Unchurched: An Overview of Friendship Evangelism

Unchurched: An Overview of Friendship Evangelism June 20, 2020

Hi and welcome back! We return now to our examination of Lee Strobel’s 1993 book, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary. The book largely centers around sales strategies aimed at those outside the church bubble. And the chiefest of those strategies is friendship evangelism. Today, I’ll show you what friendship evangelism is — and what lies its practitioners tell themselves to justify inflicting it on others.

yes yes friendship evangelism is so sincere
(Jari Hytönen)

(Previous Lee Strobel posts: This Action Plan Doesn’t WorkTickling Evangelical EarsThis 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.)

Friendship Evangelism, Defined and Assessed.

In Christianese, evangelism means selling church membership to non-members. They modify the word with various adjectives that indicate the sales strategy in use. So radio evangelism indicates selling conducted via radio broadcasts. Lifestyle evangelism means selling through performative piety (in hopes that marks will come to the seller to ask what makes them so, I dunno, just DIFFERENT I guess).

Similarly, Christians practicing friendship evangelism create and build relationships with marks with an eye toward slipping sales pitches to them whenever they think they can get away with it.

If I haven’t adequately conveyed my utter hatred of this tactic through tone, let me do so now in explicit words:

Friendship evangelism is a vile practice, one that demonstrates more than anything else just what a terrible Christianity is at its core. The mere fact that any Christian could ever engage in it tells me what a morally-vacant ideology Christianity truly is.

At least in Flirty Fishing, the huckster’s mark wasn’t under a lot of illusions about what was going on. 

How Friendship Evangelism Is Supposed to Work.

The people selling friendship evangelism make it sound so sweet and innocent. Worse, they make it sound effective.

First, the Christian salesperson selects a mark. The ideal mark is lonely, needing but not having enough human contact, and feeling isolated.

Once the salesperson locates an ideal mark, they launch overtures of friendship toward that person. These can include:

  • invitations to social events attended by the salesperson’s tribe
  • play dates and hangout sessions
  • shared meals
  • phone calls, texts, social-media interaction, etc
  • offering favors and soliciting them
  • giving small gifts to the mark

When the mark seems sufficiently enmeshed in the fake friendship thus formed, the salesperson looks for an opening to make a sales pitch. Ideally, this opening takes the form of the mark’s spontaneous expression of sadness or anger, but it can also take any form regarding any negative emotion. The salesperson then swoops in with a sales pitch. If the mark doesn’t offer an opening, of course, then the salesperson can initiate and direct a conversation that leads into the sales pitch.

According to the script, the mark will be grateful for this sales pitch and accord it great importance because of the supposed relationship between them. Christian salespeople assume reflexively that their sales pitches only get rejected because people don’t think about what’s on offer. But they’ll listen to a friend’s recommendation more carefully, goes the teaching.

Hooray Team Jesus! A sale is born!

Next step: BAPTISM! The new baby Christian conforms to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ and joins the tribe.

How It Really Works.

In Reality-Land, friendship evangelism almost never works this way. And I’m being really generous there. To be more accurate, I’ve never seen it work this way myself — except briefly once or twice. I know the people selling this system claim great success with it. Indeed, anecdotes of success abound. But it never worked that way for me or anybody else I knew, and since deconversion I’ve never heard any other ex-Christian claim any success with it.

Here’s what really happens when Christians try their hand at friendship evangelism:

Step One still looks the same. People can be really lonely, so there’s never been a shortage of potential marks.

In Step Two, the mark usually notices these overtures early on, makes an educated guess about where they’ll lead, and ends the fake relationship building before it can really take off. Thus ends this episode of Friendship Evangelism. The salesperson must start over again with a different mark.

If not, if the mark hasn’t noticed what’s going on, then Step Three crashes and burns spectacularlyInstead of being happy about getting a sales pitch, the mark is displeased — possibly even hurt, depending on what prompted the sales pitch. Needless to say and either which way, the mark rejects the sales pitch utterly and shuts down any idea of receiving future sales pitches.

What Always Happens Next.

Once the salesperson realizes that this mark will never purchase any product, the salesperson bails out of the friendship. After all, it only existed as the means to a sale. The Christian wouldn’t have begun the relationship otherwise. Thus, there’s no reason at all to continue the charade.

As Blanche Quizno, who is one smart cookie, said over on Thom Rainer’s site:

“Well,” I said [after a church invitation], “then there’s no point in me going to your church because I’m not interested in either becoming a Christian or joining your church.” I never saw her again.

That’s how far Christian friendship extends – I’ve seen it over and over and over. Christians look at everyone else as if they’ve got targets painted on their foreheads. Nobody likes being hunted down or treated like someone else’s project.

S’TRUTH.

Why Christians Like Friendship Evangelism.

Despite its utter lack of proven effectiveness, and the way it utterly backfires every time it’s deployed, Christian salespeople love friendship evangelism.

It just feels so non-threatening to them. They know very well how strong the social contract can be; people are usually very reluctant to disrupt a friendship by reacting poorly to a friend’s offense. People won’t usually erupt in anger at a friend; they’ll tend to give benefit of the doubt over and over again.

They think it works like this:

Back in the tiny town in Kansas where I briefly lived in the late 90s, it blew my ever-lovin’ mind to see how the worst, most awfulest people maintained friendships. It didn’t matter how often they acted like dinguses or betrayed their friends; everyone just forgave them repeatedly and put up with their shenanigans.

One of these aforementioned dinguses got in a literal fistfight at a bar with a friend who’d been on a slow-burn rage about him for weeks. The next night, he told his girlfriend he was going over to that guy’s house to borrow his VCR. She told him, “He’s gonna hospitalize you if he sees you again, dude.” “No he won’t,” said the dingus. And he was right. He came back in one piece — and with the VCR, not on it.

In a nutshell, that’s what Christians think about friendship evangelism. They think they can build that kind of social capital to make sales.

Monetizing friendships destroys them far more effectively and completely than a fistfight ever could. However, starting them purely to create an opening for a sales pitch means they’re not real friendships in the first place. And the salespeople reveal that truth when they abandon these misshapen relationship-golems as soon as the experiment fails.

No No, You Have to Act Sincere.

Enter the lies that these salespeople must believe in order to engage in friendship evangelism. They’re starting these relationships with the specific goal of fixing the other person (by making them into mini-mes of themselves) — but they sure aren’t asking for consent from their human DIY project! They know the mark won’t like that idea — so they just don’t share their goal ahead of time.

Of course, those selling these strategies always insist that friendship evangelists should totally mean their friendship overtures, cultivate a real friendship for its own sake, and even maintain it if somehow the sales pitch fails. Over and over again, these teachers stress the importance of being utterly and completely sincere.

And the tribe nods along on cue, as wide-eyed and and innocent as baby kittens:

Oh of COURSE we’d do that. We’re not just treating people like notches on Bible covers! No no, not us! Never would we ever! 

This piously-fraudulent act reminds me of that joke about penguins watching airplanes. (My dad told it to me around 1983 regarding Coast Guard pilots, so it’s even older than Snopes thinks.) After solemnly promising to build only sincere friendships, these soulwinners then go out and do exactly the opposite.

Their Dear Leaders sure don’t stop them. Instead, they only seek to provide new and innovative ways to rationalize what the flocks are doing.

A Callous Manipulation.

If you lived in Hudson, Massachusetts during the early 90s, the phrase “Pizza Blast” strikes either rage or regret into your heart.

Stuff Christians Like: The Bait and Switch
(And hey. It can do both.)

As many regular readers know, I myself was the victim of a friendship evangelist.

My friendship evangelist’s name was Jennifer, and she was a very popular girl — a senior. I was a painfully-awkward sophomore. When she began to work on me, I had no idea she just wanted to sell me her product. Instead, I felt pathetically grateful for her overtures. When she invited me to a pizza blast at her church, a local Southern Baptist megachurch, I immediately accepted.

Man, I thought I was going places now. I had been noticed. By a cool kid. It was so exciting!

That night, after her church leaders baited-and-switched the teen audience from “YAY, free pizza and music” to “OMG, YOU ARE ALL TOTALLY GOING TO HELL,” I got saved.

The next morning, Jennifer immediately abandoned me. She ignored me completely.

And that hurt. It still does decades later. The memory makes my eyes prickle even now with tears still unshed. Jennifer callously manipulated my aches and longings and needs and hopes (just as the preacher had done with my fears). After she’d made her sale, her tribe showered her with adoration and praise.

I guess at least that experience kept me from doing the same to others.

Yep, “The Gospel Does Not Need Trickery.”

Don’t weaken now, warrior! Hold on to your rage! Tears come later — tears of triumph — when you have killed all of your dead lifemate’s enemies!

— good metaphorical advice from Elfquest

However, I’m far from an isolated case. Multiply me by many millions of people similarly burned by friendship evangelists.

Joke’s on Jennifer and her adoring church, though, y’all. I only stayed a member there for a few months, so her efforts didn’t even bear fruit, as the Christianese goes. In fact, the sheer hypocrisy I encountered at that church played no small part in my decision to leave their entire denomination.

I just wish I’d realized at the time that all sales-minded flavors of Christianity use and encourage this tactic.

The way I see it, friendship evangelism evolved into being because Christian salespeople can’t honestly sell their product. They must trick their marks into standing still long enough to hear the pitch. Otherwise, their product simply doesn’t sell. Nobody wants it. Customers must be cajoled, bamboozled, even lied to and manipulated before they lay out any long green for it. And Christian salespeople must constantly prowl for marks ignorant or desperate enough to fall for these tactics.

Yeah, I guess I’m kinda comparing evangelists to advance-fee scammers. Also multi-level marketing schemes’ recruiters. But hey, the shoe fits.

Rationalizing Dishonesty.

If Christian salespeople could just hang out a shingle and see customers come to them, they’d certainly do it. But they can’t. If they could conduct regular marketing like any other business does and see results from it, they’d do that. But that doesn’t work either.

So they reach for tactics like friendship evangelism. Then, to help themselves feel less like absolute skidmarks for doing something so reprehensible, they rationalize their behavior with all kinds of lies.

  • They’re totally being sincere here, y’all. (Except they’re not.)
  • Their marks are in mortal danger and friendship evangelists are really Big Damn Heroes for tackling them out of harm’s way. (Except there’s no real danger.)
  • Everyone loves making a new friend! (Except they ghost these totally-for-realsies friends as soon as the mark unequivocally rejects their pitch.)
  • They just want the best for their NEW FRENZ. (Except the marks don’t agree about what’s best! They don’t even want to be a DIY project, dangit! Those poor lowly savage heathens! Why won’t they listen?)
  • When the day arrives for the sales pitch to be made, the marks will welcome it because FRENZ!! (Except they absolutely do not.)
  • They’re making all these overtures out of purely unselfish motives! (Except they’re not.)
  • Nooooobody will notice what they’re doing. (Except whoa nelly, we really do.)

Decent human beings who embrace Christianity can even get swept up into these self-serving lies, sometimes for many years. It can be really daunting for anyone to realize that they’ve been the baddies. Thankfully, decent folks tend to figure out sooner or later what impact their behavior has on the people they care about — or at least realize that they’re destroying relationship capital that they can’t ever get back and for no real returns at all.

Follow the Money.

Then we see apologists like Lee Strobel out there in Christian-Land teaching his followers sales techniques that do nothing but backfire hard, hurt people, and further erode his religion’s already tanked credibility levels.

But then I “think on this, and most is mended:”

Not too long after Strobel began shilling this strategy, his religion entered terminal decline. I’m sure that’s not a coincidence, though his teachings are likely not a causative force, of course — but rather, more a reflection of a new normalNobody reputable gives Christianity any chance of recovery now. In fact, we’re still looking for the bottoming-out of the decline.

Friendship evangelism, as appealing as it sounds to its userbase, has done nothing to help and likely has only hurt Christianity as well as Christians themselves in the long run.

So something else is going on here besides making sales with the unwashed heathenry. And I wonder if that something involves Christian leaders’ need to maintain ideological purity among their followers in an age when Christians have largely lost their cultural dominance.

NEXT UP: Lee Strobel’s two-tiered action plan for friendship evangelism in Unchurched. See you tomorrow!


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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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