Today I realized something interesting about typical strategies of evangelism. The realization came after spending a couple hours at UNC tonight handing out free lemonade as an exam outreach initiative. We weren’t asking students to sign up for anything or come to church in exchange–we were giving the lemonade out with no strings attached.
Surprisingly, the students were still very suspicious. A lot of people ignored us when we asked if they wanted something to drink. And the ones that did come to the table were immediately apprehensive when we told them that we were from a church. You could just see it in their eyes–they were waiting for something Christiany to be thrown at them like a Gospel tract or the Four Laws. They were bracing themselves for it.
As I was driving home tonight, I was reflecting on these students’ reactions and the reason behind them. The easiest scapegoat for their skepticism is judgmental Christians who scream at people and tell them they’re going to Hell. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that it probably wasn’t judgmental Christians that these students were tired of, because most Christians aren’t actually like that. Sure, non-Christians may run into a couple scary Christians along the way, but the majority of their experiences were probably with “normal” Christians, which means their opinions of the church were probably shaped by such “normal” Christians.
It wasn’t the crazy Christians alone that were scaring non-Christians off, but rather the majority of Christians who are nice, but are constantly scheming to convert people. The way we do evangelism may not be scary or loud, but it nevertheless sends non-Christians running in the opposite direction, and I think I know why.
Tonight, as I looked in the eyes of these young people and saw the distrust therein, I was startled to realize that I recognized that feeling, because it is the feeling I frequently get when interacting with single guys. In the last several years of my life as the pressure to get married has been mounting on everyone my age, I have become extremely hesitant about meeting new guys, even Christian ones, because many times guys will start flirting with me, to some degree or another, the moment that we meet.
When this happens, it’s as if they don’t see me at all–all they see is my potential as a wife. And I hate that feeling, because I know that it is not based on their desire to care for me, but their desire to care for themselves. All I am is a means to an end–the end being marriage.
I think that is the same vibe that we often give off to non-Christians. It’s not that we’re mean or judgmental, but our evangelism is about as sincere as a pick-up line. In the same way that a guy’s initial advances are inherently insincere since they don’t know me, non-Christians receive a similar message because we don’t know anything about them.
And in the same way that guys hit on girls because their vision is dominated by dreams of marriage, non-Christians know that all we can really see is our hopes for “conversion.” Our eyes are so focused on that goal, that we miss seeing the person. Though unintentionally, they become just a number to us, a means to an end. And non-Christians are no more impressed by that kind of evangelism than a girl is impressed by some cheesy line about how her legs must be tired from running through a guy’s mind.
The advance is lacking in any sort of genuineness, and it has little to nothing to do with the actual person. All it does is make people want to run away as fast as their “tired” legs will carry them.
And this analogy can be taken even further. One of the reasons that Christians keep on engaging in this kind of evangelism is because it does, occasionally, work. Of the hundreds and hundreds of people you talk to, at least one or two take the bait. But I suspect that the kinds of people who respond to that type of evangelism are no different than the kinds of women who respond to pick-up lines–they’re desperate.
There’s a reason that guys keep using pick-up lines–they actually work from time to time. If you approach enough women, you’ll eventually find someone who is either insecure enough or desperate enough to accept it.
But that success is not so much a commentary on the quality of the pick-up line as it is the state of the girl. In the same way, I suspect that the people who are most likely to respond to formulaic evangelism are those people who are at the end of their ropes.
Granted, it is important that we reach those people, and for this reason we should be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading in case we are called to this kind of evangelism, but we should be extremely discerning about this method because, if used incorrectly, it can do quite a bit of damage in the mean time.
Just think about it–because so many guys indiscriminately hit on girls, I am now suspicious of any attention a guy gives me as soon as I meet him, thus making it that much harder for any genuine guy to pursue me, even as just a friend, in the future. Similarly, non-Christians become so jaded by the impersonal outreach strategies of the Christians they’ve encountered that it becomes more and more difficult for Christians to reach out to them in a genuine way in the future.
So yes, pick-up lines do work, but in general, they tend to do more harm than good. Why? Because pick-up lines are never sincere. They are never the reflection of a person who genuinely wants to care for and love another person. They are the fastest, easiest means to getting something.
And I think that is what Christian evangelism is often reduced to. Christians comfort themselves with the knowledge that we are not being hateful or narrow-minded, but that doesn’t mean we’re actually loving people in an authentic way. Real love is the kind modeled for us in Christ–it is personal, intimate, sacrificial, and patient, so just because we share the Gospel with someone doesn’t mean we’re actually loving them.
More likely we are conveying the same cheap imitation of love that you can find at a bar any night of the week–a love that is fast, easy, and requires very little of us to get what we want. But whether the target is a cute blonde at a party or a non-Christian in the student union, the fact of the matter is that pick-up lines almost never work.
i only wish i could be as eloquent and succinct as you – and that’s a real compliment, not a pick-up line.
UNC during exam week…you bring back fond memories, my friend. Sigh…
So what would be the alternative? (sort of being devils advocate here).