Last week, we covered Dare 2 Share’s efforts to whip up the enthusiasm of young Christians to start selling Christianity more often. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is doing much the same thing in their corner of the sandbox. Today, we’ll look at how J.D. Greear, the new president of the SBC, proposes to reverse their decline. He wants them all to cultivate an evangelism ethos. And then we’ll see what his suggestions will really accomplish.
How J.D. Greear Got Elected.
A while ago, we looked at the campaigns of the two men gunning for the title of SBC President this year.
Ken Hemphill, the considerably-older candidate, ran on what appeared to be a platform of nostalgia and homecoming. He talked about revitalization and a return to more traditionalist ways of Jesus-ing. He is himself traditionalist, which in SBC jargon means he isn’t a Calvinist. His big plan involved strengthening local churches through an Underpants Gnome sort of strategy.
J.D. Greear, however, ran on a platform of pushing “intentional, personal evangelism.” He’d already tried to secure the presidency in 2016, so this constituted his second try. This time, he matched his message to the slogan the Annual Convention selected for this year’s meetup, “Testify: Go, Stand, Speak.” Plus, he’s a Calvinist, which apparently appeals greatly to a growing chunk of the SBC.
Recently we examined one of J.D. Greear’s blog posts from March this year–which is well past the time when he’d first thrown his hat into the ring for the election to come. In it, he made a big stinky deal out of an evangelism campaign he’d run at his megachurch. He claimed that this campaign had been staggeringly successful (though our examination revealed that it really wasn’t).
J.D. Greear won the election.
Telling Them What They Want to Hear.
In retrospect, that March blog post–and the many variations on the theme that he produced in the lead-up to the election–clearly functioned as a sort of campaign speech. In addition to that, he made sure to maneuver himself into other evangelism-related subgroups within the denomination, like that laughable EVANGELISM TASK FORCE that we mocked earlier, and aligned himself with Paige Patterson, a well-known evangelism fan.
Greear bet on the frantic desperation of Southern Baptists to reverse their decline, and nobody ever went broke doing that.
And look, I ain’t even mad. I did much the same thing in college. I had a horrible teacher for my Southern History class. Her entire understanding of the pre-Civil-War South, no exaggeration, consisted of slaves, cornmeal, and salt pork. Early on, after a couple of bad grades on papers from her, a bunch of us decided upon a survival strategy. We began to write only about those three topics. And we all began getting As on our papers.
That’s exactly what J.D. Greear did to the SBC. He tickled their ears.
Seriously. How could he not have been elected?
An Evangelism Ethos, Whatever That Is.
In his October 4th post, J.D. Greear writes: “five elements are necessary to create an evangelistic ethos, either in an individual Christian or in an entire church.”
When you see a Christian offering listicles, brace yourself. What follows will, without a doubt, be a wild ride. Look for terms to be used without definitions, jargon and catchphrases to take the place of concise instructions, “vain repetitions,” and absolutely no objective descriptions or examples. Because they can’t support their beliefs and claims with reality, Christians really can’t manage anything else.
And starting with the title, “An evangelism ethos,” we see problems.
Greear uses the word ethos in his title and in his first paragraph, but never actually tells Southern Baptists how to tell when it’s present. The dictionary tells me that an ethos is “the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.” But since Greear never defines how he’s using the word, and Christians freely redefine words on the fly, it comes off sounding like meaningless Christianese.
He appears to want the denomination–and individual Southern Baptists–to be marked by constant evangelism. But he doesn’t paint any kind of clear line from point A to point B.
First, Punt to Mystery.
Greear gives, as his first listicle item, “Intentionality and sensitivity to the Spirit.”
He tells his followers that gosh, evangelism is such a “massive task” that it might just “overwhelm” them. But never fear! Jesus Power will help them. They must think at the ceiling very hard and very often and be sure that their imaginary friend wants them to make sales pitches. (And considering the end of the essay, this preening pre-check sounds downright wackadoodle.)
He also uses a plethora of Christianese phrases here that mean absolutely nothing. Southern Baptists have a real talent for creating meaningless buzzwords.
- Intentionality means, more or less, set out to do something rather than letting it happen or being casual about it.
- Personal evangelism means to talk to someone directly rather than passing out tracts or screaming at people through a bullhorn.
- Conversation appears to be shorthand for “gospel conversation,” a current super-fave in the SBC. It means a Christian-directed non-versation about religion.
Here, as he did in March, Greear stresses that Christians shouldn’t worry about successful recruitment. Why, even he himself sees some four out of five sales pitches turn out poorly. But because he’s very certain that his imaginary friend wanted him to have those conversations, it’s all good.
Bonus utterly-unsubstantiated claim: Greear says he “heard” somewhere that “the average person has to hear the Gospel 12 times before they believe.” (Sure, buddy. Cite sources or GTFO. I probably hear it 12 times a day. I think he only says this to make evangelism sound less intimidating.)
Second, Learn Some Pickup Lines.
The second listicle item: “Practical ways to get into the conversation.”
Now, you might think that a good writer would actually follow such a header up with practical ways to get into conversations. But Southern Baptists wouldn’t know a real conversation if it slapped them in the face with its wedding tackle.
What Greear does instead is reference a book called Turning Everyday Conversations into Gospel Conversations. Then he criticizes “cheesy, awkward, forced questions.” For what it’s worth, he’s right about the questions he quotes.
- If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?
- What opinions about God do you have that I could correct?
The first is simply a threat. The second one made me laugh out loud. He can’t bring himself to fully condemn them–probably because a lot of Southern Baptists love them still–but he wants his flocks to “have more questions for your arsenal.”
Don’t you love it when a Christian uses violent imagery to describe encounters with non-believers? Rest assured: it’s not accidental. He needs his flocks to see non-members as dangerous enemies.
At any rate, he never gets around to offering any “practical ways” to opportunistically redirect conversations.
Third, Watch Other Pickup Artists at Work.
He calls the third item “Models.”
By this he means that Southern Baptists should watch more-experienced Southern Baptists making sales pitches. We see more Christianese here, which indicates that he really has no idea how this process works.
- Share Christ: make a sales pitch to someone
- Discipleship: like the Sith, a master and an apprentice, except here the apprentice studies hard to be a mini-me of the master; “one to wield the power–the other to crave it”
Amusingly, he declares that “discipleship is caught much more than it is taught.” Well, yes, of course. Nobody in the SBC has the faintest idea how to articulate salesmanship skills to their followers, so obviously this is the only way they can transmit anything. Remember in the first item that four out of five of this guy’s “gospel conversations” fail? (Also, does anybody really think he’s kept careful track and is accurately self-reporting his success rate?)
Fourth, Make It Quick.
The fourth item: “An ability to share your story concisely.”
Here, Greear draws upon the authority of “entrepreneurs,” or at least what he understands to be entrepreneurs. He tells his readers that entrepreneurs practice an “elevator speech” to describe what they do or sell. That’s actually a business term, not a Christianese one. It means to practice a very short speech that captures another person’s curiosity long enough to make them want to hear more. Typically, elevator speeches last about 30-60 seconds (the amount of time you see someone in an elevator before they reach their floor). So Christians need to do the same thing.
In this context, an elevator speech consists of “100 words or less that explain how Christ met our ‘felt’ needs, which sets us up for a sharing of the actual Gospel.”
No, he never explains what “‘felt’ needs” are. It appears to be a Christianese term for various emotional needs. Some Christians base their sales efforts around this idea; others disapprove severely. (Back in 1998, an SBC writer condemned this style of evangelism. They’ve come a long way, baby!)
Generally, it means that the Christian salesperson tailors their sales pitch in a way that makes their product sound like the answer to their target’s emotional needs. But here, Greear suggests that his flocks create an elevator speech about how their product fulfilled their own emotional need. Yes, because that’ll be super-relevant to another person.
As before, however, Greear declines to offer any examples.
Fifth, Make It Quick (2).
Greear’s fifth suggestion mostly repeats the fourth: “An ability to share the Gospel concisely.”
Now that he’s completely, totally covered making a compelling elevator speech about one’s testimony, Greear asks his flocks to come up with a second one about “the Gospel” itself. He doesn’t define it here, but then, most Christians don’t.
Ed Stetzer over at Christianity Today reprinted a column that outlined one meaning of “the Gospel.” The condensation of the column sounds meaningless if not barbaric and ludicrous to anybody not steeped in Christianity’s normalization of cruelty, baseless claims accepted as fact, and bloodthirsty vengeance: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Indeed, the guy who wrote it concedes that if a mark doesn’t accept Christianity’s notion of sin, then this magic spell fizzles.
J.D. Greear’s examples don’t do much better. He offers two that he likes:
- “Jesus bridges the gap between us and God.”
- “Religions are all about doing; the Gospel is all about what Christ has done.”
The first one would make me laugh. It contains so many nested assumptions and unsupported claims that I simply can’t take it seriously.
The second sounds like one of those tedious it’s-a-relationship-not-a-religion warblings that so many sales-minded Christians try to push. I know that many Christians really want to believe that their religion is super-special and unique. It isn’t. Besides sounding egotistical, it also contains a lot of nested assumptions and unsupported claims.
Now Get Out There and SELL!
Technically, the last two paragraphs belong with his fifth item, but they form such a startling new direction that to me they function as a new section. So I’m making them one.
In the post, Greear offered four/five suggestions that he promises will usher an evangelism ethos into Christians’ lives and into their church community’s culture. They weren’t even good suggestions. Christians passionately desiring to create this ethos will come away with no clear idea how to do anything suggested. He offered a few suggestions about what not to say, and he gave one useful idea about elevator speeches that lacked any suggestions about learning the skill involved.
Now, however, he now spins on his heel.
He doesn’t care how his flocks sell the product. He’s not even scoring them on success. He just wants them to start making sales pitches, telling them “Just get out there and do it!”
WTF Even Was This…
I wish I could say I have no idea why J.D. Greear even wrote this column. Unfortunately, I’ve got some firm suspicions on that score.
Evangelism in Christianity is a numbers game–just like the pickup artist scene is, and just like sales itself as a profession is. People in all three groups know that they make a certain number of sales pitches to get a single sale. In Christianity, in particular, that number rises every year.
Thus, evangelists must make more sales pitches than ever before to get a single person to agree to buy their product. J.D. Greear has access to the same studies and surveys that I do, and probably more besides. He’s probably just as aware as I am that the flocks aren’t nearly as motivated to make sales pitches as they used to be.
That’s where his post–and indeed his entire presidency–comes in. He needs to get the flocks used to making sales pitches constantly. Once they capture that habit, he probably figures he can mold their approach to make them more effective. And if they can’t, well, that’s fine too. He’ll have someone to blame for his grand plan’s failure.
And yes, the grand plan will fail. Here’s why.
First, fundagelicals generally tend to be passive. The SBC’s leaders set out to create a super-authoritarian system. Well, they damned well got one. The flocks can be aggressive and belligerent, but they are also authoritarian followers. Being found wrong, or worse yet failing at an assigned task, is literally their worst nightmare.
Second, people tend to be reluctant to destroy their social capital–and that includes fundagelicals. As we discuss often around here, sales pitches endanger–even destroy–social bonds. Greear sure sounds like he wants his flocks to treat their loved ones as potential customers. Now, many adults will forgive one sales pitch and simply ask that it not ever happen again. But repeated attempts will alienate them.
That said, I can see some worrisome potential for the fallout from the push to lead to further deterioration in the SBC. And it wouldn’t be in the fun “point and laugh” way.
He’ll likely shame a few of his followers into having some agonizing, forced non-versations. Hopefully their friendships will survive those screechingly awkward encounters. The alternative alarms me: legions of Christians destroying every non-church relationship they have, all in the name of possibly scoring one or two sales but probably more like seeing nothing come of their effort. They’ll come away isolated and cut off from all influences outside the group–and more dependent than ever on the group itself to fulfill their social needs.
And gang, that evangelism ethos sure starts to look a lot like something a cult leader would demand.
The best-case scenario involves this evangelism push sparking Southern Baptists to awareness of just how awful their denomination truly is–and maybe even asking some serious questions about their religion. The most-likely scenario is that nothing whatsoever changes. Either beats the worst-case scenario! We’ll be keeping a weather eye on this situation.
NEXT UP: Has a Christian ever told you that they’re totally saaaaaad for you because you left the religion or rejected one of their sales pitches? Did their little bitty hearts hurrrrrrt for you? Then Thursday is your lucky day, because we’re going to dive into that tedious Christianese sentiment next. See you soon!
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