Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Friendly Evangelism: Whom Are You Talking To?

I remember reading that someone - I think it was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - had done some research on what approaches to evangelism actually worked. What they found was that accosting random strangers generated the fewest conversions for the effort. Conversions were most likely when the missionaries sat down with people who had already indicated interest, and who already knew people in the LDS Church.[1]

Understanding your target audience is crucial to any sort of persuasive argument[2]. If they trust you, then you don't bore them with justifications. If they doubt you, then you have to show proofs and reasons. If they don't care, then you'll have to give them some reason to be interested.

This is precisely why I think Grace's question is worth answering. She wants to share the Gospel with unbelievers and former believers. She's encountering resistance when she presents her (Christian) ideas. So she's asking how she could do better with this particular audience.

That being the case, I almost hate to say this... but my first reaction is, Give it up. As a target audience, we're horrible. Seriously, anyone would be better. But, fine, let me explain:

If you find an atheist who simply wasn't raised around Christianity, or an agnostic who's just sort of wishy-washy about the whole thing, or a lapsed {insert denomination here} who prefers to sleep in on Sundays, you've got a pretty decent shot. Share the Good News, or remind them of what they're missing, or just explain how much you love being involved in this organization - and you're off a good start. Don't forget to tell them about the free donuts.

Former believers, on the other hand... we're something else altogether. I've said this before, but it bears repeating: by the time someone starts identifying himself as an ex-Christian, he's past the point where better discernment or a review of the Gospels is going to help. The entire structure of Christianity - its assumptions, its descriptions, its conclusions - no longer make sense to him. So before you start explaining the Christian view of things, keep these two things in mind:
  1. Former believers already know.
  2. Former believers disagree.

Don't believe me? I recently got annoyed enough[3] to actually write out the reasons why I am not a Christian. They're... comprehensive. In order to bring me back into the fold, you would have to find a way to satisfactorily address everything in that post. That would require, among other things, some sort of epiphany - in the original sense of the word, where God reaches down and touches my thoughts - that seems to confirm not only God's existence, but Christianity as the best way of understanding Him. Can you provide all that? Now, every other former believer is going to have their own version of that list. It's not just a matter of offering a ground-up justification for Christian beliefs. You're going to have to start all the way down in the foundation, and work from there.

Does that sound like the sort of job where Sisyphus himself would watch you with a little gleam of schadenfreude in his eyes?

Well, it is.

Like I said, we're a horrible audience to target. Former believers already know, and former believers disagree. Forget either of those things, and you'll put a foot wrong - and someone will call you on it. Because of this, trying to share the Good News directly is a lost cause. So is quoting the Bible.[4]

But let's assume that you're not out to make converts, since that's nearly impossible under the circumstances. Let's assume that, instead, you're just planting seeds: giving former believers the tools, so that if and when they feel the need to believe again, they know where to start; reminding them of what Christianity at its best really can be; making Christianity look like a halfway sensible lense through which to view humanity and the world. How do you go about doing these things?

Yep, you guessed it: That's our next topic.

Next: Why Unbelievers Talk About God | Previous: What is the goal?

[1] No, I don't have a cite for that. I can't even remember where I heard it.

[2] There are certain brands of Christianity - Calvinists in particular - who would argue that sharing the Gospel has nothing whatsoever to do with persuasive speaking. They do it because they are commanded to, but if you happen to convert... well, that has nothing to do with them. It's because God has come into your heart and made you able to understand His word, or some such gobbledygook. This, of course, begs the question of why they even bother, since God is presumably quite capable of speaking for Himself. So, for our purposes here, I'm going to assume that you're trying to evangelize because you think that your efforts can do some sort of good.

[3] By a Christian evangelist/apologist, naturally - irritating not so much for the evangelism, but because his apologetics involved telling me what I really know and really believe. Don't ever do this.

[4] That last line deserves a little more attention, so let me digress for a moment. The Bible does not offer independent support for Christian beliefs. The Bible is Christianity, it's just in a written form. So if you say, for example, "I am a Christian because the Bible says {whatever}," most unbelievers are going to hear "I am a Christian because Christianity tells me I should be."

Not only is this circular and unpersuasive, it also sends us a message: not only do you consider the Bible authoritative, you expect us to see it that way as well. If you're talking to unbelievers and former believers, this represents a spectacular failure to understand your audience.


  1. Several years ago, maybe eight or nine, I was doing some Christian research for a class I was facilitating. I came across the Atlanta Free-Thought Society and made contact with the leader of the organization via email. I thought I could share the plan of salvation and reasons to believe. All of which were completely against every bit of the advice you've given here.

    In the end he was very polite, explaining to me that his father had been a preacher and that I hadn't said anything to him he hadn't already heard. I told him I'd pray for him, which I did. He told me he'd think of me a few times and then forget all about me, which I'm certain he did.

    At the time, as a staunch Christian, I still didn't get what he was telling me - that he had rational reasons to not believe - because I couldn't believe there were any. I've since come to see the fallacy in what I did and how rude and obnoxious I must have seemed. In fact, I made contact with him just a few weeks ago and apologized for my intrusion into his life. He didn't remember me, but he did appreciate the apology. He has since been the president of American Atheists.

  2. ::chuckles:: I imagine that the apology was was far more unusual (hence, memorable) than the plan of salvation.

    To her credit, I think Grace is motivated, as much as anything, by the sense that Christianity {isn't / shouldn't be / doesn't have to be} as {controlling / restrictive / manipulative / damaging} as so many people have found it. And I understand that. I get the urge to explain that myself, and I'm not even a Christian.

    On the other hand, for a great many people, that very much *is* how Christianity is. And by the time you've left Christianity, you've left those beliefs entirely - so knowing that there are other, kinder versions of Christianity out there makes no difference.

  3. Thanks for this, Michael. I appreciate your thoughts very much.

    You are very different than most people that I've come across on the various deconversion blogs.

    I think, Michael, that you have not had extremely hurtful, and wounding experiences in the church. You don't feel abandoned by God, or by Christians. Your unbelief truly is more rooted in intellectual reasoning, and questioning alone. I notice that you don't become easily angered, and offended at our discussions.

    But, it does feel to me that most people who share on the deconversion blogs have been deeply hurt, and disillusioned by their experience in the church, and they've found this identity and support together in "unbelief." Even if Christianity seemed true to them, they don't really want to be identified with "Christians" or with the church. Life actually seems better to them as unbelievers.

    And, yet at the same time, spiritual concerns are very much on their hearts, else they would not bother really discussing these issues in depth at all. In truth, Michael, on Bruce's blog alone, he raises deeper issues for discussion than many people are thinking about God who attend the Episcopal church every Sunday..:)

    Do you think I"m right in my sense of this? I'm open to hear your opinion, and will not be at all offended if you disagree.


  4. Short answer: yes and no. Unfortunately, I don't have time to compose a long answer right now - so please consider this an IOU, because I'd very much like to come back to it when I have time to do it right.

  5. Michael, also I want to add one more thing, and then really want to hear more of what you have to share.

    I know you've said that all these ex- Christians already know..And, I'm sure that's true for many, but I don't know that it's true for all.

    When people share that they are now better people, more loving, and less judgmental since they have left the Christian faith, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this. I think to myself, "Are we actually speaking of the same faith, the same Lord, here?"

    How can people know Jesus Christ, and not be increasing in their love for their neighbor, their care for the earth, their desire to promote peace, etc., at the sametime? How can they not overtime be becoming more open, and less judgmental, when Jesus says "Judge not that you be not judged.." I mean I could go on,and on here.

    From where I sit, I think something in their previous belief system had gone seriously spiritually haywire if they now are more accepting and loving after leaving the faith, than before.

    I'm not going to judge that these dear people were not sincere, or "true Christians." Only God can know these kind of things, and I don't think it's for me to say at all. We're not all starting from the same place, afterall.

    But, I'm far from humanly convinced that Yes, they all really knew Him, understood in a deep, experiental way the Christian faith, but then simply chose otherwise, and walked away, and are now better more humane people, rejoicing in unbelief.

    Do you see what I mean, or do you feel my perceptions are faulty, and off base? It all doesn't add up from where I sit, and from my own experience. I wasn't always a Christian believer, Michael.



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