When I was a product manager on social games, we enjoyed several different avenues of direct communication to our players, like e-mails or mobile push notifications. These we called “channels.”
In order to remind players that our games existed, we took advantage of these channels and sent messages. Up to a certain point, the more frequently you sent messages, the higher rate of average user engagement you’d receive in return.
The problem was that in order to fill that “air time,” you’d be forced to send more and more messages that wouldn’t be considered meaningful. It would start to come across as spam. Eventually, players could get so annoyed that they’d either block us, or they’d mentally ignore our messages. We’d have “burned our channel.”
Remember “The Boy Who Cried Wolf?”
“There was a shepherd boy who was so bored that he cried, ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ to feign an emergency, summon the town, and prompt some excitement and attention. The town showed up, and the boy claimed that the wolf fled just before they arrived.
Each time this happened, the town’s trust in the boy eroded more and more, until eventually they concluded that the boy wasn’t trustworthy.
One day, a wolf really did show up, and the town ignored the boy’s cries.”
The boy, in this story, also burned a channel — his avenue of receptive communication to the town.
In the former case, the catalyst was true information that lacked value to the receiver. In the latter case, the catalyst was false information (which thereby lacked value to the receiver). Notice that whether the information is true or not is not important for catalysis; rather, the catalyst is whether the information has or lacks value to the receiver.
Put another way, “Can the receiver trust that the information being conveyed is dependably important?”
There are 4 big ways for communication to lack or lose value to the receiver.
- It is completely non-resonant; it’s aggressive, offensive, confusing, or eccentric.
- It’s seemingly worth less than its postage. As with the case of spamming to players, there’s some resonance, but the updates are too anemic and/or non-novel.
- It’s a “wolf cry“; the information is knowingly deceptive or disingenuously toes the line.
- It’s a “shadow cry.” What if the boy, each time, really did think he saw a wolf’s shadow flitting along the tree line at the edge of the field? The boy’s paranoia and excessive panicking over shadow problems would similarly burn his channel to the town, even if he isn’t trying to be malicious.
The endeavor of Christian evangelism has been guilty of all 4 of these communication blunders.
That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that these blunders burn channels.
1. Non-Resonant Evangelism
Paul saw evangelization as a process of slavish bowing to resonance in order to convey the Gospel therethrough.
1 Corinthians 9
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Evangelization wasn’t a prideful bulldozing. It wasn’t a juggernaut, let alone a state-sponsored and state-funded juggernaut.
It was a crawling appeal, in person, for the cause of Christ.
Consider Paul’s evangelization strategy with the pagans in Athens:
“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god.’ So you are unaware of the very thing you worship, and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. … He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by human design and skill.'”
The controversy and confrontation was there, such that “some of them sneered,” but it was full of shrewd parleying along vectors of shared resonance.
This aligns with Jesus’s command for evangelization in Matthew 10: “Be as shrewd as snakes but as innocent as doves.”
Paul recognized the Athenians’ genuine sense of spirituality. He quoted their own poets. And he appealed to their reason, arguing how a genuine deity wouldn’t need anything, let alone need to be graven into visibility — rather, a genuine deity would be known by his power, found through genuine seeking and finding.
Anti-atheism is now a business. Under the auspices of evangelization, and/or “fighting fire with fire” against the New Atheist luminaries, some notable Christians have taken it upon themselves to launch acid volleys at anyone who dares doubt the “obviousness” of our God — our God, who is invisible and must be sought.
Books, blogs, Twitter accounts, seminars, and conferences are being filled with what amounts to choir-preaching that reaches very few atheists at all.
Acts 17 says that some Athenians sneered, but some became followers.
What is the response from unbelievers when faced with aggressive charges of nihilism, amoralism, immoralism, or outright stupidity?
I’m probably lowballing it still.
And when I hear, “But that notorious New Atheist is acerbic, too!,” I must ask, is that person’s behavior to what we should aspire?
When the reputation and impression of Christ is on the line, we shouldn’t be weaponizing our witnessing, nor should we be banking on the efficacy of excessive eccentricity. God wants to meet people where they’re at, and we’re called to help foster that rendezvous.
2. Spam Evangelism
Dropping millions of leaflets from the sky is a great way to get raw volume. But are recipients more likely to read and absorb the content, or are they more likely to gripe about the litter in their lawn?
Whether one’s evangelical “carpet-bombing” is in the form of something as benign as bumper stickers or as insulting as tip tracts, cheap volume floods and destroys channels.
Think about it. Which is more effective?
- A bumper sticker with “WWJD” on it, or a co-worker exemplifying patience and wisdom?
- A tract on a car window, or a commitment to volunteer work?
- A billboard with a scary Bible verse, or an invitation to church?
Now, this isn’t a zero-sum proposition, as if doing the latter precludes the former. But the former things are so cheap — and thereby ubiquitous — that they can mold what following Jesus “looks like” to nonbelievers.
And it looks like spam.
Folks aren’t deeply reached through sterile, inauthentic ad blasts.
3. Crying Wolf
You can convince a lot of people that you’re healing people when you’re not. False faith healers are exploiting people all around the world, giving false promises of recoveries of which they are obviously uncertain.
But there’s another kind of faith healing: Healing bank accounts.
Some — like Pat Robertson’s 700 Club — insinuate that by sending them money, miraculous wads of money will start showing up in return.
Others — like Joel Osteen — giftwrap “The Secret” positive thinking in vaguely-Christian clothing. From his book, “Your Best Life Now”:
“Each day, you must choose to live with an attitude that expects good things to happen to you. … Friend, that’s what faith is all about. You have to start believing that good things are coming your way, and they will!”
And what if they don’t? What if no miraculous money wad pops into their mailbox? What if they don’t get that promotion or that new house? What if monetary success and security is not at all a guarantee for every believer, and the “Prosperity Gospel” is a load of garbage?
What happens, of course, is that the disappointed folks will stay silent or stop attending, and the successful folks will stay hooked.
Such a result is great for business, if we’re talking about the publishing and broadcasting businesses of Robertson and Osteen.
But not so good for the health of the church.
Like crying wolf, crying “Monetary success is headed your way!” is dishonest and reckless. It hooks plenty, but it burns the channel of genuine, healthy communion with Christ and his church.
4. Crying Shadow
Apocalyptism — the idea that the world is getting worse and that we’re on the precipice of a collapse — is extremely dopamine stimulative. However frightening such a situation might sound on the surface, it’s actually an exciting narrative that provides many folks with a sense of existential meaning and self-validation.
Apocalyptism subsists on a perception of “shadow wolves” — that any tree-line movement is from vicious, drooling wolves, planning their imminent attack.
In the case of Christianity — at least, American Christianity — it’s most often in the form of overblown “Culture War” memes in a grand persecution narrative.
Consider the following facts:
- Increasingly, government institutions are being barred from praising God as part of their official state business.
- Department store employees are commonly instructed to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
- States are overturning, as unconstitutional, bills that outlawed same-sex marriage. [EDIT: Since this writing it has become the case that, in the United States, any person can now legally marry his/her life partner.]
These facts are easily woven into a persecution narrative that’s powered by the fuel of apocalyptism. And the paranoid alarmism about these facts is, in turn, crafted into what the general public perceives Christianity to be “about.”
But these three facts are, at the end of the day, rather trivial, regardless of where you stand on they’re being good or bad.
Even if these facts are considered lamentable (which is debatable), they frankly aren’t that big of a deal compared to the horrors, injustices, vice, idolatry, laziness, violence, and wanton selfishness that pervade our culture.
And, thus, the outrageous focus on “Culture War” drama burns that channel of authentic Christ-seeking. Outsiders can’t depend on Christian expertise on moral issues because the high-volume, apocalyptic kind of Christianity is so obsessed with trivial things.
In these cases, the boy does think a wolf is stalking his flock from the tree-line. But that doesn’t change the fact that the town has learned, rightly, to ignore his paranoid cries.
It’s hard to articulate the virtue of self-control when it comes to something that is, in proper doses and proper method, a good thing.
We humans generally have trouble leaving food on the plate, even when we’re full.
That’s why it can be useful to put vice and virtue in terms of fables or parables, like Highlights for Children‘s “Goofus and Gallant.”
As we weigh evangelization strategies and how bad ones might burn bridges and damage the mission for Christ, Goofus and Gallant provide for us an easy way to envision which strategies are praiseworthy.
Regarding non-resonant evangelism, Goofus:
- … Brags about how he is saved and everyone else is going to hell.
- … Goes out of his way to insult those who disagree with him.
- … Is needlessly offensive to those of other religions.
- … Puts non-believers into pigeonholing boxes.
- … Gossips about other groups with which he is unfamiliar.
- … Finds common ground.
- … Recognizes the good in contrary positions while staying honestly critical.
- … Is strikingly courteous and charitable.
- … Is warm and polite.
- … Is patiently articulate and slow to anger.
- … “Walks” more than he “talks.”
1 Corinthians 10
“I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”
Regarding spam evangelism, Goofus:
- … Leaves a tract instead of a tip, while brazenly assuming his waitress isn’t a believer.
- … Litters driveways and windshields with literature, causing more irritation than interest.
- … Plasters his car with loud, aggressive slogans unlikely to intrigue anyone.
- … Pays for billboards that make people more afraid of Christianity than attracted.
- … Searches for opportunities to reach non-believers in meaningful ways.
- … Acts in service of people individually rather than as a group to be pelted.
- … Finds creative ways to avoid offense and irritation while prompting interest.
- … Engages folks with authentic, personal witnessing, even though it takes longer and targets fewer.
“Each one should carry their own load… Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Regarding crying wolf, Goofus:
- … Promises that life will be easy with Christ.
- … Assures folks that any suffering will yield payoffs in life (Zophar’s fallacy).
- … Guarantees that giving to the church will yield monetary dividends in return.
- … Insists that some fortunate event must have been due to God’s miraculous blessing.
- … Insists that some unfortunate event must have been due to God’s miraculous judgment.
- … Insists that some amazing natural wonder or mechanism must have been due to God’s miraculous, exceptional intervention.
- … Preaches a hope in a downward payoff for any suffering in life.
- … Paints a realistic picture of the difficulties but peaceful promise of the Christian faith.
- … Stays reluctant about reckless prophesying, encouraging others to admit the mystery of the intricacies of God’s plans.
- … Searches for natural explanations for the amazing, natural phenomena of God’s creation, rather than rushing to, “God zapped this!”
- … Helps folks make wise, responsible decisions given our stewarding role on Earth, rather than fatalistically punting on decisionmaking.
2 Corinthians 8
“For we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man.”
And regarding crying shadow, Goofus:
- … Gets worried about the extrication of church from state.
- … Sees “agendas” around every corner.
- … Thinks state sponsorship of gay marriage is a “top 10” issue to which to devote his attention.
- … Imagines Satan’s visage behind anything with which he disagrees.
- … Imagines Satan’s visage behind anything he hasn’t taken the time to research or understand.
- … Falls for “news entertainment” that hooks people into paranoid, apocalyptic narratives.
- … Understands that the Kingdom of God needs no theocratic representation.
- … Recognizes that of which he’s ignorant and which deserves close, critical investigation.
- … Is skeptical of “news entertainment”; he checks his food before eating.
- … Is earnest and diligent about keeping Christ’s message pure and undefiled by the image-crafting of commercial interests that seek to exploit Christians and the Christian “brand.”
- … Prioritizes important problems like violence, sickness, poverty, laziness, injustice, and oppression above trivial things like how department store employees send good December tidings to customers.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Like chocolate, there is such thing as too much evangelism, even though evangelism is good.
“Too much” is when our ministerial message is crafted haphazardly and broadcasted brainlessly.
“Too much” is when we find ourselves enthralled by numbers games, lazy carpet-bombing, and manufactured culture controversies.
The ministry of Christ, to which we’re called to passionately and carefully pursue, is a ministry of the heart. Let’s not get carried away by the loud, aggressive, reckless patterns of this world, however tempting that too-much-chocolate can be.