We’ve been talking this past week about evangelism in Christianity and how it fails. Christian leaders favor a more confrontational form of evangelism. Their followers, by contrast, often prefer a decidedly less confrontational form. They want to rely on their Jesus Auras to win them conversions! Today I’ll show you what that other type of evangelism is, why it’s so popular, and how it fails.
The Jesus Aura.
The Christian group Sidewalk Prophets has a song, “Something Different,” that defines the Jesus Aura:
There’s something different
And I gotta have it
I can’t describe it
Can’t describe it
But I know that I need it
I don’t know what it is
But I need a dose of it
And this “something different” creates such a powerful draw, according to the singers, that non-believers will see it and feel instantly intrigued:
And they’d be like
Ooh aah, look at ’em go
Whata they know that I don’t know
This song refers to the common Christian belief in the Jesus Aura.
See, Christians often think that there exists some special quality within them that sets them apart from other people. This quality radiates off of them like an aura that can be discerned on some level by others. Non-believers not only perceive this aura but like it–and also understand that they themselves lack it. (I’m speaking purely theoretically here, since obviously nobody’s ever demonstrated the existence of any kind of aura.)
An entire branch of modern evangelism bases itself on the notion that non-believers will naturally want to adopt whatever ideology the aura-bearers themselves believe, in the hopes of acquiring that same aura for themselves.
So yeah, I’m totally comparing Jesus Auras to Members Only jackets in the mid-1980s.
An(other) Impervious Belief.
You can see this belief in Jesus Auras everywhere in Christian folklore.
In the Christian propaganda movie God’s Club, a male teen character tells the hero’s teen daughter that he feels attracted to her because he detects something in her that makes her seem very different from other girls. The idea also figures prominently in testimonies–like this one from a member of the Salvation Army. It’s even implied as a reason for various erroneous Christian beliefs about the early spread of Christianity. (As usual, reality looks a lot more prosaic.)
Christians cultivate their Jesus Auras through extensive religious devotions and the development of a particular sort of preening, simpering persona–and through the purchasing and displaying of copious amounts of Jesus-flavored swag.
Once acquired, the Jesus Aura has two main effects. It draws some people close to admire and drink in the delicious, refreshing presence of the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ associated with it. By contrast, it repels people who suffer from excessive demonic oppression.
In this fashion, Christians craft for themselves yet another belief that is impervious to being falsified. If a Christian’s behavior garners approval and success, then obviously they had such a strong Jesus Aura that non-believers ached to experience it; if their behavior accrued only condemnation and alienation, then obviously their Jesus Aura was strong enough to attract demonic attention.
My mom simply thought such Christians were too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good. Then again, she was Catholic, so her opinion wouldn’t have mattered much to these TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
Evangelizing With A Jesus Aura.
A Christian trying to evangelize with a Jesus Aura simply lives as pious and as noteworthy a life as possible, displaying around others at all times those qualities we typically think of as Christian virtues. In other words, they live like decent human beings. They act in charitable, honest, compassionate, loving ways. They also act very happy and contented, with drama-free lives and enviably fulfilling family lives.
In Christianese, this style of evangelism is often called lifestyle evangelism.
Such Christians hope that non-Christians will notice what amazingly great lives they live, so they can pitch accordingly to these prospects. They then say that yes, yes, yes! anybody can get the same results from pursuing Christianity.
If you’ve ever known a Christian at work who answered polite small-talk and hallway questions like “How are you?” with “I’m doing AMAZING!” or “I’m living the dream!”, you’ve run into a Christian attempting to use their Jesus Aura to score a sale. They want you to ask “Uh, why are you so happy?” If you do, then they can dive into their sales pitch. (If you don’t ask, of course, you short-circuit the attempt.)
Why Christians Choose Jesus Aura Evangelism.
First and foremost, Christians choose Jesus Aura evangelism because they themselves don’t like selling their religion to others. I’m not kidding. Even in evangelicalism, whose very self-label implies a serious emphasis on sales, most of them barely manage to sell their religion one time to one person over a rolling twelve-month period.
I’m not judging them for not wanting to push their product at unwilling prospects, of course. I’m just saying that Christians are simply people just like anybody else. Most people really don’t want to annoy or alienate other folks. They already know that we don’t want to hear their pitches. They also know that if we want to learn about their beliefs, we know exactly where to find them.
Sometimes it seems like half of an evangelical pastor’s job consists of trying to push his flock over that hump of social transgression. And even then, a big percentage of their flock is never going to feel comfortable with confrontation-based evangelism tactics. For those more considerate Christians, then, this style of evangelism feels like they’re actually trying to sell–but without all the social baggage of being boorish and in-your-face.
Jesus Aura evangelism also feels more, well, Jesus-y. In Christian conceptualizations of how Jesus acted based upon the Gospel accounts, he wasn’t particularly hard-selling to them. The sorts of Christians who have ultra-deep conversations about meeting people where they are and earning the right to speak tend to love this kind of evangelism. They like thinking about the Gospel as something that sells itself and as a product that draws eager customers to itself.
It isn’t, but hey, one can’t have everything.
The Downside of Jesus Aura Evangelism.
It doesn’t work.
Well, more precisely:
It sucks about as much as any other type of evangelism does.
In a recent post about confrontational evangelism, I noted that my Evil Ex Biff had loved that style of selling religion. He wore obnoxious buttons he made himself, T-shirts with slogans (also handmade; the primitive swag on offer back then simply wasn’t hardcore enough for him), and carried tracts everywhere he went. He even went toe-to-toe with Brother Jed once–I’ll tell you about it sometime soon; he did pretty well, all things considered.
I preferred Jesus Aura evangelism. I waited until asked–and sometimes, very very seldomly but sometimes, I was asked about something I did or said that intrigued someone.
The hilarious part: Our rates of success, Biff’s and mine, were identical.
Neither of us ever converted anybody!
If someone’s already really good at sales, pretty much anything they do to sell Christianity will work to some extent. If they’re not, though, nothing really substitutes.
I’m pretty sure that fundagelical leaders don’t like the idea of their flocks figuring out that no sales technique really works well for salespeople who simply lack essential salesmanship skills.
A Typical Jesus Aura Evangelist.
Let’s say we have Johnny Cru, who converted in high school (from, um, slightly-less-fervent Christianity to ultra-gung-ho totally radical, man Christianity). Now a first-year college student, he decides that he’s going to evangelize like Jesus did. Yes, indeed! He’s going to walk among the sinners there and be so ethereally Jesus-y that everyone who sees him will yearn to know his secret. We can already guess the stirrings in his heart to be asked by hangers-on in the Quadrangle courtyard to explain.
It probably sounded like such a good idea in August. Now, though, he’s approaching winter break without a single person even once asking him why you just seem so, I dunno, different, man.
And absolutely nobody did that.
Like Prince Herbert in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he kept trying to create an opportunity to burst into song–and at every turn he was frustrated. Why didn’t anybody respond to his Jesus Aura? He was Jesus-ing just as hard as he possibly could!
He learned a lesson most Christian Jesus Aura evangelists learn eventually:
Even a Christian who exudes Christian virtues out of every pore doesn’t get asked very often to explain why they seem so, I dunno, different, man.
What happened to poor Johnny Cru?
Here’s Why It Doesn’t Work.
The Jesus Aura evangelism tactic needs two distinct requirements to be met in order to be effective.
First, Christians who display Christian virtues must seem markedly different to observers than non-Christians who are simply decent human beings.
Second, people have to believe that generally speaking, someone who displays Christian virtues got those results through Christianity, rather than through some other avenue.
Christians simply can’t meet either requirement. They couldn’t even in the 1990s, in my day.
When we see someone who seems like a really good person, we’re not likely to think that the reason for that person’s virtuousness is Christianity. Even back in the 1990s, as a very pious friend of mine discovered to his chagrin, people who notice that piety are more likely to ascribe it to something like vegetarianism before assuming that it’s because of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.
(Further, a lot of false positives exist in this model. I can’t even remember how many times a Christian has falsely guessed that I’m so nice/honest/perky/friendly because I must be Christian. Most non-Christians get the same guess flung at us!)
Trying Too Hard.
But most people won’t ever get as far as noticing whatever differences Johnny Cru can evince in his life.
As it turns out, Christian virtues look a lot like universal human virtues. I’ve never yet heard a Christian come up with any virtue that is uniquely found in Christians–much less a virtue that is never found in non-Christians. Even worse, though, most folks discover quickly that being Christian is no assurance of being a decent human being, just as the reverse isn’t assured: non-Christians are certainly not assured of being decent people.
Meanwhile, the Christians who try too hard to display more dubious virtues like sanctimonious and ostentatiously non-profane speech, bigotry and sexual repression, marked abstinence from substances, and the like will likely come off as a smarmy, braying jackasses long before they come off as particularly Jesus-y. (And worse, if they can’t live according to those other pseudo-virtues, they’ll also look like hypocrites to their sales prospects. Hypocrisy just destroys a Christian salesperson’s presentation. Such Christians like to demand that nobody hold them responsible for that hypocrisy, but they can’t force anyone to go along with this demand. Not anymore.)
Not only do Christians not seem better than non-Christians as a group–meaning that they’re not more honest, nor more kind, nor more loving, nor more charitable, etc–but they often seem considerably worse.
Certainly many Christians are lovely people. But nobody thinks that they are that way because of Christianity. And nobody thinks that if they deconverted, they’d stop being that way.
The Scary Superfluity of Christianity.
All in all, Jesus Aura evangelism points to a very pressing problem facing Christians:
This religion makes believers into better people, except when it doesn’t. Then we must cut slack because they are not perfect, only forgiven. Except that the religion totally does work to instill morals into people, unless it clearly hasn’t. A god lives inside Christians and informs their moral choices and thinking and behavior, except when it’s obvious his hosts aren’t listening at all to his attempts to guide them. But we’re not allowed to take Christians’ actual behavior into account when assessing their claims–only the claims themselves can support the claims. Which is good, because the claims sure don’t match up to their behavior!
The reality? Christianity doesn’t appear to have anything to do with making people into better people. It doesn’t make people more ethical, more kind, more charitable, more compassionate, more loving, or more honest than non-believers are. Often we discover that truly awful people are Christians and that truly wonderful people are non-Christians. Worse, often we discover that Christians can’t even follow the most basic rules of human decency that we have in our society.
Since Jesus Aura evangelism asks that we believe that Christianity does indeed make people into better people, this shortcoming represents a major dealbreaker for Christians. And sure, they have a lot of ways of hand-waving away that glaring contradiction to their claims, but again, we’re not obligated to play along with their demands.
And The Worst Part.
I’m not actually sure that it’s that good of an idea for Christians to try this hard to make people aware of how very NON-Jesus-y the vast majority of their pals in the religion are.
If a god is inhabiting them and helping them behave so ethereally good, then it becomes glaringly obvious that 99% of Christians in the religion aren’t thus inhabited.
So overall, Jesus Aura evangelists might be trying as hard as Wayne’s ex-girlfriend Stacy to catch their target’s attention with how special and wonderful they are, but at least we can spot them pretty easily and avoid engaging with them.
Of course, ideally Christians would learn how to sell their ideology ethically and then we wouldn’t have to adopt strategies for dealing with them at all. But that’d require them to understand that no, actually, their “good news” doesn’t sell itself.
NEXT UP: Cooking, in many ways, represents a microcosm of the scientific method. I’ll show you what I mean with Captain Cassidy’s Misadventures in Mayonnaise-Making! See you next time.
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