Last time we were chatting in comments and touched upon a very common Christian evangelism tactic, and I thought it’d make a good start now to a topic we were about to cover anyway. That topic is friendship. Christians have no idea how to make real and lasting friends. Their social system does not teach people the social skills needed to do either of those things, either. If anything, we discover that the more extremist the flavor of Christianity is, the less effective and useful its teachings about anything will be–and in fundagelicalism especially, their social teachings actually backfire. Today I’ll show you how friendship evangelism burned me hard as a teen–and a curious postscript to that burning.
You’ll find a simply astonishing number of terms and modifiers for evangelism within fundagelicalism. From beach evangelism, which is evangelism conducted on beaches, to dating evangelism (Christians who date people to evangelize them) to servant evangelism, which is another popular flavor we were talking about in comments where Christians do charity work and other acts of kindness in order to sneak evangelism into people, Christians have developed quite a few techniques for selling their failed product–Christianity–to people who didn’t consent to being sold at.
Friendship evangelism is Christianese for being friendly toward others for the express purpose of eventually leading them to one’s own flavor of Christianity. The implication is that without the hope of converting that other person, there’d be no reason for the Christian to be friends with them.
Non-Christians are extremely well-aware of this tactic and also well-aware of how evangelism-minded Christians view us. Our very own
Lambchop the goddamn Batman Blanche Quizno expressed our general collective opinion so well that SBC mouthpiece Thom Rainer featured her comments in one of his very own blog posts:
. . . a friend of mine once commented, years ago, that when she was getting to know a new prospective friend, and that friend-candidate mentioned that she was a Christian, my friend’s heart sank, because she knew it would be just a matter of time before she would be backed into a corner and forced to state that she wouldn’t be converting or joining any church, at which time that good Christian would disappear.
I don’t know if I’m the friend in question or not, but I certainly know I feel the same way. I’ve had very few friends since deconversion who were heartfelt Christians–because all too often I feel like I’m going to be a target for evangelism. Once I decline the sales pitch, of course, or have otherwise made sufficiently clear that I’m not ever buying that Christian’s product, the Christian vanishes–never to return. Remember how like a year or two ago I mentioned that Christian dude who came to my door to invite Mr. Captain and me to his church? He’s still never said a word to us since then. This Christian knows we’ll never be paying customers of his product, so he has no further use for us.
The reason why Christians use friendship evangelism is that it works–stupendously well!
There are a lot, as in a lot a lot, of people who are very deeply lonely in this world–who hunger for real-life contact with others, who ache for friends, who feel a gash in their hearts when they survey their lives. Predatory Christians can tell within seconds if they’ve been lucky enough to run across someone like that.
And gang, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with being lonely and wanting people around us. That need simply makes those who feel it a little more vulnerable to a broken system’s salespeople, that’s all. Way too many religious zealots will shamelessly dangle friendship and love in front of their marks’ dazzled eyes if it means making a sale and even if normally they wouldn’t associate with that person. (Some even take it further than offers of friendship–such as cults’ habit of love bombing potential recruits and some cults’ embracing of tactics like flirty fishing.)
This video’s actually quite tame and SFW, though the thumbnail looks racy. It’s excellent and well-presented, and definitely worth the time.
That’s how Jennifer snagged me.
In 1986, I was just barely coming out of my shell. My family had moved to Texas, which meant a new high school and a new set of chances to make a first impression. Very early in the year, my mom had given me an incalculably-valuable gift: a makeover. I hit peak 80s thanks to that new wardrobe and hairstyle.
And sure enough, I had caught the friendly attention of Jennifer, a senior at the school. She was even more peak 80s than I was. She had long, straight brown hair and perfect bangs, wide brown eyes, and a wardrobe made up entirely of Casual Corner clothes (ooh la la!). She was royalty at that school. Her friends were named Bambi and Muffy and Barbie–seriously. She was dating a remarkably nice football player. By contrast, despite my new hairstyle and clothes I was still a drama nerd: bookish, into roleplaying games like D&D, totally lacking that long-term social support network that all the other kids had because they’d all grown up in the area.
Remember that line in The Librarian: Quest for the Spear when the Designated Bad Girl in the movie explains to the hero, “I’m way out of your league. Way out. If your league were to explode, I wouldn’t hear the sound for another three days” to explain why she didn’t take his interest seriously? That, literally, was the social situation between Jennifer and me. She and her friends were known to be fairly nice people, but their world did not generally intersect with my world in any way–for good or ill.
Looking back, my heart just breaks for how excited I was over those overtures of friendship. It tears me in half even now to think that I seriously ever thought for one moment that Jennifer was sincere. She began talking to me and seeking me out if she caught sight of me in the halls.
I thought I’d finally ascended to her social level.
I didn’t know how Christians deliberately use offers of friendship to draw in people just like me.
The Pizza Blast of Fate.
After ascertaining that her tactics were working grandly on me, Jennifer invited me to what was called a pizza blast, a very common and popular way to evangelize large numbers of tweens and teens. A pizza blast was basically an evangelism service that featured pizza (and soda and often cookies or other such inexpensive desserts). Churches put them on, drew in large numbers of interested kids, preached their very best sales pitches, and theoretically reaped the rewards. Generally speaking, churches gave out tickets to these events like mad, figuring on a 10% attendance rate–so they generally wanted to attract hundreds of kids.
You really don’t hear about churches doing pizza blasts anymore. If you do hear about one nowadays, it’s probably going to be at a church that’s still living the dream of the 1980s. It’s a cultural artifact of the time as sure as the Satanic Panic and frosted baby-girl pink Candie’s lipstick.
The main reason for the decline in popularity of the pizza blast, I guess, is that Americans figured out as a culture that pizza’s not actually terribly difficult to obtain. At the time it was a real treat to have fast food; now it’s all but an everyday occurrence.
Secondly and more importantly, Americans don’t consider a free meal of inexpensive chain-store pizza to be worth having to take time out of their busy lives to go hear a sales pitch. Some college Christian groups still get some mileage out of the ideas behind the pizza blast, especially if the kids on campus value free pizza more than their time. And there isn’t much fast food that is as inexpensive, comparatively speaking, as pizza–so the pizza blast didn’t evolve into a taco blast or anything else.
And thirdly and most importantly, these evangelism events don’t actually work to draw new recruits or reverse churn. I’m not even sure they ever did, for all the excitement that ministers felt over attendance numbers. Often these sorts of events function more as youth-group jamborees more than evangelism events; most of the kids there will almost certainly be members of the church itself already.
Back then, though, the pizza blast seemed to ministers like an incredible new evangelism technique. I’d sure never heard of it. Jennifer invited me to it like it was a party that just happened to be taking place at her church–like it was just a youth center thing. I had no reason to suspect this event was anything else.
The Predictable Result.
And then, of course, the predictable happened. A very lonely, socially-struggling teen girl heard scary and exciting ideas she’d never heard in her life in Catholicism–and got baptized as a result. With my hair still wet from the dunking, I sat down at a little folding table with Jennifer and a youth minister of some kind, who talked to me about the general ideas like SBC doctrines and led me through the Sinner’s Prayer. Around us, at a dozen other folding tables, the same drama unfolded for a dozen other kids. I went home damp, thrilled, and clutching an absolutely huge white hardback Bible.
Afterward, though, Jennifer avoided me.
She didn’t seek me out anymore. She didn’t flat-out ignore me and wasn’t totally rude to me, but I could tell she wasn’t interested in talking to me at all anymore. She hung out with her friends, didn’t invite me to lunch anymore with her and the rest of her group, and only barely acknowledged me if she absolutely had to when we met by chance in the halls. She was even in the same church’s youth group as I was–and still, it’s like she didn’t even know who I was anymore.
And that hurt.
It still hurts, too.
I know it’s silly, I know it’s pointless, I know, I know, believe me, I know. There’s nothing rational about that little nugget of remaining pain. It still hurts to know that my crushing loneliness as a child was manipulated by a person who wanted to make a sale at my expense.
I had to come to grips with Jennifer’s use of friendship evangelism to win me as a friend. She’d gotten what she wanted out of me–a notch on her Bible cover, a sale made, an assuaging of that mild anxiety that fundagelical teens all feel over their overall lack of effectiveness at making sales–and then she was done with me. She’d been explicitly taught to do this to me, too, and what burns my cookies even today is that I soon learned exactly how and why she was doing it and yet didn’t immediately walk away from any group that’d teach members to do that to anyone else.
The Love/Life Dating Seminar.
The Love/Life Principles Seminar I attended was supposed to be about dating, but the entire first third of the day was about friendship: making friends and evolving friendships into dating and eventually marriage-bound romantic relationships.
That diversion into friendship territory happened because of a particular quirk in the right-wing nutjob Christian mindset and worldview: the idea that romantic relationships absolutely had to begin with a solid foundation of friendship and grow from there into romance.
A lot of folks think this way today, and I even fell for it for a long time. I’ve had a lot of time to wonder why the Christians I associated with pushed this idea as hard as they did. The main reason I’ve come up with is that in toxic Christianity, very strong emotions and urges like lust are considered dangerous to Christians’ faith–so relationships that begin with strong attraction and lust are considered dangerous as well. A relationship that begins with slow, steady friendship is far less dangerous; there’ll be way less of a chance of people feverishly clawing at each other’s clothing the first chance they get.
As page 9 of the binder tells us, “dating is a special kind of friendship that may lead to courtship, love and marriage.” That makes the regulation of friendship an extremely important (and one might even say focal) task for fundagelical leaders.
There are other, more sinister reasons to focus on friendship, of course, the primary of which is ensuring that young Christians literally cut themselves off from a potential support network that might give them feedback that’d cause them to stumble (that’s Christianese for having trouble maintaining one’s level of faith and belief). I had a few friends before I converted, but after conversion I drifted away from them and into a new social group–made up entirely of people in fundagelicalism.
I still think it’s hilarious, by the way, that page 9 instructs seminar attendees to “list four people you consider your friends” – and then provides three spots for listing them.
You’ll notice a familiar name in this list, by the way, which is how I know I had to have attended this seminar after getting baptized into the SBC.
People who really value others don’t ever use friendship evangelism to make sales. It’s that simple. Friendship evangelism can only happen with Christians who don’t actually love others or respect the awesome power of friendship.
Indeed, after page 10 whisks through the five levels of friendship (pic below), attendees learn what the Bill Gothard-approved traits of a true friend really are–and it’s horrifying.
True friends, we’re informed through the next few pages, (1) are loyal, (2) accept you for who you are, (3) would die for you if needed, (4) are strictly honest with you, and (5) always encourages you to do your best.
And even now, I’m appalled to see this list. I know I’d have seen nothing wrong with it back then. I wouldn’t have seen how even that bare description includes some serious contradictions in terms, and that its positioning of friendship into to-the-death histrionics is a recipe for trouble. I wouldn’t have understood that the way that a fundagelical defines being honest with people is actually an implicit permission slip that Christians write themselves to be assholes toward others without facing any repercussions. And I wouldn’t have seen how that last item (which the binder describes as being “heavenly sandpaper” to one’s friends) essentially negates healthy boundaries by encouraging Christians to get into each other’s faces and lives over things that don’t and shouldn’t concern them.
What isn’t directly contradicted in the binder itself has been redefined to the point where it no longer means exactly what outsiders would assume it means.
We’re going to go over the serious flaws in this list in more detail later; I just want to get them out there for now and show you what I mean when I talk about Christian teachings not preparing people to be genuinely loving and compassionate–but instead teach a really utilitarian view of relationships that doesn’t ever deepen into real intimacy between people.
As for the loyalty, I can see exactly how that teaching played out with Jennifer–as well as how it would play out for me after my own deconversion. Not for nothing do I maintain that the behavior of Christians themselves is one of the best indications we could ever have of their claims’ validity.
A sad postscript
After graduating from high school, one day I ran into a former classmate and drama nerd–someone who’d been a casual friend while I’d been involved in that group. I’d always thought of him as fairly popular within that milieu so I’d always felt greatly appreciative that he’d sometimes hung out with me and talked. While we caught up, he mentioned that he’d been kinda sad that I’d left our group of drama nerds–and he hadn’t been the only one. People’d talked about my leaving; they’d wondered. I’ve never been one for flouncing, so it was like I was there one day and gone forever the next. After my brief foray into the SBC, I’d ended up in the SCA and finally in Pentecostalism; I’d never returned to the drama club.
And according to Mike, my withdrawal from the group had hurt and confused them.
(Remember: everyone I knew was Christian in high school. The group of friends I’d run with before becoming Pentecostal were totally Christian too. They just hadn’t been the right kind of Christian.)
That information surprised me, and I said so. Certainly nobody’d ever talked to me about any of that! And it’s not like I’d moved; I’d still had been a student at the same school and had still even had classes with some of those folks. (There were several thousand kids in my high school–so we weren’t quite as mixed-together as one might see in other schools, but still, we had overlap.) I’d felt like a completely inconsequential part of the group, like a hanger-on that people barely tolerated.
My onetime friend was shocked that I’d say that. “You were one of the most popular people in that school,” he said, and I could see that he believed it at least. Further, he’d always felt like the outcast–one who was deeply grateful that I had hung out with him and acted friendly toward him. He’d been upset that he’d never gotten a chance to tell me how appreciative he’d felt about my friendship with him.
At the time I felt a little peeved over how poorly my old group had practiced friendship. I probably gave Mike a sales pitch about TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ that made my group look like it was loving and caring and supportive as opposed to the groups I’d been in before conversion. I didn’t see him again after that, so I probably did make a sales pitch.
Then a few years later I deconverted, and discovered the cold reality of my loving, caring, supportive group when every single one of the friends I thought I’d made within fundagelicalism abandoned me.
I lost everyone I cared about. Everyone. Everyone.
And then I found myself adrift in a world where I had no skills whatsoever for making real friends. It took a very long time to learn to relate to others–no thanks to the rules that Christianity had taught me. I managed it eventually and can go to parties without embarrassing myself, but I’ll probably always feel like I don’t quite speak People fluently.
The title of today’s post, of course, comes partially from an old Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. In the 1992 strip, Calvin says that “the Big Bang” is a boring term and astronomers should instead call it “the Horrendous Space Kablooie” – a term that caught on with some astronomers.