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Unchurched: Friendship Evangelism, Lee Strobel Style

Unchurched: Friendship Evangelism, Lee Strobel Style June 21, 2020

Hello and welcome back! We return here to our examination of Lee Strobel’s awful 1993 book, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and MaryIn this book, he offers a two-level strategy of recruitment techniques (church-level and person-to-person). Yesterday, I offered you an overview of the personal-level strategy he suggests, friendship evangelism. Today, I want to show you Lee Strobel’s absolutely callous and blatantly opportunistic twist on that old, old strategy. 

true kitten friendship is so utterly sincere unlike these salespeople for jesus
(Malkarium.)

(Previous Lee Strobel posts: An Overview of Friendship EvangelismThis 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.)

1) Select a Candidate to Be Your New Unchurched Friend.

First and foremost, soulwinners must select a candidate for this treatment. Lee Strobel highly recommends the candidate be a formerly-close friend, especially folks from the salesperson’s pre-conversion days.

In addition, Strobel suggests that Christians change up where they eat, buy gasoline, and shop so they can cultivate as many potential customers as possible. Elsewhere, he suggests Christians go out of their way to create a friendship-roster of as many non-Christians as they can (p. 90):

Is there someone in your world for whom you could make a choice to build a relational bridge? Maybe it’s the person who just joined your company and is feeling like an outsider. Or the cashier you see at the health club when you stop by to work out every Wednesday morning. Or the fellow student at those MBA classes you’re taking on the weekends.

If I were one of those folks, I’d be quite offended by this approach. In fact, I have and I was, as I’ll show you momentarily.

However, all the sales-minded flavors of Christianity nowadays practice this step and consider it a foolproof way to get sales pitches in front of their marks.

1a) Cracking the Code.

Many times, I’ve had Christians show up here — or contact me privately — to proclaim that they’ve selected me to be their Official New Non-Christian Friend. 

No, they don’t initiate friendship because we have any real connection, compatibility, or anything in common. It’s because I’m a vocal non-Christian, and they need a vocal-non-Christian to call a friend so they can properly deploy their sales strategy. They just chose me to fill the role of customer, that’s all.

That’s exactly how Lee Strobel sells this idea to them, too (p. 88):

What strategic choice can you make to enter an unbeliever’s enclave and connect with him or her for the eventual purpose of doing kingdom business?

I guess his followers have never seen that absolutely famous advertisement from the late 1970s:


Anti-prejudice PSA. I remember this playing on constant rotation, especially on Saturday late-morning kids’ shows. 

And y’all, this has happened to me I-don’t-even-know-how-goddamned-often in the past, before I caught on to what was happening. See, when I accepted these overtures, my new totes-for-realsies friends never took long to break out their sales pitches. Our “friendship” lasted exactly as long as it took them to realize I would never, ever purchase their product (active membership in their flavor of Christianity). Since selling me their product was the only reason they’d sought me out in the first place, they always withdrew without notice after that.

Eventually, I learned that if the only reason I’m being sought out is my perceived need for a particular product, that other person isn’t actually seeking real friendship with me.

2) Make Overtures of Friendship.

After Strobel’s salespeople select a suitable candidate, they then must launch a friendship campaign that will open the door to a sales-pitch opportunity.

Lee Strobel explains this step with appalling cynicism (p. 85):

I had an old school friend who moved back to the Chicago area a few years ago, and we got together a couple of times. While he seemed somewhat receptive to spiritual discussions, it was clear that I was going to have to rebuild our friendship before I could earn the right to delve deeply into such a personal topic as God.

Strobel doesn’t evaluate this potential rekindling on the basis of mutual benefits. Instead, he evaluates it purely on the basis of how willing this friend is to engage in pre-sales-pitch banter. And Strobel makes it crystal-clear that this “friendship” will require “rebuilding” before he, the salesperson, could “earn the right” to make the big sales pitch.

(Christians never “earn the right to speak.” Unwanted sales pitches remain unwanted no matter how many friendship tokens Christians push into their marks.)

2a) But Be SINCERE!

Every single friendship evangelist huckster sells this system with stern warnings to be utterly sincere about these friendship campaigns. Lee Strobel’s no exception (p. 90):

[The campaign’s about] taking a genuine interest in Unchurched Harry’s life. It’s asking him questions. It’s finding out about his world. [. . .] expressing authentic curiosity about his situation in life.

When you do that, many times you’ll discover some common interests that you can use to deepen the relationship. And at the same time, you’re doing what Jesus did with the woman at the well: you’re affirming Harry’s value and dignity just by taking the time to sincerely relate to him.

He even compares this condescension to to the Gospel story of the woman at the well: that lady conjob!Jesus cold-read, sorta-kinda sold his product to, and then ghosted. Now that I think of it, yes, it might actually be just like that! I bet this totally-really-existing woman felt like total besties with Jesus after that!

It’s stuff like this that makes me feel so cynical about Christians promising, all wide-eyed like innocent baby kittens, that they are 100% sincere in “building relationships” with their marks, like they’re pursuing them purely for friendship’s sake. They use lots of words like authentic, genuine, sincere, and curiosity.

Thankfully, they always give away the real game before too awfully long. The next step ensures it.

3) Watch For a Sales Opportunity.

Once the soulwinner gets the mark off-guard, the real work begins. At every single opportunity from then on, the salesperson must be alert to a potential to start up the pitch. Anything could serve as an opening — and should. As Strobel himself puts it (p. 87):

There are some definite advantages to this approach. Because you used to be friends, you already know there will be some affinity between you. And this renewed relationship will open up all sorts of natural opportunities to talk, over the long haul, about the changes you’ve experienced in your life since coming to Christ [LOL NOCC]. After all, what’s going to be a main topic of conversation? It’s going to be what’s been happening in each other’s lives. What a great chance to talk about the impact Christ has had on you!

And then he offers a page or two of examples about how he’s snaked sales pitches in on various old acquaintances of his own.

Of course, Christians don’t have to go to all that trouble.

In one job I had in a workplace top-full of fundagelicals, I soon learned not to ask them how they were doing. The answer would always be a weird toothy grin and a manic-sounding “LIVING THE DREAM!” Soon enough, I learned that their church leaders had directed them to answer that way. They took any reply as permission to launch into their sales script.

But if they’ve cultivated a non-Christian “friendship,” then theoretically that “relationship” eliminates marks’ wariness.

(More on this in a later post.)

4) Pounce!

All of a sudden, I feel disappointed and foolish. Had [the old friend] actually wanted to catch up, or did they just see me as an untapped customer? And why does this exchange unsettle me so much that it irks me even days later?

I may call these DMs invasive, annoying, and effing with my concept of who I can really count as a friend, but strictly speaking, it’s just business.

— oh yay, another similarity with MLMs (source)

Once the door seems open, then the salesperson must pounce on the victim with a zinger sales pitch.

One of Strobel’s examples made me see red on behalf of his victim, incidentally.

In his anecdote, Strobel ran into a “crusty old newsman” he’d known before conversion. When he told the fellow he now worked for a church (as the teaching pastor for the red-flag-riddled Willow Creek Community Church), this is what happened (p. 87):

His cigarette almost fell out of his mouth. “I’ll be damned!” he said.

“Well,” I chuckled, “you don’t have to be.”

That opened the door to a spiritual conversation, and I’m praying that our renewed relationship will give me the future opportunities to talk to him about Christ.

Lee Strobel doesn’t pursue this “renewed relationship” for its own sake. He isn’t looking forward to the actual experience of friendship. No, he speaks only in terms of hopefully selling church membership to the guy.

4a) Don’t Miss Any Opportunities!

Thankfully, Lee Strobel never pursues these fake friendships too far.

In fact, the “old school friend” moved away before Strobel could even embark on that particular campaign. Predictably, Strobel wrings his hands in the book over missing that valuable opportunity. I mean gosh, what if he — a lowly human — had somehow stymied his god’s entire ineffable cosmic plan by failing even to begin emotionally-manipulating this guy?

Don’t worry though! Strobel turned that disappointment into inspiration. He redoubled his efforts to “build a relationship” with business owners and workers all over the place. Sure, he hasn’t sold any product yet. But he’s planted lots of seeds, right?

Despite his own poor sales record, Strobel drills down hard in Unchurched on guilting his followers over the idea of missing sales opportunities. He specifically advises his readers not to “play it safe” in destroying their social relationships.

Of course, in Reality-Land, most Christians have long demonstrated that usually, they won’t burn relationships unless they’ve landed an absolutely certain sale. Lee Strobel needs to get them over that cautious hump.

4b) The Eternal Consequences of a Missed Sales Opportunity.

To do that, Strobel uses fear to prod the flocks. He deliberately stokes their powerful Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). One of his anecdotes (p. 92) involves a heartbroken salesperson whose mark (an elderly neighbor) literally died before he could feel safe enough to hard-sell her.

OMG Y’ALL, THAT GUY TOTALLY SENT HER TO HELL!!! OMG OMG!!!

GASP. CLUTCH PEARLS. SHAKE FIST AT SKY. 

(but definitely continue to worship the monstrous deity who supposedly set up that unjust, wicked cosmology in the first place)

Lee Strobel doesn’t flat-out declare that this salesperson damned his neighbor to Hell through inaction, of course. But as an ex-Christian, I know for 100% sure his coy insinuations imply it — like this one does (p. 93):

Only God knows the spiritual condition of that woman’s heart at the time she died, but that man is going to wonder about it for a long time.

No evangelical would miss the implications there. As it is for most evangelicals, this was a defining anxiety for me.

5) Hooray Team Jesus! (Or Not.)

The rest of Strobel’s approach consists of steps we’ll cover much later on. Mostly, the rest involves overcoming objections and finding good angles of motivation — like any hard-sales huckster must learn.

They don’t work, of course, as if you needed me to say that.

Amazingly enough, however, most Christians who encounter this book come away feeling excited over an approach that feels workable and reliable. (And their own faith is bolstered that way.) That said, in this book Lee Strobel recounts few if any actual successful sales using his own approach!

Every encounter he mentions, though, seems to end on a super-hopeful high note. Everyone he pitches product to ends up thoughtfully considering a purchase, if he’s to be believed (LOL NO, he is not). And that makes perfect sense. He’s selling this strategy to sub-salespeople beneath him. They’re the ones supporting him. He’s not going to sell many books if he admits his approach doesn’t work any better than whatever else they could use.

However, in this very book we see the truth. This huckster seals his deals about as often as my crowd and I did in the early 1990s (which is to say, almost never). 

Same As It Ever Was.

This book came out in 1993. And yet it remains, in 2020, 100% topical and current to how evangelicals flog their product today. Personal evangelism in general remains in much the same state it was in back in 1993, too, right down to its lackluster success rate.

(That’s definitely the mark of a group oriented around reality, right? They never ever change and their strategies don’t either. Only their demands of others and their own wingnuttery seem to.)

If anything, friendship evangelism has only become more embedded in evangelical culture than it was in 1993. Indeed, very few evangelicals dare to speak against it (as this Christian site does).

And even fewer evangelicals today bother to examine its effectiveness before adopting it as their primary sales strategy.

The very few surveys on that topic that I could find (like this one) come exclusively from the sellers and advocates of the system itself — and I doubt their methodology was strong. Instead, evangelicals seem like they’ve always assumed friendship evangelism works because it sounds super-Jesus-y and because their thought leaders prop it up with lots of Bible verses.

Next time we return to this book, I’ll show you why they didn’t notice what was really going on here. Because I really don’t think they did.

NEXT UP: LSP! Then, we’ll look at yet another TRUE CHRISTIAN™ who turned out to be a disgusting criminal preying on the desperate.

(Boy, with that description there’s no way you’ll guess what story this concerns. Here, this’ll help: he’s a Republican elected official too! Oh wait. Still not helpful.) See you tomorrow!


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And the last note: Been listening to this today and it’s just got me enthralled. She’s a queen, truly.


“Black Parade,” Beyoncé. MCR fans will be really confused for a minute here, and I’m okay with that.

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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