L.B.: Hospitality vs. Sales

L.B.: Hospitality vs. Sales February 21, 2006

Left Behind, wrapping up Chapter 11

As an evangelist, the Rev. Bruce Barnes gets a few things right.

Evangelism is what Chapter 11 of Left Behind is all about. This is an awkward topic. In American culture, evangelism has become something dreaded and despised — perhaps most of all by the very evangelical Christians who are constantly being told that if they were good Christians, they would be doing more of it.

How did this become the case? How did something that was supposed to be about "good news" become, instead, an awkward, embarrassing and odious duty?

This happened, I think, when what ought to be an act of hospitality was transformed into an act of salesmanship. Salesmanship, whatever else it may be, is ultimately inhospitable.

We could go back and look at the causes of this perverse commodification of the gospel — tracing the way that 19th-century evangelists like Charles Finney began adopting the techniques of salesmen, and how these techniques were further refined over the years by students of marketing like Bill Bright. But we needn't go into great detail here about how this happened to acknowledge that it has happened.

"Evangelism" today is not seen as the practice of hospitality, but as a kind of marketing scheme. It is not an invitation, but a sales pitch. Not a matter of "taste and see," but of "buy now." Or, to use one of my favorite descriptions of the work of evangelism, it is not "one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread," but rather one fat man trying to convince another fat man that he's a beggar in order to close the sale on another loaf.

Contemporary American-style evangelism is made even stranger by the fact that it seems devoid of content. It's become a turtles-all-the-way-down exercise with no apparent real bottom. Evangelism means, literally, the telling of good news. Surely there must be more to this good news than simply that the hearers of it become obliged to turn around and tell it to others. And those others, in turn, are obliged to tell still others the good news of their obligation to spread this news.

That may be an effective marketing strategy, but what is the product? There doesn't seem to be a product — only a self-perpetuating marketing scheme. It's like Amway without the soap.

Bruce Barnes — and LaHaye and Jenkins — is certainly right that evangelism is an imperative, a duty, for Christians. Jesus' final words to his disciples included his "Great Commission" — "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel …"

But in the soapless-Amway model of American-style evangelism, it seems like the Great Commission is the gospel. This makes no sense — it is an ouroboros, a Moebius strip, a spiritualized version of the child's prank of writing on both sides of a dollar bill, "How do you keep an idiot busy all day? (See other side for answer)."

The product, Barnes and L&J would say — the only product — is "salvation" from, as Barnes puts it, "sin and hell and judgment." Thus the prominence of fire and brimstone in many an evangelistic sales pitch. It's interesting that this emphasis on fire and brimstone cannot be found in that Great Commission Jesus gave to his disciples: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

This business about "making disciples" seems a bit more complicated than what we usually think of as proselytization. It certainly sounds like it calls for more than a sales-pitch. (And what was that about "everything I have commanded you"? This from the "love your neighbor/love your enemy/turn the other cheek/don't worry about food/care for the least of these" guy? Barnes, like most American evangelists, somehow leaves all that out of his sales pitch.)

To get a sense of what I mean by evangelism as the practice of hospitality, visit your local church. Don't go upstairs, to the sanctuary, go downstairs to that room in the basement with the linoleum tile and the coffee urn. That's where the AA and NA meetings are held.

At its best, Alcoholics Anonymous embodies evangelism as hospitality. They offer an invitation, not a sales pitch. They offer testimony — personal stories — instead of a marketing scheme. They are, in fact and in practice, a bunch of beggars offering other beggars the good news of where they found bread.

At its worst, AA sometimes slips into the evangelism-as-sales model. You may have found yourself at some point having a beer when some newly sober 12-step disciple begins lecturing you that this is evidence that you have a problem. He will try to sell you the idea that you are a beggar so he can sell you some bread. The ensuing conversation is tense, awkward and pointless — the precise qualities of the similar conversation you may have had with an evangelical Christian coworker who was reluctantly but dutifully inflicting on you a sales pitch for evangelical Christianity.

Back to Bruce Barnes. He does, as I said, get a few things right. When Rayford calls asking questions, Bruce invites him over. Come on by, come on in, door's always open. That's hospitality. And Barnes spends the better part of the chapter telling his own story — his "testimony." Autobiography is neither an argument nor a sales pitch. It can be, instead, another kind of hospitality.

But then poor Bruce can't help himself. The sales pitch, he thinks, is all that really matters here, and he soon gets down to the hard sell, trying to move his productless product.

Barnes explicitly uses the language of sales, twice referring to the promise of salvation as a "transaction." And he lays the sales pressure on thick — even threatening Chloe with the hypothetical bus.

Ultimately, this chapter is just one long infomercial. It ends the same way every infomercial does — with the prospective buyers receiving a free video tape explaining how salvation through Christ and/or a Craftmatic adjustable bed will solve all their problems. Act now. Supplies are limited. Sales personnel are waiting to take your call.

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