Last time we met up, I mentioned in comments that I’d recently discovered that a childhood gaming friend of mine had become Christian somewhere along the way. This situation reminded me of one of the most solemn and serious duties of any fundagelical: soulwinning. I took that task very seriously when I was a Christian. But at the same time, I was reminded constantly of how dismally I kept failing at it. I’ll show you what this all-important task is, how effective it is, and why it’s that effective–and yet why the religion’s leaders can’t possibly change a thing about their emphasis on that task.
Soulwinning is the solution for all problems.
Soulwinning is also called winning souls and a variety of similar permutations of the two words win and soul. It’s also used as a verb, to win souls, and in all kinds of other ways. Sometimes you’ll see it in spelled as one compound word, sometimes hyphenated, and sometimes split into two separate words, as well. Soulwinning is Christianese for effective evangelism. A soulwinner is a Christian who’s led other people to his or her flavor of the religion. Usually the word implies the mental image of a Christian who has performed this task many times, but it can literally apply to someone who was only indirectly responsible for one other person’s conversion.
And every properly fervent evangelical Christian wants to be a soulwinner. In fact, evangelical Christianity itself is based around the idea of soulwinning. There are countless books and video series that revolve around the importance of the task–and offer tips for doing it successfully. Here, for example, is the first of a video series by Christian crank and woman-hating pastor Steven Anderson about how to “win someone to the Lord start to finish.”
Meanwhile, T.L. Osborn’s book Soulwinning: A Classic on Biblical Christianity has been revised and released a few times over the years; in it, his worshipful daughter informs us, Christians who follow his directions will (emphasis hers) “never grow old in spirit,” “burn out in ministry,” or “be bored with life,” since we all know that it’s impossible to be a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ like that. (/s) (By the way, DO NOT MISS the photo of T.L. Osborn in the Amazon preview. I’m not kidding. Dude went full-throttle Doc Terminus.) But apparently this book he wrote is one that a lot of fundagelicals think is a great handbook for teaching Christians to effectively convert non-Christians to their religion. The book begins with a weird fictionalized conversation between two first-century people and a modern-day Christian visitor and it does not get less weird from there. Mostly it seems to be a motivational work more than anything else, which doesn’t surprise me at all.
So basically, soulwinning is simply plain old Christian evangelism with an extra dollop of Jesus flavoring to feel more grandiose. Rest assured that the slightly martial overtones of the term are not accidentally present. Soulwinning is considered part and parcel of being a spiritual warrior, a point made directly by quite a few Christians!
This term might not be in the personal dictionaries of moderate or liberal Christians, but it is of supreme importance to their more right-wing brethren. It’s an emphasis that might actually even baffle Christians whose denominations don’t lay such importance on proselytization, but make no mistake:
Soulwinning is not optional to fundagelicals.
The Importance of Soulwinning.
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who winneth souls is wise.
Christians, particularly fundagelical Christians, are hammered constantly with the assertion that there is literally nothing as important in the world as soulwinning. One Christian blogger explicitly declares that “there are things that are important to us in life, but nothing is more important than soul winning” because “the soul is the part of man that lives forever. . . It is the center of the man.” He links this activity with a Bible verse, of course, since everything has to have one in Christian-land. In this case it’s Proverbs 11:30, which says “He that winneth souls is wise,” which in turn is likely to be the source of the Christianese term used today.
If that Bible verse is not enough to persuade you of the importance of the task, then Ministry 127 has a listicle of “12 Reasons Every Christian Should Win Souls” to convince you. It’s the standard-issue combination of threats and Bible verses that fundagelicals create and refer to in such cases, at one point offering an ominous tale about how, when he was just a wee little assistant pastor, the writer constantly evangelized a member’s sister–a little girl–until her adulthood, with no success. After reaching adulthood and presumably disengaging from Christianity, the woman got into a ghastly car accident. And he harassed that mortally-injured woman on her deathbed to be sure he’d done his duty to “save” her that one last time because he was convinced that “Jesus” had set him this task and silly simple things like human decency and decorum around a dying person wasn’t going to get in his way.
Yes, even in agony and slipping into death, no one is allowed to escape a properly-motivated soulwinner. And the person writing that ghastly little tale very clearly fully expected his audience to nod solemnly and maybe even mutter something religious in agreement with his actions!
There’s a lot of other talking points we’re long familiar with on that Ministry 127 post, including comparisons of evangelism with curing cancer and saving people from oncoming vehicles, not to mention the usual little coincidences and unlikely events that Christians turn into ZOMG MIRACLES Y’ALL. But you hopefully get the idea: soulwinning is mandatory for all TRUE CHRISTIANS™, even though its success is completely dependent upon the Christian god’s desires. Christians totally have to do it because of Jesus reasons, but unless their god intervenes they will not succeed. And even if their god totally decides not to strong-arm someone into accepting the sales pitch, the sales pitch must be made or else the Christian in question will be blamed for that person’s eternity in Hell and probably feel totally guilty forever and ever and ever.
Got it? Good! Now you’re thinking with portals! And you’ll soon discover if you start reading about it that this party line is shared by pretty much every single fundagelical out there. Nothing’s changed in the religion since I was a member of it, though their exhortations appear to have increased in fervor and frequency since fundagelical leaders realized that their religion was circling the drain.
Learning to Miracle.
Soulwinning is a weird sort of salesmanship where results are completely unrelated to the salesperson’s skill level.
If a Christian is following the directions they receive from their god, then (the mythology goes) their skill at delivering the sales pitch doesn’t matter–the recipient of the effort will convert on the spot if the Christian god so desires. If the recipient is not fated by that god to convert, then it doesn’t matter how good a Christian is at presenting it–conversion ain’t gonna happen, but might plant a seed for later, which is another popular Christianese phrase used in these situations. Planting a seed means to put a nugget of doubt or curiosity into someone’s mind, something that is thought to result in a conversion later on down the line, maybe decades from the time it’s put there–and somehow Christians will still count this a victory for themselves and consider themselves soulwinners in deed as well as in intention. In these ways, effort is totally divorced from the results, making calculating effectiveness very difficult indeed.
But they don’t really care how effective any tactic is. Their worldview is informed by sheer magical thinking, which means that as long as they are performing what they imagine is their god’s will then he’ll take care of the effectiveness part at his own leisure. They literally can’t force a conversion that their god doesn’t desire right then.
It seems to me now that a lot of the folklore around soulwinning is taken from an Old Testament story about how the prophet Isaiah whined about not being a good preacher, so his god sent an angel to touch burning-hot coals to his tongue–a magic ritual that enabled him to say exactly the right thing at the right time.
Another story concerned that god lecturing Moses about not being nervous about speaking, teaching him how to do miraculous parlor-tricks to persuade others–and offering to speak through him and his brother Aaron when the time came.
Moreover, our culture was filled top to bottom with anecdotes and testimonies (that’s Christianese for a personal conversion narrative that functions as a sales pitch) about how the speaker had been approached by a soulwinner, hadn’t wanted to give that person the time of day or to hear them out, hadn’t been impressed at all by the soulwinner’s skill in presenting that information, yet had converted anyway and was now grateful that their proselytizer had been so diligent and obedient to their god.
The teachings around soulwinning caused me no end of confusion when I was Christian. If the Christian god really spoke through people and induced conversions regardless of our skill level at presenting the “Good News,” then surely we didn’t need zillions of how-to manuals; no matter how we blundered through the information delivered, our god would still honor it and bring about a conversion. And if soulwinning was really as easy and as simple as they were all telling me it was, then surely we didn’t need zillions of pep talks to psyche us up enough to go do this totally essential thing we had to do, not to mention all the guilt trips we got to make us feel obligated to do it to avoid suffering ravaging guilt and shame forever.
And yet I felt bombarded by streams of how-to manuals, guilt trips, and pep talks!
Bear in mind please that we Pentecostals looked down on Mormons because, in part, we’d heard that they literally learned a script of gibberish that they thought was speaking in tongues, rather than letting it happen during moments of euphoria and coming up with the gibberish ourselves on the fly like we did. But somehow none of us even noticed that we ourselves were coached all the time–especially in how to do this thing we totally thought was divinely-ordained and -orchestrated!
This false teaching that Christians literally only had to show up and open their mouths to win souls had an unexpected result, at least for me. I thought my peers were way more effective at soulwinning than I was, and that made me feel deeply ashamed. I didn’t tell anybody how afraid I was to witness to people (that’s Christianese for evangelizing people on a personal level; the term’s supposed to imply that we had personally beheld the stuff we were talking about). I didn’t want to share how incompetent I felt to overcome even the simplest objections–or how reluctant I felt about violating my socialization to impose upon people with evangelism they clearly didn’t welcome.
It seemed, though, like my religion was basically telling me to be rude to people to sell them something they hadn’t indicated that they wanted, and then showing me only the good results: the times when this behavior was rewarded in the end.
My personal experience, however, totally looked different from that optimistic picture my peers and leaders drew. (My situation was not at all unusual, either–see this Christian’s post about “rice Christians.”)
From a practical standpoint, soulwinners are salespeople. They sell their particular flavor of Christianity. Their targets are non-Christians and non-fundagelicals, who are assumed to know nothing about TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. And the pitch itself is considered divinely-blessed by a real live god, who surreptitiously sends his pet humans signals somehow to go evangelize this or that person–and then allows/spurs on the conversion as he likes.
For all the pious assertions those salespeople make about how only their god can make their sales pitches successful, however, Christians are perfectly aware that there are a good many very earthly salesmanship skills that go into a successful religious pitch. These skills can be taught quite easily to any motivated salesperson, and applied in any sales situation regarding pretty much any product. Sales is sales. Christianity’s product might be nonexistent, its claims debunked, and its benefits unproven, but there’ve been plenty of products just like it that have been successfully sold to a great many people. Demand and need are simply easy mode for expert salespeople, since a good one can manufacture both in almost anybody.
Despite the emphasis laid upon the task, however, most Christians are not soulwinners.
Indeed, they never will be.
They can’t be.
And their leaders know it.
A Double Layer of Sales.
It’s very easy to see that Christian evangelists are all salespeople. But I had to find an explanation that accounted for the huge failure rates of those would-be soulwinners at a task that every one of them agreed was of utmost importance.
On an ex-Christian forum site, I began noticing that none of the ex-timonies (a nickname we had for deconversion narratives) seemed to involve converting others. Almost nobody seemed to have ever converted anybody, despite many people at least trying to do so a few times. The few outliers might have successfully made one or a few sales at most, but most had no notches at all in their Bible covers. Some folks had tried really hard, too! I didn’t think I had managed to make any sales either (at least till recently). We all had not only felt a very pressing need to get out there and SELL SELL SELL, but we all had pretty much failed catastrophically at producing much in the way of actual sales.
We didn’t realize that Christian soulwinners are themselves customers.
Soulwinning makes fundagelical laypeople into deputy salespeople, but they are not the ultimate salespeople–their leaders are. Generally speaking, if Christians are not getting paid to do Christian stuff, then they are the customers of those who are.
Those leaders are well aware that despite how they hammer evangelism 24/7 into their flocks, only a few will actually take those exhortations seriously enough to go out and do it. And of those, only a few will ever successfully convert anybody. You’d really think that those leaders would be putting more effort into teaching their followers to evangelize successfully, but they don’t. Just the effort is enough for them. They focus way more on getting their salespeople out the door and selling than on making sales. Indeed, they’ve deliberately created a system in which success or failure completely doesn’t matter and doesn’t correlate in any way whatsoever to the salesmanship of the soulwinner.
That’s because they’re way more concerned with the effects of soulwinning upon the soulwinners themselves.
While Christians are out there making their sales pitches, they’re also increasing their own personal investment in Christianity. They’re pinning their own integrity to the religion’s validity. When they offer up all their weird, convoluted arguments that they mistakenly think constitute evidence for their religious claims, remember that these are arguments that they themselves usually think are very persuasive–because if they thought they weren’t effective, they wouldn’t be offering them up.
That’s why Ed Stetzer wrote that cringeworthy Easter post this past spring. Ostensibly, he was writing to all the non-Christians (or at least non-fundagelicals) who he was sure would be approached by his denomination’s followers with church invitations in hand, with the goal of encouraging us heathens to view these soulwinners charitably. In reality, he was writing to his own tribe to encourage them to go out and try to win souls by showing them that he’d prepared the field for them by softening up the targets. He was encouraging his followers to invest more in their own religious claims by trying to convert others. And that’s also why we see this constant stream of ludicrous nonsense from Thom Rainer; while pretending to describe ways to totally convert atheists to Christianity and the like, he’s also persuading his flocks to invest more heavily by convincing them to go out and try to sell the religion. If a sale happens then obviously they’ll take it and be very happy for it, but I don’t think that any big-name fundagelical leaders seriously expect their flocks to bring in tons of new people.
They’re going off the so-called “protégé effect,” in a sense, drawing off the idea that the best way to really learn something is to teach it to someone else; in the same way, maybe the best way to sell something to oneself is to sell it to someone else.
They may also be intentionally introducing yet another source of guilt to their flocks, making them concentrate on achieving an unwinnable goal rather than on critically examining that goal at all. Worse, they may be intentionally setting their followers up to be rejected–increasing their sense of embattlement and persecution, leading them to “circle the wagons” with the rest of the tribe to reject encroaching cultural change.
But this tactic, as time-honored as it might be, is starting to backfire.
All Signs Point to “Yes.”
In 2013, the Barna Group released a survey called “Is Evangelism Going Out of Style?” In this report, they paint a dismal picture indeed of the state of modern Christian soulwinning: Among the largest demographic groups in the religion–middle-income and middle-aged Christians–evangelism is distinctly falling out of favor. While most fundagelicals affirm that yes, they’re supposed to evangelize, perhaps only a third actually do any actual evangelism. Lower-income Christians evangelized way more than other income groups, as well–not exactly a glowing endorsement for a group that is increasingly focused on bowing before the wealthy.
If even the people who feel the strongest about the need to evangelize don’t actually evangelize, that speaks not only to a growing sense of social responsibility (a good thing), but perhaps also to a growing sentiment that Christianity isn’t actually that necessary to people as a product (also a good thing). Indeed, the Pew survey released a few years ago discovered that barely even a majority of Christians believed anymore that faith in Christianity was essential to one’s eternal fate (a good if rather surprising thing).
Further, it seems like people nowadays are very attuned to sales attempts–especially dishonest ones. Those old sales tactics just don’t work like they used to.
None of that bodes well for Christian leaders, who can be counted upon to up the ante on their demands for increased sales attempts accordingly.
So when some bright-eyed Christians try to harvest your living “soul” for their Mad Blood God of the Desert, remember that they might not actually want to be there at all. They might be absolutely mortified at the idea of selling you their religion–but more afraid of what would happen if they didn’t try. In a few short years they may well look back upon these efforts, as so many of us other ex-Christians do, with a great deal of embarrassment.
Just think: there may even come a time when the word soulwinning becomes a quaint artifact of a dead religion’s last attempt to revive itself and stay afloat. I wouldn’t have dared write those words 10 years ago, but now I’m starting to hope that we’re slowly reaching the end of Christianity’s days of overreach.