Unchurched: Lee Strobel’s Action Plan (Doesn’t Work)

Unchurched: Lee Strobel’s Action Plan (Doesn’t Work) June 18, 2020

Hi and welcome! Lately, we’ve been checking out Lee Strobel’s first book, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary (1993). In Unchurched, Lee Strobel sought to teach his tribe about those strange space aliens who weren’t part of church culture. More than that, even, he claimed to offer the tribe an ‘action plan’ for persuading those space aliens to join their churches. Today, let’s see exactly what this ‘action plan’ involves — and then consider its effectiveness.

unchurched action plan is a literal cougar about to eat your face off
(Priscilla Du Preez.) This kitty represents the fate that the action plan seeks to rescue people from.

(Previous Lee Strobel listicle posts: This Book’s Endorsements Reveal A StoryThe Many Lies Lee Strobel Tells About Unchurched Harry and MaryA Portrait of the Captain as a Young Hell-Bound Pagan (1-4)Indoctrinating Evangelicals More (5-8)Seeker-Sensitive Churches Ahoy (9-12)Martyrbation Ahoy (13-15)The Original Listicle and Comments. Page numbers come from the 1993 paperback edition of the book; all emphases come from the original sources unless noted, and all quoted material comes from cited sources unless otherwise noted.)

Apologists As Hucksters.

All apologetics is about hiding evidence.

Richard Carrier

Christians tend to forget that apologists nowadays are actually simply pure snake-oil hucksters. They package their increasingly-derivative ideas in simpering, pandering words building on a network of other hucksters’ derivative ideas and blahblah. Then, they sell the results to their marks as PROOF YES PROOF that their religion’s claims are true.

Worse still, though, they’ve convinced those marks that apologetics really truly works to persuade non-tribemates to adopt their religion and join their groups.

As one of his generation’s apologists, Lee Strobel might be one of the worst offenders in the game. He exists and has a career because his own leaders propped him up, taught him the game’s rules, and set him up to win at it.

Of course, there’s a reason why he checked out of his chosen profession of journalism to join the ranks of religious hustlers: an investigation he conducted as a reporter almost sent an innocent man (James Dixon) to his death. Oopsie! In The Case for Christ, of course, he presents this botch as divinely-ordained. This black man suffered trauma and years of pain in prison. To Strobel, that only happens because that’s what it took to bring Strobel, a privileged white dude, to eternal salvation.

Hooray Team Jesus!

Thankfully, his new tribe has way lower standards for the kind of work he produces than the world did.

The Faith of the Flocks in Their Hucksters.

But the customers of these hucksters never understand any of that. To them, these nakedly-opportunistic, obviously-pandering mountebanks are more like pastors than salespeople: divinely-ordained leaders piously leading other, lesser Christians to Heaven, graciously teaching them how to Jesus better and save others from their loving god’s bloodlust and unfathomable, fathomless cruelty.

Consequently, the flocks accept without questions whatever those hucksters say.

To them, indeed, Lee Strobel’s past is exactly what he claims. He makes observations drawn from reality and divine inspiration. And he sells a package of strategies and tactics that does exactly what it says on the tin.

It wouldn’t even occur to his customers to investigate any of these ideas further, much less to test any of the claims on offer. Why oh why would one of their Dear Leaders ever lie to them — especially about stuff so incredibly important?

This is how hucksters make their money. Of course, it’s a lot easier for them to do this with authoritarian groups, since authoritarian leaders prime their followers to accept untrue ideas and place complete trust in their leaders — as well as never to hold their leaders accountable for anything wrong they say or do.

So modern apologists indoctrinate authoritarian Christians with hurtful, cruel ideas that are guaranteed to backfire, and the flocks’ only response is to shower them in more money, praise, and attention.

And weirdly, “Jesus” doesn’t lift a finger to stop any of this stuff from happening.

Like, it’s just SO WEIRD, y’all. It’s like he’s not even there!

“An Action Plan.”

Last fall, Lee Strobel described Unchurched as “an action plan.” He used the present tense there, too, meaning that he still stands completely by the book he published in 1993.

lee strobel hawking his book
“Not a book of theory.” You can say that again.

He intends the book to be read by evangelicals, then put into practice:

Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary isn’t a book of theory. It’s an action plan to help you relate the message of Christ to the people you work around, live with, and call your friends.

So that implies that the book offers a specific, tangible, effective way to recruit new tribe members.

Let’s see what it involves, and if it can do what it says on the tin.

Take-Away Points.

After recounting his testimony, which we’ll just have to examine later because Y’ALL, this is too much, Strobel offers take-away points regarding exactly how he totally and for realsies converted to fundagelical culture-warrior Christianity. I’ll summarize them here (p. 42-43):

  • Consider evangelism an extended process (see also: planting seeds). Don’t press for an immediate commitment. Just keep hammering away at your DIY project.
  • If your church Jesus-es correctly and you’ve done enough friendship evangelism to earn enough social capital to do so, then yes, deffo invite your friends to attend. Cuz “many times unchurched people are willing to visit a church if they’re invited by a friend who has already opened up spiritual issues through personal conversation.”
  • If you’re a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ woman somehow involved with an unchurched man, expect to have extra pull with him. It’s not because he’s afraid of causing a disruption in the relationship, though. No no! It’s because “the barriers are down far enough for men to discuss these very personal matters.” (See important endnote: that’s not a direct quote from Strobel.)
  • Attend a church that’s seeker-sensitive. You know, like Willow Creek Community Church, where Strobel worked in 1993.
  • Learn lots of apologetics (says the huckster selling apologetics). Expect people involved with “facts and figures” to be more receptive to these fallacy-riddled, emotionally-manipulative arguments. Salem Hypothesis, anyone?
  • Guilt and shame represent invaluable evangelism tools. Jesus himself ensures that his future converts will be very receptive to tactics that manipulate these emotions.
  • Think super-hard at the ceiling all the time so your imaginary wizard friend will do whatever it was he was gonna do anyway. I mean, if you think about it then you might realize you’re essentially asking a god to change his inerrant, absolutely set-in-stone plan with every single prayer you make asking for anything. But do it anyway because prayer totally casts powerful spells.

We expect Lee Strobel’s “action plan,” then, to reinforce all of these ideas and offer solid evidence that his suggestions work to persuade.

Let’s dive in! Allez apologetics!

Preface: Yer Mah Hero, Ferris!

First, Strobel spends several chapters offering “observations” about Unchurched Harry and Mary. We already examined these at length already, but I was interested to note that my grouping of questions was largely accurate because he organizes them much like I did. I also noticed that he revealed (p. 13) that the phrase “Unchurched Harry and Mary” comes from Willow Creek. It was their “affectionate nickname” for people who weren’t part of any churches — as well as their name for their primary recruitment targets.

Then he compares a soulwinner to a hero who literally saves a small child from death by mountain lion attack! Really! It’s breathtakingly insensitive as well as a complete mischaracterization of what Christian salespeople actually do. I guess the blatant pandering on display here just whapped me right in the face.

GAG.

But that’s not particularly the “action plan.” He’s just psyching up the flocks.

Step One: Creating a False Divide.

Strobel paints this heroic picture to sell a very particular idea to the tribe. This is the first step of his “action plan” (p. 85):

  • Rescuing people in spiritual peril frequently requires us to strategically venture into their environment.

He even piously declares,

That can be uncomfortable for Christians. We’d rather distance ourselves from the unpleasant environment where Unchurched Harry and Mary live.

And boy, I thought right there, it’d super-suck for King Lee Strobel if it turned out that there’s no difference at all between the lifestyles of Churched Harry and Mary and their “Unchurched” counterparts.

All he’s doing here is creating a big barrier, a division, between evangelicals and these mysterious Others.

Step 2: Friendship Evangelism. Oh Yay.

His second “action plan” item (p. 89):

  • Often, before we can be used to rescue someone from spiritual danger, we have to build a relational bridge to them.

In essence, here Lee Strobel sells the idea of friendship evangelism. In friendship evangelism, a Christian salesperson feigns friendship with the target — with the intention of pitching their product to that person as soon as they think they’ve put enough friendship tokens into that person’s emotional piggy bank. However, if the target refuses to buy the product, then the salesperson immediately abandons the false friendship to find another target to lavish with friendship tokens.

Behind every soulwinner, you will find an endless trail of broken friendships and confused, resentful victims.

It’s monstrously cruel to manipulate and deceive another person that way. And Lee Strobel tells his slobbering followers that this deception and manipulation is not only okay but downright heroic. These deceivers and manipulators should not think of themselves as shameless opportunists, but as literal heroes rescuing children from savage beasts.

Shades of the Oncoming Bus Gambit! Could anyone even be more narcissistic and self-important? But many evangelical groups teach this idea.

(Later on, we’ll get into way more detail about his teachings about friendship evangelism.)

Step 3: Watch For An Opening.

Once enough friendship tokens have been inserted into the DIY project, then the soulwinner can begin to really work in earnest on that person (p. 91):

  • To successfully rescue someone, at some point we have to clearly point out the path to safety.

I must say, it’s sickening to see emotional manipulation laid out so clearly and obviously as a sales tool. Lee Strobel tells his followers to listen with a constant ear for potential inroads to manipulation. For example, he suggests, if the DIY project mentions that her kids are “driving her crazy,” that’s a perfect opportunity to slide into a sales pitch:

[Y]ou could play it safe and say, “I know what you’re saying; my kids drive me up the wall sometimes, too.” Or, you could make a split-second decision to say, “You know, my kids can be a handful, but I was amazed to find out that the Bible has some great advice for raising kids [LOL NO, IT DOES NOT — CC]. It’s really helped me.” That opens the door to a spiritual discussion, and maybe you could even follow it up by lending her a Christian book about parenting.

Y’all.

I was Christian in 1993.

I’m talkin’ true blue, church attending Christian fundagelical who Jesus-ed with all her heart, mind, imaginary soul, and body. So when I read this paragraph, I just stopped and laughed to myself. Y’all, I was the queen of foot-in-the-door sales pitches. But not once, not ever did they pan out like anything Lee Strobel describes! Never. In fact, every time I tried it, the result was a relationship explosion in my face.

Eventually, I learned to stop doing it. Even then, though, my victims never forgot those past displays of opportunism.

(Multi-level marketing (MLM) shills are notorious for the exact same behavior, incidentally.)

Step 4: Learn Apologetics to Overcome Objections.

Lastly, Lee Strobel — the apologist selling apologetics materials to fundagelicals — reveals his hidden weapon in the next step of his “action plan,” which is giving him money (p. 94):

  • We should be armed with evidence to help skeptics realize that they need to be rescued.

However, Christianity contains no real evidence. What it has is apologetics instead of evidence. If Christians had real evidence for their claims, they would not ever need apologetics. Apologetics only exists because of that total lack. But Lee Strobel, the guy who makes a living selling apologetics blahblah, piously informs us:

[W]hen a Christian is uninformed about how much evidence supports Christianity, he often backs off from opportunities to share his faith. He squelches his evangelistic activities because he’s afraid of being asked a tough question he can’t answer.

Strobel goes on to name some of the usual dealbreakers like the Problem of Hell and the Problem of Evil. Then, he falsely promises that apologetics solves them all — and solved them decades ago, if not earlier!

I remember thinking that my religion had tons of evidence to support itself. Eventually, that belief collided very hard with reality.

Steps 5: SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY.

Our second-to-last step (5) tries to shame evangelicals into doing more person-to-person evangelism:

  • Those who have been rescued should understand the urgency in reaching out to rescue others.

Of course, verrrrrrry few evangelicals join any of their groups with the intention of becoming salespeople. They largely join up to avoid Hell. In effect, they join to save themselves. Thus, anything more that they do for their new tribe becomes a bonus in their minds.

I mean sure, they know that their refusal to get involved more with sales bothers Jesus. Their leaders constantly hammer home this point. However, all they must do to make Jesus happy again is psychically apologize to him and promise to totally try harder!

So thankfully, few evangelicals ever extend themselves in any but the most obvious of situations.

Step 6: A) Always, B) Be, C) Closing.

And our last step represents an exhortation to always be pushing to seal that deal (p. 100):

  • Kingdom heroes don’t get bogged down in the process of evangelism; rather, they keep their eyes focused on the purpose of evangelism.

More than that, though, in this “action plan” step Strobel also stresses that soulwinners must always try to ferret out any mark’s motivations and secret, unspoken needs, then use those motivations and needs to close the deal. In effect, they must always push for the sale.

I don’t feel like typing out all of Strobel’s boring and probably fake anecdotes in this subsection, but wow, he comes off like a hard-selling twit! (Sir, what do I need to do today for you to drive this shiny new Jesus-membership off the lot?)

My Dear Leaders taught much the same thing, though. You can likely guess how well that mindset worked for me. It didn’t. All it did was make my victims angry and annoyed.

Promises of Success.

After outlining his plan, Lee Strobel tells us that this “action plan” works grandly (p. 102):

When we keep that goal [a sealed deal] in the forefront of our minds and we live in daily anticipation that God is going to work through us, then we’re ready to act when those ultimate turning points come.

And yes, of course he makes such a ludicrous promise. He’s selling an approach, and it’d super help him out if millions of evangelicals would please purchase it!

I’ve started to become very attuned to apologists’ own displays of self-promotion. It’s amazing how often they do it. As I mentioned, almost all modern apologetics books contain dozens of pages of this self-promotion (not even counting the endorsements they get from their pals in the crony network).

A Cross-Evangelical “Action Plan.”

My church taught the same stuff, especially that last bit. We thought if we were doing what Jesus directed us to do, and we approached evangelism with a super-Jesus-y heart, then we would succeed. Of course!

Maybe that’s why we lionized and all but worshiped as idols the few people among us cultivating a reputation for successful salesmanship. We tried to emulate them as best we could — not realizing they lied copiously about exactly what they were doing and how successful it was.

So yes, I can identify with every single item on Lee Strobel’s “action plan.” Some, I identify with even more firmly than others, sure. Overall, however, this was all stuff that my evangelical friends and I all solidly believed and tried to put into practice.

Not once, not ever did we ever ask for any evidence that any of these suggestions really worked. In all my life, before or after deconversion, I’ve never seen a study or survey dealing with that question — and I never expect to see one.

Apologetics is the ultimate “buyer beware” industry: unregulated, untested, unverified, and most of all un-effective [sic]!

Meanwhile, In Reality.

Ofcourse, almost none of us ever bagged any sales using these techniques. One guy from Maranatha did. However, his victim was like Marshall Hogan: a light-switch flip away from evangelicalism anyway.

Otherwise, we had Biff, who enjoyed a huge reputation as a successful soulwinner. Biff converted our friend Scott (sort of; Scott never fully conformed to the Pentecostal ideal). Oh, and Biff tentatively converted James (who helped administer the Prayer Warriors for Jesus campus club Biff started). That second sale fizzled after James decided Biff was a “Pharisee” for dropping the club. Seriously.

In reality, even when Christianity enjoyed total dominance in American society, evangelicals didn’t make a lot of sales using person-to-person evangelism.

And they never really did. Check out the Million-Baptism Challenge that the SBC tried around 2005. It failed so hilariously that the denomination just pretended to ignore that it’d ever existed. This wasn’t the first big push they’d ever made, either, just one of the most recent. Also, don’t ask them about how effective that ludicrous “Beach Reach” thing is. They hide those numbers as carefully as they can.

And What We Really Accomplished With Our “Action Plan.”

Evangelicals in the 1980s and 1990s utilized strikingly similar tactics to what Lee Strobel suggests here. We made no sales. However, we did ensure our own indoctrinations.

When people rejected our sales pitches, we only drilled down harder on our beliefs. While we bought and memorized apologetics arguments and then watched 24/7 for openings to use them, we kept ourselves enmeshed with our faith, though our efforts and expenditures did nothing to persuade others.

In effect, every relationship we destroyed outside the tribe only tied us more tightly to the tribe itself. Many of us even somehow twisted our failure to recruit around to become PROOF YES PROOF that our claims had to be true! (Biff trotted that one out on me after yet another unsuccessful bid to reconvert me after my deconversion.)

If you can’t recruit, go for broke on retention, I suppose. It’s dishonest, but I expect nothing better out of any professional apologist’s “action plan” for individual Christians.

NEXT UP: What to choose, what to choose… I think we’ll go with friendship evangelism next. See you tomorrow!


Endnotes.

About that quote: It actually apparently comes from Pam Hanley, who’s with the Institute for Effective Education, a special-needs education group that looks pretty secular. I’m not sure where she stands, but she’s written about “the inter-relationship of Science and Religious Education in a cultural context,” so presumably she’s interested in religion in some way. As far as I can tell, however, the quote Strobel prints appears absolutely nowhere online. The journal it’s from, “National and International Religion Report” printed October 19, 1992, does seem to exist, but I can’t access it. (Back to the post!)


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Semi-Last Note: Another future post will deal with the evolution of Lee Strobel’s I-totally-used-to-be-an-atheist-you-guys testimony, because this book blows that claim right out of the water. In it, he tells us that he absolutely comes from a fervent Christian home featuring every-single-Sunday churchgoing. Church bored him and theology confused him, but there’s no indication here whatsoever that he ever formally rejected its ideas. Even he himself says so in between stressing what an absolute skidmark of a human being he was before doing his 180 for Jesus. It’s absolutely hilarious.

Sigh. Now I guess I’ll have to do a review of TCFC, because I really want to see what — if anything — changed in his testimony between 1993 and 1998.

Christianese: 

  • “The world” = everything outside of the evangelical bubble; anything secular, which is to say not 100% focused on Jesus; anybody or any group not Jesus-ing correctly.
  • “Soulwinner” = someone who successfully sells product to outsiders.
About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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