Why ‘witnessing tools’ never work and why the acting is always bad in evangelism-training videos

Why ‘witnessing tools’ never work and why the acting is always bad in evangelism-training videos January 16, 2014

I first saw the awful thing below at Christian Nightmares, which seems apt.

This purports to be an evangelism-training video urging Christians to “witness” at their Jewish friends. Or, rather, urging them to go out and make “friends” with some Jewish people, but just so that they can then witness at them.

Much of that bears all the hallmarks of an earnest local-church-produced video, ca. 1989 or 1990 (guessing by the hairstyles, the existence of phone booths, and the vintage Mac on the desk of the woman at 0:35).

But parts of this don’t seem earnest. As vorjack said, there are lines in this thing that have to be parody. He flags what’s probably the most outrageous line, at 2:21 in the video:

It really isn’t any harder to make friends with a Jew than it is a Gentile. Show interest in that person and extend friendly gestures, like the crusaders of the middle ages who offered Jews the choice of conversion or death.

That jaw-dropping sentence follows a bagel joke, and it is, in turn, followed by this reminder of why proselytizing Jews is so important for the video’s apparent audience:

Some Jewish people might be offended. Then again, others might only act offended. Don’t be discouraged. The greatest act of anti-Semitism is not telling a Jewish person about Yeshua, because then, in effect, you’re saying you’re willing to see that person spend eternity without Christ.

Vorjack says this video takes Poe’s Law to the next level. That’s the Internet aphorism that says it’s impossible to make a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that won’t be mistaken for the real thing. Regarding that “conversion or death” line, vorjack writes:

I can’t imagine anybody seriously delivering that line. On the other hand, anybody writing a parody would strike it out as too over the top.

Just as any parody of fundamentalism is bound to appear to many — critics and adherents alike — as a sincere example of the genuine article, so too any sincere example of genuine fundamentalism is bound to appear to many as what must surely be a parody.

The problem here, I think, is that the video above is both. I think it’s a parody stitched together from two genuine examples — two main examples, plus little bits of a few other things as well.

This hostile editing shows a lack of faith. I don’t mean the kind of lack of faith bemoaned by the would-be Christian evangelists in these videos, but a lack of faith in the material itself and in the ability of the editor’s audience to see the problems in it. Before posting any of this to “Everything’s Terrible,” someone edited it to make it more terrible, and more obviously terrible. That’s artless and grating and insulting to the viewer, like a too-loud laughtrack howling after every “joke” on a bad sit-com.

It also confuses the point. By assembling one single Very Bad video out of several less-bad videos, this editing blurs the different kinds of badness to be found in the originals. That makes it more difficult to analyze or understand why those different original videos were bad in different ways.

The two main ingredients of this stew seem to have been a Sunday-school video, probably produced by a local church back during the first Bush administration, and a slightly more “professional” evangelism-training video from Jews for Jesus (probably — either from that group or some similar organization, but we’ll call it the Jews for Jesus video here for convenience).  The latter features vintage graphics and a cheerful female narrator (the same one who seems to chirp enthusiastically about the crusades as a model of friendship). The cuts in between the two are pretty abrupt in several places.

Plus there’s a bunch of other stuff thrown into the mix. The snippets from a skit lampooning offensive things Jewish people hear from non-Jews (0:53 – 1:17) is really different in tone, rhythm and acting ability from the Sunday-school video that comes before and after it. That bit never actually mentions evangelism at all — it looks more like it may have been snipped out of an old HR training video. The impressively jowled reverend at 3:21 seems to have been imported from some other source entirely. And I think I recognized the two guys reading the Bible together at around 3:27 from a much more recent video I found when I lost half a day back in December browsing through bad Rapture-prophecy videos on YouTube (I couldn’t quickly find that original, and don’t want to search more lest I get lost again down that rabbit-hole).

Anyway, my point here isn’t to analyze this video like some kind of Sunday-school truther (Back, and to the left … back, and to the left … ). My point is that the original videos were likely more interestingly bad, and more instructively bad, than this Frankenstein creation.

Given all the editing involved here, I would guess that the narration of that Jews for Jesus video was also spliced together to make it sound Very Bad in a different way than the original Very Bad training video would have sounded unedited. I’d guess that “Show interest in that person and extend friendly gestures” is taken from one context, while what is made to sound like the second half of that sentence — “like the crusaders of the middle ages who offered Jews the choice of conversion or death” — is taken from a different context, probably one in which the narrator was offering a reasonable explanation about why Jewish people tend to be wary of Christians bearing gifts.

That distortion of the original makes it sound like the problem with Jews-for-Jesus style evangelism is that it’s clumsily, explicitly offensive in a “Crusades Yay!” kind of way. That takes the focus off the actual problem there of instructing Christians to act as salesmen rather than as neighbors. Learning to “show interest in that person and extend friendly gestures” only as a means to an end — as a way of “getting to Yes” and closing the deal — retrains and reshapes a person’s ability to form genuine friendships that treat others as subjects rather than objects.*

Or look at that bit tacked onto the end — where the narrator talks about “witnessing tools“:

Sometimes you can witness without verbalizing at all. “Out-front identity” means an obvious outward sign identifies you as a believer. Maybe it’s your Christian-message clothing, a button, bumper-sticker on your car, or lapel pin. It can be anything that will get a curious person to ask a question that is God-directed. It could even make a passer-by consider their own spiritual identity.

This is a cruel lie. Remember the last time you saw someone wearing “Christian-message clothing” and it inspired you to ask them God-directed questions about your spiritual identity? Remember how you’ve never, ever done that?

No one else has ever done that either. It has never happened. (Not “never,” perhaps, but it’s so rare it’s like those stories of people who have fallen out of airplanes without parachutes and survived. That has happened, but that doesn’t mean it’s recommended. Nor is that a compelling argument against the use of parachutes.)

This is not a thing that has ever happened.
This is not a thing that will ever happen.

As the narrator’s own terminology shows, such out-front displays are all about trumpeting “identity.” They are tribal markers. And their function as such is solely to reinforce tribal solidarity — it has nothing to do with outreach to those outside the tribe. If you wear “Christian-message clothing” or any of the other kinds of tribal totems mentioned, many people will regard you as a confrontational tribal chauvinist — someone to avoid proximity or, God forbid, eye contact, with.

No one — ever — will have their “curiosity” piqued by such tribal emblems. Curiosity only plays a role here if the marker is somewhat cryptic, in which case someone might ask you “what does that mean?” but never “can you tell me more about your religion?” And once you clarify that the cryptic symbol is a mark of religious identity, their curiosity is wholly and uncomfortably satisfied and they will be looking about for the quickest means of escape.

“Out-front identity” generally produces only two forms of interaction: Affirmation from other members of your own tribe and confrontation from equally “out-front” chauvinists asserting their correspondent tribal aggression.

It’s somewhat analogous to my Mets cap. I’ve worn a Mets cap to dozens of Mets-Phillies games over the years at the Vet and now at Citizens Bank Park. That has produced plenty of smiles, cheers, high-fives and fist-bumps from strangers wearing orange and blue. And it has produced even more (mostly good-natured) scorn and profanity from the faithful in red.

But in more than 20 years, no Phillies fan has ever come up to me and asked me to explain to them more about the New York Mets or how they, too, could become a Mets fan.

That is not a thing that has ever happened. That is not a thing that will ever happen. Tribal identity markers will not and cannot ever produce such results.

I’d love to see the full Sunday-school video from the local church — the one from which the scenes of the video above were clipped. What I find most interesting in that video is the awkwardness of the parishioners who were enlisted to appear in it.

They’re almost all a bit awkward, but they’re not all the same kind of awkward. What I mean is, some of this is just the kind of non-actor acting you can find in some community theaters. There’s an endearing quality to that — the realization that you’re watching someone do something that required a bit of courage from them.

But in some cases this isn’t just the awkwardness of a beginner’s first steps. It seems, rather, to be a genuine reluctance — a kind of recoiling from the task at hand. And I don’t think what we’re seeing there is bad acting.

It’s not good acting, either. But if you look at the bits of that video we’re shown above, you’ll notice that all of the amateur actors who seem to be having any fun — all of the ones who seem to be trying to express their lines with any feeling — are the ones who have been asked to play the “bad Christian” or to play the non-Christian. They’re into it.

Now look at the poor church-members who have been saddled with the evangelistic lines — the ones who are forced to find some way to appear to be dropping lines like this into casual conversation: “I’m so glad to know a God who will forgive us of all our sin.”

That bit isn’t awful because this poor lady is a bad actress, but because she’s been given the impossible task of trying to make a Jesus-juke sound natural, sincere and non-exploitative.

She couldn’t do it. Cate Blanchett and Daniel Day Lewis couldn’t do it either. No one could.

No one can. The only people who seem capable of this kind of aggressive evangelism are the kind of people who are unaware of how unnatural and insincere it seems to everyone else.

These local church folk, bless their hearts, are struggling to overcome an instinctive, body-and-soul resistance to the kind of evangelism they’re being asked to portray. They’ve been told, again and again, that such resistance and reluctance are the product of their old sin nature, their disobedience, their lack of commitment and zeal for Christ. They feel guilty that every fiber of their being is screaming not to do this thing they’ve been taught they must do. They feel guilty that no part of them wants to do this thing they’ve been taught they ought to want to do.

And so they muzzle the conscience that’s telling them there’s something wrong here and steel themselves to do this thing they feel is wrong, only to have it feel even worse in the doing of it.

They wind up quenching the Spirit in order to avoid being accused of quenching the Spirit. Yes, I mean that. I don’t think it’s their “sin nature” or their disobedience that’s warning them against this kind of exploitive reduction of the gospel and of others. I think that’s a holy, sanctified response. I think it’s love warning against not-love. The gospel is not a product that Christians are commissioned to market or to sell, reducing our neighbors to targets and potential recruits in some pyramid scheme.

I think, in other words, that there’s something to be learned — something important — from the awkwardness and the bad acting in all such evangelism-training videos.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

* And we haven’t even discussed here the whole premise underlying both the Jews for Jesus and the Sunday-school videos, which is that Christians should be trying to convert Jewish believers. Unpacking the theological assumptions, presumptions and distortions there would take more time than we have here. So here’s the short version: Don’t do that.

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