only do that!
And best of all, Christian leaders wouldn’t have to come up with a strategy that is in any way different from what they’re flogging to death now.
Everyone, Meet Some of the New Christian Hucksters.
Ben Sternke, who wrote the blog post we’re looking at today, is one of the co-founders of Gravity Leadership, which is a Christian group offering “training for Christian leaders.” Their homepage tells us that they “help start Jesus-shaped movements by training leaders to lead like Jesus, live on mission, and multiply disciples.” The website is marked as copyrighted in 2016, which is probably about when they began offering their services. (Elsewhere they note having been active for five years.)
Gravity Leadership tries to sell Christians a new way to evangelize that they claim will get real results (meaning that it will result in increased recruitment and lower churn). Their “Coaching” page is a symphony of purest corporatese gobbledygook. Seriously, they appear to have created their page’s text by running some choice Deepak Chopra quotes through a postmodern translator. Here’s one passage:
Training That Integrates Words, Works, and Way
From the anchor point of the WAY of Jesus, we can begin to integrate WORDS and WORKS into a holistic model of transformative leadership that trains us to lead like Jesus, live on mission, and make disciples.
Seeing a Need and Filling It.
And my goodness, what a lot of need there is for someone to teach Christians how to sell their ideology! Every survey from the last five years indicates greater and greater losses for the religion across the board. A denomination is doing well if it even manages to stay stagnant, these days.3
I can totally understand why Christian leaders are getting really desperate to reverse those declines. It must seem like the entire world is built out of iron chariots when they survey the landscape of their own declining dominance.
They’re just not desperate enough. Not yet.
That half-measure desperation is exactly how a group like Gravity Leadership can gain traction and even flourish.
Failure #1: Confrontation Evangelism.
Sometimes a Christian thought leader will come to a realization of what doesn’t work in evangelism. That’s where we find ourselves today.
Ben Sternke and his group know about the two different kinds of evangelism that most Christians use today.
Many evangelists try confrontation-based evangelism. (He calls it “coercive evangelism.” Marketers sometimes call this interrupt marketing.) In this type, a Christian accosts someone with unwanted sales attempts and tries to force the prospect to engage with their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game. Often threats get involved here.
We’ll be talking more later about exactly why this method doesn’t work to produce sales, but for now, suffice to say that Sternke is, to his immense credit, aware that it does fail. It fails spectacularly on a number of levels. So he discards that method in his post.
Failure #2: Jesus Aura Evangelism.
More hipster Christians try Jesus Aura evangelism. (He calls this “osmosis evangelism,” but it has a lot of names including lifestyle evangelism and friendship evangelism.) In this type, Christians try to be as super-Jesus-y as possible in order to differentiate themselves from the rest of humanity. They try to embody all the ideals that people typically think of when they think about Jesus: charity, kindness, graciousness, compassion, social justice, whatever.
Now, bear in mind that Christians should be modeling this behavior anyway. It’s one of their requirements as Christians. But if they can’t do it purely because they’re ordered to do it by the very center of their entire religion, then at least they can do it to gain better success in recruiting!
They think people will then adopt whatever ideology believed by the person with this shiny aura.
The reality is often considerably different from the fantasy, as a dear Christian friend of mine discovered.
Nor does it usually take long for Christians to realize that they aren’t making a lot of sales with this method either.
The Actual Problem.
In Reality-Land, groups thrive (or die) based on two very important principles.
First, it’s a big plus if they’re based upon an ideology that is based in reality.
Tethering to reality means that they’ll be able to shift and grow along with their growing understanding of facts. That tethering leads directly to the second principle:
Second, the group’s people must be safe, pleasant groups for new people to belong to. They must be desirable groups. And they must provide benefits to membership that can’t be obtained anywhere else for a lower price.
Christian groups will always fall down on the first requirement, so it’s absolutely essential that they succeed on the second. Unfortunately, they usually fall down on that one as well. Worse, their ideologies typically present their group’s social system as perfect–and thus inviolable.
What to do, what to do…
Solution: Incarnational Evangelism!
Christians find themselves faced with an absolute dilemma. Unwanted self-introspection lurks on the one side. Complete failure looms on the other. So Christians often try to escape it by creating a new strategy that isn’t actually very new.
In this case, Ben Sternke and his group think that the answer is “incarnational evangelism.”
And you might well be asking right now: Cas, what on earth is “incarnational evangelism?”
Well, basically it’s just Jesus Aura evangelism tinged with confrontation.
Instead of creating a group that people just naturally want to join, this approach seeks to create a super-shiny Jesus Aura while also building social capital with others. Social capital is built through shared activities and bonding. It’s cashed in when people need things from their peer group–like help moving, or comfort through emotional trials, or even the patience needed to maintain a friendship through an annoying change in personality.
Ben Sternke advises Christians to build social capital first in order to withdraw that capital when the time is finally right to issue a confrontational sales pitch. If the Christian has built up a shiny enough Jesus Aura, then the pitch should be more effective then. Or so goes the theory!
Yes, Yes, But What Does It Look Like?
What’s hilarious is that the commenters there get why this suggestion of “incarnational evangelism” is not helpful. One reader, perceiving the bait-and-switch on offer, suggests that Sternke should call his idea “integrative evangelism” instead. (He implies in response that he hadn’t realized that this is exactly what he’s advising.)
Another, “Joe Bridger,” flat-out tells him that his suggestions completely lack concrete guidelines:
Incarnational relationship. Jesus was different from them but people were attracted to him. Really? That’s what I bring to my people as the answer? Not good enough.
Sternke’s response to that very reasonable objection is that his suggestion is just toooooooo super-speerchul to put across in a simple blog post. Joe Bridger will simply need to sign up for his group’s training system to really understand it!
I think I can help Pastor Bridger, though: Literally, Sternke wants y’all to be super-duper-Jesus-y, make people yearn for the Jesus Aura created that way, and then evangelize these prospects like usual.
Christians who perceive a little bit of the real truth can seem even more frustrating than Christians who willfully push away all of the truth. That’s the situation in which we find this group.
Ben Sternke actually sees the situation half-clearly:
Here’s the thing: whenever you find yourself having only two unsatisfying options, there’s probably another dimension to the problem you’re not thinking about.
And he’s right. That’s exactly his problem.
The dimension he’s not thinking about is that his religion’s groups fail on both of the important principles that groups need.
The Pot Must Be Stirred.
When we see a group like 99% of Christian groups, what we need to see are the dynamics that are leading these groups to decline. In this case, Christians need to be so desperate for survival that they are willing to consider the unthinkable: Change.
I find it deeply ironic that Christians have managed to destroy their religion’s greatest strength, its chameleon changeability, through their own fear and control-lust. We can see the same errors in other groups that stubbornly refuse to change with shifts in societal values and needs.
On the grand scale, the necessary changes are likely impossible. But on small-group scales, some churches will do okay. They will decide that change is preferable to extinction.
Today Lord Snow Presides over yet another retread of failed sales techniques.
NEXT TIME: We look back at another recurring theme of this blog that’s been developed over the last five years, Christians’ reliance on experts who aren’t really very expert. And we’re circling back around this week to this confrontational evangelism notion as well–so be looking for posts involving motivated reasoning and overt vs. covert goals. See you next time!
1 A thought leader is someone who isn’t actually a paid leader of any groups. In this case, it’s a Christian who is not an official minister. Bloggers, traveling preachers, apologists, and other assorted writers and YouTubers fall into this category. Such a person still has influence, sometimes quite a lot of it! But nobody pays them officially to lead.
2 One of those leaders is Jeff Gustafson, who is quoted on the “Coaching” page as being super-impressed with Gravity Leadership. I looked him up. He’s not the pastor of that church. He’s the associate pastor. And the website folks misspelled the name of his church’s town. This is, by the way, a very young church; it opened in 2013. If they’re growing by leaps and bounds, they are being very, very quiet about it. From the sound of it, I seriously doubt most fundagelical TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would approve of it either way. Also maybe this church’s site needs pictures of people whose attempts at a Jesus Smile don’t make them look like they’re about to burst into tears at any given second.
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Lord Snow Presides… is our weekly off-topic chat series. I’ve started us off with a topic, but feel free to chime in with whatever’s on your mind! Lord Snow is my sweet, elderly white cat. He presides over my household like he’s trying to lead a square dance, apparently.