Another amazingly bad Easter exhortation

This time, our annual Easter evangelism exhortation comes from Ben Mandrell, the new leader of Lifeway

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Perhaps the most universal and monolithic trait of evangelicals is a stated affection for evangelism coupled with a deep dread for the specific tasks required for evangelism. The flocks hate evangelism. In fact, they always have. So what does a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leader do when he wants to convince the flocks to evangelize on Easter, one of the biggest days in the entire evangelical calendar? We got an answer to this burning question from Ben Mandrell recently: sell, but be totally subtle about it. Let’s see if his advice will work–by examining what he leaves out of his creepy Easter evangelism exhortation.

This article describes evangelism as a sales process. The product being sold is active membership in the evangelist’s own group. Also, one could easily argue that the post we examine here looks a lot like friendship evangelism. Also also, I’ve got no hate for conversation-starting tools. The “conversation cube’s” appearance just seems so out-of-left-field and out of place, especially when our OP writer is claiming expertise in personal evangelism.

Quick Christianese lesson: personal evangelism

When I discuss evangelism in this post, I mean personal evangelism. Personal evangelism is person-to-person evangelism, as opposed to larger-scale evangelism events like those old Billy Graham crusades. Almost always, amateurs perform it rather than what my first husband Biff called “professional Christians.”

To be evangelical at all is to buy into the idea that Jesus commands all Christians to perform personal evangelism on everybody they encounter. This activity is intrinsic to the label.

And yet almost all evangelicals hate doing it.

If evangelicals even manage to squeak out one single recruitment attempt at all during the course of one year, they consider that an admirable year. Most will barely manage even that much.

For years now, evangelical leaders have written post after post exhorting the tribe to evangelize more often. None of it has ever worked. (Here’s a 2013 post addressing the lack of personal evangelism, and here’s a 2019 survey from Barna Group wringing their hands over the unchanged facts of the matter.)

Evangelical leaders believe, rightly or wrongly, that their decline is happening because the flocks don’t do enough personal evangelism. Therefore, more of it must be done to save their end of Christianity. So you can imagine the tug-of-war going on here between leaders demanding it and pew-warmers refusing to do as commanded.

An Easter post in the grand new tradition

Back in 2017, I caught an Easter post by Ed Stetzer over on CNN. He titled it, “Why do Christians keep inviting you to church?” As the title implies, he pretended to aim the post at normies. It turned out to be quite a popular post; Stetzer later said it’d gotten over “a million reads” that weekend. In the post, he outlines a number of basic evangelical talking points about personal evangelism.

Ed Stetzer sought, in his post, to exhort his flocks to evangelize. But he did it in the sneakiest way imaginable: by officially directing his post to his flocks’ potential targets. In a lot of ways, the post functioned as a Facebook vaguepost. At the time, I immediately recognized that he was actually talking to evangelicals themselves, not the people they were supposedly inviting to church all the danged time. Indeed, about a year later he admitted the deception:

I was trying to explain why Christians keep inviting people to church and also trying to motivate Christians to invite their friends to church. I hoped that by seeing in CNN an article about why Christians keep inviting people to church, believers would think Oh, I should be doing that.

Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today, July 2018

But nobody thought that.

As far as I can see, those million reads failed utterly to translate into more butts in pews (BIPs, an important measurement of evangelical dominance). According to the SBC’s own 2018 Annual Report (which records 2017’s performance), they recorded about 25k fewer baptisms and lost about 200k members. Their big important statistic, baptisms per current members, worsened from 1:54 (already a dreadful figure in their minds) to 1:59.

But this disingenuous Easter post of Ed Stetzer’s apparently became a sort of tradition for the SBC.

This year’s sneaky sales advice for Easter evangelism

This time around, our Easter post comes to us from Ben Mandrell. And I find that interesting for a couple of reasons.

First of all, Ed Stetzer at one time worked for Lifeway, which is the SBC’s official propaganda and publishing arm. He worked under Thom Rainer, the former leader of this subgroup. Among other things, Ed Stetzer designed and ran what I am absolutely and totally certain (/s) were rigorous and completely trustworthy surveys that Lifeway uses to sell its products to evangelical audiences.

Well, the SBC fired Thom Rainer for completely trashing their business–er, I mean, they allowed him to retire gracefully without too much hassle. (Then, they sued him for violating his noncompete clause. The parties involved eventually reached an out-of-court agreement.)

After Thom Rainer left, the SBC hired Ben Mandrell to lead Lifeway. Like entirely too many high-ranking leaders at the SBC, he lacks both the experience and training one might expect a candidate to have for his new role. He’s just a church pastor who grew a moderately-sized church into a larger church.

Regardless, just before Easter he’s written this disingenuous advice post for Baptist Press, the SBC’s official news site.

But get this: the post doesn’t say anywhere who he even is or why Southern Baptists should care about what he thinks about personal evangelism. His bio isn’t on his author page for the site either. It’s a baffling omission. I really don’t think he’s a household name yet for SBC-lings.

This Easter, SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY. Just be, ya know, real subtle about it

Now, let’s circle around to Ben Mandrell’s actual post. It’s from March 29, and it’s called:

FIRST-PERSON: 3 truths about your non-religious neighbor

Ohh, already we’re starting with the cringe. So far, I’ve never been impressed with evangelicals’ descriptions of nonreligious people. Typically, they don’t sound much like me or any other nonreligious person I know.

One reason why evangelicals’ descriptions of nonreligious people sound so surreally divorced from reality, however, is that the people creating these descriptions have an unstated agenda for offering them. So these descriptions amount to strawmen.

In this case, Ben Mandrell wants his readers to perform more personal evangelism. He knows they don’t wanna.

And he appears to know why, too: because it’ll wreck their social capital. Instead of suggesting that evangelicals not sacrifice their relationships to make sales pitches, though, Ben Mandrell is going to pretend they can have it both ways: relationships that allow for sales pitches!

They just hafta be subtle about it.

Gosh! Who even knew it’d be that simple?

Sidebar: Social capital

Social capital describes the relationships we have: how and why we build them, why we do or don’t continue them, and how and why we mess them up. It consists of the resources that we exchange as well as the emotional networks we build and starve. People build social capital by hanging out, doing favors (and receiving them), showing kindness and support, and other such things. We withdraw social capital by imposing too much on our friends, not hanging out, saying or doing things they don’t like, etc. When that delicate balance gets too far into the negatives, then that relationship probably won’t last much longer.

Evangelicals are just people. There’s next to no difference between them and anybody else, except maybe for their deep authoritarian streak. That streak only means they’re even more hyper-aware of social capital than most folks. They really don’t want to lose any nodes of their networks if they can help it. When they make any real friends, they’re especially reluctant to do anything that might wreck that friendship. And most evangelicals have painful, cringey memories of doing exactly that, usually in their overzealous teen years.

The pastors demanding more personal evangelism of their flocks sure ain’t gonna write any checks to cover someone else’s lost social capital. Indeed, leaders like Ben Mandrell have absolutely nothing to lose here. It’s the flocks who have everything to lose by following their advice.

So Ben Mandrell needs to make it sound like he’s found a way to perform personal evangelism that won’t risk an evangelical’s social capital. A way that’s safe. That won’t, if rejected, result in long-lasting hurt feelings and withdrawn friendship.

[NARRATOR: It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for ’em!]

Why Ben Mandrell’s post came out right before Easter

This Easter post does not actually include the word “Easter,” but given its placement and topic it’s hard to see it as anything else. Easter is one of the biggest attendance days of the year (the other being Christmas). Families who haven’t shown up all year present themselves on Easter Sunday, often with family members or close friends in tow who don’t normally attend any church at all.

A church invitation for Easter Sunday might well be accepted as a way of spending time with one’s dearest friends or family. Often, churches try hard to seem friendly and welcoming and interesting. Big ones with budgets to match might even offer various pageants or concerts for that special day–as a way to turn the day into an event, rather than just another boring service to sit through.

So if an evangelical pew-warmer is to invite anybody to church all year, it will likely be for a big day like Easter.

And it’s just so remarkable to me that even with all this comparative ease, evangelicals still need to be poked and prodded to invite anybody to church. They know, far better than their leaders should want them to know, just how unwanted and unnecessary their targets think their only product truly is.

Ben Mandrell has his work cut out for him. Accordingly, he structures his advice around personal anecdotes to make it sound like he, too, struggles with social capital and the demands of personal evangelism. But y’all, he’s figured out how to square that impossible circle–through the magic of subtlety and clever positioning! If he could figure out how to SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY and not lose his friends, then you totally can too!

Except he didn’t do that at all.

First: Nonreligious people are discerning—but not that discerning, so don’t worry!

It’s always so amazing to see an evangelical try to pretend that nonreligious people are totally discerning while offering advice that amounts to hamfistedly seeking opportunities to make sales pitches 24/7. Ben Mandrell does that here with the first item on his 3-item listicle, by telling his readers “They’re discerning.”

But he doesn’t believe it.

When Ben Mandrell and his wife moved to Colorado and met their new neighbors, he writes, they knew they couldn’t just blast everyone right away with church invitations. It’d be too un-subtle:

Sometimes (not every time!) people want to have coffee with me because they want me to do something for them. In the same way, people can sniff out when a Christian wants to get together simply for the purpose of getting buy-in on their beliefs.

They know when they’re being manipulated into a situation.

Ben Mandrell, listicle item #1

His stated solution: buying a “conversation cube.” I’ve never heard of this, but it seems to be a cube with preprinted conversation starters on it. That way, since Mandrell appears to be completely incapable of self-directing his own conversations, he can rely on the cube to handle that messy stuff for him.

Yes, I’m sure normies will be completely charmed that their new neighbors need conversation facilitation to talk to them. That’ll make a sales pitch completely risk-free. Yep.

Two: Build social capital through neighborly gestures, but remember why you’re doing it

We saw Ben Mandrell’s second suggestion earlier, when we talked about “Bless Every Home.” In that state-level SBC-led initiative, SBC-lings got told to zero in on a couple of neighbors to work over, and to do favors for them to build friendship.

In this Easter post’s second list item, Mandrell tells evangelicals that nonreligious people “have things to teach us.” But not things about religion, HAW HAW! Nope, not that! No, he’s talking about normie stuff like car and home repair.

See, Mandrell has this neighbor, Neil, who was obviously his conversion project. Neil’s good with tools and fixing stuff. Mandrell, well, isn’t. And yet, nowhere in this section does Mandrell describe learning anything from Neil. He positions his requests for repair help as part of his charm offensive.

However, Mandrell does expect to teach Neil about evangelicalism. Indeed, after spending a total of one paragraph talking about what Neil could (but apparently never did) teach him about repair work, Mandrell turns around and talks for two more paragraphs about how he created opportunities to teach Neil about his religion.

At every turn, Mandrell demonstrates why he’s not a real friend to Neil. He’s got one goal on his mind: turning Neil into a consumer of his one and only product. Every time Neil needs real support from Mandrell, Mandrell turns the occasion into a sales pitch.

Three: Pretend you care about people’s stupid problems

The third item on the list sounded downright insidious to me. In it, Mandrell advises his readers to “honor what’s important to [your prospects].” Specifically, he tells his readers this:

In one way, the connection with Neil and Kristy was natural because we have kids who are similar in age. But even if that wasn’t the case, it’s important to show them they matter to you by demonstrating interest in their kids and the things that matter to them.

Ben Mandrell, listicle item #3

But the only reason Mandrell is doing all this acting is to make a sale. I see no indication at all that Mandrell stayed friends with this family past their kids’ childhood, so I wonder if he’s kept it up. Kids can take ghosting especially hard.

On that note: I’ve got a friend, an atheist, who had to explain to her heartbroken children many times over the years why their new play pals wouldn’t be coming over anymore. Their Christian parents had only allowed their kids to be friends with ickie heathen children in the hopes that she, their mom, would be dazzled by their Jesus Auras and join their churches. When that failed to happen, they forbade further play dates and ghosted the mom’s entire family. This scenario happened repeatedly.

In light of that series of disappointments, this bit of bragging didn’t look good to me at all:

And [this demonstration of interest] created another on-ramp to have a piece of real estate in their life.

Ben Mandrell, listicle item #3

On-ramp. Wow.

I hope evangelicals realize just how opportunistic and callous this sounds, especially in light of stories like my friend’s.

…And the inevitable note about never accepting a firm no

Ben Mandrell includes a last subsection called “A note to the church leader.” Presumably, this includes people like himself. And here, we see between his lines most clearly.

He describes-without-overtly-describing Neil’s complete rejection of his sales pitches:

Neil told me he wanted to know me as a person before I was a pastor. 

Ben Mandrell

To me, that sounds like a plea to turn off the salesman chip for just a little while.

Another time, some neighborhood guys (including Neil? We don’t know) invite Mandrell to a firepit discussion of a war book. Mandrell is thrilled, but not because the night will let him just be himself around other men. No, it’s just an enhanced sales environment to him:

They picked a war book, which naturally led to conversations about survival and faith. And through those discussions over time, deeper things naturally came up without me having to force the issue.

Ben Mandrell

One wonders how he’d have “forced the issue.” Also, I’m not a fan of war books personally, but I’ve read Up Front by Bill Mauldin, and I don’t remember him talking much about faith (beyond a few strips making goodhearted fun of war-zone chaplains’ unique stressors).

The message here is so muddled

Ben Mandrell appears to be coaching evangelicals to see all interactions with outsiders as potential sales opportunities. He’s a caricature of that Glengarry Glen Ross character who barked out, “A… ALWAYS, B… BE, C… CLOSING.”

He seeks to teach evangelicals how to fake the relationship skills that nonreligious people learn as a matter of course while growing up. (No idea how to conduct a real conversation? No problem! Just use a grade-school-level social-skills teaching aid!)

But he’s also advising evangelicals against having real relationships with people outside the evangelical bubble.

There’s just not a way to have a real friendship with someone perceived as a sales prospect. Salespeople have one goal: to sell product. That is it. Anything else is secondary to that goal, and almost always contributes to it in a tangible way. Since salespeople get their paycheck–real or emotional–from selling product, nothing they do or say can be fully trusted. Whatever a real friend needs, the salesperson will seek to warp it into a sales opportunity.

Mandrell wants evangelicals to view everyone outside their tribe as a sales prospect, and to learn just enough relationship skills to get close to their chosen marks.

And nothing here is even new

I just want to quickly say that nothing contained in this Easter post is even new. When I was Pentecostal, I got much the same advice.

It seems like outsiders have always disliked personal evangelism. In years past, they couldn’t really respond freely because Christianity was not optional. But as it’s become more and more voluntary, people can respond more honestly and authentically to Christians’ sales pitches. And that means they can refuse, which they are doing for the most part.

Evangelicals’ response has never been to figure out why normies really reject them and fix those problems. (The message is always perfect in broken systems! It cannot be questioned, ever!)

Instead, evangelicals assume they just need to build relationships better. To earn the right to speak. To meet people where they are. It all means the same thing: do whatever you must to get the normies off-guard; you can even pretend to be real friends before dropping the sales pitch on them.

None of it really works.

What went unsaid in this creepy exhortation

And this advice listicle doesn’t even work for the post writer himself.

At no point in this post do we see Ben Mandrell score a church visit from a single person in his neighborhood. We never see Neil and his wife and kids show up for an Easter service. We never see their kids attend Sunday School with Mandrell’s own kids. None of the guys from the war book firepit discussion show up.

Sometimes, Neil overhears Mandrell practicing sermons at home, like this one time:

One of my favorite moments in my life and ministry was the first time our neighbor Neil heard me preach. He came over and knocked on the door. I opened the door, and he said, “Hey, I really liked your presentation.”

Ben Mandrell, listicle item #2, and I bet he opened his windows to make 100% sure Neil would hear him

Other times, Neil expresses deep admiration for Mandrell’s speaking skills. But these are always set at home, in the neighborhood. That admiration doesn’t ever turn into a church visit.

Usually, these exhortations include some admonition to remain friends even past rejection. Mandrell doesn’t even bother with that.

So: all in all, this busy Easter season Ben Mandrell wants evangelicals to see him as a valid source of advice for learning to evangelize without losing one’s friends. But he has no idea how to do that. He oversteps boundaries, violates trust, and shoehorns sales pitches everywhere. And he has absolutely no dunked converts to show for all this personal evangelism he’s done.

How I know this Easter season advice hasn’t ever worked

Speaking as a former Pentecostal, let me assure you of one thing above all.

Personal evangelism has always been a big screamin’ deal to evangelicals. Nowadays, amid their serious decline, it’s become even more important. Anyone who can do personal evangelism–even if they’re not successful at it–becomes a rockstar in the Christ-o-Sphere.

If any of these Colorado neighbors had even once shown up to Mandrell’s church, he would have told us so. It’d be a wreath of laurels, a crown of gold, atop the post as proof of his advice’s effectiveness. Instead, Mandrell moved away from Colorado–presumably to take up the leadership of Lifeway in Tennessee–and has probably not spoken to his former neighbors since.

Why should he? They’re far away–and obviously not gonna buy from him. And who has time? He’s got a whole new set of neighbors to impose upon, build on-ramps to, use canned conversation starters on, and pretend to care about. For that matter, he’s been at Lifeway for almost two years now. Why didn’t he write about building on-ramps to his neighbors in Tennessee? Is it because Colorado represents the very closest he’s ever gotten to scoring any sales? Why doesn’t he ever mention remaining friends with these Colorado folks?

Ah, well. Mandrell can always rest on the old planting seeds chestnut to explain his failures. Even as the SBC continues to crumble around their ears, SBC-lings won’t even think to question his boilerplate advice. And they’ll continue to torch their relationships at the urging of their leaders until they start seriously asking why all this advice keeps failing.

NEXT UP: Tackling a buzzword-heavy survey from Lifeway. It seems pastors are deeply confused about the latest intense marketing push, and for good reason.

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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,...