Neil Carter wrote this really good post a few days ago called “Why Christians Don’t Like Sharing Their Faith” and it got me thinking. See, there are a whole bunch of Christians who don’t like to evangelize. This reticence drives their leaders and authority figures out of their ever-lovin’ trees and leads to quite a lot of the finger-shaking sermons directed at the flocks–and yet nothing is changing except for the worse (in those leaders’ eyes at least)! I’ll show you why today.
When Sales Eclipsed Ambassadorship.
You’ll notice that I generally talk about evangelism as a sales process rather than as an ambassadorial duty of any kind. I talk about it that way because I don’t see many differences between Christian evangelism and high-pressure sales tactics.
I realize that Christians don’t like to think of themselves as salespeople. I can also understand why they don’t. Reducing their “Good News” to a simple sales pitch probably does feel slightly undignified to them. I’ve noticed that even the nicest Christians tend to bristle when their religion is put on the same shelf as any other product for sale, since the notion that Christianity is totally unique and special out of every single worldview in the universe has been part of its operating premises for decades (if not longer).
But without simple brute force and coercion to wrangle people to sit their butts in Christian pews and (more importantly) stay there week after week, Christians have to rely now on persuasion to make their case.
In the realm of persuasion, there are two options people can use to bring others around to their way of thinking: ambassadorial sharing and salesmanship.
In Christianity, it seems, salesmanship long ego eclipsed ambassadorial sharing–and here’s what I mean by that assertion.
Facts vs. Fictions.
Having facts on one’s side makes any persuasion attempt easier. People naturally talk about stuff they encounter that they feel has benefits to themselves–be it yoga, vegetarianism, that car repair place they think did a good job, their favorite line of boxed cake mixes, that restaurant they enjoy visiting, that nursery’s potted plants, etc. In this way they act as ambassadors for those things. They don’t have to be told to share the good word or cajoled or strong-armed into doing so–they do it because they want others to have those benefits. (They enjoy even more the reverse, it seems: warning others away from stuff that they think is no good.)
If you want to convince others to try something you know has distinct benefits, of course, you still need to present those facts in a way that makes a buy-in sound like a good idea (used with great success in the “features->advantages->benefits” technique). Still, it’s way lots easier to sell something that brings obvious tangible benefits to the consumer. Even someone who has no experience with salesmanship or any inclination toward selling something can at least make a basic case for buying it if they can demonstrate that it has specific benefits–products that people need sell themselves. As just one example, the guy who ran Carvel Ice Cream built a legacy on his weirdly-incompetent-yet-successful advertisements for his chain’s products.
For the folks who’ve never had the pleasure of seeing/hearing a Carvel’s ad. The story goes that he refused to correct any flubs or learn how to do better at public speaking.
Unfortunately, Christians have no facts whatsoever to support their various claims. Obviously the religion’s source material is the last place you’d look for accuracy in anything at all–be it history, science, or true promises about what the religion can do for believers. And Christians and non-Christians alike are starting to notice how piss-poor Christian ideology is at growing actual decent human beings or in fostering civil, harmonious, loving societies. So it’s an entirely fictional belief system with no basis in reality–which means that Christians who want to persuade others must rely on more complex sales techniques.
It’s not impossible to sell something fake or false–in some ways it’s easier, since its seller can make up whatever claims they wish as long as they can make those claims sound plausible to the marks being pitched to. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m just saying that the techniques for doing it are very different. Instead of acting as an ambassador for the product, one must act as its sales agent.
So I don’t call Christians failed ambassadors solely because they are such bad examples of their religion that they actively make a case for avoiding it, but also because they don’t realize that it takes something very different from ambassadorial behavior to get others to buy into their claims.
It takes salesmanship.
A Need for Sales.
I’m drawing a big distinction here, and I realize that in a lot of ways the roles of ambassador and salesperson do have some overlapping concerns and techniques.
In the end, though, an ambassador delights in sharing the good news about whatever it is they’ve chosen to represent to others. It’s an honor and a privilege to be an ambassador–and if that person discovers that their product isn’t what they thought it was, then they consider it an honor to leave the role rather than represent something that doesn’t live up to their high expectations. Their performance tends to be rated by the goodwill they create for their chosen master or product.
But a salesperson is in the game because they are compelled to be there. They need the paycheck, be it literal or metaphorical. They don’t ultimately care if the sales mark really wants or needs the product as long as they “sign on the line that is dotted.” They stand to gain quite a lot by closing the sale–and to lose quite a lot if they fail to do so. And their performance is rated by their success in closing sales, nothing more–as Veronica Palmer points out in an episode of Better Off Ted regarding the potential loss of their department’s most honest and moral employee: “Gosh, you’re right! How will we ever make the Fortune 500 list of the most moral companies? Oh wait, they don’t have that.”
Christian evangelists long ago left the realm of ambassadors for the dry and dusty land of hardcore salesmanship. It’s little wonder that so many of their adherents aren’t very comfortable with that shift. They know what it means; they know the difference–because every one of us, every single day, acts in those roles and runs across other people acting in those roles. We know that a salesperson is not driven by honesty, doesn’t care ultimately about what’s best for us but rather what’s best for their own paycheck, and that their bottom-line concern is, well, the bottom line.
More importantly, Christians themselves know that difference just like the rest of us do.
L. Ron Hubbard, Pat Robertson,
You’re some punk-ass bitches–
You’re not even on my level!
And Dalai Lama, what the fuck are you doing?
You gotta monetize that shit, sonny!
–“The Pope Rap,” Trevor Moore
The Necessity of Sales, and the Dilemma.
Even in my day, believers–including me–resisted that call to step up to the plate and sell sell SELL. But nowadays, more Christians than ever are feeling that same resistance–and the number is only growing. It’s all over evangelical writings thanks to a Barna survey that indicated that it’s not just their imagination that personal evangelism is falling out of favor with today’s Christians–and it’s a total scream to see what evangelicals come up with as the reasons for that resistance.
Over the last few years, Christian leaders seem like they’ve really stepped up their exhortations to the flock to get out there and evangelize. One can see why. Religious leaders have enough on their hands just running their churches, and they don’t often interact with non-believers. Their focus tends to be on retaining the members that the church already has. Even evangelists–professional ministers whose ostensible job it is to recruit new members–tend to be talking entirely to people who are already part of the group. Except for random encounters with serving-staff and fellow passengers on mass transit, ministers don’t have many sales opportunities.
By contrast, laypeople–the members who are just there to attend services and sometimes do volunteer work–live in the real world that exists outside that insular bubble. So if anybody’s going to close sales with new members, it’s going to have to be those laypeople since they are far more likely to interact with non-members than their leaders are.
Here, though, Christian leaders run into a serious dilemma.
They’ve spent the last 50 years or so convincing their flocks that they are above all that salesmanship shit and that their “Good News” is so wonderful that persuading people to join up will be easy once the would-be soulwinner finds the right tactic that works on those potential converts. And not bothering to find the right tactic is no longer optional.
“Soulwinner,” incidentally, is Christianese for “someone who successfully converts people to the correct version of Christianity.” It’s also a verb, soulwinning. It’s one of the highest compliments that anybody can pay a Christian, consequently–another sign that the religion’s focus is on salespeople rather than ambassadors. Even in my day, everybody wanted to be a soulwinner. There were books about how to become one, lecture series, sermons, and now I see websites everywhere about it. Even LifeWay has a page about it, and it bears as much connection to reality as anything else they’ve ever come out with.
Worse, these leaders have taught their adherents a bunch of toxic nonsense about this “Good News” of theirs: that it is a non-negotiable requirement, that it takes someone super-smart and discerning and wise and favored to see that it’s true, that they are better than those who do not buy into their nonsense (and oh, despite so much hand-waving about that point, despite all those piously-arched preacher eyebrows and mewling insistences that oh everyone’s the same in the eyes of Jesus, I’m no better than you, they can’t help but leak their true opinions constantly), and–as a capper–that it’s okay to mistreat those who refuse their sales entreaties, to insult the people they’ve decided are no longer sales prospects, to get belligerent at them, and to make sure that they know, always, how these failed ambassadors really feel about them.
The last 50 years happened because Christian leaders enjoyed effortless dominance. They do not have that dominance anymore–and are losing more of it every time they turn around. They were operating from a position of monopoly and superiority. That position is now yanked out from under their feet–and now they are in a position that they are not used to seeing, that of supplicant rather than ruler, salesperson rather than ambassador.
It’s hard to imagine a less-suited person to sell anything to anybody than Christians are at this point.
And yet that’s where they are, desperately trying to avoid even having to admit they must switch gears.
Selling vs. Loving.
Another big big big problem for Christians is that they may officially consider their evangelism efforts as humanitarian gestures, but everybody else sees them for what they are: sales pitches conducted under dishonest premises.
When someone has an agenda and a goal for interacting with another person, it colors everything they do and marks them as insincere and focused on their agenda rather than on their companion. I’ve noticed that most folks have an anecdote at the ready about a time when they thought they were hanging out just to hang out with someone, only to discover that their companion wanted to sign them up for a multi-level marketing scam or sell them a religion. These anecdotes are never relayed with anything but disbelief and disdain, distaste and a little anger at themselves for not somehow catching that their companion had that agenda in mind. (It’s not our fault, of course, that we trust that people who act friendly mean only friendliness toward us.) Hell, I’ve got anecdotes along those lines myself; longtime readers of this blog may know about a girl who did that to me in my teens. It’s worth noting that I no longer remember what exact sales pitch she used or even the names of most of the girls I knew then, but I sure do remember her 30 years later–and that she falsely pretended to be friendly toward me to gain a conversion from me, and then vanished from my life. Talk about winning a battle but losing the war!
In the same way, you’re fully excused if you read any of these soulwinning tactics taught to Christians and come away convinced that soulwinning is the Christian equivalent of pickup artistry: insert tactic, receive conversion. In that view, non-Christians are the maddeningly capricious gatekeepers to the coveted sales closing. The only reason for Christians to engage with us at all is to find a way past us to the thing we have inside us that they want. When they get rebuffed and rejected, their reaction is to get angry that their surefire tactic failed to shake a conversion out of us. And since all they wanted was that one thing, when they realize that we 100% will not be giving to them, they vanish like the morning mist and we never hear from them again.
A ghosting is what we get if we’re lucky, of course; I’ve run into Christians who decided that people who’d fully rejected Christianity were guilty of “blaspheming the holy spirit,” which meant they were fair game for any kind of mistreatment or abuse. Even my Evil Ex Biff thought this way. Similar thinking informs those Christians who literally want to enslave atheists–as someone who is already absolutely damned to Hell, an atheist can’t be driven further from conversion by anything that Christian does! Again, this is the behavior of an incompetent salesperson–not an ambassador.
Don’t imagine for one moment that non-Christians are aware that rejecting that sales pitch may lead to abuse or retaliation of some kind–or that there’s any way at all that Christians can spin that abuse and retaliation into some sick kind of love even in their worldview!
Why They Don’t Evangelize More Often.
When we look at the total mess Christians have made of their relationships with those outside their tribe, and at the utter nonsensical mush that the authors of their surefire soulwinning tactics insist will totally score sales from us, it isn’t hard to think of a few reasons why Christians are so reticent to try to make sales with their friends and loved ones.
First, it’s embarrassing to bring up the topic of religion. That discomfort comes from the knowledge that what’s coming is unasked-for and unwelcome by the sales mark. A boundary is about to be transgressed. Now, the really obnoxious Christian evangelists try to teach their adherents to push past that unwillingness to trample another person’s boundaries because they think they’re acting in their mark’s best interests–but obviously the mark will not agree, and the Christian knows that. They know that bringing it up without being asked will turn into a huge drama or a lingering resentment that will destroy any future chance to win that person’s soul.
Second, Christians know perfectly well that in Western countries where Christianity is and was the dominant religion, people already know about the product and have rejected it. A subset of Christians are convinced that The Big Problem Here is that their sales marks just don’t know about the super-speshul flavor of the religion that the seller likes. They think that if their favored flavor is presented in the right way, then a conversion will fall out of that sales mark. But most know better than to think that.
Third and very importantly, it’s entirely possible that most Christians can see that their non-believing friends and family members are doing just fine without their product. A central tenet of the religion is that belief in their claims is necessary to have a good, happy, prosperous life. But only the youngest, most fanatical, and least experienced Christians think that. A few years out in the big bad ole world is enough to show most Christians that this assumption is simply not true–and that its reverse is more often the case: belonging to this religion is much more likely to result in abuse, drama, and wasted potential and resources. These Christians may think they really like being part of their religion, but they also can see that other people are happy doing whatever it is they’re doing of a Sunday morning. The subjective nature of their religion might disturb them, or it might cause them to drill down on thinking they know better than their marks do about what would really make them happy.
Lastly, Christians can see that personal evangelism just doesn’t work. Barring a few who are motivated to think that tract evangelism and the like are totally effective soulwinning tactics, I’d guess that most Christians are well aware of the fact that their odds of getting someone to even hear out their marketing spiel and talking points is about on par with a pickup artist’s chance of getting a hot girl to go home with him when the bar closes. For every yes or I’ll think about it but will probably just blow you off, there’ll be a hundred or a thousand rejections. A salesperson has to get used to that. But Christians have, again, spent the last 50 years thinking that they are totally above all that sales stuff. They’re not used to a sales rejection, and they don’t know how to cope with it.
Other Christians may have other reasons–for me, I began wondering why this totally true and for real religion even needed so much effort (and trickery) to sell it to people and that put me off of the standard kinds of evangelism that fundagelicals think is effective–but I think those are the big ones.
Voting With Their Feet.
It’s almost heartbreaking to see the broken friendships that result when a well-meaning Christian allows a pastor’s or evangelist’s exhortations to lead them down the path of slamming sales pitches at their friends. I read a blog about that the other day–a Christian was listening to her non-Christian friend talk about a very painful situation with her father, and her first response after this heartfelt cry from the heart was to chirp at her friend that JESUS WANTS TO BE YOUR FATHER NOW! or somesuch. The friend, she said, looked at her with stony eyes–and she knew the friendship was gone. Her friend had entrusted this deeply personal problem to her, and she’d used it to try to score a sale. I wonder if she felt that shock go through her that this had not gone the way her pastor said it would go, but at least she learned never to do that again unless someone specifically asked to hear about her religious opinions.
That’s not the only time that a Christian wrecked a friendship to make a sale, either. As blogger perfectnumber628 writes, she’s both ruined her own friendships and had them ruined by Christian friends who whapped her with Jesus instead of just loving her. I could share very similar stories along the same lines. Though Christians like to claim that whapping people with Jesus is loving them, we’re not obligated to agree just because it’d help them out if we would! Further, she notes that at an evangelical conference that was meant to be a training course for would-be evangelists, the most common concern people gave was that they feared ruining their friendships.
And they were right to fear it.
They know that you can’t cross the streams of sales and friendship and come out of it with a friend and a sale except in vanishingly rare situations. Their desperate and irresponsible leaders may know it too, but they also know that without a serious step up in sales attempts, their religion is doomed beyond any doubt. They are perfectly willing to sacrifice their adherents’ loved ones on the altar of survival. They’d do far worse for far less reason.
The good news is that more and more Christians are listening to these panicky demands and nodding along as if they agree, then going out and doing exactly whatever they think is right at the time. Mostly that involves ignoring those demands. It’s not like their pastors are going to be able to force them to obey, most times, is it?
Christians are not actually acting as gracious ambassadors to tell the world this marvelous Good News that will revolutionize everything and change lives. They are, rather, salespeople who are doing their best to sell a product that is increasingly seen as noxious and harmful, and once someone switches into sales mode with a person, it’s really hard to walk that back to return to the former agenda-less friendship. All things told, we can all be grateful that fewer and fewer of them are abusing their friends’ trust to try to make sales at our expense.
We’re going to circle back around to this topic soon to talk about some of the more nefarious benefits to Christian leaders of all this useless evangelism, because there’s a lot more to it than just this post. We’re also looking at a movie review this week and what I hope will be a thought-provoking look at a beloved science-fiction franchise and what it tells us about broken systems. See you then!