Even if your theology is great, even if your church is wonderful, even if your community is the best group of people on earth, as soon as you approach someone with the intention of recruiting them into your theology or church or community, you become a marketer and the other person is the target of your marketing. While GenXers have had a wide range of experience with religion or church or community, we share the experience of being targets of marketing from our earliest days of watching cartoons with product tie-ins. We can spot a sales pitch from a mile away, and we never confuse that with an offer of genuine relationship.
The 1999 movie The Big Kahuna made this point brilliantly. Addressing a colleague who turned a sales convention into an opportunity to witness to his Christian faith, one of the characters says, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or ‘How to Make Money in Real Estate with No Money Down.” …Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation anymore; it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being; you’re a marketing rep.
Heather Kirk-Davidoff, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope
One has to admit, it’s interesting when Old Schoolers and Emergents employ certain cinematic references to make the same point. Darryl Hart has on various occasions recommended “The Big Kahuna” for very similar reasons.
Autobiographical alert. My own conversion many moons ago involved a variety of influences, but one of the most vivid was a fellow college student. We worked a summer job together. A couple years my senior, I vaguely recalled him from high school as being something of a popular student but also something of an odd, if perfectly innocuous duck. He was a member of the local Reformed Church (RCA). Evidently, his church was caught up in the latest Willow Creek-y ways and he was known around work as the resident Jesus freak, a term he gladly embraced. I was an intellectually curious college sophomore, enthusiastically open to any and all worldviews. Generally shunned by the others and taunted behind his back (something he also gloried in), I found him interesting and made the mistake one day of asking him what was up with all the Bible-toting and Jesus-babble. One free copy of “Mere Christianity” and a hatchback full of Willow Creek tapes and I was on my way to true religion. Of course, it helped that my future wife also worked at the same summer resort. Though it may not be the most pious way of putting it, cute fundamentalist girls with ordained fathers and young charismatic evangelical men can go a long way to converting born and bred skeptics.
But I have come over the years to see Dirk’s methodology of testifying to the truth which lay within him to be highly suspect, even dangerous. He had been trained in something called “friendship evangelism.” At first blush this sounds like a welcome alternative to snake oil shenanigans of revivalism. But it really is just another variety of it. Exchanging front porch cold calling or main street sandwichboarding for good old-fashioned friendship, it’s a seemingly kinder and gentler way to sell Jesus. But if my experience with Dirk is any indication, and I think it is, it is actually nastier. Simply stated, what happens is that once the seller is satisfied that the buyer has bought, the feigned friendship simply evaporates. The seller notches the buyer up on his spiritual bedpost and he is off to his next conquest. (It has always seemed to me as well that there is a fair amount of under-creationalism at play here, as if the very goodness of friendship isn’t quite good enough unless it is being used for redemptive purposes. One should probably only don the evangelical spacesuit before he carries on with any unredeemed relationships.)
To be evangelical is to be besot with fad. The current trend in popular evangelical morality is something called young marriage. The architects here want to counter the so-called dating model with the so-called courtship model. But to the extent this new trend follows on the heels of the highly unsuccessful sexual fad of purity, things don’t bode so well for those with sacred institution in view. In the same way, those like Dirk who may mean well as they attempt to engage more organically than mechanically with unbelievers don’t seem to realize that unless they disengage themselves from the yet unshaken premises of marketing what ought not be marketed they actually do more violence than their cold calling predecessors.
It seems to me that when Jesus likened winning souls to catching fish, whatever else he intended, he didn’t mean that human beings are as dispensable as fish or that casting gentle nets had anything in common with throwing poaching spears.