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Beach Reach: Atheists and ‘Cultural Catholics,’ Oh My!

Beach Reach: Atheists and ‘Cultural Catholics,’ Oh My! July 25, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about Beach Reach. That’s the short-term missionary trip organized by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). For two weeks, they unleash bright-eyed young volunteers on a Texas beach during Spring Break. There, they perform various acts of charity for partying college students — so they can evangelize them. The training so far has been quite lackluster. Ah, but now we’ll find out how to sell evangelical church membership to atheists and ‘cultural Catholics.’ Today, let’s see how SBC salespeople pitch to these most resistant of marks.

a gorgeous sunset
(Luca Iaconelli.)

(Training docs link. Previous Beach Reach posts: What It’s All About; Why Evangelicals Use Evangelism Techniques That Don’t Work; How and Why to Craft a Testimony; Deploying Small Talk. When I talk about evangelism as a sales process, the product isn’t Jesus or even belief in Jesus. It’s active membership in the evangelist’s own group. Also, check out these related posts: The Truth About Christian Zingers; Being Genuinely Helpful vs. Being Christianly Helpful; The Duggar Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Grifting Tree; Teen Evangelism Hits a New Low; How John Stott Moved the Evangelism Goalpost.)

Beach Reach: Calling Out Their Hardest Sells.

Interestingly, Week 4’s student module (link here) calls out two particular groups of particularly-resistant marks. Whoever made this training system did not call out any other groups or offer specialized tactics for anybody else, so I find this part very interesting.

Here are the two particular groups that Beach Reach’s trainers think are especially difficult to persuade:

  • “Atheists/Agnostics,” which are obviously the same group as far as they’re concerned
  • Catholics, just generally, though the leader’s handout (link here) further explains that these are “Cultural Catholics”

I can see why they’ve singled these two groups out.

Even young evangelicals would know that atheists will likely be very hostile to their sales pitches. By the same token, lifelong, well-indoctrinated Catholics will tend to find evangelicals’ swivel-eyed religious zeal a completely alien state (and that “personal relationship” blahblah downright weird).

Both will also be far more numerous than other groups that will express a strong lack of interest in these missionaries’ sales pitch, like, say, Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus or pagans.

The Evil Potential of Atheists, According to Beach Reach.

The section about evangelizing atheists begins (emphases are always from the original source, unless I say otherwise):

Remember, one of the number one priorities at Beach Reach is for Spring Breakers to have a positive interaction with a Christian. [Source]

In other words, these volunteers need to avoid behaving in real life like we’re always seeing evangelicals behave online toward their enemies. That’s quite a pointed reminder. They haven’t said anything like it at any previous point in their training, but they feel the need to say it now.

This entire section is like that. In several different ways, including invoking a Bible verse, the module specifically advises volunteers to behave toward atheists in ways that might not result in a sale, but will at least not further alienate and aggravate their marks — or make Beach Reach itself go viral in a way its leaders decidedly don’t want.

This abundance of finger-wagging and caution interests me. Like imagine if you were taking a call at work, and the person passing it to you said, “Be really careful with this one.” You’d tense immediately!

If these volunteers are on their guard against their hated tribal enemies, then the chances of a genuine, two-way conversation drops dramatically.

How to Totally Evangelize Atheists, According to Beach Reach.

However, Beach Reach still wants its volunteers to at least try to make sales among atheists. So, they offer a sort of strategy: resolving atheists’ “tough questions” with (drum roll, please) evangelical apologetics routines.

Oh my gosh. My sides. Those poor kids. Apologetics. These delusional wingnuts are telling their volunteers to draw upon apologetics. Yes, absolutely, apologetics will completely resolve an atheist’s “tough questions.” Resolve them. Fix everything. Hooray Team Jesus!

I just can’t.

Here’s how the strategy begins:

Dealing with Tough Questions 

Understand the heart of the questioner. Listen well.

Task: Try to find the bridge between the head and the heart.

Biblical authority and the Work of the Holy Spirit.

Allow me to translate this heavy Christianese for us:

  1. Ignore what the atheist is saying. Try to figure out what emotional defect has led the atheist to reject TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, because obviously the reason wasn’t anything valid, much less rational. If you let him, Jesus will totally feed you this information via magic telepathy!
  2. As soon as you’ve figured out that emotional defect, respond with the appropriate apologetics routine. You’re gonna talk to their heart, not their head, so your reply needs to incorporate their stated reasons for rejection in the very worst, most callous, most manipulative ways imaginable.
  3. Invoke the Bible and Jesus’ identity as a god to make the message stick. Atheists will totally fall into line after these magical invocations. The Book of Acts in the Bible, which is a trustworthy history of the earliest Christians, says this tactic worked for them. Thus, it will work for you. If it doesn’t, then tell yourself you planted a seed and don’t let it bother you.

This approach, as common as it is in evangelical circles, won’t make many sales. It’s appallingly bad.

However, it will severely cut down on any chances of a Beach Reach volunteer getting into anything even close to a real conversation with the tribe’s worst enemies.

And Now For the Apologetics.

Now, I doubt many of these earnest missionaries will even get to the point of needing to regurgitate apologists’ favorite logical fallacies and heavy-handed emotional manipulation. After all, very few people like to be cold-read by inept salespeople and then slammed with a hard-sell demanding they change religions while they’re on an expensive vacation.

But just in case a Beach Reach volunteer happens to luck into an atheist who doesn’t respond with profanity after the above treatment, the training offers apologetics resources.

And these resources are quite possibly the worst ones these poor evangelical kids could possibly be offered.

  • RZIM, the ministry of noted sex-abuser Ravi Zacharias. Hooboy, this didn’t age well. They’ve largely closed up shop since his scandal blew wide open. If you go there now, you just get a landing page about the scandal. However, here’s an archive of that link from last year. It’s just a clearinghouse of apologetics sites. Somehow, I don’t think whoever arranged them has vetted them for value.
  • CARM, an apologetics site run by Matt Slick. Trainers advise volunteers to go there and search for his various “objections” pages, like this one. (We’re circling back to it next week. It’s that bad.)

I feel so bad for evangelicals sometimes. They seriously think apologetics exists so they can learn how to defend their faith and sell it to others. When I was Christian, I thought that for sure. I didn’t understand how anybody could reject Christianity for any valid reason when it had so much PROOF YES PROOF behind it. And I thought apologetics was that proof.

It’s not. It’s what evangelicals offer because they lack proof. If they had evidence to support their claims, they’d just offer that instead. They don’t, so we get apologetics from them.

In reality, apologetics exists to enrich its creators and distributors and make evangelicals think they’re not crazy for believing preposterous claims for no good reason. It doesn’t work on anybody who can actually critically analyze arguments or notice that those arguments were deployed in lieu of evidence.

And atheists are getting better, younger, at both.

Cultural Catholics: Neither Hot Nor Cold.

Mostly, their section on Catholicism (called “Cultural Catholicism” in the leader’s module) just seeks to dispel evangelicals’ mistaken culture-war slams on Catholics. Thus, it’s quite a hoot. They really take pains to stress the point that pretty much everything evangelical kids hear about Catholicism isn’t quite true, so mentioning any of it will backfire hard if brought up with actual Catholics during Beach Reach.

Also, note that warning to “Avoid secondary issues.” That means: HEY, seriously, don’t bring up the child-rapist priests or all those mass graves.

In both the students’ and leaders’ modules, it looks like they’re assuming they’re dealing with lifelong Catholics who’ve engaged with their religion as part of their family’s customary practices — like me as a kid.

That makes sense. Very, very few young Catholics get super-excited about their faith on their own, much less engage with it outside of a family-custom context. And almost no young adults convert into it during those high school and college years. If they do, they’re probably super-fervent Calvinist sorts who began doubting that Calvinism was really the furthest limit of inerrancy, and that’s a whole other ball of wax for a Beach Reach missionary to deal with.

I’ll just say this: Any Beach Reach volunteer who innocently trots out their zinger attempts (“Questions to Ask”) is going to come out of that encounter smarting hard. The impression I get from most Catholics is that they regard evangelicals (with some reason) as distinctly inferior to themselves intellectually and theologically.

The Groups These Trainers Really Need to Worry About.

What’s so funny about this whole module of Beach Reach training is the groups that don’t get mentioned at all — but who pose distinct risks to the volunteers’ faith:

1) Pagans. A happy pagan can inject an entire tsunami of doubt into a young evangelical’s mind. Their mere existence destroys all kinds of indoctrination points, but when they actually can be arsed to engage, the questions and objections they raise can leave burns that just don’t heal. Many years ago, I discovered that personally!

2) Ex-vangelicals and ex-Christians. We’ve already been there and done that. Often, we wore the literal t-shirts to prove it. Some of us walked through fire to find our freedom from the terror and cruelty of evangelicalism.

While we believed, many of us used the exact same talking points and diagrams that these innocent young Beach Reach volunteers are now learning to parrot. Though most young ex-vangelicals and ex-Christians tend to be very shy about engaging with those who still believe, these missionaries will likely run into a small-but-rising number who are more than willing to tangle.

3) Churchless believers. We talked about this group at great length a while back. They’re Christians who still believe but have left behind church affiliation. And they left for a reason. Sometimes, they know they’ll never join another church. Others might say they’re open to joining a good church (but gosh, they just can’t find one that works for them).

A lot of Christians might think churchless believers would be easy to persuade. Technically, they still believe the major stuff. However, they might be the most resistant of all. Many of them have been badly hurt by church groups, and usually those groups were evangelical. Moreover, churchless believers have already made peace with rejecting many beliefs that evangelicals take as read — like the requirements to join, support, and faithfully attend a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church.

And if those churchless believers left anything like an SBC church, you can absolutely bet they invested a great deal of time and research on that decision.

You Gotta Keep ‘Em Separated.

I’ve mentioned this a few times already in this series, but I must say again:

It’s just so striking to see how hard evangelical leaders work to keep young evangelicals away from real communication with people outside their bubble. If Beach Reach trainers can get their charges to really internalize and embrace these teachings, then this mission trip can pay dividends to evangelical leaders for decades to come.

Remember that guy “Jadon” I talked about recently here? The guy that drove by one of our Beach Reach posts to rebuke us for slamming his idolized vacation-for-Jesus? He clearly took all his training to heart. No way, no how was he in any danger whatsoever of taking in anything we had to say — not even when we pointed out that he had accidentally confirmed every single thing I’d said about Beach Reach in the post. Now multiply him by many thousands of college-age evangelicals spending money and their finite, rapidly-dissipating youth to learn hard-sales evangelism techniques that will utterly fail them in reality.

Beach Reach does not exist to make sales for the SBC. I’m willing to bet that it’s one of the worst-performing evangelism/missionary events the SBC has ever held. In truth, those volunteers are there to become even more indoctrinated. I suspect the SBC hopes that somehow they can deconversion-proof the young adults that they are still hemorrhaging.

And those volunteers are paying their own money — or spending someone’s money, at least — to obtain that indoctrination, which will only push them further away from the people their Dear Leaders hate and fear most. However, that isn’t even the darkest aspect of Beach Reach. We’re still coming up to that topic. We’re almost there.

NEXT UP: LSP!


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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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