Hi and welcome back! Recently, one of our dear friends, Kevin, presented us a list for consideration. Evangelical apologist Lee Strobel created this list back in the early 1990s for one of his books. He wanted to explain unchurched people to evangelicals. Since I deconverted right at that time, I found the list especially interesting. Today, let me show you the list — and then, more importantly, let me show you why Lee Strobel wrote this list.
A Quick Christianese Lesson.
Unchurched: those who don’t attend church, for whatever reason. Maybe they fully deconverted, though probably they still believe but have detached themselves from church affiliation. Can also be an adjective, as in unchurched people.
I’m between churches: the polite way to tell evangelicals that you’re unchurched. Many evangelicals will take this declaration as an invitation to sell you their product (active evangelical church membership).
Reach (verb): effectively sell the evangelical product.
Unreached (noun): a society or community that contains very few active evangelicals.
Atheist: anyone who isn’t a true-blue evangelical. This especially includes most evangelical leaders before their dramatic conversions. (See here for more info.)
TRUE CHRISTIAN™: someone who believes roughly the same nonsense as the Christian using the term, hasn’t gotten caught doing anything totally out-of-bounds according to that judging Christian, and hasn’t deconverted yet.
The Church: when capitalized, it means the entire body of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ worldwide. If not capitalized, it just means a regular church’s building or membership.
Authentic (adjective): Jesus-flavored sincerity.
Biblical (adjective): a dogwhistle used to denote a belief or practice that’s friendly to culture-warring, control-grabby evangelicals.
Seeker-sensitive (adjective): catering to group members’ needs. Most megachurches call themselves seeker-sensitive (or seeker-friendly, which means roughly the same thing). Often used as a pejorative by evangelicals who don’t like that approach.
Consent: haha, just kidding! This isn’t Christianese. Evangelicals don’t know, use, or care about this word, much less agree with any of the concepts involved with it.
Lee Strobel’s Book.
In 1993, Lee Strobel published a book called Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary: How to Reach Friends and Family Who Need GOD and the Church (link).
In this book, he sought to teach evangelicals about a group of people they’d have considered barely human at all — those who do not attend church. Beginning with his own testimony, which contains the usual I-totally-was-an-atheist-you-guize blather most of these atheist-whisperers employ, he trots through a whole series of mischaracterizations that he totally promises will help evangelicals make sales.
Of course, in 1993 not many folks were unchurched! At the time, evangelicals held a large amount of cultural power — but they wanted all of the power, not just some of it. That’s how authoritarians operate. And they don’t care about little niceties like boundaries and consent.
No, they see invisible buses bearing down on their marks. Naturally, that totally-for-realsies threat that only TRUE CHRISTIANS™ can see overrides their marks’ rights and preferences!
We’ll do a full review of the book later — I’ve got it on order.
For now, though, let’s look at Lee Strobel’s characterization of the unwashed ranks of the unchurched.
Lee Strobel Describes the Unchurched.
Kevin thoughtfully reprinted Lee Strobel’s list of the characteristics of unchurched people. Here it is (relink):
1) Has rejected church but not necessarily God;
2) Morally adrift but secretly wants an anchor;
3) Resists rules but responds to reason;
4) Doesn’t understand Christianity but also ignorant about own professed beliefs;
5) Has legitimate questions about spiritual matters but doesn’t expect answers from Christians;
6) Doesn’t just ask, “Is Christianity true?”, but often also “Does Christianity work?”;
7) Doesn’t just want to know something; wants to experience it;
8) Doesn’t want to be someone’s project, but would like to be someone’s friend;
9) Distrusts authority but receptive to authentic biblical leadership;
10) No longer loyal to denominations but attracted to places where needs are met;
11) Not much of a joiner but hungry for a cause to connect with;
12) Even if not spiritually sensitive, hungry for children to get quality moral training;
13) Confused about sex roles but don’t know the Bible can clarify for them what it means to be a man and woman;
14) Proud to be tolerant of various faiths but thinks Christians are narrow-minded;
15) May try church if invited, but that may do more harm than good.
The list is based on “observations” that Strobel makes throughout his book. These aren’t exact quotes, but they’re paraphrases of those observations. (For example, #3 runs, in full, “Observation #3: Harry resists rules but responds to reason.” There, Strobel tells us, “Harry thinks he’s better qualified than anyone to decide what rules he should abide by.” Seriously, the list’s bare elements barely scratch the surface of how offensive Lee Strobel’s strawmanning is. I wish dishonesty and moral cowardice troubled evangelicals.)
When Kevin offered the list, we all had a great time responding to it.
And Another Beloved Christian Listicle Explodes on Impact With Real People.
Very quickly, it became very apparent that the list rang true for none of us. In fact, most of us felt his list was demeaning, dehumanizing, and downright insulting to our intelligence, sense of ethics, and life experiences.
In essence, Strobel takes real people and real people’s experiences and whitewashes over both with this vision of the Ideal Evangelical Customer. It’s downright horrifying to think that millions of evangelicals may have read his book and taken his ideas to heart, but it sure does explain a few things about how they treat us even today.
After all, no matter how many times we tell evangelical salespeople what we’re like and how we think (and most of all, why we reject their pitches), they ignore everything we say because their favorite huckster has already told them what atheists and non-believers are totally like.
Thus, evangelicals believe the huckster who stands to make money from their agreement over the very real people engaging with them right then who have nothing to gain from the discussion (but possibly much to lose).
The List Lies About the Unchurched.
Everything on Strobel’s list is meant to encourage evangelical salespeople to make pitches even to marks who don’t seem even remotely interested in hearing a pitch.
Has rejected church but not necessarily God.
That means there’s still a chance for us, baby. SELL SELL SELL!
Morally adrift but secretly wants an anchor.
That means even if the marks push evangelical salespeople away, they still secretly want to buy the product. The salesperson just needs to be more clever and persistent in trying to bring that totally-for-realsies need to light. Everyone secretly wants this product; they just need the right sales approach. Ignore what they say. Instead, assume the sale.
Resists rules but responds to reason.
Of course, “reason” here means “apologetics.” And “rules” means “all those social rules that evangelicals think a god told them to follow.” As a result, this item tells evangelical salespeople that they can use apologetics to override any objections to their social rules.
The List Assumes Ignorance.
Doesn’t understand Christianity but also ignorant about own professed beliefs.
Obviously, unchurched people don’t actually have any firm beliefs of their own. Ever. They haven’t thought about this at all. Nope.
Has legitimate questions about spiritual matters but doesn’t expect answers from Christians.
Boy, will Strobel’s readers ever surprise these folks!
Doesn’t just ask, “Is Christianity true?”, but often also “Does Christianity work?”
Because obviously, unchurched people care about how well the religion works even if it’s not true.
Doesn’t just want to know something; wants to experience it.
Evangelicals tend to go for broke on experience as a carrier and indicator of truth. Here, Strobel just wants them to make the same assumptions about others.
The List Commands Pretenses of Friendship.
And we continue:
Doesn’t want to be someone’s project, but would like to be someone’s friend.
And nobody’s a friend like a huckster wanting to score a sale! I’ve been on the receiving end of an evangelical working this angle, and it’s downright painful.
Distrusts authority but receptive to authentic biblical leadership.
It is hard to imagine anybody who distrusts authority who’d be open to being ruled-over by evangelicals, no matter how “biblical” they say they are.
Lee Strobel wants his flocks to believe that even people who don’t seem amenable to falling into tribal lockstep totally want to, but only if it’s a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ giving the orders. You know, like themselves.
The List Describes Lee Strobel’s Own Favorite Kind of Church.
Now, the list moves on to describe the kind of church that Lee Strobel thinks attracts the unchurched. By wild coincidence, his list items seem to describe Willow Creek Community Church, where he worked as a “teaching pastor” until 2000. Bill Hybels founded that church back in the 1970s (he also contributed a foreword to the book).
In 2018, a decades-long sex scandal centering on Hybels’ misconduct came to light. As the scandal’s details unfolded, the senior leaders of the church all resigned as an apology for mishandling it. But even as this post goes to press, it sounds like Willow Creek’s still dealing with the fallout of that long-term scandal.
But until the scandal’s reveal, Willow Creek was considered quite a big deal among seeker-sensitive churches. So unsurprisingly, Lee Strobel’s listicle outlines the kind of customer these churches seek.
No longer loyal to denominations but attracted to places where needs are met.
Not much of a joiner but hungry for a cause to connect with.
Even if not spiritually sensitive, hungry for children to get quality moral training.
All of these describe the people who feel attracted to seeker-sensitive churches. Of course, they also need to be amenable to the product being sold. Someone who knows that churches are hotbeds of scandal and hypocrisy wouldn’t enroll their kids in Sunday School. A person who objects to evangelicals’ culture-warring won’t find many causes in such churches that resonate.
But with his listicle, Lee Strobel promises that a church that’s awesome enough can override customers’ reluctance to join an ultra-authoritarian tribe.
The List Encourages Martyrbation.
Lastly, Lee Strobel whisks through a few points that assure his readers that if anybody seriously objects to their sales pitches, it’s just cuz they’re meaniepies who hate TRUE CHRISTIANS™’ Jesus Aura.
Confused about sex roles but don’t know the Bible can clarify for them what it means to be a man and woman.
Even in 1994, everyone had a very good idea of what evangelicals thought about sex roles. This one made me laugh. Yes, someone who’s kinda confused about what it means to be lords, ladies, or nonbinary daisies is going to totally ask an evangelical for clarification.
Proud to be tolerant of various faiths but thinks Christians are narrow-minded.
THOSE MEANIE LIBRULS AREN’T TOLERATING OUR INTOLERANCE! WAAAAH!
See, they’re not really narrow-minded. Jesus told them to discriminate and oppress others! Evangelical salespeople must clear up that misconception!
May try church if invited, but that may do more harm than good.
See? See? If it’s the wrong church, OMG, it might just scare that person off of the whole religion! It has to be the right church, and everything has to be couched and framed in just the right way! Like Willow Creek!
This list isn’t about unchurched people. Not really. It’s about Lee Strobel’s dream customers.
The people who fit this list also squint dramatically at evangelical salespeople and declare, “Man, Jesus would never forgive a sinner like me.” Indeed, an evangelical’s ideal customer is an authoritarian follower in temporary distress, waiting for an authoritarian group to pounce.
SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY!
For many decades, evangelical leaders have fretted over just how little the flocks want to flog their product.
As money tightens and pastors’ time shrinks away to nothing, they rely more and more on laypeople to do the selling. But the laypeople have made it quite crystal-clear that they don’t wanna. They value their social capital too much to waste it making unwanted sales pitches that bomb.
And that’s a good thing, but evangelical leaders don’t see it that way. They see increasing numbers of people who are unchurched — and who seem increasingly immune to their favorite sales techniques.
Granted, evangelicals’ product itself is the problem. But their dishonest and grating sales techniques don’t help their situation much. As long as they continue to misrepresent, mischaracterize, and even lie about their marks, their marks will only continue to reject them.
And after a lot of that rejection, maybe some of the sheep will begin wondering unchurched people are really like. The answers may dismay them — maybe even lead them down a rabbithole labeled All the Other Stuff My Leaders Lied About like I went through.
I hope so.
Even if they emerge from that rabbithole as Christians still, at least maybe they won’t be sabotaging their own relationships anymore because of lies told to them by hucksters grabbing at their wallets.
NEXT UP: A portrait of the author as a young heathen. 24-year-old Cas visits us from the past to respond to the listicle. See you tomorrow! <3
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