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Avon & Evangelism

A group of Internet buddies and I happened upon the topic of multi-level marketing this past week, most of us agreeing that we hate being invited to the so-called parties at which consumer products are sold through social pressure.  I’ve only been invited to a couple (thank God!), and we have a “family policy” against buying from such companies, regardless of how much anyone else might genuinely like their products.  This is not only because they are annoying but also because we think any business endeavor that uses a pyramid scheme is disgusting and exploitative.

Anyway, it came up in this conversation how different it feels to support any other business—even the business of a friend—vs. attending one of these parties.  Buying something in any other context may be influenced by advertising, salespeople, or a host of other factors, but at least it feels somewhat like a choice.  But when a friend is selling and you are surrounded by other party-goers who are buying things… it can be hard to say no, regardless of what you would otherwise do.  Even if you end up reasonably happy with your purchase, there is an uncomfortable social pressure there which changes the dynamic of your shopping experience.

This whole discussion reminded me of something else people like to sell: Jesus.

About a year ago I started looking into the possibility of joining InterVarsity staff.  I had first applied and interviewed during my senior year of college, but I ended up walking away in order to attend seminary instead.  When we first moved back to NC, I thought it would be worth looking into again, but I couldn’t make the four-year commitment to one particular school that they wanted.  But finally last year we were looking at moving to one place for five years for Jeremiah to do a PhD.  InterVarsity was an option again, although I would have to apply in multiple regions, since we didn’t know where we’d end up until April.

However, I had changed.  I knew that I didn’t fit as seamlessly into evangelical culture anymore, and I wanted to get a feel for the regions to which I’d be applying.  I had some discussions with hiring directors in a few states, by email and over the phone, and in two of the regions, I was ultimately not well-suited because InterVarsity’s position on homosexuality in the church has solidified.  There was no longer even the wiggle room to say that my focus would be on caring for students pastorally and if that meant their being in an opening-and-affirming church rather than losing their faith, so be it.

What fascinated me, though, was that in one region, we never even got to talk about homosexuality because apparently my views on evangelism were too controversial.  I was not a good fit for IV staff, I was told, because I didn’t want to do “contact evangelism.”  And when I was talking about multi-level marketing companies this past week, I remembered that conversation.

What I said then—and I think sounds a lot like our “selling parties” discussion—is that just because you are doing evangelism one-on-one doesn’t make it “personal” in a meaningful way and quite likely will actually increase the degree of pressure the person being evangelized feels.  It doesn’t actually matter whether that person thinks they’re happy and comfortable and even decides to convert.  There is a high risk of exploiting that person’s emotions and manipulating them (we’ll hope inadvertently) into changing their beliefs.  And so to a great extent, I think at least the call-to-conversion part of evangelism is better done via institutions than people.  Better done by a minister than a friend.  It’s easy to blow off a sermon you didn’t like or a religious teacher you disagree with.  It is easier to keep your brain working when everything isn’t all tied up in your friendship as well.

The IV staff on the other end of the phone call was surprised to hear this, thinking that there was more potential for emotional manipulation in a church service type setting.  I do see his point about the potential for people to ride an emotional high from a larger group experience, particularly when the mood is set by certain music and lighting.  There is the potential there for people’s vulnerable enthusiasm to be exploited, and that’s why I disagree with the tactics of 19th century revivalism and its descendants.  But still, at the end of the day, I think it’s easier to weigh your own opinions and make your own decisions when someone you don’t know as well is addressing a crowd rather than someone who knows you encouraging you, individually, to move your life in a certain direction.

And as heretical as some would say it is, that’s where I’m at these days with regards to evangelism.  It should be true to the root in the Greek word for “good news”—something truly good and something people are free to take or leave on the basis of their assessment of its goodness.  I think we need to put less “effort” into evangelism and work at being kind and compassionate people who can articulately explain their theology to those who are curious.  So if anyone is going to be told “Now is the time for you to follow Jesus!” they’re going to be hearing that directly from God, not from me.

6 Responses

  1. Thoughtful post.
    Your second to last sentence is very similar to 1 Peter 3:14-17′s approach to evangelism/apologetics. I do think that there is a place for rhetoric/persuasion rather than pure dialectic/argument in evangelism, but laying it on heavy with the element of personal emotional investment can very easily lean into the category of manipulation. Do you think there is a line between manipulation and rhetoric that is based on truth (but not cast in a straight up logical format)? Also, I’ve found that both inviting friends with Christian/non-Christian commitments to Bible studies/church services to have a profound influence upon their lives when the gospel is being explained clearly and in earnest. Similarly though, in our post Christian type culture (wherein the presuppositions of Christianity are simply not held), one-on-one evangelism is increasingly less possible. But rather, articulating the gospel and why it is reasonable to believe in God/the resurrection of Jesus/why the medieval church was not the worst of all of the things of all time is usually helpful for a later invite to a more institutional type meeting.

    Thanks for putting that on the internet.

    Geoff

  2. Interesting post, Ashleigh. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days and would like to offer this counterpoint:

    Is it not part of what we are offering people when presenting Jesus and Christianity the opportunity to become a part of the “people of God,” or “community of faith,” or whatever term you want to call it?

    I suppose what I’m thinking is that it makes an artificial separation between the good news of Jesus and the invitation to community to only approach evangelism in a “present the bare facts of Jesus in a lecture” kind of setting. Part of the good news is how it transforms individuals, and I would think interacting with one or more of those individuals personally would give a more complete picture of Christianity than a mere sermon would.

    I do realize the potential for emotional factors at play, which is why we should strive to be as honest as possible, and perhaps even, as Jesus did, take initiative in bringing up reasons to the other person why they really might NOT want to follow Jesus.

    Anyway, that’s what I was thinking about. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    -andy

    • Ashleigh Bailey

      Hi Andy! Sorry I’m so slow responding. We’re really bad bloggers lately.

      I am not trying to say that invitations should never happen or that inviting people to join the faith community (local or universal) never has its place. It absolutely does. This isn’t about no personal interaction either. I agree that friendships often have more influence over people than sermons.

      I’m really just talking about changing the nature of those friendships, conversations, etc. which too often end up having a lot of emotional pressure. There are ways to share your faith that is more matter-of-fact, which is welcoming without becoming manipulative, I think.

      • No problem, Everybody’s busy these days, especially with kids.

        And we can definitely agree on wanting to minimize manipulation, in whatever setting, which I was vividly reminded of this past weekend. I was out of town for a weekend and decided to randomly find a church online and visit it. The speaker’s entire sermon was more like a motivational pep-talk, except it was a pep-talk to get you to pray a prayer and be born again, and in which he had absolutely ZERO to say to any Christians who were present (which on a Sunday morning in a church, you would think would be a large number)…except that “if you do something you know is wrong and you feel guilty about it, you are probably trusting in your works and need to get saved.” (ie, if you feel any guilt when you sin, you must not be a Christian.)

        So at the end, after the last 15 minutes of his sermon (which had keyboard strings vamping behind this final appeal), about 70-80 of the 600 people present “Got saved.”

        While I can hope that there were some real life-changes made that morning, I suspect that the majority is split between (1) people who just got excited, and (2) real Christians who got scared that they weren’t saved.

        Sorry for the rant, but I suppose, in my experience, I’m still more wary of large-group manipulation, but I agree with you that we should also avoid it in our interpersonal relationships as well.

        • Ashleigh Bailey

          Andrew,

          I think maybe our different emphases are born out of different experience. I have been in the sort of church service you’re talking about, and I have spent a lot of time around people who “reject” it as an appropriate. I think many of them, however, think anything more “personal” is great, and I would disagree. A lot of people see to think that just because they’re not employing some of the exact same tactics of the most manipulative preachers they’ve heard, that they’re doing something different. And many of them genuinely care about others and want to see them connect with God in a meaningful way. I think the fact that they aren’t doing thing the “worst” way and are avoiding some of the negative evangelistic styles they grew up with, however, “tricks” them into overlooking some of the negative aspects of the way they are approaching evangelism, as well. I don’t know if that makes sense? I feel like I only see it, though, because I’ve been there and done that… So this isn’t as much about “them” but about “us” and how “we” need to change.

          • Your comments definitely make sense…and are a good reminder to turn my critical eye towards myself sometimes.

            Btw, I agree with your tithing post also…There is no NT support for a required tithe.

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