A false narrative in evangelism

Deep-dive exploration of narratives as a marketing promise--and what can happen when the product just can't deliver on its sellers' promise

Reading Time: 12 minutes

We do love a good narrative, we humans. In a recent post, I wrote about evangelicals trying (yet again) to sneak evangelism into a public school, I briefly mentioned how those evangelicals rationalized their predatory behavior: by claiming that their product offered young adults a solution to hopelessness. In fact, they’ve spun a whole false narrative around hopelessness to help sell their increasingly-unwanted product. Today, I want to describe what that product is, why it won’t help at all with hopelessness, and why Christians keep saying that it does despite all indications to the contrary. Christians’ false narrative of hopelessness represents a big part of their current marketing to their target customers. But in truth, it only worsens the actual hopelessness that their salespeople claim to be alleviating.

(When I talk about evangelism as a sales process, the product being sold is active membership in the evangelists’ own religious groups. That is the only product being sold. Indeed, the only reason evangelists even try to induce belief in their marks is that they know they can’t sell their product to non-believers in their mythology.)

First: the power of narratives

Because we’re humans, we like to arrange the things we think about and experience into narrative form. Just as purely made-up stories have an origin story, a prelude, a central thread, and a conclusion, so–ideally–do our narratives.

Sometimes, narratives help us understand and contextualize the things that happen to us. In narratives, our bad experiences teach us life lessons, while our good experiences reward us somehow for living out our cultural ideals.

Often, people’s entire lives seem to be based around certain narratives. These narratives become ways for those people to contextualize the sum total of their experiences and explain why things keep turning out for them the way they do. Maybe they’re the embodiment of the Hero’s Journey. Or the Free Spirit Seeking Ultimate Truth. Or the Born Loser.

Of course, narratives can also impair our progress. If they’re not based on reality, but people believe they do anyway, then they become false narratives.

A false narrative functions like a broken roadmap. The path it outlines just can’t take people from Point A to, say, Point Blissfully-Happy Marriage.

If people try to make a false narrative happen in reality, then they can run into serious trouble. They’re basing their lives on something that doesn’t work as advertised. Thus, they just won’t get the results that narrative promises.

How a false narrative can cause us trouble

If you’ve ever heard someone complain about how Disney movies warp girls’ conceptualization of romantic relationships into ideals that men can’t ever–and often resent being expected to–fulfill, you’ve just gotten an earful about the power of a false narrative.

Anybody who’s suffered from cancer, or had a close loved one suffer from it, has also likely run across the false narrative of the cancer warrior. I hated it, myself. When she was dying of cancer, my mom didn’t want to go globetrotting, finish an Iron Man, join a rock band, or anything like that. She just wanted to watch cooking shows, play video games, eat food she liked, and visit with her family and friends while she still could.

But oh, the false narrative pushers keep insisting that people with cancer should totally defy the odds and do the impossible! Sure, a lot of these pushers turn out to be scammers, fakers, or woo shills trying to sell snake oil to the unwary–or all three at once. Maybe this time it’s legit! (Welcome to the Argument from But What If It’s True Though.)

So, Mom’s community and work friends kept pushing her to fulfill that false narrative, probably because it made them feel better to see it in action. It deeply bothered my mom that she just wasn’t up to performing this narrative for them.

Now, you’d think that a religion based in the totally real and objective truth wouldn’t even want to touch any false narratives, much less craft them and deploy them constantly to recruit new customers.

But you’d be wrong.

Oh, so very wrong.

A false narrative of hopelessness

Some time ago, I began noticing Christian evangelists pushing a false narrative of hopelessness.

Here’s how that narrative runs:

  • Without these evangelists’ product, people feel great hopelessness.
  • Gosh, the more people reject that product, the more hopeless they get.
  • Once they start using the product, though, people feel great hope again!
  • Nothing else makes people feel hope like this product does!
  • Just buying it brings about great hope!
  • Hope, hope, hope! Just lookit all that hope!
  • Naturally, if someone refuses to buy the product or stops using it, then they will forever doom themselves to utter hopelessness.

In the wild: the narrative, seen in evangelism

I really noticed this narrative a while ago with an evangelical named Greg Stier. Basically, he sells youth evangelism strategies, but his ultimate product is the same as any evangelist’s: active membership in his own group.

To that end, Stier insists that his product actually cures teens’ hopelessness. He weaves this claim through almost everything he writes. (Another example: this essay, which reveals a lot more about him and his heartless, sketchy-sounding tactics than he should ever want anyone to know!) Since then, I’ve noticed the same narrative weaving through countless other Christian salespeople’s pitches.

Of course, it’s not just evangelicals pushing this narrative. Chances are, I just see it more with evangelicals because they do the most evangelism. If Catholics did more evangelism, I’d probably see it more often from them. Indeed, a quick search on the topic led me to various evangelistic sources that claim that conversion to Catholicism is, indeed, touted as a cure for hopelessness.

Also, Catholics have a whole saint devoted to helping people with hopelessness. So there’s that.

The West Virginia school evangelism rally and the hopelessness narrative

In the case of this recent West Virginia public-school evangelism rally, the entire reason for it can be described as part of the narrative evangelists weave around hopelessness. In fact, it completely and entirely fits into the narrative as I outlined it above. Here’s how the evangelist himself, Nik Walker, describes his decision to lead that school evangelism rally:

He said he came to Huntington on Jan. 23 with plans to leave three days later but saw a need he felt compelled to address.

Walker said he sees a lot of “hopelessness” in the Huntington area: students struggling with addiction, anxiety and depression.

“When you see regions like this, then you really know they need the Lord,” he said [. . .]

ABC News

In another story about the walkout, Walker further elaborates:

Walker said he has never contacted a school about coming to speak; it’s always the students who reach out to his ministry, he said.

“We don’t even have to knock on the door,” he said. “The students, they receive hope here (at [the very evangelical] Christ Temple Church) and then they want to bring hope to their school or to their classmates.”

WVNews.com

Why, even that church’s own members agree that conversion helps cure teens’ hopelessness!

The right direction, here, presumably means in the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ direction, of course. As I mentioned in the previous post (relink), most of the area’s residents are Christians. More to the point, evangelicals dominate West Virginia’s Christian landscape. Evangelicals tend to think that only their flavor of the religion is valid. They also insist that their flavor always cures what ails people.

Except when it doesn’t.

The truth about hopelessness

In reality, West Virginia sounds like a pit of despair: rampant drug abuse and overdose deaths, poverty, inadequate social safety nets, crime and violence, the whole nine yards of utter dysfunction. If people in West Virginia feel hopeless, then they seem pretty justified.

Selling membership in Christian groups as a cure for those systemic problems is like selling jumping-jacks as a way to pay down astronomically-high student loans. Whatever benefits Christian group membership might grant, it won’t have much impact at all on West Virginia’s actual problems. Anyone saying so is simply selling magical thinking to people who are genuinely and horribly suffering.

Well, it is.

The energy people expend trying to make magic work could be spent actually addressing their problems in real ways. Instead, they’re casting magic spells.

And the worst part of the false narrative being sold here

Here’s the really terrible part, though. When the magic fails to happen, when customers can’t make the false narrative work for them in reality, Christian salespeople turn around and blame those customers for not casting the prescribed magic spells correctly.

Or worse, they blame the customers for expecting salespeople’s promises about hope to be true in the first place.

The energy people expend trying to make magic work could be spent actually addressing their problems in real ways.

Even in the middle of a halfway-decent post about depression, a Cru member declares,

The Christian community should never be a place where people feel they need to hide and cover up what they are really going through.

Cru.org

She then rhapsodizes about what a proper TRUE CHRISTIAN™ group should be like:

In a genuine Christian community, people can share all of their struggles and ask for prayer without fear of shame or judgment. They can testify about how God is working through whatever is happening in their lives.

Depression and mental illness should receive as kind and gentle a response from Christians, as they do from Jesus.

Cru.org

And my heart broke to realize that should by no means implies is. In fact, very, very, very very few Christian groups operate as she describes. Christian group members know exactly how the tribe will receive these revelations of pain and suffering: as evidence of sin, or at the very least of failing to Jesus correctly or hard enough (which itself is probably a sin anyway).

Thus, the cure for these feelings will always be Jesus-ing harder.

And here, we have a clue regarding the system underlying Christian groups that talk like this.

Their system is broken.

How broken systems operate

A broken system is one that cannot fulfill its own stated goals. The system it prescribes for members does not lead to the results it promises. Group members tend to regard their group’s rules as grim inconveniences to avoid whenever possible–even while the group demonizes outsiders and scapegoats who break their stated rules, and while they seek to impose their rules on non-members. Indeed, hypocrisy is baked into the fabric of broken systems.

Instead of fulfilling its stated goals or performing its ideals, the group exists as a means of acquiring and flexing power for its leaders. Its members exist only as fodder and supply for leaders.

As you might suspect, a broken system produces groups that are dysfunctional in the extreme. As you also might suspect, I’m not just talking about evangelical Christianity here.

Many broken systems exist, especially in America. They all operate according to certain consistent principles of power, whatever their rules or ideals might be. Ultimately, they are vehicles for creating and using power before they are anything else.

Thus, the groups created within these systems are far more alike than they are different.

(All too often, I see ex-Christians and ex-vangelicals make the mistake of jumping from one broken system to another. They think that their new group won’t mistreat them or feed them misinformation to keep them warming new pews for new bosses. But if the new group also operates within a broken system, that is exactly what will happen.)

The false narrative as a sign of broken systems…

When we find a group pushing members to accept or conform to a false narrative, as we do with how Christian groups describe and offer the cure for hopelessness, we should take it as a sign that this group operates within a broken system.

A functional group operating under ideals that it actually cares about will not tolerate false narratives. False narratives interfere with both achieving goals and performing the group’s ideals.

If a group’s members really care about, say, bringing an end to hopelessness, then sure, they might briefly try casting magic spells. But when they realize that magic didn’t work, they won’t insist that it does but the spellcasters just did it all wrong. Instead, they will seek out the reason why it didn’t work. And they will realize that ending hopelessness actually involves a whole bunch of social reforms. Once they realize that, they will start pushing hard for those social reforms.

So when we realize that a group’s behavior has no impact whatsoever on what it claims is a much-desired goal, but that their behavior will instead only make the goal harder to reach, that’s when we need to pull back and examine things more closely.

… and as a sign of desperate marketing

When a product actually works exactly as advertised and there’s real market demand for it at the price being asked, then salespeople don’t have to do much at all to sell that product. They can paint word-pictures of the benefits of owning such a lovely product, and consumers will line up to buy it.

The salespeople of Dunder Mifflin could be generally awful at their jobs. Their top leaders could be disastrous. That’s because offices always need at least some amount of paper. They’d make sales–some at least!

But when all of those essential elements are missing from the sales equation, salespeople have to go for broke on emotional manipulation to sell the product.

In this case, becoming Christian–even TRUE CHRISTIAN™–doesn’t bring hope to a hopeless person. It also doesn’t spark a lifetime of joy in a miserable one. At most, conversion inspires a brief euphoria that passes. Once it passes, whatever made that person hopeless is still going on. It might even feel worse after that, since it would then be obvious Jesus wasn’t curing it by magic.

How to find the truth

As we see in most broken systems, group members’ and in particular leaders’ actual behavior speaks to their covert goals. When we see nonstop sex and abuse scandals pouring out of these groups, we’d do well to wonder about their leaders’ covert goals. Often, stated goals become a smokescreen for leaders’ true–and usually illegal and/or illicit–desires.

In this case, while evangelists’ followers are busy chasing their tails trying to make the product do stuff it really can’t do at all, they’re giving their leaders exactly what they wanted all along.

When you see an accidental revelation from these folks, listen to it. (<– TVTropes Walkabout Warning!) But even if they don’t do something so bee-headed, you can tell what their real goals are by simply paying attention to what they demand and what they do when they think they have secrecy and privacy enough to operate freely.

For small-time leaders like Nik Walker, covert desires can include money, attention, and fame. In the case of big-name evangelicals like Ravi Zacharias, we can add the opportunity to abuse followers with little fear of repercussions.

(So much for servant leadership, that long-beloved Christian ideal about leaders serving followers because they’re just so incredibly humble and pious and Jesus-y.)

When the false narrative fails to materialize

Because the false narrative exists only as a vehicle for followers to give leaders what they want, those leaders need to have a way for followers to keep chasing its promises even when it keeps failing to deliver.

In Christianity, we find tons and tons of ways for that to happen. For the most part, Christians are so well-indoctrinated that they will never once even suspect that their roadmap is simply broken. They’ll never realize that the narrative has never worked as promised. They’ll definitely never realize that it was never designed to do that in the first place.

Instead, every single time the narrative’s promised results fail to materialize, Christians blame themselves for having done something wrong.

That said, the boilerplate suggestions Christians get when they reveal their deep unhappiness reveal quite a lot. Each one carries at least a hint of blame and shade. The suggestion-makers ask, in effect, why haven’t you done this simple step yet already?

Chasing the hope dragon

Here’s what Christians get told to do to achieve hope and happiness within their false narrative:

  • Pray. Obviously, unhappy Christians never think to pray. Ever. (JoyceMeyer.org)
  • Stop using the wrong definition of happiness. Strangely, the correct definition doesn’t look like any form of happiness non-members would ever recognize. It’s just the only one that works with the false narrative. (Blossom Tips)
  • Stop being justifiably upset about mistreatment. (Valerie Paper)
  • Read the Bible more. Only Christians unfamiliar with their own mythology could ever possibly be unhappy. Bible study oughta clear up unhappiness on the double! (Focus on the Family)
  • “Radical dependence on God.” After sensibly suggesting counseling and medication, Cru then declares that this nebulous quality “is crucial [. . .] for surviving depression.” Tough noogies for atheists, I suppose. Of course, not one Christian alive could ever paint me a picture of exactly how to know when this quality is present (or not). However, I know from experience that even faith itself isn’t “crucial.” (Cru.org)
  • Keep Jesus-ing, whatever else happens! You never know when Jesus will finally decide to honor his salespeople’s promises! (Life.Church)

You might also notice that most of these suggestions/blame attempts demand that members do more of what they were already doing (which already hadn’t brought them results), just more of it and harder because this time, for SURE, it’ll totally work. That’s a common demand. Indeed, I had a Christian try it on me just the other day!

When their targets refuse to do it again, as I did, then they’ll be blamed for everything.

(See, that is totally why Yahweh has never revealed himself to me, even when I fervently believed. It’s OBVIOUSLY because I refused to pray in 2022 at the demand of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. When I deconverted in 1994 after tons and tons of prayer, Jesus was totes thinking ahead to my refusal to pray in 2022! Since 2022 Cas would refuse to play along, 1970-1994 Cas was clean outta luck!

Faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love

As I just mentioned above, for about half a lifetime I believed very fervently in Christianity. That belief involved quite a few false narratives, not just one. One of those false narratives centered around faith in Jesus being a way to achieve hope and happiness, of course. After all, that’s one of the most common ones in the entire religion.

Hope itself is one of what Christians call the three theological virtues. The other two are faith and charity/love. Together, these virtues supposedly allow Christians to follow their rules. I say supposedly there because I’ve encountered only a tiny number of Christian groups that actually consistently followed their own rules or evinced those virtues in private.

But if hope actually mattered to Christians, then I’d definitely expect Christian groups to operate along lines that facilitated hope–instead of reliably destroying it. But they don’t.

Maybe that’s why so many Christians languish in hopelessness–while so many heathens seem quite hopeful.

When I escaped the false narrative of Christianity

Hopelessness definitely describes how I felt at the tail end of my time as a Christian.

I’d begun to realize that prayer didn’t do anything. That reality didn’t conform to the Bible’s teachings at all. That every time I tried to Jesus harder, I ended up getting hurt worse and worse (or almost landing in weird cults in Waco). My anxiety and anger problems had spiraled completely out of control. My god not only allowed and condoned (and commanded and committed) injustice and unfairness, but actively encouraged his followers to practice both at all levels.

When my faith disintegrated away, I felt so free! Once I could perceive the world without that overlay, everything made so much more sense–and I could, at last, address my needs in effective ways.

That worked a whole lot better than following a broken roadmap, then wondering why nothing was happening that I’d been promised, then blaming myself and pushing myself into weirder and weirder contortions to try to attain those promises, failing anyway, and being afraid to talk about it because I knew how that’d go over!

Of course, even after deconverting I still had some false beliefs to untangle and escape. But the big main false narrative had melted away. And with its departure, real hope crept into my heart at last. It has been there ever since.

That’s not how Christianity’s hope narrative works at all. People who reject Christianity are supposed to be lost to utter hopelessness, existing as mere shadows of themselves–or so goes the sales pitch, hmm?

Thankfully, it’s about as true and real as anything else in Christianity–which is to say, not at all.

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,...