Jerry Root Offers Up the Worst Evangelism Advice I’ve Seen Lately

Jerry Root Offers Up the Worst Evangelism Advice I’ve Seen Lately December 26, 2020

Hi and welcome back! We find today’s story in a recent Christmastime post from Christianity Today. In it, evangelism professor Jerry Root offers some handy-dandy tips to evangelicals about how to evangelize their unwilling friends and relatives around the holidays. One of his tips is incredibly bad, so bad that it made me laugh aloud. Today, let me show you what he told readers to do to make sales. Then, I want to share what will happen if any of his hapless followers actually try to trot it out on real targets.

don't make this weird okay
(Korney Violin.)

(I talk about evangelism as a sales process. The goal in evangelism is convincing a target to join the evangelist’s own Christian group as an active, involved layperson. Thus, an evangelist’s product is not belief in Jesus at all or even acceptance of a particular set of doctrinal beliefs, but rather active membership in their own group.) 

Jerry Root and Ed Stetzer: The Ignorant Leading the Ignorant.

Jerry Root works at Wheaton College as a Professor of Evangelism, as the bio on his post tells us. That implies a close association with our old pal Ed Stetzer, who works at the same college in much the same capacity. Indeed, Jerry Root guest-wrote this post for Ed Stetzer’s comfortable nook on Christianity Today.

It’s important to note that Ed Stetzer styles himself a successful evangelist. Even more than that, he styles himself as someone who possesses successful evangelism techniques that he’s happy to share with young, bright-eyed, paying evangelism students.

However, I’ve never seen any indication whatsoever that anything he’s ever done has resulted in any great number of sales. In fact, during his tenure at the Southern Baptist Convention as their Executive Director of LifeWay Research, the SBC began its most serious decline ever. Nothing he did or suggested made any difference at all to their sales numbers.

But once they reach a sufficiently high rank within the tribe, evangelicals never need to worry about their futures. Nobody ever holds them accountable, ever, for anything they say or do — or teach (as long as they toe the line about the culture wars). So to nobody’s surprise, Stetzer branched across to Wheaton College to teach the stuff he can’t actually do.

I bring up Ed Stetzer’s career trajectory for a reason. Just because Jerry Root landed a position at an evangelical college teaching evangelism, that doesn’t mean he actually knows anything about successful evangelism. But it does imply very strongly that he knows how to play the evangelical-leader game.

What we’re about to see of his teachings confirms that suspicion. 

How to “Share Jesus” at Christmas.

For the past couple of years at least, evangelicals’ Dear Leaders have been hammering at them with the desperate importance of what they call personal evangelism. That means a person-to-person sales pitch.

All kinds of evangelical leaders have begun to act like the flocks themselves must begin making sales or else the tribe is doomed. They’ve been offering tips and tricks to the flocks along these lines for a while now, mostly concentrating on persuading their sheep to at least try to score a sale.

That mindset is where today’s story begins.

Jerry Root’s post seeks to give evangelical readers tips for “sharing Jesus” at Christmas. That phrase is Christianese. It means issuing unwanted sales pitches. They’re not really “sharing Jesus” at all. Rather, they’re seeking recruits for their own groups. Active group membership, not “Jesus,” is the true product they sell. But calling a manipulative recruitment attempt “sharing Jesus” makes it sound way less predatory.

The Product Nobody Wants.

That said, evangelicals are acutely aware that nobody wants their product no matter what they call it. So it’s getting harder and harder for them to even begin making a sales pitch nowadays.

So the first part of Jerry Root’s post focuses on pushing the flocks out onto the selling floor. It’s beyond hilarious. He writes:

Today, I want to help train your eyes to see opportunities to see where you might be able to share despite these difficulties. Before we do this, though, we must cultivate our own love for Jesus. It is always easy to talk about the things you love, and to do it with authenticity. A grandmother does not have to be coerced to break out pictures of the grandkids and speak of them. A sports enthusiast speaks frequently and with ease about the team he or she follows with passion. So too, sharing the Gospel with passion and authenticity begins with a growing love for Jesus.

Don’t you just love it when Christian leaders insist that their flocks be authentic in their sales attempts?

When I was a teenager, I belonged to various clubs — comic book and anime fan clubs, the SCA. I never had to be told to be authentic in inviting outsiders to club meetings. But evangelicals must be goosed on the butts to show “passion and authenticity” about their product.

It’s also interesting that Root thinks his readers don’t already totally love their imaginary friend Jesus, but must cultivate that emotion so they can get to the point where they can convincingly sell their product.

But this post is about to get even funnier, because Root will soon dive into the main objection his followers will hear once they cross that Rubicon of starting a sales pitch.

1) Yes, They’re THAT Ignorant About Their Own Faith.

Just to whisk through Jerry Root’s listicle, #1 on the list is his advice for dealing with questions the salesperson can’t answer. I received this exact same advice in my teens as a bright-eyed Pentecostal soulwinner. Here it is:

Your friends and family will ask you questions about your faith. When they ask, you might not know the answer. Don’t be put off by this! Say, “That’s a great question,” and go find them the answers. That can lead to a substantive conversation, and one that can make that person feel valued and cared for.

Yeah, the reality doesn’t look like this gauzy vision at all.

In reality, the Christian usually manages to chirp out the canned reply. That’ll be the last anyone will ever hear of the matter. Usually, the foiled salesperson studiously avoids that target forever more.

This bad advice lands at #1 because evangelicals really don’t know much about their own faith — and there are a lot of things about Christianity that don’t make much sense at all, even to lifelong Christians. So these earnest, would-be soulwinners can get tripped up very easily.

Even worse, they’ll find that there really aren’t any good answers for most of the questions they’ll receive. Maybe there aren’t even bad answer attempts for those questions. The easiest way to proceed is to act like they never got asked the question at all.

And so that’s what they’ve been doing — for many years.

2) Yes, They’re THAT Hypocritical.

Jerry Root’s second bit of advice concerns how to respond to accusations of hypocrisy.

Obviously, if salespeople push a particular product that they swear has numerous benefits, we want to know if they’re using the product themselves and getting those results. If the salespeople aren’t actually using the product at all, then that really knocks back their claims of its benefits. They don’t believe in the product themselves. So why should their targets buy it?

But Root’s advice is possibly the worst comeback for accusations of hypocrisy that I have ever seen. He writes:

People want to know if the Gospel is real. They will look for the evidence in your life, and will point out any hypocrisy, and it is our duty to respond in a Christ-like way. They will see we are secure in the love of Christ and can hear their criticisms. Rather, than make excuses we grow from these experiences. We can even thank them for pointing out our shortcomings. We can say, I am grateful to you for the flaws you pointed out. Please forgive me, because I would not want anything I did to keep you from seeing how deeply Christ loves you.

Did you catch the way he completely avoids the entire subject of hypocrisy? Does he seriously think his sales targets won’t notice and feel utterly condescended-to?

Indeed, the reply he suggests will completely backfire in real life. 

Why This Suggestion Will Backfire.

He doesn’t actually respond to the objection at all, because he really can’t. Hypocrisy is baked into Christianity in general, but evangelicals amp that hypocrisy up to 11.

No evangelical ever, anywhere, actually welcomes accusations of hypocrisy. They might manage to squeak out that “grateful” line he suggests, sure. But they won’t actually change to be less hypocritical.

However, Root never advises the flocks to quit being such awful hypocrites. Instead, he tells them to sidestep the accusation and imply that hypocrisy doesn’t matter at all.

Root’s advice represents that do what I say, not what I do element in the evangelical psyche.

But if a Christian’s life doesn’t reflect obedience to Christian rules, then it obviously isn’t a workable ruleset or a compelling worldview. Why would anybody choose to affiliate with a whole group of people dancing around their universal inability to follow their own stated rules? That sounds like a recipe for disaster and drama.

Nobody sensible joins groups containing large numbers of hypocrites — no matter how Jesus-flavored it might be.

3) Yes, They’re THAT Scared to Make a Sales Pitch.

Jerry Root’s third bit of advice just seeks to embolden the sheep to start making sales pitches to everyone they know. It’s pathetically obvious and hamfisted:

You will find that God is already at work in your family and friends. Again, we do not take Jesus to anyone. He is already there. We go to make explicit what He is already doing implicitly.

Good luck figuring out how to tell if this invisible being is really “at work” at anything at all, much less if he isn’t. Evangelicals tend to avoid questions about that (see #1 above).

But that’s not what’s going on here. Instead, Jerry Root just wants his followers to think their imaginary friend has already softened up their targets. That way, when they start their sales pitches they’ll have a better reception.

Hooray Team Jesus!

Yes, Their Leaders Are THAT Opportunistic.

Having done away with what he sees as the three biggest objections to purchasing evangelicals’ product, Jerry Root offers up a slew of scenarios in which the flocks can start a sales pitch “naturally and winsomely.”

He tells his readers to opportunistically dive into a sales pitch whenever they find “points of connection” with their targets:

Begin conversations by commenting about public things; things that you perhaps share in common. There is plenty available, with which you can begin a conversation. To list a few examples: The point of Christmas, the idea of gift giving, the Salvation Army bell ringer outside the store, and the list goes on. At Christmas, there are connection points everywhere.

He tells his readers to listen very carefully to whatever answers they get from their probing questions. But they’re not listening because that’s the kind and friendly thing to do. They’re listening for openings they can use. Root writes:

Listen well for the answers, as you will most likely be given permission to ask follow-up questions around the data supplied in the answer. This is all part of looking for an opening for the Gospel. Learning the art of asking questions and listening (in a way that reveals genuine interest in others) opens doors for the Gospel.

But if someone’s listening to you purely to find openings for a sales pitch, they are not genuinely interested in you. Period.

Evangelicals have always had a big problem with insincerity. Always, they must be told to act like kind and compassionate people, told to evince signs of genuine interest in their targets, told to behave in friendly ways.

The process of evangelism itself naturally prevents all of those things — even more than evangelicals’ dysfunctional and authoritarian culture does.

The Land Where Nothing Changes.

I’m cringing already just imagining some nervous evangelical actually pushing through their shyness and reticence to obey their Dear Leader, only to get shot down in flames — and possibly wreck a lifelong relationship in the process.

But I doubt many evangelicals trotted out Jerry Root’s suggestions this Christmas.

Evangelical leaders have been complaining about the flocks’ refusal to evangelize for years. None of them have figured out how to get their sheep out onto the sales floor. Not yet, anyway. If they aren’t already out there selling their lil hearts out, this post sure won’t change the flocks’ minds.

No, Root’s post is really more of a propaganda piece than a well-intentioned instructional guide.

And as such, it’s really meant to strengthen existing evangelicals’ beliefs more than adding to the tribe’s count of butts in pews (BIPs).

More than that, it’s supposed to convince evangelicals that someone, somewhere knows how to evangelize successfully. It isn’t them, no.

But someone knows. Someone is making sales.

They’re meant to think that Jerry Root can show them how. They’ll never ask for proof that his techniques work. Indeed, they’ve been trained not to ask those questions.

So nothing will change — by design.

NEXT UP: We meet the Christians trying to push more Jesus flavoring into a pagan holiday. 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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