Hi and welcome back! Of late, we’ve been looking at Lee Strobel’s 1993 book, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary. I noticed something recently about the way he talks about sales success, and now I can’t un-see this very dishonest-seeming way he has of describing what little success he enjoys with his very own strategy. In fact, his few successes can be described better as semi-sales rather than closed deals. Today, let me show you what I saw.
(Previous Lee Strobel posts: Lee Strobel’s Best Friends; The Coin He Offers; Lee Strobel’s Friendship Evangelism; Friendship Evangelism; This Action Plan Doesn’t Work; Tickling Evangelical Ears; This Book’s Revealing Endorsements; The Many Lies Lee Strobel Tells About Unchurched Harry and Mary; A Non-Portrait of the Captain (1-4); Indoctrinating Evangelicals More (5-8); Seeker-Sensitive Churches (9-12); Martyrbation Ahoy (13-15); The Original Listicle. Page numbers come from the 1993 paperback edition of the book.)
Examining Claims of Evangelical Success.
Evangelicals love anecdotes, considering them the singular form of the word data. In their world, anecdotes of conversion carry great weight. They consume them in two forms: personal testimonies and second-hand stories of other people’s conversions.
Evangelicals create and pass around these successful sales stories as PROOF YES PROOF that their evangelism tactics work, that their various claims are true, and that their tribe IS SO VERY the winning team. As such, these stories represent sales pitches in and of themselves. From childhood, evangelicals learn to see testimonies and conversion stories as persuasive sales tools.
And there aren’t many of these successful deal-closures at all in Unchurched. In fact, I saw only two. Perhaps it was their striking rarity that jarred me into seeing something about these stories that I hadn’t noticed much before now.
When I realized what I was seeing in Unchurched, I had to step back a moment and think about why I didn’t believe they represented real sales for Strobel.
What clues had he given me that I’d picked up in nearly subliminal fashion?
The List of Semi-Sales.
In this entire book, I count two semi-sales made by Lee Strobel himself.
First (p. 95), he gives a series of lectures based on his fake “Case for Christ” testimony. Someone brings “a hard-core skeptic” described as “an engineer.” At the end of the lecture, the engineer “committed his life to Christ.”
Second (p. 101), he hard-sells someone into
driving this shiny Jesus off the lot TODAY saying a prayer with him:
“Let me ask this,” I said. “Is there a specific question or concern that’s standing between you and God? If there is, I’ll be glad to help you get an answer or work it through with you, because I really want to help.”
Again, he paused. “Well, I guess there really isn’t,” he said.
So I asked, “Then is anything stopping you from receiving Christ’s forgiveness and leadership right now?” Suddenly he broke into sobs. “Nothing,” he said. “That’s what I really want to do.” So we prayed together right on the spot. He was ready that day to turn away from his sin and receive God’s grace–and I had almost walked away from him.
I can well imagine millions of Christians reading this passage and wincing at the idea of pushing this hard for a sale, yet also feeling scared of missing an opportunity and then seeing their mark die or something without becoming a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. But there was something else about it that caught my attention.
(BTW: I’m not counting Strobel’s poor father-in-law as a success. Strobel ghoulishly preyed upon him at the moment of his death.)
Sins of Omission.
Regarding the first of these two semi-sales, we have no idea what “committed his life to Christ” entails or what became of the engineer afterward. If I’d been that guy I’d have been thrilled to have my name printed in Lee Strobel’s book as a success story. Strobel doesn’t shy away from name-dropping everywhere possible! But here, we get no name and no update.
Of the second man, again Strobel provides us with no name and no update about what happened afterward.
Both men just drop off his radar after these brief encounters. It seems extremely likely that whatever Christian path they embarked upon, it ended very shortly after whatever Strobel describes.
It’s not like Strobel’s incapable of following up on people. Unchurched contains a story about him encountering an ex-criminal-turned-fundie, Ron Bronski, while he was still an atheist. Years later, he tracked the guy down — and still mentions him from time to time in his tweets. When I first read the story in the book, I didn’t even believe Bronski was a real person — but then I found him, just as Strobel did.
In the case of these two semi-sales, he just didn’t bother, that’s all. They fulfilled their roles in his strategy book, and now they just vanish — POOF!
Given how quickly people came and went in evangelicalism in my own neck of the woods in the 1990s, it seems likely that neither of these semi-sales ever materialized into active new recruits for Willow Creek. If they had, Strobel would have told us so. Of that, I am completely certain.
I Cracked His Code.
Toward the end of the book, I really saw his dishonesty-by-omission (and his narcissism) shining.
One day, Lee Strobel tells us, he gave himself his own birthday present: imposing on “a spiritual skeptic.”
It sounds like the other guy’s daughter, a Willow Creek member, had asked them to have lunch together. But this is how Strobel describes it (p. 221):
It was my birthday, and so I scheduled one of my favorite activities–having lunch with a spiritual skeptic.
Naturally, Strobel describes the lunch as mutually satisfying. In fact, at its end the guy claimed that gosh, he’d just never ever seen a concept like “grace” explained before then. Sure, the meal ends with NO SALE just like the rest. But at least Lee Strobel got the emotional hit he needed:
By the time we shook hands at the end, he was clearly committed to sincerely seeking the truth about God, and I was reeling from the kind of fulfillment that’s beyond my ability to describe.
Dude’s chasing the Jesus dragon. No wonder he tried so hard to invite that co-worker of his, the one he mentions in his 2016 speech. His story here comes off as odiously self-serving.
Strobel tries his hardest, bless his cotton socks, to make the lunch date sound like a real win for Team Jesus. Predictably, though, we never hear another word about this particular “spiritual skeptic.”
I tell you this: if Strobel had actually gotten anywhere with this guy, you know he’d never have shut up about it. This anecdote doesn’t even rise to the level of semi-sales.
Form Over Substance.
It amazes me that so many Christians think Lee Strobel offers them tactics that work to make sales. It’s painfully obvious that he’s all hat and no cattle.
More than that, though, I’ve now noticed this particular flavor of lying-for-Jesus — and I won’t ever un-see it again. Any time I hear about any conversion success, you can bet I’ll be looking at exactly how the beaming tale-bearer describes that success.
Right now, I’m inclined to say that wherever a sales-minded Christian’s conversion story ends, that is also where the success itself ended — if the story’s not exaggerated or even fabricated entirely, of course. I mean, those are also always possibilities in a group aching as hard for sales as this one is.
Gosh, in Christianity there are just so many ways to dress failure up as success! Making semi-sales look like fully-done-deals is only the beginning!
NEXT UP: Another day, another lunch date from Lee Strobel. This time, it’s with “a well-known atheist” who illustrates what Strobel calls “sticking points.” See you next time!
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