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Yes, Personal Evangelism Is About Disrespect (And It Always Was)

Yes, Personal Evangelism Is About Disrespect (And It Always Was) November 24, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about evangelism — namely, personal evangelism, which is to say amateur, person-to-person evangelism performed by unpaid lay members of a church. In this kind of evangelism, rank-and-file Christian sheep try to persuade new people to join up. But for years now, the flocks have been shying away from this effort. They know that these tactics alienate people and destroy relationships, so increasingly they’re refusing to take part. What a muddle! Today, let’s look at how evangelism functions as a form of disrespect, why it’s always been like that, and why evangelical leaders demand it anyway of their flocks.

the only moral disrespect is their disrespect
(James Pond.)

(Evangelicals love to equivocate between definitions for the word “respect.” Sometimes they use this word mean deference and obedience, and sometimes they mean the kind of kindness and decent treatment that pretty much everyone deserves — even when they’re arguing. And they’ll slide between these meanings in mid-sentence sometimes! For my own part, I mean the latter definition of respect, not the former.)

(Related posts: Respect in Complementarianism; Shane Hayes’ Equivocation; What Respect Means to MeConsumers’ Rights in the Religious Marketplace; Eating Candy for Dinner.)

A Process of Disrespect.

Evangelism is, at heart, a deeply disrespectful behavior. Here’s what I mean:

First, evangelists demand that people listen to a sales pitch they usually don’t want and didn’t ask for. This tactic is also known as interruption marketing. More and more nowadays, actual good salespeople recognize this kind of marketing as a failed tactic prone to backfiring.

But their alternative tends to run toward wheedling and weaseling their way into unrelated conversations, then boorishly turning the topic to their imaginary friend’s threats. One favored method here involves inviting the prospect out for coffee under a pretense of friendship, then using the time to push forward an unwanted sales pitch. To me, the addition of deceptive bait-and-switch tactics make this alternative seem even more disrespectful than a blustering interruption attempt.

Then, evangelists demand that their targets buy into a whole series of nonsensical claims for no good reason. They hammer their prospect with emotional manipulation, obviously-biased testimonials, bizarre threats, and completely unverified claims. None of that seems respectful either.

Evangelists’ stated goal, as always, involves their prospect purchasing one single product: active membership in their particular Christian group. If the prospect refuses to purchase that product, the salesperson tends to retaliate (using threats, vandalism, vicious rumors, ostracism, etc) to drive home their disrespect. And then, if the prospect is very lucky, the evangelist will ghost them and just never talk to them again.

It’s like evangelists left nothing to chance in creating and refining sales strategies that would communicate disrespect to prospective customers.

A Growing Distaste for Disrespect.

Though Barna Group is hardly reputable or credible as a real research group, it made big waves last year with a study indicating that about half of Millennial-aged evangelicals thought personal evangelism was “wrong.”

Sure, they agreed that part of being Christian meant making sales pitches — almost universally. But when it came to actually doing it, half of them felt it was “wrong.” (This study came upon the heels of a similar 2018 study. It found much the same thing.)

Worse from Barna’s point of view, they were positive that had they surveyed even younger Christians, they’d have found even more of them shying away from personal evangelism. Every passing generation likes evangelism less and less, after all.

In diagnosing the source of the flocks’ reluctance, evangelical leaders tend to make hilariously, spectacularly wrong guesses about what’s going on here. As a result, the solutions they offer regarding how to get those younger sheep back on track can’t help but be just as wrong.

(Caveat: Barna Group is a for-profit business catering to worried evangelical leaders. They seek to sell their target market products based on the research they conduct. In this case, Barna really wants evangelical leaders to purchase products that will ostensibly persuade their flocks to evangelize more often — and more effectively.)

Accepting Disrespect.

One site called Pro Preacher insists that The Big Problem Here is the apparently vast number of bad evangelist-apples who are doing evangelism all wrong:

Millennials have seen a lot of “evangelism” cause more harm than good. [. . .]

Evangelism fails when it’s not rooted in love for others.

So a disrespectful, ignorant, or forceful method of evangelism is offensive to most Millennials.

Love this guy’s scare quotes, don’t you? I bet if someone asked these bad apples about the matter, they’d say the same thing. Obviously, theirs is the only real kind of evangelism amid a sea of overly-nice fakes. Oops!

Gee, it’s too bad nobody ever asked that writer to set the evangelism agenda for the entire tribe. I bet his quirky lil take on Jesus-ing would have won the entire world to his banner by now! Totally!

The Only Moral Disrespect Is MY Disrespect.

That ProPreacher guy also thinks Millennials are just too gosh-darn tolerant and too gosh-darn offended by intolerance. Those way-too-tolerant Millennials need to all magically become okay with intolerance. Then they’ll be totes okay with judging and threatening other people to convert them. He writes:

Deep down, I think we’re afraid of offending people and repeating the same mistake we’ve seen before.

What we need are churches that (1) address this concern, (2) admit there are harmful ways of attempting evangelism, and (3) teach how to do evangelism the right way—rooted in our love for God and love for all people (Mark 12:30-31).

It’s interesting that he understands that at its base, no matter how well it’s executed according to his imagined ideal, evangelism is an essentially disrespectful process. He understands that point very well.

His goal, then, becomes adding as few additional strokes of disrespect as he can to the essential base of disrespect inherent to evangelism.

The kettle logic I’ve described here tends to be the party line of evangelical leaders:

  1. It’s totes not disrespectful at all to evangelize.
  2. Even if it were, it’s necessary disrespect.
  3. It’s okay to show disrespect. Just do it in the way we suggest.

I never expect evangelicals to be logically consistent, even with themselves and even within the same train of thought. Even so, their hand-waving here just astonishes me.

Why Disrespect Worked For So Long.

In a very real way, evangelism succeeded (to the extent that it did) despite evangelists’ tactics and despite the disrespectful nature of evangelism itself. Maybe we should say “because” there, even.

For centuries, Christians exerted a great deal of cultural coercionAs a result, evangelists didn’t have to do anything special to make sales. They could be as disrespectful as they liked! In fact, disrespectful tactics may have helped them make sales because such behavior virtue-signaled their cultural power — loud and clear.

But that approach only worked while Christians held so much cultural power. Now they’re fast approaching the level of power they held right when their religion was first created, which is to say almost none. Suddenly, effective strategies matter enormously. More importantly, people increasingly care about not being gratuitously disrespectful to others.

Unfortunately, it’s been centuries since Christians had to come up with effective sales strategies. They’ve completely forgotten how to do it, if they ever knew at all. Worse, they deeply resent any implication that they even should come up with any. They like what they’re doing now and don’t wanna change.

That’s why they’re drilling down so hard on the ones they already have that no longer work.

An Expression of Faith.

Evangelical leaders have understood for years now that their flocks don’t like personal evangelism. They know the flocks generally ignore their demands for compliance in this area. They also know that every one of their recent attempts to goose the flocks into compliance has failed miserably.

But there’s a reason why they can’t stop trying to push the flocks into evangelizing. That reason has nothing to do with increasing the size of their flocks, whatever blahblah excuses they offer to that effect.

David Kinnaman, the leader of Barna Group, provided us with that reason. In that 2019 study, he wrote that amateur evangelism “is an essential practice of following Jesus.”

That sentence stopped me in my tracks.

Yes, of course that’s what evangelism is — to evangelical leaders, at least.

A Bonding Exercise.

In every way, evangelism represents a terrible investment of resources for next-to-no solid or lasting results.

But here, David Kinnaman lets the cat out of the bag. He frets hard that if the flocks aren’t frantically pursuing sales at all times, then they’re at strong risk of dropping out of the religion entirely. Evangelism keeps them in the fold a little better, or at least he thinks so. I suddenly can see this reasoning behind every evangelical leader complaining about evangelicals’ lack of evangelism.

For a while around here, we’ve been speculating that evangelical leaders don’t care about results, only that their flocks make the effort. And Kinnaman has confirmed that speculation in glorious Technicolor.

So these disrespectful strategies aren’t actually about capturing new customers. Rather, evangelical leaders push personal evangelism onto their flocks as a way of retaining their dwindling base of existing customers. They’re using the deliberate annoying, offending, and inconveniencing of others as a way to increase retention for their own profit.

Ouch. That is some cheek, right there. No wonder personal evangelism is so ineffective! The best thing we can say about it, really, is that younger evangelicals seem less and less inclined to do it. So that tidal flood of people leaving Christianity will not be ending any time soon.

I dunno about anyone else, but I think that’s very good news for a stressful week.

NEXT UP: When evangelicals lack real success at recruitment, there’s a lot of ways they can appear successful at it. We’ll cover some of those ways tomorrow. See you then!


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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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