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Is Evangelism All About Winning Souls?

knock on door

Neil Carter recently wrote a post about evangelism that piqued my interest. Neil talked about how most evangelistic efforts do little to reach the “lost,” and are really more about tribal identification than saving sinners from the flames of Hell. Neil illustrated this with a question and answer that was posted on Quora.

Someone asked: “Why do people get angry when I try to share the word of God with them?”

A man by the name of Doug Robertson responded:

The entire process is not what you think it is.

It is specifically designed to be uncomfortable for the other person because it isn’t about converting them to your religion. It is about manipulating you so you can’t leave yours.

If this tactic was about converting people it would be considered a horrible failure. It recruits almost no one who isn’t already willing to join. Bake sales are more effective recruiting tools.

On the other hand, it is extremely effective at creating a deep tribal feeling among its own members.

The rejection they receive is actually more important than the few people they convert. It causes them to feel a level of discomfort around the people they attempt to talk to. These become the “others.” These uncomfortable feelings go away when they come back to their congregation, the “Tribe.”

I pondered, for a moment, my past evangelism efforts, and I concluded that Neil and Doug are right; that my soulwinning efforts and those of the churches I pastored did little to save sinners. The majority of the people converted under my ministry voluntarily came to church, heard me preach, and then walked down the aisle to be saved after I psychologically and emotionally manipulated them, and not through community evangelistic outreaches.  (Emotionally Manipulating IFB Church Members through Music and Preaching Styles, Walking the Aisle — A Few Thoughts on Altar Calls, and Why Evangelical Beliefs and Practices are Psychologically Harmful — Part One)

I grew up in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. I attended an IFB college to train for the ministry, and while there I married the daughter of an IFB preacher. IFB churches and preachers are known for their aggressive approaches to evangelism, and I was no exception. The IFB churches I pastored typically had several evangelistic outreaches each week. Year-round, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, we would go door to door — much as the Jehovah’s Witnesses do — and try to evangelize people. On Saturdays, we would also go on bus visitation. While our purpose was primarily to bribe children with candy/toys so they would ride one of our busses the next day, we did have occasional opportunities to “share” the gospel.

Several times a year, I would invite evangelists to come hold meetings at the churches I pastored. These meetings ran five to fifteen days in length. The goal was to “revive” the congregation and “evangelize” the community. When we had an evangelist in town, we went door-knocking every day. These concentrated evangelistic efforts gave the hired guns an opportunity to WOW us with their soulwinning skills. The pressure was on them to birth new babies for Jesus.

Front page photo, Times-Recorder, September 7, 1990, preaching on a downtown street corner, Zanesville, Ohio

In the 1980s and 1990s, IFB evangelist Don Hardman would come to our country church and hold fifteen-day protracted revival meetings. (Please see The Preacher: The Life and Times of Donald A. Hardman, A Book Review, Laura’s Light by Laura Hardman, A Book Review, and My Life as a Street Preacher) Don was a street preacher, and it wasn’t long before he turned me into a street preacher too. Instead of going door to door, we would go to nearby communities, stand on a street corner, hand out tracts, and preach as loud as we could. After Don moved on to his next gig, I continued preaching on the street. I tried, without success, to get my colleagues in the ministry to go along with me. To the man, these preachers of the gospel told me that they weren’t “called” to preach on the street. At the time, I saw their refusal as cowardice, an unwillingness to preach like Jesus, the disciples, and the Apostle Paul did in the early days of the Christian church.

I stayed in hyper-evangelism mode well into the 1990s. Even after embracing Calvinism, I continued to busy myself evangelizing sinners. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that I finally threw in the towel and abandoned my aggressive evangelism tactics. Why did I stop? The short answer is this: knocking on doors and preaching on the street resulted in very few, if any, converts. The overwhelming majority of salvation decisions were made by people who voluntarily attended one of our church services. Every so often, knocking on doors resulted in someone getting saved, but as I look back on these experiences, I have concluded that the only thing these supposed new converts got saved from was us! Not wanting to be seen as impolite, they prayed the sinner’s prayer, asking Jesus to save them, so we would leave them alone and move on to someone else. Praise Jesus, preacher! I have been delivered . . . from YOU!

For the most part, my evangelistic efforts were failures. Sure, I shared the gospel with hundreds of people, but few of them got saved. My soulwinning techniques were perfect — those I was taught at Midwestern Baptist College. I was passionate and zealous, devoting countless hours to evangelizing the lost. Why, then, did I fail so miserably? The short answer is that people found my methods offensive and wanted nothing to do with me, my church, or what I was peddling. Of course, this played right into my martyr’s complex. You see, as Neil made clear in his post, my soulwinning efforts were never really about saving souls. What knocking on doors and preaching on street corners did was separate me and the churches I pastored from the “world.” Their rejection only reinforced the notion that what we preached was the truth; that our tribe was the one true church. The more sinners rebuffed my soulwinning efforts, the more I felt that I was right. There’s nothing like persecution to “prove” the rightness of your beliefs and practices.  When people slammed doors in my face or cursed at me, I felt closer to Jesus. When a man tried to hit me with his truck while I preaching on a street corner in Zanesville, Ohio, I felt glad that I was worthy to suffer for the Lord, and even die for him. Mockery and cursing only made me glad that I could “suffer” for Jesus. The Apostle Paul suffered great indignities as he publicly evangelized sinners. (2 Corinthians 11) Suffering in like manner put me in the company of the greatest Christian ever known. What an honor, I thought at the time.

Over the past decade, I have engaged in countless discussions with Evangelical Christians. Many of them came to this site hoping to evangelize me. (Please see IFB Evangelist’s Wife Says She Loves Me, And God Does Too! and Dear Charlie, I’m Only Going to Say This Once) Despite their efforts, I remain an unrepentant, apostate atheist. I have often wondered, did these zealots really think that I was a promising prospect for Heaven? Did they really think their cliché-laden, Bible verse-filled shticks would cause me to drop on my knees, repent, and ask Jesus to save me? Think of all the possible targets for evangelization. Why go after someone like me? There’s no chance in Heaven or Hell that I would ever return to Evangelical Christianity. Yet, they continue to try. Why is that?

Most apologists know deep down that I am not going to repent and return to Christianity. It’s not going to happen . . . However, by trying to evangelize me, they feed their martyr complex; they reinforce their belief that the world hates God, Jesus, the Bible, their church, and them personally. Foundational to Evangelical faith is the belief you are absolutely right, and that all other religions are false. My rejection of their evangelistic overtures reminds them that their tribe is God’s chosen people; that their beliefs and practices are the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). The more that the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world turn them away, the more certain they are that their beliefs are the right. Our hostility and dismissal just prove to them that out of all the religions in the world, they chose the right one; that someday soon Jesus is coming again, and then all the people who said NO to their evangelistic efforts will pay the price for rejecting their efforts. Picture in your mind millions of smiling Evangelicals surrounding you as you are cast into the never-ending flames of the Lake of Fire. Their last words to you? See, I told you . . .

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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  1. Avatar

    I thought Neil’s article was so perceptive, as usual. As I was deconverting, having spent years doing kids’ evangelism, I became increasingly puzzled by the lack of ‘great harvest of souls’ we were promised, and prayed our socks off for. What more could we do? It was as if god was working against us, not enabling and empowering us as I believed. The person I tried to confide my doubts to, said to keep on jesusing. Just one of those 100 children I told a bible story to in their school assemblies every week, could well be prompted by the holy spirit to recall it even 30yrs later…and get saved. The ridiculousness of that argument was one more nail in the coffin of belief for me… I realised, like Neil, that evangelism was all about me…I was brainwashed into doing it, it was as automatic as breathing…but useless.
    So, once again, I take the opportunity to say thank you to you Bruce…it was particularly finding Neil’s and your blog that gave me freedom. I was so shocked by enjoying you both at first, I deleted you from my favourites…satan must be tempting me…but I was hooked and reinstated you…and the rest is history for me as they say!

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    When I read of this concept recently, I thought it was fascinating. Indeed, reinforcing the tribalism in order to retain adherents is a necessary part of religion. High demand religions typically keep more of their members because the cost of leaving is so high (losing one’s community and family).

    Church started teaching us from a young age about proselytizing, holding up missionaries such as Lottie Moon and the early Christians as examples to emulate. I can’t think of a single convert in church, Christian school, or the 2 years I spent active in the college’s Baptist Student Union. My Indian friend and her sisters who attended our Christian school went back to their family’s Hinduism where they practice it culturally. None of them became lifelong Christians, even after daily indoctrination for several years. I know people who are more into Christianity or less into it, but all were born into families who practiced it so it isn’t as if they were switching from another religion or from no religion. The only places where evangelism is somewhat effective are highly impoverished places like where my cousin goes multiple times a year in Haiti. They provide food for kids and teach them bible stories while the kids are there. Maybe they get some converts. but the kids are really there for food bought for the small price of hearing a story and an altar call.

    The more I study evangelical Christianity as a former adherent, the more impressed I am at the way these ancient folks set it up with training people that those who leave were never one of us, satan is working against Christian’s, keep trying because your message may be remembered years later, etc. Brilliant.

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      I was raised in an Irish Catholic family and my husband was raised in an Italian Catholic family. We don’t practice Catholicism anymore, but when we were younger we were both intrigued and felt connected to other traditionally Catholic cultures. We both studied in France and have visited Spain many times. We have talked about how cool it was that we could more easily adapt to the cultures because of our shared religious heritage. Now both of those countries are quite secular (especially France), but there is still a strong connection to the Catholic traditions that have always surrounded them. I still feel like I understand these cultures better because of the Catholic connection even though I see the control factor that has always existed. Religion is a fascinating concept.

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        I find Spain bizarre in many ways. There’s obviously still quite a strong religious fervour, especially amongst older people, but the impression talking to people is that it’s nearly as secular as the UK. The number of churches and cathedrals, and their incredible, over the top, scale and level of ornateness is stupefying. It’s the huge cathedrals that exist in small towns that I find astounding, Siguenza, Plasencia, Burgo de Osma being a few examples. Hardly anyone but a few locals use them, there aren’t that many tourists, yet there they are. There’s also the relentless festivals, mostly religious in nature. Huge effigies of Jesus and Mary being carried on tiers manned by up to 200 people, followed by a huge band, an incredible sight and experience, but almost entirely based on tradition, and filling the bars and restaurants. But it’s great fun!

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    It’s kind of like a kinky polygamous relationship, that christian thing… everyone in bed together, mutual stroking and supporting each other against the big, bad world. And evangelizing and winning the lost just another notch on the headboard.

    I was always kind of horrified by the bragging of various evangelists about how many they’d PERSONALLY saved. It always felt like pride, which of course is one of those ‘DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME’ things… Jesus said so!!!

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    Bob Felton

    From the entry on John Knox: “Knox believed that those who did not embrace the reformed church were sons of Satan and did not deserve respect or fair treatment. In fact, he thought it permissible to cheat and torment them, and even rejoice in knowing that they would be condemned to hell.”

    Notice that last, especially: “… rejoice in knowing that they would be condemned to hell.” The devout will deny it, but there is a lot of childish vengeance-cult in Christian thought, e.g., “You laughed at me — and now you’re gonna get it.”

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    We had supper at church every Wednesday evening, then, go witnessing after, then, return to church for the Wednesday evening message. Those of us who volunteered were given a list of people who had recently visited our church, then we would go try and visit them, witness to them if necessary, and invite them back to our church.
    No one really wanted to do this, but it was always done in pairs, so it wasn’t as intimidating…I’ll never forget on one team, we went for ice cream instead of visiting, and they mentioned how many others they usually saw getting ice cream too!
    But you’re right, the new people were invited, and they were usually already christians, just looking for a new church.

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    I can’t remember the last time I saw an evangelist type doing their thing in the UK, but I see pictures of them from London and other big cities. My own view is that these people see themselves as losers (I don’t label them this way) in life, be it job, health, wealth, or whatever, the sorts of people who are put upon at work because they find social interaction difficult. They develop chips on their shoulders. Evangelising is their way of hitting back, and especially giving themselves visibility, attracting attention in a way that’s easy to handle, getting back, in their own minds, at those they perceive as their ‘betters’, who won’t be saved.

    Conversely I spend a proportion of each year in Spain. Every street corner (maybe slight exaggeration!) in every reasonably sized town or city, seems to have a Jehovahs Witness stand. They are always very neat and tidy, with well dressed people manning them, but I’ve never seen a single person stop and talk to them. I very occasionally chat to them. I make it clear that I’m an atheist (as are most Spaniards in my perception) and not there to be envagelised, but I ask why they do it, and what they think they achieve. The reply almost always amounts to the same thing. They are pleased that they aren’t converting people because apparently there’s a limit on the numbers heaven will admit. So they get to be chosen for heaven by virtue of running the stand, but don’t try too hard so as fend off the competition. I’d never thought of this!

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      I was living in France many years ago and one day a pair of American Mormon missionaries came to the door of the house where I was living. I was living with a French family, and when we got past the awkward (really bad) French that they spoke and realized I was an English speaker I actually asked why they were proselytizing in a Catholic country. They were kind of embarrassed and couldn’t really say why. We were all the same age (early 20’s), and I had never encountered Mormons before. I felt so sorry for them because I knew they were not likely to have much success. Maybe they had the same idea as the Jehovahs you encounter.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    The concept of the fall from grace is at its foundation a sick idea, a bully manipulation: You know you are evil, that your heart is filthy and full of garbage and God knows it too. But he’s a good bully, deep deep down and he wants you to be washed white as snow. Get on your knees and admit you are shit.
    This kind of harmful assault on people is normal fare at anytax-free evangelical Christian church. They practice this kind of swarming as a group and then expect individuals who have either been willingly or unwillingly (children, for instance) subjected to this harm, to then go out on their own and harm others for God and sweet Jesus. One is shunned in various ways if unable to get the message and they are pr(e)yed on further to correct their wicked cowardice or whatever it is Satan has obviously done to them to prevent them from serving God in public ‘witness’.
    Winning souls is predatory behaviour commanded by the boss in the sky and the pig in the pulpit. When some true Christian servants go out and stand on university campuses to slut-shame, name-call and harangue anybody passing, they are allowed to commit this assault as an expression of free speech. They are truly free, set free and express unrestrained love to others, just as God has told them they must do. You filthy, stinking, rotten Atheists are soul-sluts who are going to burn forever in the lake of fire. You are disgusting flesh-bags of filth who refuse the free gift of salvation and are ruining America. (Get on board the soul-train!)
    One wonderful effect of these street-preacher thugs is that they encourage any even slightly balanced bipeds to run away as fast as they can from Sargeant Jesus and his troops.

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    Tony McKeon

    Saw the same article on Quora. I think Robertson nailed it perfectly. Have family that recently drove to Mexico on a “mission” trip. So very proud to have handed out 5,000 copies of John or something like that. Giving people that regularly eat dogs literature – I don’t see the love and compassion. It’s always about control.

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    We took the summer camp to the fair yesterday.
    One of the booths had big signs, ‘Will you go to heaven when you die? Take this FREE TEST to find out!! Only two questions!! It’s FREE!’

    As I walked by on my break, I heard the Granny Clampett clone behind the counter tell the weeping woman in front of her, ‘Praise Jesus! I’m going to make you a REBIRTH certificate! You’re starting your new life today!’

    There were some spectators passing by who thought it was humorous, many more who ignored it entirely. And being under strict orders to ‘stay away from religion and politics while wearing company attire’ I wasn’t able to say or do anything at all.

    The emotional manipulation is the worst thing, I think. A perfectly legal scam, designed to control people and take their money.

    Winning souls my ass.

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Bruce Gerencser