L.B.: Hospitality vs. Sales

Left Behind, wrapping up Chapter 11

As an evangelist, the Rev. Bruce Barnes gets a few things right.

Evangelism is what Chapter 11 of Left Behind is all about. This is an awkward topic. In American culture, evangelism has become something dreaded and despised — perhaps most of all by the very evangelical Christians who are constantly being told that if they were good Christians, they would be doing more of it.

How did this become the case? How did something that was supposed to be about "good news" become, instead, an awkward, embarrassing and odious duty?

This happened, I think, when what ought to be an act of hospitality was transformed into an act of salesmanship. Salesmanship, whatever else it may be, is ultimately inhospitable.

We could go back and look at the causes of this perverse commodification of the gospel — tracing the way that 19th-century evangelists like Charles Finney began adopting the techniques of salesmen, and how these techniques were further refined over the years by students of marketing like Bill Bright. But we needn't go into great detail here about how this happened to acknowledge that it has happened.

"Evangelism" today is not seen as the practice of hospitality, but as a kind of marketing scheme. It is not an invitation, but a sales pitch. Not a matter of "taste and see," but of "buy now." Or, to use one of my favorite descriptions of the work of evangelism, it is not "one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread," but rather one fat man trying to convince another fat man that he's a beggar in order to close the sale on another loaf.

Contemporary American-style evangelism is made even stranger by the fact that it seems devoid of content. It's become a turtles-all-the-way-down exercise with no apparent real bottom. Evangelism means, literally, the telling of good news. Surely there must be more to this good news than simply that the hearers of it become obliged to turn around and tell it to others. And those others, in turn, are obliged to tell still others the good news of their obligation to spread this news.

That may be an effective marketing strategy, but what is the product? There doesn't seem to be a product — only a self-perpetuating marketing scheme. It's like Amway without the soap.

Bruce Barnes — and LaHaye and Jenkins — is certainly right that evangelism is an imperative, a duty, for Christians. Jesus' final words to his disciples included his "Great Commission" — "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel …"

But in the soapless-Amway model of American-style evangelism, it seems like the Great Commission is the gospel. This makes no sense — it is an ouroboros, a Moebius strip, a spiritualized version of the child's prank of writing on both sides of a dollar bill, "How do you keep an idiot busy all day? (See other side for answer)."

The product, Barnes and L&J would say — the only product — is "salvation" from, as Barnes puts it, "sin and hell and judgment." Thus the prominence of fire and brimstone in many an evangelistic sales pitch. It's interesting that this emphasis on fire and brimstone cannot be found in that Great Commission Jesus gave to his disciples: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

This business about "making disciples" seems a bit more complicated than what we usually think of as proselytization. It certainly sounds like it calls for more than a sales-pitch. (And what was that about "everything I have commanded you"? This from the "love your neighbor/love your enemy/turn the other cheek/don't worry about food/care for the least of these" guy? Barnes, like most American evangelists, somehow leaves all that out of his sales pitch.)

To get a sense of what I mean by evangelism as the practice of hospitality, visit your local church. Don't go upstairs, to the sanctuary, go downstairs to that room in the basement with the linoleum tile and the coffee urn. That's where the AA and NA meetings are held.

At its best, Alcoholics Anonymous embodies evangelism as hospitality. They offer an invitation, not a sales pitch. They offer testimony — personal stories — instead of a marketing scheme. They are, in fact and in practice, a bunch of beggars offering other beggars the good news of where they found bread.

At its worst, AA sometimes slips into the evangelism-as-sales model. You may have found yourself at some point having a beer when some newly sober 12-step disciple begins lecturing you that this is evidence that you have a problem. He will try to sell you the idea that you are a beggar so he can sell you some bread. The ensuing conversation is tense, awkward and pointless — the precise qualities of the similar conversation you may have had with an evangelical Christian coworker who was reluctantly but dutifully inflicting on you a sales pitch for evangelical Christianity.

Back to Bruce Barnes. He does, as I said, get a few things right. When Rayford calls asking questions, Bruce invites him over. Come on by, come on in, door's always open. That's hospitality. And Barnes spends the better part of the chapter telling his own story — his "testimony." Autobiography is neither an argument nor a sales pitch. It can be, instead, another kind of hospitality.

But then poor Bruce can't help himself. The sales pitch, he thinks, is all that really matters here, and he soon gets down to the hard sell, trying to move his productless product.

Barnes explicitly uses the language of sales, twice referring to the promise of salvation as a "transaction." And he lays the sales pressure on thick — even threatening Chloe with the hypothetical bus.

Ultimately, this chapter is just one long infomercial. It ends the same way every infomercial does — with the prospective buyers receiving a free video tape explaining how salvation through Christ and/or a Craftmatic adjustable bed will solve all their problems. Act now. Supplies are limited. Sales personnel are waiting to take your call.

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NRA: A church without a plan
NRA: The Fifth Seal
Left Behind Classic Fridays, No. 78: 'Buck, incognito'
Left Behind Classic Fridays, No. 79: 'Grace and greed'
  • pharoute

    bulbul: mum’s the word and of course that should’ve been YKW not ykh….

  • robert p

    Every pixel of your response is WRONG! So I will ignore your silliness.
    Someone else mentioned homosexuality to begin with, please forgive me for agreeing with the teachings of the Good Book.
    (Also I’m tired of this thread, which has gotten totally off topic)

  • robert p

    Jesus … never used the verbiage of war
    the perils of Bibliolatry
    why … stand up for Biblical truth? Is your Biblical truth so weak, your God so powerless
    When it benefits you
    God has a rich history of consorting with prostitutes.
    Let’s say, hypothetically
    outlawing prostitution because you don’t like it
    your basic philosophy is no different than fundamentalist Islamists
    Nothing you have said yet changes that fact.
    ad hominem
    false impression
    enters fantasy land

  • Duane

    Robert P, LOL!
    You missed one:
    Instead, you are battling AGAINST hearts and minds that are not like yours.
    Surely, you will agree with this, based on your posts in this thread indicating that you are battling against people who do not agree with you.

  • robert p

    Touché :)

  • robert p

    pharaoute (again):
    Your funky exegesis of Romans 1 shows that (according to Paul), homosexuality is a *symptom* of a total breakdown of morality, ie. it’s a sin. I totally agree, there are plenty of other sins, why get hung up on this one? The answer is twofold: a) Admittedly some Christians have a pharasaical attitude and take pride in pointing out the flaws of other people b) Some Christians have a genuine concern for the wellbeing of their country and neighbours and feel that spreading false teachings about the nature of huamn sexuality and experimental morality is detrimental to society. All sin damages human dignity, but this particular issue has been the rallying call for challenges to sound doctrine, attempts to subvert church denominations, promulgating gender confusion, and undermining the natural family.

  • Duane

    a) Admittedly some Christians have a pharasaical attitude and take pride in pointing out the flaws of other people
    Let’s use this opportunity to point out that many Christians have such an attitude because this is what Paul, a proud and out Pharisee, preached. Here is a quick and dirty 9 word summary of Paul’s philosophy:
    “How to be perfect in an otherwise imperfect world.”
    Of course, this is not the message that Christ spent 30 years teaching and living.

  • Merlin Missy

    spreading false teachings about the nature of huamn sexuality
    And we’ll just ignore where every reputable scientific study performed thus far on the subject contradicts this statement. Can’t trust those scientists and their facts.
    All sin damages human dignity, but this particular issue has been the rallying call for challenges to sound doctrine, attempts to subvert church denominations, promulgating gender confusion, and undermining the natural family.
    I would like to point out that the Church said much the same thing forty years ago regarding the issues of women wearing pants and going to work.
    You still haven’t given me a reason why Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality is somehow more true as a doctrine than his condemnation of bare-headed women. A law is a law, but no one is trying to make this one stick.
    Some Christians have a genuine concern for the wellbeing of their country and neighbours
    Again, I gave you a brief list of things these same Christians could be doing to improve the lives and well-being of said neighbours and country, but instead they spend time, effort and money trying to stop other people from living their lives. Some spend so much time in this pursuit that their own marriages fail (in the U.S., the divorce rate is highest among non-Catholic Christians) and their children, feeling as though they are not as important to Mom and Dad as protesting whatever Adam and Steve are doing, are the ones most likely to go forth and start those unwanted pregnancies. As Fred has pointed out many times, the real kicker is that Mom and Dad get that extra feeling of righteousness entirely because they’re sure they won’t ever be “tempted” by this same “sin,” or if they are, the denial they have to practice every day makes them think everyone else should (since if Mom and Dad aren’t really enjoying their sex life, no one else should either).
    It’s silly, and it eats time and resources that could be used fulfilling the teachings Jesus actually preached.

  • pharoute

    robert p: have we ever stayed on topic?! :-D
    also it’s called “Romans” for a reason: Paul to the church in Rome “When in Rome don’t do as the Romans…” i.e. give into lusts, idol worship, lobster bisque, etc. Paul’s pretty clear that it’s the lustful behavior that’s the sin. Remember this is the guy that said “it’s better to marry then burn.” Whee, there’s a ringing endorsment of traditional marriage.

  • Garnet

    All sin damages human dignity
    Please illustrate how, as an agnostic, my human dignity is damaged by the legalisation of homosexual marriage.

  • hogey

    You all have a lot to say about theology and I appreciate that. The conversation went a long way from the original article. I’m curious if anyone has ever looked at religion as being run like a business. My father is a Methodist minister and my recently deceased grandfather was a methodist minister and both of them possessed a keen sense of business in everything they do. In a sense, that’s the American way (really it’s the human way). Evangelism movements have corresponded to churches looking for more money.
    Is it any surprise that the Baptist church is one of the few major religions in the US that isn’t lacking for money? The Baptist church is also one of the strongest Evangelical organizations currently around. I know the Methodist church has been slowly eroding and selling off property. Overall, the methodists haven’t adopted these same salesman tactics either.
    Point is, if you want money, you aggresively sell your product. If you don’t have a product, you make one up – such as not falling into the eternal fires of hell. I find it interesting that in the bible, there was never really a mention of this image of hell and eternal damnation. Now there was definitely mention of the kingdom of heaven but the worst we ever heard about in the bible were things that seemed to be happening on Earth.
    Now I am not saying that every Evangelist is compelled for financial reasons – in fact I think very few are. However, the initial motivation certainly seems that way. Next time your pastor calls for an Evangelical movement, find out what that pastor’s pay is and see if after the movement his or her paycheck has increased (and by what ammount). You might be surprised how much modern protestant movements resemble the catholic church of the middle ages.

  • Fred

    Whew, talk about your runaway threads.
    Oddly though, it all seems to fit together for me — bringing back fond memories of the daughter of a Kiwi MP and a couple of weeks that St. Paul would probably have frowned on …

    … OK, I’m back. But thanks, rp, for reminding me of that.

  • Scott

    I would like to point out that the Church said much the same thing forty years ago regarding the issues of women wearing pants and going to work.
    40 years ago? Try 3/1/2006:
    The Return of Patriarchy? Fatherhood and the Future of Civilization
    …A culture of patriarchy directs men to their responsibilities as husbands and fathers. Men who fail in these responsibilities are seen as inferior to those who are both faithful and effective. Furthermore, a patriarchal structure holds men accountable for the care, protection, discipline, and nurture of children. In such a society, irresponsibility in the tasks of parenthood is seen as a fundamental threat to civilization itself.
    Longman quotes feminist economist Nancy Folbre, who observed: “Patriarchal control over women tends to increase their specialization in reproductive labor, with important consequences for both the quantity and the quality of their investments in the next generation.” As Longman explains, “Those consequences arguably include: more children receiving more attention from their mothers, who, having few other ways of finding meaning in their lives, become more skilled at keeping their children safe and healthy.” …

  • lsf

    To hogey: Many do look at religion as being run like a business; some ministers even use the notion of market share in formulating their proselytization strategy, cf. .

  • lsf

    I put the article in angle brackets and accidentally made it disappear. Sorry for the disruptive doubl-posting.

  • Bugmaster

    Also it seems that keeping the Holy Sabbath … is more important to you than, say, racial equality, the abolishment of slavery, or free speech (all human values).
    For the record: no. And let me just say that I am astounded as to how you came to this conclusion.
    Well, you did say that God’s Law was more important to you than Man’s law. The holy Sabbath is God’s Law; racial equality, abolishment of slavery, and free speech are all human values. In fact, depending on your faith, some of these values (such as racial equality) may be in opposition to God’s Law (who are God’s chosen people ?), Galatians 2:28 notwithstanding.
    This implies that God can change his mind any time he wants, and that our current commandments (regardless of how you interpret them) are temporary. Is that right ?
    First of all, it is a trick question, just like the one with the stone. In my opinion, the correct answer to both questions is “Why should he?”
    In that case, you’ve missed the point of the stone question. That question illustrates the point that God cannot create things which are logically impossible, like square circles or stones-unliftable-by-God — which is not a problem, really, since these things are nonsensical anyway. My question about the covenant, however, does have a legitimate answer. Either our current set of commandments is permanent and immutable, or it can change at God’s whim; and, since God is completely inscrutable, this can happen at any moment.
    The coming of Jesus (and the New Covenant) was announced as early as Genesis 3 and then in many other places in the Old Testament (particularly Isaiah 42 and 43).
    Does this mean that our current covenant is permanent and immutable ? I wanted to say “set in stone”, but that one was apparently repealed… :-)

  • bulbul

    Well, you did say that God’s Law was more important to you than Man’s law.
    Lemme check… Nope, I didn’t.
    In fact, depending on your faith, some of these values (such as racial equality) may be in opposition to God’s Law (who are God’s chosen people ?), Galatians 2:28 notwithstanding.
    I probably should ask you for an explanation, since I do not understand what you mean, especially by “notwithstanding”. There are no more “chosen people”, as for example per Galatians 3:29. And the words of Galatians 3:28 are quite clear as to racial and other equality.
    In that case, you’ve missed the point of the stone question.
    No I have not. What the stone question does is emphasize one of God’s attributes (in that case His omnipotence) over others. And that’s always misleading.
    As for your claim that God cannot create things which are logically impossible, well, logic is a human concept. And a pretty questionable one at that. Ever heard of Gödel? :o)
    Does this mean that our current covenant is permanent and immutable?
    If you choose to use these terms, then my answer is yes.
    I wanted to say “set in stone”, but that one was apparently repealed… :-)
    If you are referring to the Ten Commandments, then my answer is: nope, it wasn’t. See for example Luke 18:20 or Matthew 19:18-19.
    There is one more thing I would like to say: if you are looking for information on the Christian doctrine and Bible exegesis, you would probably be better off with a reliable book on the subject. Though a soon-to-be expert in a related field, I am no theologian.

  • stephen

    clear consice and 100% true.

  • Garnet

    As for your claim that God cannot create things which are logically impossible, well, logic is a human concept.
    So, then… god can create logically impossible things, like square circles?

  • Stephen (not the on two posts up)

    First off I’d like to appologize, I dunno how to italisize here, so names will have to do.
    Bugmaster: “Does this mean that our current covenant is permanent and immutable?”
    bulbul: “If you choose to use these terms, then my answer is yes.”
    I would personally say no. From what I understand the current covenant will last only untill Judgement Day* begins. At which point a new one will eb instituted, which will end after Judgement Day. Then one last, permament one will be instituted afterwards.
    * = In this use of Day it is actually one of God’s Days, or 1,000 years for us. (Same kinda Days God used when he created the universe.)
    P.S. This will probally be my only post here as I will likely lose the link to this site and personally see no reason in favoritizing it.

  • none

    You’ve hit it on the head. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long while now. Thanks for articulating it so well.

  • bulbul

    From what I understand the current covenant will last only untill Judgement Day* begins.
    We’re on a very tricky theological/legal ground here, so see the disclaimer in my last post. However, I believe that the Judgment Day and what comes next are the subject of that contract.
    In this use of Day it is actually one of God’s Days, or 1,000 years for us. (Same kinda Days God used when he created the universe.)
    And how do you know that?

  • Duane

    I believe the 1 Day = 1000 Years formula is somewhere in the Book of Peter. Which is a good thing, otherwise how would we ever be able to translate between God Time and Man Time?
    Still, it isn’t always easy to know when one should be measuring in God Time or Man Time. A good rule of thumb is that if a prophecy isn’t fulfilled clearly within Man Time, it’s probably in God Time.
    Does anyone know where I can get a dispensationalist watch with dual God Time, Man Time chronometers and a nifty perimeter band that shows me which dispensationalist age I am in and how much time ’til the next one?
    That would be way cool. It could even have display that flashes RAPTURE in the event it ceases to be around my arm without ever having the strap undone.

  • bulbul

    Duane, re: Rapture watch: please join Scott, Texan and me in the discussion below Buck, Incognito. Looks like we got a great brainstorming session going there, we need your ideas :o)

  • genericdefect

    You know, a lifetime of uninterrupted sobriety has really not paid off for me all that much. I’ve been too analytical, to much in opposition to being suggestable. I’ve fallen out of every social narrative, perhaps history itself. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, unless you want to be a writer or something.
    When I think about the churches of my childhood, always chosen on the basis of convenience, it occurs to me that those were not wasted days. These were pleasant outings. I don’t recall gathering a smidge of insight from the homilies, but the light coming through the windows was pretty, and in hindsight, sitting among a crowd of people quietly breathing is unusual. And halfway through you got to smile like an idiot and shake random people’s hand that your parents probably half-knew. I would usually space out and daydream about flying around in the vaults, or pretend the Divine was confiding to me about the overlooked significance of traditional book-binding techniques.
    Probably plenty of people still use church -communities- as networking venues. Or maybe you can be more charitable and say they use networking venues to find community. Either way, in this modern age, we live in “communities” where it is pretty much impossible to be Exiled. Oh sure, you can get locked in a cage pretty quick, but the true Art of Exile is utterly lost in the civil sphere. Used to be, communities had people that found their place amongst them after all the folks who couldn’t fit in just died off or drifted away. The code word for this is “traditionalism.” Hard to find these days. Now even the superfluous are expected to be self-trained in the art of forcing others to marginally accept their social contributions as urgently sufficient. (And you thought teenagers and Al Queda were mopey because of hormones.)
    Sometimes I go to the movies to refresh my memory of that sense of community. The fee to get in is not much higher than the fee to get out of most church services, and you only need to go 2-3 times a year. There’s also the shared or communal meal, and since it is dark, it’s not unnacceptable to pick your nose. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of shopping for a new community, and maybe a new set of random precepts to ignore, or at employ insafar as they are amusing. I’ve never actually stopped following the 8 or 9 of the 14 commandments even though I regard most notions of Logos as curious phenomenon in logic and language moreso than as mythopoetic factors in the eschatology. I’m so serious about finding a new community at this point, I may even take up drinking.

  • mike

    I would simply ask that you consider reclassifying salesmen and salesmenship. The reason is that evangelism, just like all things offered, can be offered by bad stewards. It can be something that is pushed or forced, where the prospect feels “pigeon holed”. But that is not because of salesmenship as a whole…it is because of the poor skill sets of the seller. You see, a true salesmen isn’t some peddler just trying to turn a quick profit. A true salesman is one who finds a solution to an existing problem. Perhaps many people have been approached by the all too common salesmen who tries to force the deal. They are not genuine and don’t care about you. But haven’t you ever been offered a solution by someone was paying attention to your needs? Didn’t you “buy” that solution with ease? Not because you were forced to – but because you saw the value of the product and respected the seller.

  • Jeff Weskamp

    And this latter part is what constitutes the basis of the theology put forward by the Bishop Spong/Karen Armstrong/ Joseph Campbell/Elaine Pagels contingent, (Armstrong especially) in which otherwise thoughtful and liberal people pretend that the Bible/Koran/other holy texts were never really taken literally until recently and that therefore there should be no real contradiction between science and faith.
    A true allegory or metaphor is something that must be written into the book by the author him/herself. It cannot be implanted by the reader. Otherwise, I could easily claim that the the story of the collapse of Jericho’s walls is actually a metaphor for arterial plaque reduction. Using the allegory excuse, I can imbue any story with any meaning I want. But it has no relation to the meaning that the writer put into it.
    I have a very hard time believing that all the OT and NT writers were simplying trying to express spiritual truths symbolically. Why not just state them openly?
    The problem with the whole “allegory/metaphor/symbolism” method of interpreting Scripture is that it’s too easy to impose your own personal psychological baggage onto the text. Baggage that the authors of the document probably never even thought of. This is essentially using a holy text like a Rohrschach inkblot test. Sam Harris, in his excellent book The End of Faith, features a hilarious example of this: He takes a recipe from a Hawaiian cookbook, and explains how it is really a guide to achieving spiritual enlightenment. It’s not really discussing food preparation, but how to merge with the Infinite.
    There were some Greek philosophers in the 2nd and 1st Centuries BC who made similar claims about the Greek myths. They were “Symbolic” representations of how the forces of nature interact with each other. So, when Hades raped Persephone, that actually stated that all plant life (embodied by Persephone) will eventually perish (Hades representing death). Eventually, they had to admit that the myths were meant to be literal tales of gods and men that were literally false.
    I don’t remember who said it, but someone once said, “A Biblical passage is literal unless it has been scientifically disproven. Then it becomes allegorical or metaphorical.”

  • Jeff Weskamp

    This Harper’s article about the Colorado Springs megachurch headed by Ted Haggard (http://harpers.org/SoldiersOfChrist.html) confirms everything Fred said in his post. Haggard cheerfully admits that he uses marketing and salesmanship to promote the fatih. Basically, salvation is simply another “product” that you are urged to sell, and God is a gigantic ethereal CEO who will reward your hard work with a nice retirement villa in Heaven (and maybe a set of steak knives). You gotta love his description of being naughty and switching to a different brand of toothpaste:
    New Lifers, Pastor Ted writes with evident pride, “like the benefits, risks, and maybe above all, the excitement of a free-market society.” They like the stimulation of a new brand. “Have you ever switched your toothpaste brand, just for the fun of it?” Pastor Ted asks. Admit it, he insists. All the way home, you felt a “secret little thrill,” as excited questions ran through your mind: “Will it make my teeth whiter? My breath fresher?” This is the sensation Ted wants pastors to bring to the Christian experience.
    If that’s Haggard’s idea of a secret little thrill, then he doesn’t get out much!
    All joking aside, the main reason to buy Ted’s “product” is the same reason a consumer buys any other product: how will it make my life better? Will it give me sweeter-smelling breath? Will it make girls like me? Will I get a promotion? This is the theology of every self-help guru from Tim Robbins to Deepak Chopra. Serving God, helping your fellow human beings, all of these are simply the price you pay for the personal benefits that you’ll reap from the “product.” It’s a theology that orbits around the Self as the earth revolves around the sun. “What’s in it for me?” is this faith’s unstated motto.
    You know, I think Jesus once chased a bunch of businessmen out of the Temple with the words, “You have turned my Father’s house into a house of commerce.” Maybe Pastor Ted should look up that verse.

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