Just finished a four-video evangelism course at the Big Box on how to spread the Good News of the easy, convenient financing options that could be yours today if only you pause for just a moment to
pray the sinner’s prayer apply for our company credit card. I couldn’t help but think of every evangelism/”witnessing”/proselytizing training seminar I’d ever attended because of the wildly implausible role-playing scenarios in these videos.
Big Box Associate: Have you heard about all of the Big Box’s easy and convenient financing options?
Extremely Realistic Customer: No, but I’d love to. Please tell me more!
BBA: [Demonstrates the best-practices three-point approach to convincing customers to apply for credit card.]
ERC: That sounds great! Please show me how to apply! Let us do so, now, posthaste!
I’m a bit baffled by this. If most (any) customers were this eager to hear about and apply for our credit cards, then none of us would need training videos to help us convince them to do so. These videos ensure that our associates are well-prepared for the highly improbable circumstance of encountering a real, live customer who follows the script recited by the hypothetical ERC. But they also make it far likelier that our associates will be adrift, frustrated, and stymied whenever they try this script on actual customers who haven’t memorized their half of the dialogue.
I’ve come to believe that producing such confusion and frustration is an intentional feature of many of those bad evangelism-training seminars. I think they’re designed to increase in-group solidarity and loyalty by deliberately instigating off-script conversations with outsiders, thus causing the bewildered insiders attempting such conversations to view all such outsiders with greater suspicion and hostility.
But while that might explain the inept and unhelpfully optimistic “role-play scenarios” in those awkward evangelism campaigns, it doesn’t explain why profit-seeking corporate training videos would emulate them so closely.
Sometimes, of course, the over-eager earnestness of those evangelistic seminars was just a product of innocence and naiveté. The Very Nice People leading us through those role-playing scenarios genuinely seemed to expect that the conversations they were teaching us to start would go according to their script. After all, we were heading out to offer our neighbors the choice between eternity in Heaven and eternity in Hell, so why wouldn’t they all, instantly, be eager to hear and accept everything we had to say?
Granted, these evangelism gurus ought to have known better. They had tried these techniques themselves, after all, so surely they had already experienced, many times, the same frustration we were all being sent out to experience, in which every would-be convert we approached stubbornly refused to say anything even remotely similar to the eagerly receptive lines our practice scripts provided them. But as veteran soul-winners, they had also sometimes succeeded against all odds in stumbling across occasional converts this way. It might be a numbers game, with dozens of approaches for every successful attempt, but the thrill of those exceptional cases, their idea of the eternal stakes involved, and the human capacity for selective memory perhaps combined to allow them to reassure themselves, and us, that their implausibly scripted conversations accurately portrayed something that might happen (or that, in their view, should happen, or that they hoped would happen).
The first such big evangelistic effort I remember was the “I Found It!” campaign organized by Campus Crusade back in the mid-1970s. Our white fundamentalist church was all-in on that nationwide mass-evangelism blitz. We took up an offering to help purchase the “I Found It!” billboards the campaign put up throughout our area of Central Jersey. We had a Sunday evening evangelism seminar training us to welcome the wave of converts we should expect from this multimedia national event, after which we all slapped “I Found It!” bumper stickers on our cars, and every member of the congregation received, and proudly wore, a friendly blue “I Found It!” button.
I wore that button every day for months, yet no one ever approached me and asked, “What did you find?” thereby giving me the opportunity to answer, “I found new life in Christ, and you can too!” I figured my own lack of success was due to the fact that I was just a little kid, and that I spent nearly all of my time either at church or at our private Christian school, surrounded by other believers. But I’m not sure those buttons “worked” any better for the grown-ups in our congregation, even those who wore them every day out in the secular world of our Hell-bound neighbors.
Despite all of that, we were assured that the “I Found It!” campaign was a huge success. The cryptic billboards funded by our offering and the offerings of thousands of other churches across the country had enticed thousands upon thousands of people to call the phone numbers posted, asking the trained volunteers “What did you find?” and giving those volunteers the chance to say, “I found new life in Christ … and you can too!” And, we were told, thousands of those callers then said, “Tell me more,” just like in the script, and were led in the Sinner’s Prayer, and given contact information for local churches connected to the campaign.
So even though our own church didn’t gain any new members from the campaign, we were glad to think that other churches did and that, because of our financial contributions to the cause, the Lord was adding to the church daily such as should be saved.
Those memories of billboards, buttons, and bumper stickers came flooding back when I read this Christianity Today piece by Maria Baer last week: “$100M Ad Campaign Aims to Make Jesus the ‘Biggest Brand in Your City’.”
I cringed when I read that headline, and cringed tighter when I read this — “McKendry said approaching American Christianity’s image problem with business savvy is what Jesus would have done.” And by the time I reached the end of the article I found myself wracked in the kind of full-body cringe that it’ll take me a few hours to unclench from.
This new marketing campaign isn’t even billing itself as evangelism. It’s explicitly being described as a marketing campaign designed to address an “image problem” and to create a more positive public perception of “brand identity” for Jesus and the church (with a very particular, very limited, very white evangelical understanding of “the church”).
This bit from Baer’s piece is ringing a lot of worrisome alarm bells for many readers:
The $100 million for He Gets Us comes from The Servant Christian Foundation, a nonprofit backed by a Christian donor-advised fund called The Signatry. (Both declined to name the donors who helped envision and pay for He Gets Us, who want to remain anonymous.)
Donor-advised funds are popular with evangelical investors who want to make large gifts without setting up their own private foundations. Wealthy clients invest with The Signatry, which will then either manage the money in an investment fund or help them find nonprofits to support. So far, The Signatry has given away over $3 billion from Christian philanthropists.
So it’s the first big post-Citizen’s United, Dark Money evangelistic campaign. Just what the world needs.
Chrissy Stroop tries to follow the money here, chasing down the 990 forms that can tell us, if not who these mystery billionaires are, what else they’ve been funding beside this ad campaign. What that reveals is not encouraging — huge donations to right-wing political efforts that would all seem to exacerbate the very same “image problem” these ads intend to fix:
According to the Signatry’s 2020 form, the most recent available, in 2019 the organization directed over $19 million of funding to Alliance Defending Freedom, an SPLC-designated anti-LGBTQ hate group and the organization that wrote the model legislation on which Mississippi’s draconian new abortion ban was based. Nearly $8 million went to Answers in Genesis, the fundamentalist ministry behind the Creation Museum. Over $1 million is designated for Campus Crusade for Christ (rebranded as “Cru” since 2011). $374,800 went to Al Hayat Ministries, an organization that seeks to “respectfully yet fearlessly unveil the deception of Islam,” and that runs an Arabic-language Christian satellite TV station with the goal of converting Muslims to Christianity.
These are the kinds of billionaires now spending $100 million to fund a re-branding campaign for Jesus.
But please note that, like most billionaires, most of the money they’ll be spending isn’t their own. Whether or not this campaign actually spends anything like $100 million, it doesn’t seem like the “Servant Christian Foundation” or “The Signatry” intends to provide most of the budget here. They’ll control the spending, but much of that spending will come from the tithes and offerings of local churches recruited to support and “participate” in this campaign.
So the billionaires prime the pump with a few million bucks they’ll use to entice local churches to donate tens of millions more (in theory) and that money will, in turn, be “spent” on consultants and ad-buys and ad-buyers in ways that will likely turn out to enrich the billionaires themselves.
The whole thing, in other words, appears to be a fundraising grift based on roughly the model of the Ben Carson For President scam:
Team Carson has been plowing a huge portion of the money it raises back into fundraising, using costly direct-mail and telemarketing tactics. Pretty much every campaign uses those tools, but the extent to which Carson was using it raised eyebrows around politics. First, many of the companies being paid millions and millions of dollars are run by top campaign officials or their friends and relations, meaning those people are making a mint. Second, many of the contributions are coming from small-dollar donors. If that money is being given by well-meaning grassroots conservatives for a campaign that’s designed not to win but to produce revenue for venders, isn’t it just a grift?
These questions have been circling since last summer. If they’re right, the most sympathetic interpretation is that Carson, like his donors, was being taken for a ride by his aides, and wasn’t in on the scam. Carson seemed to suggest as much on Tuesday, implying he was taken advantage of by aides who treated the campaign as an ATM.
I can’t prove that “The Signatry” and the “Servant Christian Foundation” are pure grifts any more than David A. Graham was able to prove that Ben Carson’s campaign managers were running a scam on both the candidate and his donors. But, as Graham pointed out, the intent of that campaign hardly matters when that’s obviously what the effect of it was. The outcome was that donors handed over their money, campaign staffers made a mint, and Carson’s candidacy went nowhere. My guess is that the ultimate outcome of this “$100M ad campaign” will be something very similar to that.
Now please excuse me, as I need to go clock in at the Big Box so that I can tell even more people about the wonderful ways they can benefit from all of our convenient financing options.