Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been discussing Lee Strobel’s first Christian book, 1993’s Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary. In this book, he offers evangelical soulwinners advice about selling their churches to people outside their culture. To make himself seem more authoritative, he pushes very hard on his supposed past as totally-an-atheist-y’all. He also draws upon his supposedly strong and numerous friendships with exactly the people he seeks to recruit as customers. Today, let’s look at Lee Strobel’s totally real atheist friends — and how his own words completely destroy that claim.
(Previous Lee Strobel posts: The Coin He Offers; Lee Strobel’s Friendship Evangelism; Friendship Evangelism; This Action Plan Doesn’t Work; Tickling Evangelical Ears; This Book’s Revealing Endorsements; The Many Lies Lee Strobel Tells About Unchurched Harry and Mary; A Non-Portrait of the Captain (1-4); Indoctrinating Evangelicals More (5-8); Seeker-Sensitive Churches (9-12); Martyrbation Ahoy (13-15); The Original Listicle. Page numbers come from the 1993 paperback edition of the book.)
Why, Some of Lee Strobel’s Best Friends Are Atheists!
Early on in Unchurched, Lee Strobel makes this distasteful declaration (p. 15):
I love irreligious people. Some of my best friends are, in reality, hell-bound pagans, and I am impassioned about wanting to see them transformed by the same amazing grace that radically redirected the trajectory of my life.
Yes, some of his best friends. He went there. My jaw dropped when I read that.
By the way, “hell-bound pagans” are atheists. That becomes abundantly and immediately clear in the book. But like a lot of evangelicals do, he muddles atheists up with generally disengaged Christians who reject church membership. Most of the book deals with the strawmen he erects and sets ablaze about atheism. He includes disengaged Christians almost as an afterthought. Then, he promises that his sales strategies will work on anyone from either group.
Of course, I immediately felt serious doubt that Strobel has ever had friends who qualify as atheists, much less who are “hell-bound pagans.” The further into the book I read, the stronger that doubt became. This claim definitely sounds like the evangelical equivalent of the “bags of sand” scene from The Forty Year Old Virgin.
It’s strange, as well, that I’ve never heard from any of these “hell-bound pagan” “best friends” of his. Where are they? More importantly, who are they? He talks a lot about all these atheist friends of his and has ever since Unchurched, but they never seem to speak up for themselves.
How Strobel’s “Friends” Really Take His Sales Pitches.
In 2016, Lee Strobel gave a speech to some Baptists about an atheist “friend” of his. In it, he comes off as genuinely predatory toward this person. The friend’s response, as well, sure doesn’t sound friendly!
Easter was coming soon, and he [Strobel] felt led by God to invite his atheist coworker to church.
“I thought: ‘This is great! If God is prompting me to do this, something wonderful is probably going to happen. He’s probably going to repent right there.’ I had a lot of confidence,” Strobel said.
Strobel tried several invitational approaches, but his friend swiftly shut him down each time, finally saying, “I don’t want to go to your stupid church.”
He left the office confused. Why had he felt so compelled to invite his friend, only to be shut down? Strobel said it bothered him for years, because to this day, his friend still is an atheist.
It’s just so amazingly gormless and lacking in self-awareness. But Strobel’s been treating people like this for what sounds like his entire life.
Strobel doesn’t even consider for one moment that maybe his god had nothing to do with his self-described compulsion to make repeated unwanted sales pitches to his co-worker. But more importantly:
This doesn’t sound much like how friends interact. If this is how Lee Strobel treats his “friends,” it sure explains a lot about evangelicals’ plummeting credibility and popularity.
The Friends of Unchurched.
We don’t know when this Easter story happened, but I can tell you that he acted the same way in 1993.
I’ve already mentioned two of the totes-atheist friends Strobel mentions in his book (pp. 85-88): the “crusty old newsman” and the “old school friend.” He describes them as “friends” both times, but it’s obvious that he has no real interaction with them — even on a salesmanship basis.
The “old school friend” had moved back to Chicago after years away. Strobel felt he’d be a good recruitment prospect — after some softening-up with
love-bombing relationship-building, of course. However, Strobel was just too darned busy with his new ministry job (at Willow Creek) to begin that fix-it project. In fact, he literally refers to his desire to recruit this “friend” as a “micro-ministry.” Alas, the friend moved away again before Strobel could really get going on it, thank goodness. He mentions no further conversations with this “friend.” NO SALE.
The “crusty old newsman” doesn’t even get the label of friend. Instead, Strobel refers to him as an “acquaintance.” They met after years apart at a courthouse by chance and had exactly one conversation. Strobel hopes to have another conversation at some point, but it’s obvious that this one conversation represents the full extent of their interaction. NO SALE.
An unnamed “well-known atheist” similarly gets no such label as friend (p. 103). Lee Strobel describes a lunch with him that seems to be drawn entirely from his own imagination. That’s all the interaction he has with this person. NO SALE.
Preying on a Dying Old Man.
Unchurched only sets the stage, though.
Strobel also reveals in a 2017 interview that he preyed on his dying father-in-law, who he claims was an atheist too.
Without going into too much detail now, suffice to say that Strobel grew up in a very religious home. In his youth, he was about as skeptical as a dog wanting walkies. In his testimony, however, he claims he grew up atheist and was surrounded by atheists everywhere — including his father-in-law:
The Christian author said that following his conversion, he went with Leslie to “tell Al about Jesus,” but was met with a cold response: “Good for you, but never bring up Jesus to me again,” his father-in-law said.
“But he was on his death bed, I shared Jesus once more with him, and he came to faith in the last cogent conversation of his life, and he died,” Strobel revealed.
A chill ran through me to imagine that poor old man harangued at the moment of his death by this unspeakable opportunist. I’m already not impressed at all with Strobel’s integrity or honesty, and I know well how much evangelicals love to make up “deathbed conversion” stories.
When the dead person represents a particular raised middle finger to the evangelicals’ claims, then they work doubly hard to create these narratives. It’s a way to neutralize that person’s troubling existence, to tame them, to say: See? SEE? This enemy of ours saw we were right in the end! Everyone does!
Evangelicals tried hard — but unsuccessfully, it seems to me — to neutralize the work of Christopher Hitchens that way. Obviously Lee Strobel would find his own father-in-law’s rejection to be a similar sticking point.
I hope the poor fellow just humored his dipstick of a son-in-law so he could get to the important work of dying among his loved ones.
Either way, this is not how one treats anyone they love.
What the “Some of My Best Friends” Ploy Accomplishes.
By the way, even in the 1990s people knew better than to say that. We knew what it meant. But Lee Strobel confidently asserts it — and has all but made it part of his evangelism-training package.
Hey, it’s a tough field he’s in with way too much competition — and it’s only gotten more cutthroat since 1993. A player’s got to up his game constantly to have any hope of standing out from the crowd. Gone, gone, gone are the days when someone could claim to have been a Satanic Wiccan High Priest before his miraculous conversion.
Lee Strobel’s staked his position out on that crowded field: he’s the atheist whisperer. He totally understands atheists.
I mean, come on! He WAS one, for realsies! And some of his best friends still are, totally! Why would an evangelical leader lie about something so important?
So yes, Strobel needs his tribe to regard him as an expert regarding one of their enemy outgroups. Just having one of those trendy totally-used-to-be-an-atheist-y’all testimonies isn’t enough. He also needs to demonstrate his immersion in the ickie weird wild world of non-believers. What better way than to claim strong relationships with the outgroup?
He can’t be wrong about these “hell-bound pagans!” Nor can he possibly be suggesting unfair or even hateful things about them! No no! See, some of his best friends are
atheists hell-bound pagans!
(Oh, And A Word Regarding the “Hell-Bound Pagan” Crack.)
Lee Strobel is one of those Christians who jokes about people burning alive forever. In referring to his dear friends as “hell-bound pagans,” he makes it sound like eternal torture is some kind of hilarious joke.
Lee Strobel absolutely buys into the idea of eternal torture for noncompliance. He’s not only okay with his god doing that, but he’s joking about this imagined fate ahead of of billions of people.
Out of every atrocity in Christians’ mythology, Hell takes the grandmaster title of the cruelest, most evil, most wicked, most shameless, and most grotesque of ’em all. It just amazes me that evangelicals don’t realize what they communicate when they talk like that.
I mean, sure, obviously, you know and I know Hell’s not real. But evangelicals think it’s real, and this is how they engage with the idea of the suffering of those who reject their product.
It’s downright chilling to think of one’s friends suffering at all. But to believe they’ll suffer eternal torture with no reprieve or mercy and then to joke about it?
When he talks like this, he gives me the impression he’s a sociopath.
With Friends Like Lee, Who Needs Enemies?
There’s a human cost to this deceptive behavior. Every person who gets burned by a friendship evangelist will remember it forever. D’you think that person will think kindly of the ideology driving such mistreatment? Thirty-plus years after my own experience with friendship evangelism, I barely remember the names of most of my school friends — but I remember the full name of the girl who deceived me that way.
Friendship evangelists’ victims aren’t the only ones losing out, either.
Lee Strobel’s teachings only divide evangelicals further from those outside the tribe. He gives his followers false information about their tribal enemies and about themselves as a group, then constantly encourages them to use this false information to hard-sell their loved ones. Over and over again in the book, he advises a damn-the-torpedoes, pedal-to-the-metal mindset.
This is the kind of encouragement that made me a thoroughgoing pain in the neck to everyone around me when I was a young zealot. A lot of those times, I felt obligated to make unwanted sales pitches. I know other Christians felt the same — and still do.
Just like Thom Rainer, however, Lee Strobel sure won’t be adversely affected if one of his followers destroys a long relationship using his advice. He won’t pay the price for their failure. We both know, right, that if anybody brought that up these leaders would only go into a long lecture about “counting the cost.”
More Like Transactions Than Friends.
I suppose the best thing we can say about Lee Strobel’s friendship evangelism is that he barely practices it at all, doesn’t actually make any sales with it, and teaches other Christians to use disastrous tactics — which ensures that their religion will only continue to decline in numbers and cultural power.
Indeed, his target audience won’t even wonder why they never make any sales with his techniques. They won’t even question his mischaracterizations of their enemies, much less investigate his claimed testimony, much less ask for real evidence that his suggestions work.
In fact, tomorrow we’ll look at the literal only two evangelism sorta-successes I counted in his entire book! It caught my attention in a major way while researching today’s post and I think it merits its own discussion. This is an interesting type of lying-for-Jesus, and Lee Strobel demonstrates it well. For now, we rest here:
I’m not sure this guy even understands what friendship is, much less how to practice it. He treats “friends” like vending machines and freely pushes his product on everyone he can. He’s a great illustration of exactly why his religion is in decline — and everyone who follows his advice is only helping that process along.
NEXT UP: How evangelical leaders artificially inflate their sales success — and why the flocks always believe them.
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