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.