We couldn’t hope to find a more Christianese phrase than the odious earning the right to speak. If you’ve ever wondered what the phrase means, you’re not alone! Not even Christians really understand how to do it. Here’s the skinny behind this idea, and–more importantly–why it falls flat on its face.
Earning the Right to Speak.
Very few Christianese phrases frost my gears like earning the right to speak. It’s just such a simpering, preening, addled-sounding corporate-ese phrase that it can’t help but provoke my snarkiest response. But it’s also one of the murkier things Christians say. It’s one of those phrases we call deepities, meaning that it sounds very deep at first brush, but on its most superficial level it’s trivial drivel–and on a deeper level it’s simply untrue. Deepities just make Christians look worse whenever they pop up.
And wow, this phrase is freakin’ ERRYWHERE in Christianity! Here are a few samples of how you’ll see this phrase deployed in the wild:
Over at Theology of Work, we find an iconic representation from a really creeptastic youth-ministry volunteer. After a diatribe about how much he dislikes the rambunctious kids he’s working with, we find him saying this:
I am slowly earning the right to speak into their lives, and I am getting into a position where God can use me as a farmer to plant a seed in the soil of their heart.
I’m sure this guy is totally fooling the kids he’s trying to work with. Yep. (Also, the whole “planting seeds” Christianese always sounds like spiritual Rohypnol.)
Meanwhile, at the Baptist Standard, we find another completely characteristic presentation of the idea:
We as Baptists and Christians have a tendency to be inward-focused. If we are going to not just survive but thrive, we must focus our attention on God and our communities. We must seek out ways to serve the community. It is through serving that we will earn the right to speak into a community that is lost and dying. Our serving creates trust and credibility.
It’s hard to know whether to cringe or laugh at the idea that serving the community, however this fellow thinks that works, will totally save fundagelicals. (I vote we do both and save some time.)
I’ll close out with a Casting Crowns song on the topic that parrots almost word-for-word what we’ve seen already:
For the longest time, I believed the lie
That I’m not a strong enough believer
To be the friend that can take your hand
And lead you straight to Jesus . . .
When we love, we earn the right to speak the truth
When we speak truth, we show the world we truly love
I’m sure that these musicians are quite sincere, but they’re just as wrong.
The Surface Meaning.
Here’s what Christians think they’re saying with the phrase:
By showing people who are lost “God’s” love, Christians slowly build for themselves a sterling reputation of credibility, compassion, wisdom, and grace. Once they’ve done that long enough, they will gain the status of spiritual advisors that people can trust. Then, when they make their sales pitches, they can do so from a position of relative authority.
Christians think that by volunteering in the community, being nice to people, and generally doing the stuff they think Christians ought to do, they are building up a certain reputation for themselves. If they act in loving ways toward people, eventually the time will come when those people will pay attention when they talk about Christianity.
Earning the right to speak is all about creating receptivity in one’s evangelism prospects.
(Nobody who uses this phrase ever remembers that when people run across a really kindhearted Christian, the last thing we think is that it’s the religion making them that way. Nor do the people using this phrase remember that their prospects already know about love bombing and friendship evangelism.)
For decades, Christian leaders have taught their flocks that this is how proper evangelism works.
Over the years, this whole notion of being able to earn one’s way into a receptive audience has worked its way into the entire religion. We see it coming out of every single end of Christianity, from Franciscan Catholics to Pentecostals. It’s pervasive.
Part of the reason for its sheer pervasiveness, I’m sure, is that it just sounds so chirpily surefire. Christians know that nobody really wants to hear about their “good news.” As we’ve mentioned a few times around here, even evangelicals–whose very name implies evangelism–barely ever actually evangelize. (Not that I’m complaining. Just sayin’.)
But earning the right to speak makes evangelism sound easier. If a Christian does this, then they’ll be rewarded with an audience willing to listen to them!
And they can expect this receptiveness as a right!
The Big Problem.
As for the Jabberwocky project we never did have to figure out what the hell it was. Because after our presentation, the company was so excited they fast-tracked it and shipped it to Japan. What they shipped, I’m still trying to figure out. And so are the Japanese.
Better Off Ted, “Jabberwocky.”
Of course, the really big problem one encounters in trying to figure out how to earn the right the speak is that nobody ever really outlines how to do that.
As usual with deepities, it all sounds so wonderful that nobody thinks to ask the first and most important question in response:
Almost all you can find when you look for instructions are vague, nebulous nonsense glurge like we find here, in a discussion about how to evangelize:
GO TO GIVE LOVE AND CARING–LISTEN TO THEM.
“We are your neighbor and our church cares. What can we do for you? Do you have needs we can meet?
EARN THE RIGHT TO PRESENT JESUS. [sic]
Yes, because “go to give love and caring” and “listen to them” are just so incredibly helpful. But this, literally, is about all you’ll find when you wonder how exactly a Christian should go about doing this all-important task.
I found only one place online making any concrete suggestions along these lines. A forced-birther group suggested that forced-birthers offer “the girl” seeking abortion care a home to live in while she gestates as an inducement to her to keep her pregnancy.1 It’s a terrible suggestion for oh-so-many reasons, sure, but it’s literally the only one I could find on the topic.
Christians love to put forth concepts like these. Watch for these gushing exhortations. They’ll sound mega-important, like make-or-break important. But when you dive into them, you quickly discover that they’re just not described very well.
Important-sounding but poorly-defined concepts are nothing less than an attempt to confuse-and-lose the flocks.
And wow, there are tons of them. Most of the deepities in Christianity go along exactly the same lines:
- Die to yourself.
- Love your wife like Christ loves the church.
- Submit to Jesus.
- Pray without ceasing.
- Find God’s perfect will for your life.
They all sound super-spiritual and deep. All of them are non-negotiable requirements. Christian leaders set forth many more besides these, even. But believers are on their own here. They literally never get the necessary blueprints for achieving these goals. They’re simply told they must achieve them. You’ll never see a step-by-step instruction guide for doing any of them.
Indeed, you really couldn’t. That’s precisely why they exist in this form.
The Magical Thinking Behind Earning the Right to Speak.
This whole concept speaks to the sheer desperation of Christians nowadays. To explain why they’re desperate, let me spell out their reality with a crass metaphor.
Christians are salespeople. They are selling their religion–and also membership in their group in particular within the religion, whether it’s a formal church or a group of college kids who meet every Wednesday in the library. Evangelism is a fancy word for the process of making a sales pitch for their religion. And the people they evangelize are more like sales prospects than anything else.
Successful evangelism is, in a very real sense, making the sale–closing the deal–getting them to sign on the line which is dotted.
And just as Blake admonished those guys in Glengarry Glen Ross, Christians must A-Always B-Be C-Closing.
In this real-life version of the movie, however, the leads really are weak. It’s not just Christians’ imagination or a weakness. It’s not an excuse. Nobody’s making sales anymore. Evangelists are salespeople in a dying industry trying to drum up sales in a culture that moves further and further away, every single day, from needing or wanting their product.
Earning the right to speak tells Christians that they can magically reverse that trend through their own actions, somehow.
It’s a cruel deception, but obviously it’s an effective one–in one way at least.
How This Works, Sort Of.
Let’s say that Susie Cru is a bright-eyed college lass trying to win souls (that’s Christianese for making sales). She isn’t having a lot of success. But she hears this tosh about earning the right to speak and thinks it sounds like a great idea. She begins busting ass being nice to her roommates and peers. She listens to them and gives them rides and buys sodas and fries sometimes on the weekends.
What Susie Cru is doing here is building social capital with her friends. She is investing time and effort in her relationships, just like friends are supposed to do. This behavior creates and strengthens bonds with others.But Susie isn’t doing this stuff because she wants to make and keep lifelong friends.
She’s doing it to build up social capital.
Though she might not know exactly how much of this stuff is necessary, she fully expects to do enough of it to one day be able to capitalize on those bonds. On that day, she’ll issue an invitation to church, or try to initiate an unwanted conversation about religion, or flat-out tell her false friends they need to convert.
If Susie Cru was doing this stuff with a romantic conquest in mind, we’d call her a Nice Guy™. And we’d consider her very insincere and creepy.
But It Doesn’t Work.
The chances are extremely good that when Susie Cru does spring her evangelism trap, her roommates and peers are going to know immediately that she wasn’t friends with them for friendship’s sake. She’s certainly going to make their future dealings awkward and weird. They’re going to know that they’re simply sales prospects to her.
What’s terrible is that Susie Cru herself might not have wanted to wreck her friendships at all. Most Christians really don’t like evangelism, as I’ve said. This style of evangelism simply seemed less risky to them, as well as being presented as more Jesus-y in the first place. Maybe this is just me and my perceptions, but it seems like a lot of these Christians push these unwanted sales conversations because they’re pressured mightily to do it–either through outright demands or constant onslaughts of shaming from their leaders.
This lofty-sounding newfangled tactic is really simply friendship evangelism or Jesus Aura evangelism (both being indirect evangelism tactics, as opposed to confrontational ones) in a tacky new outfit. Only people who aren’t familiar with it will be fooled–but desperate Christians, who already lack an understanding of how relationships work and who might have only the faintest understanding of consent anyway, will latch onto it.
It’s genuinely sad to think of people who view relationships in such starkly transactional ways.
Yet Another Christian “Right” That Doesn’t Exist.
You can’t find a concrete guide for how to earn the right to speak because there isn’t one. Nobody can “earn the right to speak.” It’s nonsense from start to finish.
Christians have created yet another fake “right” for themselves that doesn’t actually exist at all.
The reason that nobody can earn the right to speak is because the person they want to importune always has the final call on whether or not they’ll sit and listen to a sales pitch. The sales prospect has all the power. The salesperson has none. And I don’t think evangelism-minded Christians like that idea much.
They don’t get that they don’t get to do anything to another person without that person’s full, ongoing consent–not even make a sales pitch at them!
By negating the very real rights of the sales prospect, Christian leaders seek to instill in their adherents this notion that there’s a solid, surefire way to get to make their sales pitch. But at any time whatsoever, their prospect could refuse them. Heck, their prospect could enjoy all the nice favors they’re doing and suck down all the Niceness tokens they want to give, and then refuse to listen to them in the end.
And by and large, that’s pretty much what happens anyway.
Christians can try to instill a sense of obligation in their prospects all they want; in the end, it won’t improve their sales.
Receptiveness Is Only A Tiny Part of the Problem Here.
But by far the biggest part of the overall problem with earning the right to speak relates to Christians’ own inability to accurately perceive themselves and their message.
The #2 thing Christians assume about people refusing their sales pitches is that their message wasn’t conveyed exactly right. (#1, if you’re wondering, involves demons or
sex “just wantin’ to siiiiiiin.”) Almost all evangelism tactics–the sincere ones, at least, the ones aimed at closing actual sales rather than functioning as permission slips allowing Christians to beat their own chests and trample people–center around figuring out how to convey this utterly-perfect message they think they have. Christians will spend ages ferreting out how to cold-read prospects’ personalities so they can tailor their message to fit precisely. And they’ll buy books and attend seminars by the dozens to learn how to minister to (that’s an umbrella Christianese term meaning, in this case, sell to) different types of people.
That’s totally not why people reject their sales pitches, though. It’s not even close. If Christians allowed themselves to question their product at all– the message they think is such “good news” –they’d figure that out very quickly. But they can’t do that. The message is always perfect, in broken systems like theirs.
Therefore, if a Christian is having problems making sales, the cause of that failure will often be the Christian in some way. And almost always, the Christian’s flaw (they think!) is that they didn’t present their product in a way that the prospect could understand and appreciate.2
Deluged as modern people are with attempts to use friendship and social capital to score sales, however, this tactic can’t possibly do anything but fail. Nobody cares how nice the salesperson is. If we don’t need or want their product, we won’t buy it.
A Perma-Blinking Turn Signal.
When you encounter a Christian using this phrase, then, you can know that you’re dealing with someone who views relationships in deeply transactional ways–and thinks highly of indirect evangelism methods.
Such a Christian will also almost always view their message as being perfect, as well.
If they had a truly great product, though, they wouldn’t need to spend so much time figuring out how to phrase it perfectly and put it across. They wouldn’t need to trick people into being receptive to their sales pitches. Most especially, they wouldn’t need to pretend to be kind and gracious.
(Isn’t it odd that Christians aren’t pushing the idea of being that way all the time just because it’s the right thing to do? Why does this religion fail so spectacularly at helping people be like that all the time? When I was Christian, this exact question was a huge problem for me.)
Be watching for other equally-nebulous demands made by a group, too, especially if they think it’s about something important that everyone needs to do. The chances are extremely good that these phrases indicate a certain amount of magical thinking going on in the group, and may point to a controlling leadership that needs followers to be constantly questioning themselves and feeling insufficient. The presence of deepities is a signal we need to heed–similarly to how a permanently-blinking turn signal on a car going down the highway indicates a driver that you need to be careful around.
1 JFC, I was just AGHAST at this suggestion for so, so, so many reasons. The supercilious dolts at that page clearly haven’t thought this one through. We can start with their narrative about the women who seek abortions being “the girl” living with her disapproving parents, and work our way on through to the sheer logistical impossibility of their suggestion from a financial standpoint. It’s painfully obvious that lowering abortion rates isn’t their real goal. Moral posturing and control-lust are.
2 Occasionally the failed evangelist mixes it up by blaming a botched sales attempt on their own imagined shortcomings, as the Casting Crowns song indicates. Yes, because apparently “Jesus” wants people to go to Heaven rather than Hell, even though he’ll find any excuse he possibly can to keep that from happening. Such a Christian would rather have a spiteful, vengeful, petty godling than none at all. Also see this attitude’s direct contradiction, the total hypocrite who insists that everyone should buy their failed product anyway and not consider their example at all when making a purchasing decision.
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