The Evangelical Sales Pitch

I was listening to a recent “The American Life” episode about bait and switch stories. I was surprised to hear them include a debate within Evangelicalism about effective and appropriate evangelism.

Direct link here.

Though I don’t have a strong affection for many of the methods Campus Crusade for Christ uses I found myself getting a bit defensive about their presentation of them as a “bait and switch” (as described by an ex-Evangelical). But I noticed my heart rate come down when they introduced an Evangelical who is seeking different methods to introduce people to our message. (It was an opportunity to feel empathetic to Mormons about ex-Mormon narratives)

I think there is a lot that can be said about Evangelicals not simply viewing people as “sales marks” and a lot more to be said about not introducing people to opportunities that feel like a trap has been set. But I thought the host, Ira Glass, posed an excellent objection to Jim Henderson‘s alternative which seems to be “all bait and no switch”. Evangelicals need to find ways to authentically, courageously and regularly engage friends and strangers about spiritual matters and at the same time abandon convert oriented mindsets.

You can hear the entire episode here.

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27 thoughts on “The Evangelical Sales Pitch

  1. This was before your time, Tim, but this post reminded me of the 1976 ad campaign that Campus Crusade did. Mostly on billboards and bumper stickers, CCC placed the three-word slogan “I Found It!” everywhere, then later connected the slogan with the gospel. At the time, it was the biggest religion-oriented advertising campaign ever. Supposedly 85 percent of Americans were exposed to the message.

    It wasn’t really bait and switch, although it was selling Christianity as if it were toothpaste or something. I have no idea how effective it was in gaining converts much less disciples.

  2. As opposed to “Truth Discovered”?

    I’ve actually go no issue with Christians using the tools of marketing. It’s the output we’re shooting for that has me concerned.

    I was telling my wife tonight what we need is “no bait, all switch”.

  3. Evangelical use of marketing has always bugged me. Marketing bugs me, so this is not specific to evangelism.

    I can’t help seeing evangelism, in the way it is most commonly done, as objectifying. The interaction is not motivated by true care for the whole person, but only that part of them that “needs to be saved”, a conversion statistic. Porn only sees value in the animal desire of sex, “cold” evangelism only sees value in the savable soul. Both are degrading.

    It is an extreme comparison, so maybe the direct connection to marketing in sales is a better one, but the end result is the same. The motivation is centered on a desire to achieve or obtain in the evangelist, and because people are so used to being treated this way by the consumer culture we live in, it feels normal. It is a sales pitch, and no one sees that for what it is: manipulative and degrading.

    Can we look for some other way to frame evangelism? Jim Henderson’s approach resonates with me because the goal is to get Christians to be real people that relate with “Non-Christians” as real people. The friends that are not brought closer to God through such friendships would probably also not respond to being stopped on the street by a stranger, or seeing some marketing campaign.

  4. Tim:
    Could you please describe what made you defensive about the beginning of the interview. From an outside perspective, I didn’t feel that it was an unfair statement, but that doesn’t mean I agree with his assessment.

  5. Tim said:

    I’ve actually go no issue with Christians using the tools of marketing. It’s the output we’re shooting for that has me concerned.

    I probably agree with you on both counts. Could you explain what you mean by “the output we’re shooting for”? Thanks!

    One problem I have with some evangelical marketing is that it can reduce the Christian faith to just another consumer choice. That rubs me the wrong way. But I’ve also seen good marketing from evangelicals as well; the megachurch in my part of town has a billboard on the main drag, and I think it presents a positive (if sometimes obscure) message and would make me interested to see what else that church has to say if I didn’t already know. That’s not a bad thing.

    As to personal evangelism, it’s tough. I’m not good at it. And there’s the temptation (and I’m speaking of evangelicals and Mormons here) to do it for the wrong reasons. That can be a real problem.

  6. Could you please describe what made you defensive about the beginning of the interview. From an outside perspective, I didn’t feel that it was an unfair statement, but that doesn’t mean I agree with his assessment.

    Yes. They didn’t say anything I disagreed with or that was inaccurate. It’s just uncomfortable for anyone inside a group to have someone outside the group describe them in a different light than they see themselves in, even if it’s accurate. If our forms are skewed in a way that we don’t intend it’s unsettling.

    I learned this when I first posted this article : How to Be a Successful Mormon Missionary

  7. Evangelical use of marketing has always bugged me. Marketing bugs me, so this is not specific to evangelism.

    Ouch. That’s my career you’re talking about there. 😉 (Marketing, of course. Not evangelism.)

    No, I totally agree that you have to be super careful when it comes to “marketing” the word of God. This isn’t about capturing market share; it’s about capturing hearts. Employing traditional marketing tactics seems to cheapen the message of Christ and, like Eric said, turn it into just another consumer choice. I think it can be done, but you have to be careful. Bait and switch, deception and “over-cleverness” is probably NOT the way to go.

    I think the gospel is best shared person to person, not through the mass media or with slick slogans.

  8. Katie:

    Apologies regarding your choice of career… 😉

    Are not the goals of marketing specifically to inspire or exploit desire for the thing being marketed, whether an object in the case of a cell phone, or an intangible feeling in the case of humanitarian donations or a Mac? In essence, it is manipulation, whether subtle or overt, towards a goal that might not otherwise be sought. In most cases, this is to the benefit of the owner of the thing being marketed, and sometimes to the person(s) being marketed to. In the case of evangelism, I question the motives of the evangelist, just as I question the motives of the salesman. If the message is genuine, why would there need to be methods, tactics, scripts, training, or even a contrived effort? If the item/idea/Gospel is so valuable, why does it need you to get me to buy it? Marketing thrives in a world of cheap.

    I will confess, I am neither an LDS nor an Evangelical, so I may not belong here. I recently went through a conversion process of my own, and it had nothing to do with evangelism or marketing. It did have to do with relationships that I had, seeds that had been planted a decade ago, and a natural attraction to specific ideas. If someone from our church had approached me and attempted to proselytize, I may never had gone back.

  9. techsamaritan: “I will confess, I am neither an LDS nor an Evangelical, so I may not belong here.” Just so long as you’re not something totally weird…like pagan. (An inside joke that hopefully you’ll stick around long enough to understand.)

    “If the message is genuine, why would there need to be methods, tactics, scripts, training, or even a contrived effort? If the item/idea/Gospel is so valuable, why does it need you to get me to buy it?”

    Because you don’t know that you will benefit from the product. You have to be educated on its value.

  10. If the message is genuine, why would there need to be methods, tactics, scripts, training, or even a contrived effort? If the item/idea/Gospel is so valuable, why does it need you to get me to buy it?

    Well one answer, although incomplete, is that for most of us here, who are Christians of one sort or another, we’ve been commanded by Jesus to take his gospel to all the world. That alone suggests that some sort of effort is required.

    And BrianJ is right. One purpose of “marketing,” and that includes media use as well as sending people door to door, is to let people know what is available. And that can be done in many ways without manipulating or misleading.

  11. BrianJ: Orthodox Christian. That would make everyone here a heretic. 😉

    Back to the question:
    But if the value is not immediately obvious? Perhaps what is being marketed is not actually valuable?

    This is the eternal question: how do you bring someone to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ? And this question is the wrong one. “How do I love this person?” should be the only evangelistic tool needed. What we are “selling” is love, as demonstrated through us. That is really the only thing of value we have to offer. It is not doctrinal knowledge, nor a burning in the torso that truly connects us to Christ, but unearned, unconditional love. If we don’t have that to share… we shouldn’t be out there at all.

    And yes, attempting to market the love of God is doing a great disservice because it leads to the question: “why would you need to?” Is it so hidden in our lives?

  12. At my college campus we had both Campus Crusade and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. I honestly didn’t notice much marketing on either of their parts outside the student organization fairs, but I attended IV on occasion with a roommate who was very involved (so it was more word of mouth).

    However. In the DC area, the McLean Bible Church puts out a lot of radio ads with the tag line “not a sermon, just a thought.” The interesting part was that the pastor bought time during the fairly obnoxious morning show and then (publicly) tried to insist that the DJ clean up the content since the church was a paying advertiser. I’m sure you can guess what the DJ did with that.

    But as for “marketing” over all, I’m all for spreading the Message, I just hate how “shiny” some churches try to make it. I find it insulting. I once attended a Christmas-season service at an evangelical church and the entire area was decked out in bright glittery signs that really just looked like a holy Old Navy commercial. Appealing to the compulsive consumer in people is certainly effective, but Katie said it well–it cheapens what we have to offer.

  13. And techsamaritan, I tend to agree with you, at least in my own practice of Christianity. I’m pretty good at intellectual-level debates with my friends about religion, but I feel awkward randomly talking to people about my spirituality. I’d rather they just know that I’m Christian and see how God’s power in my life (and hopefully those I interact with) speaks for itself.

  14. as a marketing professional I think always have to fight through the cynicism people in general have toward messaging and branding in all the work I do. But Marketing is not necessarily manipulative, misleading or coercive. As much as people resent it, they also respond to it and expect it.

    At it’s best and purest, it’s just communicating clearly and consistently. In regards to a spiritual message, all the more care has to be taken to insure that it is authentic. But there’s nothing any more wrong with a church using the best practices in marketing than with a pastor taking some public speaking courses.

    When Jesus made the decision to get on a boat to talk to a large crowd, that was a marketing decision. He wanted to find the best place to be seen and heard so that he could communicate clearly and effectively. That kind of decision hasn’t always been called marketing and you don’t have to study marketing to figure it out, but that is exactly the kind of decision marketers make.

  15. I probably agree with you on both counts. Could you explain what you mean by “the output we’re shooting for”? Thanks!

    Sorry I didn’t respond earlier. If all we’re concerned with is getting people’s souls into heaven; what we say and how we say it is going to be a lot different than if we are out to get heaven into people’s souls. (to butcher a phrase from Dallas Willard). It’s the converts vs. disciples thing. People are much more than their eternal souls and saying the “pass code” at a Billy Graham Crusade isn’t a ticket to heaven.

    That being said, it’s been pointed out to me recently that evangelism and discipleship are different gifts. Not all evangelist are gifted disciple-makers. So I’m willing to grant room to straight proclamations, but I think Evangelicals have erred over the last 100 years by stopping short at “get saved” and not been interested in “get discipled”. Evangelicals have been way too satisfied with a bunch of people with the smell of sulfur on them in heaven. It has done great damage to our faith to have a 60% of the country “just saved” and nothing more.

  16. For what it’s worth, one of my favorite LDS missionary pairs that came to my house in high school introduced themselves and then said they just wanted to have me take a survey about how happy I was. I kind of ruined their game when they got through all the questions and said, “Oh, you seem like you’re pretty happy.”

    And then they asked me if I had heard of the LDS church, where I could be even happier.

    (At that point I had to break it to them that that Southern Idaho was the functional equivalent of Northern Utah, so I was familiar with the church and would gladly wave to them if I saw them at the next stake dance.)

    While it’s pretty clear they weren’t conducting research about happiness, I found it to be a rather charming icebreaker. So Tim, yes, I agree that marketing tactics are not inherently dirty. But I maintain my aversion to the “shiny” type.

  17. I don’t think this “would you like to take a survey” crap is appropriate. It’s really just a way to make it easier for the college kid to approach strangers on the beach. It does nothing to help the message of Jesus.

    Does anyone already not know what the results of their Scientology personality screening are going to be?

    My neighbor just “invited” me to his business’s “holiday party” at his house this Friday. He also invited my kids to his son’s birthday party. Guess which MLM pitch I’m going to skip out on. The ex-Evangelical had it right, we don’t like it in any other part of our life, why do we think people will feel all that much better about it concerning religion. Fortunately Henderson had it right that Evangelicals vote with their feet and don’t do this stuff over long periods of time. (Amwayers on the other hand . . . )

  18. Okay. You know what I think is inappropriate? The woman I babysit for on a regular basis also has a part-time nanny who watches the little girl during the day. This nanny is a devout Seventh Day Adventist who took it upon herself to give a children’s Bible complete with violent illustrations to this four year old without discussing it with the mother.

    I know this woman had nothing but good intentions, but come on. I’m sure the mother would have rather dealt with a “crap” survey over that any day. As would I, since the nanny was never around at bedtime when I had to carefully work my way through this kid’s questions about stoning people.

  19. “…an intangible feeling in the case of humanitarian donations or a Mac…”

    Am I reading correctly that you consider owning a Mac to be an intangible feeling?

    Tim, I’m interested to know, what do you think of the idea of LDS missionaries going out and offering to help people start their family history? On the one hand, they are definitely going to get people started if they are interested, but on the other hand, they are also hoping to get in the door so that they can share their message. Do you consider this a bait-and-switch tactic?

  20. I’m not saying owning a Mac is intangible, but the marketing that Apple does is not geared toward the objects that it sells as much as the culture/status/coolness/progressiveness/elitism that they represent (ie. the old “Think different” campaign). I say this as a Mac user, but I can see their marketing for what it is.

    Not arguing about whether they sell good tools, only noting that what they are “selling” is far more than an object. Apple is not alone in this, but they do stand out as one of the biggest culture-making corporations.

  21. … what do you think of the idea of LDS missionaries going out and offering to help people start their family history?

    This wasn’t asked of me, but that hasn’t stopped me before.

    I think it’s fine if the missionaries will be totally satisfied with helping people with their family history, so that they will consider their time well-spent even if the people have no interest whatsoever in the reasons why the church does family history.

    Sincerity counts for a lot in my book.

    the marketing that Apple does is not geared toward the objects that it sells as much as the culture/status/coolness/progressiveness/elitism that they represent … only noting that what they are “selling” is far more than an object.

    True. But Apple’s products are often quite innovative with outstanding designs. If that weren’t the case, the advertising approach wouldn’t work for very long.

    I personally don’t think that the coolness factor of Mac computers is worth anywhere near the premium that they charge. (And if I thought Microsoft operating systems were crap, which I do, I’d go ahead and use Linux, which I do.) But I don’t think Apple’s being deceptive here. When people buy a Mac, they know they’re buying cool (with a superior operating system thrown in), not just a bunch of electronics parts. And some people are willing to pay for that.

    And isn’t that the key here? You can be less than straightforward, but doing so doesn’t work in your long-term interests. Tell people you’re there to help them with their genealogy — and if that’s why you’re there, then everyone will end up feeling good about the transaction. But people can see through pretense, and pretense isn’t consistent with the Golden Rule.

  22. People mainly need to feel loved, validated, and special. They look for it in relationships, careers, products, and religions. Effective marketing speaks to that need and promises its fulfillment.

    This in and of itself isn’t unethical, unless the product is shoddy and can’t really deliver on its promises. But I’ll tell you what, if I had an iPhone, I’d feel super duper special. So it’s no lie. 🙂

  23. Tim, I’m interested to know, what do you think of the idea of LDS missionaries going out and offering to help people start their family history?

    I don’t know that I have any problem with any specific act that religious people might do. I think it makes good sense for LDS to help people start their family histories and then say “would you like to know why we think this is important?”

    Similar to my post about witnessing to Mormon Missionaries. People suggested I was setting a trap for missionaries and that it would be resisted. If my true interest is in being kind and offering dinner to people, it’s not a trap. I give them the option to know more about what I think of Mormonism. If they turn it down, that’s fine with me. I still have value in every thing else that’s led to that point. Mormons have a value in doing family histories even if the people who do them are not potential converts.

  24. TechSamaritan: “But if the value is not immediately obvious? Perhaps what is being marketed is not actually valuable?” That’s possible. But that’s a question for the marketee to ask, not the marketer; i.e., if you (the marketer) know that you have a valuable product, then why doubt?

    ““How do I love this person?” should be the only evangelistic tool needed. What we are “selling” is love, as demonstrated through us. That is really the only thing of value we have to offer.” Agreed.

    “And yes, attempting to market the love of God is doing a great disservice…. Is it so hidden in our lives?” Yes.

  25. But I’ll tell you what, if I had an iPhone, I’d feel super duper special.

    It’s true; you would feel super duper special, because you would in fact be super duper special. iPhones are awesome.

  26. Kullervo:

    Yes, that is sort-of my point.

    The thing that I have to tell you is not actually what is valuable, but I personally missed the point on what is valuable, so I am only trying to pass on what I have, which is not only incomplete, but not even what I thought I had. But you have a dire need for it that you don’t know about!

    Examples of missing the point:

    * Anything that focuses on getting people to come to a specific church
    * Anything that makes promises that only God can keep
    * Anything that generates a need where there was not one before (ie. Aura Salve)
    * Anything that offers success in anything
    * Anything that offers anything at all

    We, being recipients ourselves, cannot offer any more than we ourselves have. I do not have a plan of salvation, a method, an answer, or a fix. I personally have nothing to offer, because I cannot even love my family like I should. What exactly am I supposed to be talking to this person about again?

    That is on a personal level, so what does it look like on an institutional level? How do you separate the inherent fiscal benefit to a given church/movement when it grows from the “evangelical” act of attracting new people?

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