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Reverse Evangelism

April 8, 2013
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It’s very rare that I talk to people who like Christian tracts. It’s very, very rare that I talk to people under the age of 50 who like Christian tracts. Tracts are decidedly uncool.

As it happens, I don’t just dislike evangelization by tract, I also dislike evangelization by Facebook. Evangelization by trickery is also high on my list of things not to do. Don’t tell someone that they are going to see, hear, or get something when that something is actually going to be the gospel and you know that they would run away screaming if you said that. Yes, the gospel may be the greatest gift ever but don’t promise someone a great gift when you know they will hate the New Testament you are going to give them. Don’t get someone to watch a video that will end with a gospel message by deliberating failing to mention that. Going somewhat further afield I’m not a fan of some of the over-the-top showmanship that creeps into churches in the name of evangelism. All of this raises a real question though: do I dislike these things because they make me feel uncool or is there any actually Christian reason to dislike them? Are the ways of evangelism that most of us dislike actually wonderful because they get Jesus’ name and the gospel out there and is our discomfort only the pride of our flesh struggling against looking like dorks?

What I wish to lay out is a case that there really can be evangelism done so poorly that as Christians we should view its impact as negative. Let’s start with tracts. Why are tracts so uncool?

Once upon a time tracts weren’t uncool. I don’t know that they were cool but they were such a basic part of everyday life that the fact that something was advertised in a tract said basically nothing about its coolness. Imagine that I told you that a business had a sign out front. Does this tell you whether this business is cool? No, it’s just something that pretty much all businesses do. It’s actually pretty weird to be a business without a sign. Similarly, there was a point in American history when stores, political parties, churches, social organizations, and just about everything else used tracts to advertise themselves, find members, and make points. (In some areas of the world this is still true and I see no issue with Christian tracts in these places.) These days only religious organizations use tracts and even within this set it’s the subset of seriously-uncool religious organizations that use tracts. Cults love tracts. So do fundamentalists. Quick, name all the non-religious people you know who would vote to be a fundamentalist or a cult member as their first choice if they became religious.

Tracts communicate two things. One is the actual message on the tract. The other is, “The people who are sending you this message are out of touch with the real world.” If they weren’t they’d be using Facebook, Twitter, a webpage, face-to-face conversation, artwork, or something else modern people do to make their point. A while ago I passed a church that had a message on the church sign that said something like, “God sent the first text message – the Bible.” This message tells me a lot the church in question probably didn’t intend. For instance, the people who wrote this think that including the words “text message” in their sign makes them hip and relevant and which means they are anything but hip and relevant. The sign immediately brings forth images of white-haired older folks complaining about their grandchildren and their computer-boxes and internets. Moreover, these people thought that by calling the Bible a text message it would make it sound cooler. Humans who actually use text messages do not regard them as cool, they are just a way to send short notes quickly. Now the Bible itself has been dragged into a failed attempt to be cool and becomes, by association, uncool. It’s these secondary messages that become an issue.

Let’s stop and consider the whole idea of secondary content a bit more. Imagine that several friends of yours invite you somewhere for a weekend away, just you and them. You can imagine that there might be some point in this weekend where you would be off by yourself in one room or outside or whatever and one of your friends would lean in (or out) the door and say something like, “Hey, we’re thinking of ordering pizza for dinner. Does that sound good to you?” Now imagine that the reason your friends had invited you on this weekend was because they had discovered that your spouse was cheating on you. In the first scenario they find a time to sit down with you and gently break the bad news, all of them together, with plenty of time for an extended conversation. In the second scenario one of your friends announces that your spouse is cheating on you in exactly the same way as they would ask about pizza – shows their face for a second, makes a quick comment, and disappears. It’s possible that you would not believe your friends in either scenario but you would almost certainly believe that your friends believed that your spouse was cheating on you in the first even if you thought they were mistaken. In the second you would probably assume this was a bad joke or a sign of deep contempt for you. The method of delivering the message would have a huge impact on how you processed it and your relationship with your friends.

Imagine a simpler and explicitly evangelistic example: someone realizes that a way to get lots of people to see a short gospel message is to sneak over to their outdoor trashcans at night and place the message inside facing up, presumably printed in large letters so that the next time someone opens that trashcan they will see this gospel message. Very, very few Christians would find this appropriate for the simple reason that it involves putting the gospel message in the trash. It’s clear that doing so also communicates that the gospel is trash.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of ways to communicate that the gospel message is not to be taken seriously. One reason I dislike evangelization by Facebook is that Facebook is not a place I go for serious, life-altering advice or opinions. I mostly put amusing comments about my day on Facebook and I generally go on Facebook to figure out what’s happening with my friends who I no longer live anywhere near or see regularly. Facebook messages are inherently aimed at a large group of people and we are not a society where serious conversations tend to happen as large groups. Instead, we tend to have our serious conversations one-on-one unless we’ve mentally prepared to go to a specific event to learn or discuss something serious in a large group. It’s probably possible to make a decent evangelistic message on Facebook but I’ve never seen it. Instead, I’ve seen messages that go up next to the funny cat pictures and feel like they belong at the same level.

Evangelization by trickery is even worse. Who tricks you into finding out information? Mostly people selling shady products. It’s amazing how much like the worst stereotypes of a used-car salesman some evangelists can be. Here, watch this video clip about this interesting thing you didn’t know that suddenly turns into a sales pitch for my over-priced widget that probably doesn’t work/my overpriced God that probably doesn’t work. Most people in America today are used to these sales tactics and respond to them by discounting everything the salesman says. The same goes for over-the-top “sells” of the gospel. Frankly, if someone thinks you are selling the gospel rather than sharing it you’ve already created a bad secondary message – “I benefit if you buy into this and am motivated to get you to do so whether or not it helps you.”

Of course, all of these things depend on culture. I was once at a Fourth of July event where a number of local businesses sent people into the crowd passing out flyers. When a local church came by with similarly-sized tracts and directions to their church it did not feel nearly as odd as when the Jehovah’s witnesses knock on my door and try to hand me a tract illustrated in a style of semi-heroic artwork that stinks of oldness. In other cultures, even amongst people of different generations, the signals sent by various methods of evangelization can be very different. However, if the way the gospel is delivered to people proclaims that this news is not life-changing but frivolous, cheap, or some kind of con game it really can have a negative impact. There are ways to evangelize that just shouldn’t be done because they are not merely unconvincing but anti-convincing. They leave the “evangelized” not just where they started but in a position where they are more likely to reject the next contact they have with the gospel as well. This is especially pronounced in a well-evangelized society like America where the choice is hardly ever between “hear the gospel done poorly” and “hear the gospel never” but rather “hear the gospel done poorly” and “hear the gospel later”.

As a final note, ultimately nearly everyone says that evangelism comes from a desire to share a wonderful gift with others. If, in fact, one evangelizes because it is a duty, because it will increase one’s social status, or for any reason other than a desire to share a deeply transforming faith with others who will benefit from it the odds of anti-evangelizing rise significantly (and you will be evangelizing as an act of intellectual domination, hardly a good thing). Most people are happy when you try to give them gifts even if the gifts are awkward and ultimately not what they wanted. Almost nobody is happy to sit through your sales pitch.

In short, I believe it is possible, even with good intentions, to evangelize so poorly that one actually turns people against the gospel (or at least turns many more people against the gospel than the few who are un-impacted by one’s bizarre technique). In fact, I believe it is so easy to hit the wrong notes for some people that everyone who tries talking to non-Christians about Christianity will occasionally un-evangelize them. Some of this is just the way life works – you talk to someone about something you care deeply about, you manage to come across as the sort of person they don’t want to be, and they mark down whatever you talked to them about as something not to do. Some of this though can be prevented and really should be. If you know you’re likely to make things worse inaction is the better course. To answer my original question yes, it is entirely legitimate to dislike and speak out against certain forms of evangelism.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2013 9:03 am

    this is one of the best so far. working for a retail store is interesting people somehow think that leaving their business cards and tracts in various places around the store is somehow effective? however i have seen tracts for Ekankar which puts a whole new perspective on those folks.

    • Eric permalink
      April 9, 2013 4:45 pm

      I had to look up Ekankar.
      I’m glad you liked the thoughts.

  2. April 9, 2013 10:36 pm

    It’s a shame that evangelism has become a dirty word thanks to those who do it so poorly that people make it a point to NOT believe/act like Jesus. In my opinion, today’s evangelists get the gospel message, its meaning, and the delivery wrong in almost every aspect.

    Loved the post!

  3. April 14, 2013 8:10 am

    Well said. It’s hard for me to believer that anyone can reasonably be expected to be drawn to the gospel through tracts or facebook posts. I also agree with you that evangelism like that probably does the kingdom more harm than good. Rob Bell did a very good Nooma video called “Bullhorn Guy” that does a good job of addressing this too. Worth a watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsIfntfLYPI

  4. Philip permalink
    December 8, 2013 2:52 pm

    wow… way too much info man. I agree though…tracts are an excuse not a true witness.

    You should check out this site I found…
    http://ExplicitEvangelism.org

    They have a pretty good concept and are very straight forward.

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