Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. . .
This Bible quote, which comes from Matthew 28:19-20, is called the Great Commission. In it, Jesus is telling his Apostles to go make converts, and since modern Christians think of themselves as followers of Jesus, obviously his command to the Apostles was meant for them as well.
Though some historians have noticed that this quote is not found in the earliest Gospels, meaning it wasn’t originally part of the canon until later (in fact this paper notes with considerable alarm that a large swathe of historians, including the Jesus Seminar, have begun to think that the Great Commission was not historical at all), the vast majority of modern Christians don’t tend to grasp nuances like that and consider those verses part and parcel of the current New Testament. Certainly all the earliest Church Father writings I’ve seen thought these verses were applicable, so clearly the idea of a Great Commission caught on very quickly and almost immediately became a canonical belief in the earliest years of the religion under Christianity’s driving philosophy: “if it isn’t historical, well, it should be, so we’re going with it.”
Christians call the process of fulfilling that commission “evangelism,” which means
to annoy the shit out of loved ones and total strangers alike to talk to people about Christianity with an eye toward converting them. The word implies messenger duties, spreading good news, the reward for giving that message, and all sorts of other important concepts in Christianity, but I most often heard it in the context of “spreading the good news” when I was a Christian. My various churches called it “soulwinning” or “witnessing” and it was considered absolutely essential to our religion. Our lives were a living witness, but our words were even more important than our lives. Even if we led sinful lives and had a terrible witness that way, we could at least verbally share the good news.
Obviously, once people had heard the good news, they now had to make a dreadful choice whether they liked it or not (it’s sort of like having the Force in you in Star Wars; you don’t get to just opt out of deciding how you’re going to use it). If they rejected this attempt at witnessing and died, they’d go to Hell for sure for rejecting the “free gift” of salvation, whereas if they’d died without ever hearing once about the good news, they might have a shot at Heaven if they were just good people. This made me kind of wonder why we were making such a big deal out of witnessing. Surely we wanted to give people plausible deniability? Surely if they were good people we should avoid telling them something that they’d inevitably reject and then we’d be responsible for their doom? Why were we helping send people to Hell who might otherwise go to Heaven? But no, none of that being sensible stuff here. We had to witness. I guarantee nobody ever once said anything like this to us while I was a Christian, though I’ve heard quite a few non-Christians and ex-Christians talk about it since leaving.
Christian, therefore evangelizing. And our goal was to add members to our ranks. This command to proselytize, which many Christians believe was issued by none other than Jesus Christ himself, is one of the very foundations of modern Christianity. I mean, the whole movement of “evangelical Christianity” is based upon the idea of evangelizing: of spreading the word and trying to convert people. Entire missionary groups and organizations exist purely to do this exact thing, and they’re so interested in the idea of pushing their religion at people that they’re willing to ignore laws and make total pests of themselves to do it.
So it was rather surprising to discover this Barna Group study about how poorly evangelicals tend to do at what their entire movement considers its primary purpose. You can read the piece for yourself–and I wonder if you’ll hear the absolute shock that I heard in that author’s words over the idea that of the evangelicals they surveyed, only about 2/3 of them had actually, well, evangelized over the last twelve months. 100% of surveyed evangelicals felt a responsibility to share their faith with others, but only 69% actually had done so in the last year. Now, these were evangelicals, not fundamentalists; they weren’t holed up in bunkers or isolated from the outside world as fundamentalists often can be. And out in that outside world, most of us know hundreds of people. We interact with thousands of people on a weekly basis. Surely out of all of those, evangelicals would find one person they can annoy and pester with their religion. But no, a third of them hadn’t found a good opportunity over the last year to do this. Now, they were still doing it more than any other group of Christians, but that’s faint praise indeed in my opinion. I can barely wrap my head around it. I thought I was the only one who had trouble with witnessing.
It’s not very hard for me to understand why evangelicals might not have found some opportunity for evangelism. When I was a Christian, it was at first very easy to share the “good news” with people. I was young and hadn’t faced all the disappointments and challenges that were in my future. I was bubbly and constantly talking about my religion and how wonderful I thought its god had been to me.
But by the time I got to college, especially after I’d met all these people from other religions (and a goodly number who followed no religion at all), I’d had a lot of challenges to my faith and a great many disappointments, so my evangelizing slowed down considerably. In the same way, this survey found that young people were evangelizing more than any of the other age groups–but that as surveyed groups got older, they were evangelizing less and less. Over the ensuing months and years, I slowly began to realize that no, actually, most people had heard all about my religion already. In fact, they’d heard more about than I even had, and often knew more about the Bible and indeed about my very religion than I did. It was intimidating to open up a conversation about religion and get hit by one of those questions Christians dread, like “just how moral was it to hold all of humankind responsible for an error committed by only two people?” The college-aged people I was in the most contact with were already quite aware of Christianity and the “good news”–and they’d rejected it. And worst of all, I discovered that they’d rejected it for a good reason.
Very soon I began to feel like I was stubbornly clinging to this faith and these customs when I knew very well that they were ridiculous. I was bothered, too, by realizing that the only people who seemed affected by the “good news” were social outcasts and those facing huge setbacks or problems. Why were people in decent life situations not even vaguely affected by my entreaties? Why was it that my peers targeted homeless or poor or sick people, or made special efforts to talk religion to people who’d had a big problem recently (like a car accident or cancer diagnosis)? Why were churches from Asia of all places sending missionaries to America, convinced that we hadn’t heard enough of the good news? Lest you think this was something I just thought at the time, let me tell you that not two days ago a well-meaning Christian told me all about how Asians are sending missionaries to the United States as if it was some kind of major selling point for his religion or some kind of grand positive for it, that Christians don’t realize how silly it is that they’re basically evangelizing each other, like how cell phone companies are basically advertising purely to poach subscribers from other companies, since everybody who wants a cell phone basically has one by now.
Then I got into Amway and things went to pieces for me spiritually.
Ron was the son of a police chief from a small town near Portland. He was one of those “lookin’ for the angle” Christians just like Biff, and indeed they became fast friends after we moved to Portland in the mid-90s. I didn’t realize at the time that he was way into me, but he ignored my mild crush on him and treated me with respect and kindness. When Biff went off to Basic Training, Ron kept an eye on me and made sure I had stuff to do with someone responsible, which was easy for him to do since he lived right across the courtyard from me in the apartment complex I lived in at the time. Spending a lot of time with him was how I found out he was an Amway dealer.
Ron was very excited about Amway. This was his angle, and it was a guaranteed angle. I heard all about how easy it was to sell and he had all these numbers and diagrams to illustrate how it couldn’t possibly fail to make money. I was already feeling some really weird vibes about how similar this “business opportunity” seemed to the religion I was already mostly deconverted from. The tactics were also eerily similar. When I found out that Amway distributors could sign up for voicemail boxes to hear daily rah-rah from their higher-ups, and that this rah-rah was often religious in nature, that clinched it for me. This “business opportunity” was just secular evangelism, and it sold itself using the exact same tactics. Amway used psychology to manipulate people just like religion did and preyed upon their fears and aspirations in the same way my old religion had.
I was friends with Ron, so I went ahead and ordered a starter kit to help him out when he needed a little bump to reach a sales quota, and I made a couple of phone calls to work friends to ask about setting up a meeting to talk about this “business opportunity,” but never went through with anything further. They were as wary and as skeptical as people had been in college about Christianity, and I hadn’t just left Christianity only to get tangled up with a quasi-religious cult trying to talk to people about stuff they didn’t want to hear. The starter kit order got messed up so it never arrived, and I eventually got my money back and that was that.
Ron was always very upset that the order’d been mangled so badly that it’d “scared me off” from Amway, but I was actually relieved about having a good excuse to bow out of the whole thing. It just felt like a scam to me that I was trying to sell people something I couldn’t even name without them going “oh, no way, forget it” and scooting away. People already knew what Amway was, and if they’d wanted to get involved with it, they’d have done so already. It seemed ridiculous that anybody should have to spend dozens of hours a week trying to set up “demonstrations” and talks to show people this plan–surely everybody had heard the spiel, right? So why did Ron consider it necessary to work more than 40 hours a week running all over town giving these “demonstrations” and talks? (Do you actually know anybody who has never ever had someone try to recruit him or her into a multi-level marketing organization? I sure don’t. My home state has a shocking number of people involved with these, though very few MLM participants ever make money at them.)
In the same way, people all over the world already knew what Christianity was, and if they’d wanted to get involved with it, they had opportunities without number to learn about it and join up somewhere. But Christians can’t even imagine not “witnessing” to the lost. They even use the same exact style of talking about witnessing that I heard in Amway: “Given all the supposed Christians in the United States, if even one Christian helped lead one non-Christian to Christ in a year, the Church would nearly double in size.” So this one Christian/Ambot would lead one other person to Christianity/Amway, and that person would lead another person, and another, and another, till everybody is Christian/selling Amway! (Notably, the quoted writer considers that the reason Christianity is failing is because America is just so darned successful that people don’t think they “need” a god to help them, which–besides being indicative of just what kind of nasty god and dysfunctional religion this guy follows–is about the same excuse I heard Amway evangelists assign to their lack of success in signing up new suckers–that folks’ day jobs are just so darned successful that the marks in them aren’t tempted by the untold riches Amway promises.)
There’s an incredible amount of narcissism at work in an evangelist’s mind, if you think about it.
“Oh, you might have heard about Christianity in general, but you haven’t heard about my particular take on it–and you’ve got to drop everything and listen to me so I can tell you all about it! My take is so compelling it’ll totally answer all your questions and be the one perspective that changes everything!”
“Oh, you might think you have a good spiritual framework now, but I think Christianity is the best religion ever, and you’ve got to shut up and listen to me tell you why you should stop doing what you’re doing and join my religion! I know better than you do what you should believe!”
“Oh, I realize my religion’s had two thousand years to tell everybody what it is and what its people stand for and that it’s now the dominant religion in this country and half the world–and that you can’t even walk outside your door in big chunks of America without encountering some blatant and possibly illegal display of its unwarranted privilege and dominance–but you’re clearly an idiot who has been living under a rock for thirty-odd years so you need to shut up and let me tell you all about this religion of mine.”
“There’s this absolutely horrible fate my god’s got in store for you! I have no evidence for thinking this fate is real, but it totally is, and you’re in soooooo much trouble if you don’t kiss my god’s butt!”
“My god loves you sooooo much. Now change!”
“I’m so very smart and wise and perceptive. Look at this amazing truth I’ve figured out that you haven’t yet!”
“Listen to meeeeeeeeee!”
Evangelism is about telling people they’re unacceptable and about telling them that you know better than they do what’s real and what’s true. I find that quite arrogant and presumptuous considering nobody actually knows what, if anything, lies beyond this life, but I haven’t found many Christians who are honest enough to admit that no, they have no better idea than anybody else what’s out there (and the ones who are that honest don’t tend to evangelize).
There are entire bookstores’ worth of books and enough seminars and videos to watch about how to witness to people that a Christian could spend years digesting them all–and even as a Christian I looked at these and wondered: why was my religion in need of all this stuff? Surely if it was a product people really needed, I wouldn’t have to learn salesman tricks and manipulation tactics to make them listen to what I had to say. Surely what I had to say would be enough on its own. Surely the religion was compelling without it. I mean, I thought I had a living god, a real live god inside of me and that I was part of this grand and glorious vision and plan he had for everybody–so why did I need to become a huckster to sell him and the religion sparked by him? Even then I suspected these books and videos existed to sell stuff to gullible Christians, not to “save” people.
And oh, how they sell.
When people object to being proselytized at, these same Christians set up a false dilemma (remember those?) to say that they simply must do all this, because the Bible told them to do it; the alternative is to be in disobedience to the Bible, and while Christians will disobey the Bible in all sorts of ways when its commandments get inconvenient (especially when it gets really inconvenient), they cannot possibly disobey a commandment that lets them showboat their ostentatious piety and their sanctimonious twaffling among the unwashed heathens of the world.
And proselytizing is so important to so many Christians that they totally forget that the Great Commission is not actually the thing Jesus himself purportedly said was the most important thing for anybody to do, which was, in case you need reminding, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself” (Luke 10:27). Given that most folks don’t come out of a witnessing session feeling loved, about the only way to contort that commandment with the command to evangelize is to redefine love itself to include treating people like subhuman idiots.
I had a lot of trouble just walking up to people and witnessing to them. I mean, you can imagine why even if you’ve never been in the religion, I’m sure. Evangelism is not a two-way conversation. It’s a one-way preaching session. And as such it is inherently disrespectful to the person cornered into listening to it. Evangelists might expect to see distrust or disbelief, but they definitely do not expect to have a real dialogue about their faith. And people no longer feel compelled to give their time and attention to things against their will. We might politely listen if the words come from someone we like, but we can’t just force ourselves to believe something preposterous just because the evangelist feels strongly about the subject.
But Christians cling to evangelism’s efficacy like children cling to the idea that their parents can fix anything. If they can only do more evangelism, that’s what’ll save their religion! That’s what’ll get them back their lost dominance! That’s what’ll swell their ranks again! Evangelism isn’t working: add more evangelism!
It reminds me uncomfortably of my very “godly” ex-husband Biff, who, when I asked why he thought it was useful to stalk and terrorize me after I fled from him, said “Well, I have to try something, don’t I?” They don’t know what else to do; they don’t have a lot of tools in the box here. I mean, it’s illegal to just throw us into an auto-da-fe or Inquisit us, or just kill us if we refuse to convert, so surely if they just keep talking at us non-believers, we’ll cave eventually. One of them will be the Magic Christian who makes it all perfect and explains away all our concerns. Right?
In the end, maybe evangelism doesn’t work because it’s just hugely disrespectful toward people. An evangelist makes us stop what we’re doing, whatever we were doing, wakes us up, interrupts our private time, halts whatever we were doing with that limited free time, and asks us to talk about a private topic that we really don’t want to talk about.
In the same way that I, a woman, would like to be able to go run my errands or go about my public life without getting hit on by entitled Nice Guys, I, as a non-Christian, would like to be able to enjoy my limited time or go about my life without having to contend with well-meaning Christians trying to shove religion at me.
I realize that Christians think that evangelism is a big favor they’re doing everybody. I realize that most of them (like I did) think that they’re doing it out of love and deep concern for people’s souls. I realize that they think (as I did) that there’s some major segment of the world that literally has never heard of Christianity, and that of the countries where Christianity is actually dominant, like the United States, people living there haven’t ever heard a convincing case for the religion until right now–and moreover that they have this amazing new and ultra-convincing case for that religion (as I thought I did once).
But they’re wrong.
Evangelism is selling a product as if it’s this brand-new thing when people know it isn’t. There literally is not a single bit more evidence for the religion’s claims now than there was over a thousand years ago; there also aren’t any new arguments that are compelling that have emerged in that time. All Christians are doing is repackaging the same old product in a new box and selling it with a NEW AND IMPROVED! sticker stamped on it. Of course it’s not working. We’re just not as gullible as we used to be.
And I sensed that evangelism wasn’t working 20-odd years ago as a Christian. I knew people didn’t want to talk to me about religion. I knew I was disturbing them. I knew that they weren’t feeling loved by what I was doing. I knew. And Christians know that now. That’s why it’s so hard for them to do what their entire philosophy says they should be doing. That’s why they have to totally psyche themselves up for doing what they should be doing naturally, just like breathing. That’s why a huge chunk of them can’t even manage one time per year to do this simple act that they think was commanded by their very god himself.
It doesn’t really matter what the motivation is for disturbing me. If someone’s knocking on my door, there’d better be a fire or a flood coming my way. If all the knocker has is a metaphorical fire or flood, then they can come back when they’ve got evidence that there’s some risk I should be worrying about. And I don’t really care just how much the evangelist thinks his or her message is the correct one, or how persuaded he or she is that this metaphorical problem is a real problem for me too. If I wanted to hear the message, I’m capable of asking for it. I don’t need to be intruded upon.
Now, am I saying that someone doesn’t have the right to free speech? Of course not. It’s wonderful to live in a country where someone can express an opinion and not worry about getting thrown in jail for it. But I am saying that this right does not guarantee an audience or soapbox, nor that any speaker can compel me to spend my limited time listening to that speech, or that I must tolerate the speaker’s intrusion into my time and personal space, or that I cannot challenge that speaker’s claims. And I think we’re as a country getting over Christianity. We tried it. We bought our starter kits and we made some phone calls. Maybe we even did some demonstrations and signed up downlines. And the scheme didn’t do what its pushers promised for us. So we’re quietly using the demonstration kit’s cleaning products to tidy up our bathrooms. We’re pushing the certificates into our desks. We’re just trying to forget we ever got involved in something that ridiculously stupid.
If this religion was actually what it promised it was, then its followers wouldn’t need to give themselves psychological training and constant pep talks to manage it. Hell, they wouldn’t need to evangelize in the first place–because we’d all be Christians by now.
And we’d have the cleanest bathrooms in the universe.
I’m thinking it’s time for a gaming post, and I’ve been thinking about the nature of community performance for a while as it is. Gaming and religion both give communities some great opportunities to perform for each other, so I’ll be looking at why people need to stage group performances and how we’re meeting those needs in and out of Christianity. As always, I hope you’ll join me. (BTW, you guys are the awesomest group of folks on the internet and I’m not even exaggerating. I’m still stunned seeing the numbers every day–I never thought it’d get this big. I heart you all.)
* How To Actually Talk to Atheists
* Evangelism. (Written by a Christian, but it’s actually pretty insightful.)
* When bad Christians happen to good people (Even Christians get annoyed by over-zealous evangelists. Also, note that even when informed that his targets were already Christian, this cell phone provider–er, Christian–continued to try to poach them.)