A (sorta) new buzzword sweeps across Christianity: intentional evangelism. Today, I’ll show you what this trendy phrase means, and why Christian leaders have latched onto it as hard as they have. Because I’m really helpful that way, I’ll also show you why it’s doomed to fail–just like everything else those leaders do to try to reverse their decade-long declines in membership and credibility.
A Growing Gap Between Theory and Practice.
The term evangelism itself can mean either personal evangelism (person-to-person attempts to recruit others) or organization-sponsored evangelism (revivals or other such church- or group-sponsored recruitment efforts). It is, in essence, a Christian’s attempt to sell their religion to someone who isn’t part of it.
We’ve known for years that most Christians, even ones that call themselves evangelical, do precious little actual evangelism. Though Barna Group is hardly the most reputable survey house out there, theirs is one of the few groups actually trying to measure Christians’ evangelism efforts.
In theory, every evangelical must claim that evangelism is important. It’s part of their self-definition as a group, after all.
But in 2013, Barna Group discovered that only 69% of their surveyed evangelicals had actually done a single bit of personal evangelism themselves over the previous year. And those are self-reports, mind you. Barna didn’t ask for names, and they didn’t check anything respondents claimed. They simply wrote down whatever their respondents answered. And 69% was the best evangelicals could self-report.
Other types of Christians in the survey reported even less personal evangelism. This finding isn’t a surprise. Many Christians maintain a live-and-let-live position on the topic. They only talk about religion if someone asks about it (which doesn’t happen often). Otherwise their feelings of obligation regarding personal evangelism vary markedly by denominational slant. Catholics feel hardly any obligation at all to do it, while about half of mainline Protestants do.
Barna did this survey five years ago. Back then, many Christians still flat-out denied that they were smack in the middle of a decline. One wonders how the situation has changed now that almost nobody doubts what’s happening.
The Great Omission.
Instead of updating their previous survey, Barna did a different survey this past March. This time, they wanted to know what Christians think of the so-called Great Commission. This command is a later addition to the Bible’s original texts that sets Christians to what they think is their most important task as Christians: to recruit new people. Many Christians now use the Great Commission to excuse and rationalize away all manner of abuse and wrongdoing as long as they can shoehorn their desired behavior into their overarching official purpose of recruitment.
Amazingly, though, a slim majority of churchgoing Christians aren’t familiar with the phrase or the Bible verse about it. And the younger the Christian and the less they fit into Barna’s admittedly-quirky (and self-serving) definition of evangelical, the less likely they are to be familiar with either. Indeed, Barna discovered that actively-engaged, aging churchgoing evangelical Christians are the most likely to know about the Great Commission. In that age group, 75% of them can both identify what it is and pick which Bible verse out of 4 is the source of it.
I can almost taste the sorrow and frustration in the Barna writeup of the survey results. The report tells us that only 10% of Millennials can accurately define the Great Commision and pick out the correct Bible verse inspiring it. And I’m betting Generation Z, the one reaching adulthood now, will fare even worse at the task.
That all bodes very, very poorly for evangelical Christians. They make a great many demands–and place very high stakes–on personal evangelism.
But Wait! A Challenger Appears!
A few years ago, I began hearing a new buzzword in Christianese: intentional evangelism.
Like most of their buzzwords, this one isn’t new-new. I found references to it going back to at least 1957. A few people mentioned it in the 1980s as well, all the way through the early 2000s. It gained more widespread currency after about 2014. Now it’s starting to look like a trend among Christian leaders.
In the 2003 book Going Public with Your Faith: Becoming a Spiritual Influence at Work, authors William Peel and Walt Larimore share what they think “intentional evangelism” is.
And boy oh boy is their idea creepy and predatory-sounding:
Intentional evangelism refers to creating opportunities to expose friends and colleagues to Jesus in a nonreligious, nonthreatening atmosphere. . . In the intentional evangelism model, someone hosts a nonthreatening event that creates in non-Christian friends a sense of curiosity, which the host can intentionally pursue after the event. . . Intentional evangelism is based on forming a relationship of significant trust with a non-Christian friend and on the hope that the event will stimulate the non-Christian without causing him or her to feel “set up.”
The authors contrast what is essentially friendship evangelism with what they call passive evangelism. Passive evangelism involves displaying Christian swag or parroting Christian phrases. Christians do this in hopes that a non-Christian will eventually ask what it means.1
So intentional evangelism seems to be simply a specific plan that Christians concoct to manipulate specific people into joining their religion. For the most part, this definition appears to be consistent across flavors of Christianity.
The reason I’m bringing all of this up is that I keep encountering fundagelical leaders who all use this buzzword that they don’t ever actually define. Like most Christianese in active use, the phrase assumes a weird gestalt understanding. Nobody ever actually gives a concrete, real-world definition of it.
For example, check out this July 25 post from Baptist Standard:
Ministry, especially evangelism, must be much more intentional than traditional. We have the opportunity to develop more authentic disciples and churches.
I caught that last week and went wait, WTF does that even mean? I didn’t remember ever hearing the phrase. But he never explains what either intentional or traditional evangelism is.2
And here, a July 20 post from our pal Ed Stetzer:
Below I want to highlight a few things to help you, especially if you are a pastor or church leader, to find new, intentional ways to prioritize evangelism in the life of your church and ministry, as well as in your own personal life.
He never defines intentional, either.
We’ll come back to his actual strategy later on.3 For now, I just want to focus on this weird buzzword he and his fellow Christians keep using. He clearly believes, as do the others, that intentional evangelism will totally save Christianity and add to its numbers.
What It’s Supposed to Do That Regular Evangelism Won’t.
Christians take for granted that their product totally sells well to non-Christians. They simply need to find the correct technique to sell the religion to specific people. The only reason people reject the religion, they think, is that some Christian used the totally wrong technique to emotionally manipulate them into purchasing their product.
So this push for intentional evangelism is supposed to feel, to Christians, like a new and different way to sell Christianity. Moreover, Christians are supposed to think it’ll be more effective than other, older strategies.
What It Actually Does.
First and foremost, the idea of intentional evangelism lays the blame for Christianity’s decline on individual Christians for not making enough sales. They aren’t intentional enough. That means they aren’t laying specific plans to ensnare specific acquaintances and loved ones. Christians can’t question their message, and their leaders will only very seldom blame themselves for their religion’s decline. So that leaves Christian congregants themselves as the source of the decline.
Secondly, this new idea requires no serious changes to the religion. It’s just a revamping of existing ideas. It addresses nothing in need of change. And it requires no examination of Christianity’s existing systems and beliefs. Literally, intentional evangelism demands that Christians Jesus harder.
Thirdly, intentional evangelism lines the pockets of Christian hucksters like Ed Stetzer. Christians lay out good money to attend Christian evangelism conferences. They do it to learn to recruit more effectively. Stetzer laments that these conferences aren’t anywhere near as popular as they used to be in his post (and elsewhere). Somehow, however, Stetzer omits mentioning that they are not free. One of them cost USD$100-125 a ticket, though they graciously gave discounts to students, seniors, and “church planters.” Another for this year costs $89-99 for early tickets. And I doubt their speakers expect to work for free.
Oh, and Ed Stetzer himself sells various classes to Christians. They, too, are not free. Hey, the dude wants to help people make sales. He just doesn’t want it enough to give away his (debatable) wisdom for nothing.
At Our Gospel Story, we have a list of resources for evangelism. We have even created a helpful curriculum to get you started. They are all really helpful.
These classes are all really helpful. Yep yep. The salesperson hawking them said so. Open your wallets!
But this time, maybe they don’t.
The Real Problem Here.
Christian leaders can call their suggestions whatever they like. They can wag their fingers at their
downline congregations all they wish. They can chide their flocks for not getting out there to SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY.
At the end of the day, they’ve still got a product that doesn’t sell without a great deal of coercion leveraged behind it. It never sold well–not until its leaders gained that power. Left to their own devices, people either don’t think Christians’ product sounds appealing, or else they try it and decide to stop using it after a while because it simply doesn’t do what its salespeople say it does. Even in the New Testament, we have evidence that churn was a serious problem even in the religion’s earliest days.
Ed Stetzer just takes for granted that Christian laypeople should be happy to waste time, money, and other resources to attend these conferences so they can learn about yet more evangelism “tools” that don’t work to produce sales. But the attendance numbers for these conferences show that his flocks aren’t listening to him.
I’ve noticed that more and more lately, Christians act like they agree with their leaders, but they vote with their wallets and feet. As Barna has discovered at least twice now, many of the very Christians who act like their life mission is to recruit new people to their religion are finding that without better powers of coercion, it’s not even worth trying to make sales.
NEXT UP: We’re sashaying together into the Unequally Yoked Club. We also have a book review coming up and oh, yes, we are definitely circling back around at some point to Ed Stetzer’s grand strategy. See you soon!
1 I think most of us have been there. You ask how a fundagelical’s doing today (or really, this applies to anyone in a cult-like group focused on recruitment). They reply with a weird pasted-on grin, “Living the dream!” or “I’m so happy today!” And you say, “Oh. Good.” And then you just fade back into the shrubbery like Homer Simpson rather than open that can of worms, while the cultist deflates because they never get to move past the opening teaser in their script. People involved in multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) use these sorts of statements on a constant basis, as well. It’s yet another weird similarity between MLM scammers and fundagelicals. (Back to the post!)
2 Nor does he ever explain how to know when a disciple is authentic, much less when a church is. It’s just another buzzword fundagelicals use. But I’ve seen so many Christian charlatans fool their churches and communities that it’s hilarious to see a Christian who thinks he actually has any idea what authenticity looks like in lived reality. I think he just heard somewhere that authenticity was really Jesus-y, and he rolled with it. (Back to the post!)
3 In his post, Stetzer also totally admits that he wrote that one Easter post to encourage his readers to evangelize more. I called this one! He wrote, “I hoped that by seeing in CNN an article about why Christians keep inviting people to church, believers would think Oh, I should be doing that.” Haha, sure. In his dreams, he is free indeed. (Back to the post!)
PS: In MLM jargon, an upline is an MLM scammer who recruits someone to “be on their team.” The person thus recruited gets called a downline. Downlines constantly seek to recruit new people to be their own downlines. Everyone but the folks at the very top levels of the pyramid is a downline to their recruiter. All but the very bottom become uplines to any people they’ve recruited in turn. Uplines all the way to the top get a cut of all their downlines’ sales.
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