How Confrontational Evangelism is Failing Christians, and Why It Doesn’t Matter.

Christian evangelists act, in a very real sense, as salespeople of their ideology. And they are not making a lot of sales these days. They can’t even keep the few customers they still have! So evangelical churn has become a serious problem–not just for evangelicals, either. Not long ago, we talked about a Christian who thought he’d figured out a brand-new sales tactic. In that post, I touched on the two tactics Christian salespeople typically use. Today, I’ll expand a little more on the first of them, confrontational evangelism–and why it fails, and why Christians can’t stop using it regardless.

Our lovely assistants today are etc. etc. etc.

What Confrontational Marketing Is.

Christians employ two major strategies for “selling” their ideology to others, confrontational and indirect (“Jesus Aura“) evangelism. Their leaders vastly prefer that their flocks employ the former one. Confrontational evangelism, like confrontational marketing, is marked by assertive, even aggressive sales pitches made to people who didn’t ask to hear it and don’t want to encounter it.

Using this sales strategy, salespeople try to force or manipulate customers into entertaining their sales pitch–and then to comply with it by buying into the product on offer. The salespeople here largely ignore the customer’s preferences about interaction styles. Frequently they take unscrupulous advantage of the customer’s sense of social obligation to be nice.

In this category of marketing, we find tactics like interruption marketing. In interruption marketing, salespeople push themselves into their target’s perception, asking that person to stop and listen to what they have to say. Outbound sales, door-to-door selling, cold calling, and even to a certain extent Renfest-style hawking (<— linke of awesomeneysse) fall into this category.

Confrontational marketing has a long and sordid association with the worst flavors of Christianity, but most flavors dabble in it to some degree. In-your-face street preachers like Brother Jed and Sister Cindy might be the most obvious example of the type. Door-to-door missionaries, like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, are others, and many churches employ direct mailings, phone calls, and other such tactics to put their message in front of people who distinctly don’t care about or want to see such materials.

What rejection looks like.

Violating Boundaries for Fun and Profit.

My Evil Ex was one of the many fundagelical Christians who loved confrontational evangelism. He used it to be obnoxious and controlling toward others.

In service to his official goal, Biff made up and wore handmade buttons that said stuff like Turn or Burn! and Fly or Fry! He carried tracts with him everywhere he went. He plunged into his various one-sided encounters with the eager zeal of a puppy wanting walkies.

In service to his unstated, unofficial goal, he offended people with abandon. When they rejected him and his evangelism, then he got to claim PERSECYOOSHUN YAWL. As far as he was concerned, there was literally no downside to his strategy.

I was far more reserved; I’m not naturally a salesperson anyway, and I’ve always disliked undignified displays. I chose my encounters far more conservatively and didn’t engage till I knew my message would be welcome.

And yet our success rates were identical, by which I mean they were nonexistent.

Indeed, I didn’t know anybody who’d had success in evangelism.

The Halcyon Days of Yore!

Many Christians yearn for what they vaguely think of as the good old days of Christianity, which I mocked early in this blog’s lifetime as a craving for a sort of Mayberry Christianity. In that gauzy vision, Christians dominated society, running it like benevolent parents. They enjoyed well-deserved reputations as good people who ran happy families and operated prosperous businesses. They reveled in the respect and esteem of their peers, and effortlessly won leadership roles in their communities.

Most of all, though, in this vision of the past Christians’ voices mattered. They think that people wanted Christians’ respect and friendship, their approval and blessing.

It hardly even matters that this vision isn’t accurateChristians themselves think that it’s accurate. That’s all that matters in the new feelz > reelz Christian culture. In reality, Christians used to enjoy a great deal of power, yes–legal, cultural, interpersonal–over their local areas. Their perceived influence and success derived largely from that power-base, not from their own virtues. And their success in evangelism similarly had little to do with their own skill in salesmanship.

Christians haven’t quite caught up with their new normal, and neither has their marketing.

Without Coercion, Christianity Collapses.

When Christians began losing their power in American society, their sales rates took a total nose-dive!

Before, Christians could exert considerable social (and sometimes even legal) pressure upon someone to listen to their sales pitches and even to visit and join their various churches and groups. Their prospects rightly feared retaliation for refusing, and struggled with strong desires to belong in and have the backing of powerful groups.

To see this dynamic in action, we can look to particularly dysfunctional areas still dominated by Christians. There, Christians still have way too much power–and their sales tactics are particularly coercive. A while ago, I showed you Airline High School and the controversy Christian hypocrites there are stirring up. They keep trying to force students to participate in teacher-led religious devotions in public schools!

We can find stories just like this one in literally hundreds of similar lawsuits and legislative fights. On informal levels, people who reject Christian sales pitches in these areas often risk everything to stay true to their ideals.

These Christians reach for coercive and confrontational tactics to sell their ideology because they know perfectly well that other measures are not working. 

And Christian leaders are well aware of this truth.

What’s really bad is that this actor ended up falling into the cesspit of Christian cinema, and you can bet people mocked him over it using this exact line from Ghostbusters.

“Failing to Invite is a Failure.”

Here we find Christian leaders in a real pickle: they need sales to happen, but they cannot, themselves, do a lot of selling. A writer at Thom Rainer’s blog criticizes pastors who don’t evangelize, but the hard truth is that they just don’t have time anymore for it.

So their goal becomes, instead, to convince their flocks to sell Christianity as hard as they possibly can. Indeed, that’s the goal of that Thom Rainer post–and of millions of exhortations along the same lines. Christians get commanded to SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY. If they don’t, they get accused of not being a TRUE CHRISTIAN™.

Indeed, Christian leaders can get downright creepy in their desperation to move their flocks to more sales attempts, as we saw Ed Stetzer try to do the Easter before last.

One pastor’s blog is quite illuminating that way. Here’s the current page as it stands now. Its author spent most of the post telling his followers that 85% of the people who visit new churches do so after a personal invitation [mayyyyyyyyybe — CC], and yet most Christians don’t issue invitations. Now he tells them this [sic sickety sic sic, seriously]:

So, why do most people focus on the the other 15%. I would propose the we focus there because that lets us of off of the hook of personally having to do evangelism. To be blunt, it’s easier on us. But failing to invite is a failure.

But here’s the page as it was in 2014 and 2017–lacking that whole paragraph.

They Love the Smell of Desperation in the Morning.

This year, that post’s writer decided he needed to be more direct. And he’s not alone in his desperate flailing.

If you read these leaders’ exhortations, you’ll quickly get the feeling that they are trying to help their flocks over their innate resistance to violating other people’s boundaries. They follow a template along the way:

  • Misleading the flocks about just how receptive non-members will be to boundary violations.
  • Making boundary-violating sales pitches sound mandatory–with implied threats of Hell pushing adherents’ fear levels through the roof.
  • Dishonestly minimizing the damage done to their flocks’ relationships by boundary violations–if not ignoring the fact that damage will almost certainly occur.
  • Attempting to make their flocks feel like they’re actually doing non-members a favor by giving them an unwanted sales pitch.
  • Lying outright about how successful these sales pitches are.

It’s incredibly dishonest, manipulative, and cruel–especially when most Christians feel deeply uncomfortable about not only selling in general, but also about pushing sales pitches at their friends. If the tactics worked, that might be one thing for them, but they don’t make sales doing it, either!

Of course, bear in mind that these leaders are not bearing any of the social cost of a failed sales pitch. Their flocks bear all of those risks.

At least he delegates well.

Why Confrontational Sales Methods Fail.

The main reason these sales pitches fail is that in most areas nowadays, people are free to choose whether or not they wish to entertain them at all. Yes, in some areas Christians can–and do, with disturbing gusto–retaliate against people who do not wish to join their groups or play along with their public showboating. But in most areas, they can’t. Where sharp limits exist upon how far Christians can go in exacting vengeance, their sales pitches fail with remarkable alacrity and frequency.

Worse, once a certain number of people have rejected these sales pitches, a sort of herd immunity is lost for Christians. Their power depends very much upon unilateral and totalitarian control. The margin of safety for other people increases with every new rejection. At that point, Christians can no longer retaliate effectively against the sheer number of people who need punishing. Even their own members stop playing along with the Pretendy Fun Time Game.

In fact, people are so averse now to being coerced that simply an attempt at a coercive-feeling sales pitch is enough to make a lot of folks reject the product out of hand.

So Christians must rely instead upon interpersonal manipulation skills and social capital to get people to listen to their pitches–if at all. “Jesus” is certainly not helping them! Maybe he doesn’t approve of their methods. Or maybe he doesn’t exist at all, and people are just doing their best within a hopelessly-broken system.

he's totally right; even on set, they just found them like that one day
Well, he’s right. /s

Insidious Reasons.

Of course, Christian leaders have more insidious reasons to want the flocks to do all this stuff. Through using these tactics, Christians end up investing more in their own beliefs. It hardly even matters if the flocks succeed in selling at that point, does it?

Worse, Christians know that they’re going to risk their friendships and sacrifice their families’ goodwill through these sales tactics. They know. And then when they do it anyway and drive away those friends and family members, they’re not just making themselves lonelier. They’re also destroying their non-church support groups.

Eventually, they will have only church people to lean on. And when they learn to their chagrin that church people are the very last folks that anybody should ever count on, it’ll be far too late to salvage those long-gone relationships.

(Go ahead. Ask me how I know that. Cuz I’ll tell you the answer.)

But Not Even Failure Matters.

We don’t often hear credible, verified stories about people who converted (and stayed so, more importantly) through the use of confrontational and coercive tactics. Oh, we hear lots of anecdotes, sure. And as we’ll see next time, the hucksters teaching these techniques claim a great many successes. Somehow, though, these stories remain just that: stories. Urban legends. Friend-of-a-friend anecdotes.

What we do see way more often is rejection. Outright mockery. Relationships shattered. Credibility lost. People fleeing the moment they can.

If these techniques were as effective as Christians claim they are, they wouldn’t constantly act like Annie Potts’ character in Ghostbusters every time they finally do manage to close a sale:

the result of confrontational evangelism
“We got one!”

Unfortunately for the rest of us, though, Christians won’t stop using these techniques just because they fail spectacularly.

Permission Slips.

Christians think that a literal god has not only blessed but demanded the use of confrontational and coercive marketing. But way more importantly, many of them just really like using these tactics. 

The Christians who love hard-sales tactics bristle at the idea of having to behave respectfully toward others. They’re not evangelizing this way because of love; they’re doing it because they like having a permission slip that allows them to mistreat others with impunity.

Failure only makes them happier, because then they can identify themselves as persecuted jus’ like Jesus was! He said they’d reject TRUE CHRISTIANS™!

Like Biff years ago, they perceive no downside at all to their strategy. So don’t expect them to examine their use of it, much less reject it for something that would stand a better chance of scoring them some sales. Their “paycheck” in a real sense depends upon maintaining this style of evangelism. My suggestion is that we try to make sure we’re not making those same mistakes.

NEXT UP: A fun look at some hucksters pushing confrontational evangelism. Later, we’re looking at Jesus Aura Evangelism, and how that fails too. Later this week we’re coming back to the dark secret of how MLMs and Christian leaders alike set their followers to fail–and why. And we’re gearing up for a fun look at what making mayonnaise has to do with fundagelicalism. We’re going to have another busy week around here–see you next time!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then she brought it all to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was almost 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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