Evangelism and Pyramid Schemes

One of the most touted strategies of evangelicals is “relational evangelism”. While this can describe a valuable pursuit, I would like to take a closer look at its roots. In particular, in this post I wanted to offer some critiques of making friendships for the sake of evangelism, while also offering possible ways to make this pursuit more God glorifying, based on scriptures.

Relational Evangelism?

Relational evangelism is typically a strategy of forming friendships for the sake of evangelism. One of the first concerns of the specific strategy of making friendships for the sake of conversion is fairly simple: it seems surprisingly absent from the Bible. From what I can tell there is virtually no examples of or instructions telling anyone to make friends for the purpose of evangelism. The best reason I can find for the strong emphasis on relational evangelism is that it is a relatively successful mechanism for getting converts (lessons learned from the business world, perhaps). This isn’t to say that outcome-justified strategies are bad, in general this would be a strong reason. However, the outcome-driven reasoning for relational evangelism has other problems based on questionable assumptions. The first problem is that relational evangelism can have negative side-effects in the pursuit of its goal, and secondly a singular focus on the outcome of conversions may misrepresent our essential goal as Christians.

In considering possible side-effects, we need to face the potential deceptive nature of relational evangelism. If friendship is pursued, with the implied goal of a relationship, when in fact, the real goal is conversion, this is disingenuous. Often this deception isn’t a sophisticated covert operation, but when underlying motives are hidden in relationships, that can easily lead to feeling slighted by the (apparently) insincere motives.

Again, I can find no direction in the Bible to pursue relationships for the ulterior motive of evangelism (in fact, surprisingly, evangelism is never even given as a universal mandate for Christians). Instead, within the Bible, I find pages and pages of instructions for how to do relationships for the sake of… good, loving relationships themselves. The God of the Bible doesn’t seem to treat relationships as a means to some other end, but rather something to be cultivated themselves. If it has a further end, it is for nothing short of God’s glory. God seems love to healthy caring relationships simply because he desires this for his people, it is his nature, reflected in humanity, and this glorifies Himself. Relational evangelism, then, runs the risk of degrading the value of relationship, lowering relationships to merely a tool, instead of having intrinsic worth itself (or at least in finding its worth in directly glorifying God).

Pyramid Schemes

I believe a helpful analogy in understanding the concern with relational evangelism can be expressed by comparing it to a pyramid or multi-level marketing scheme. Let’s consider the basic definition of a pyramid scheme: A pyramid scheme is a model in which participants receive rewards for enrolling other people into the scheme, rather than supplying any products or services to the public.

So how can a religion be similar to a concept that we typically apply to a business model? The core analogy is that a religion behaves like a pyramid scheme when it conveys that the highest and most valued activity is the conversion of others into the religion. The problem with this type of approach is that it is an empty cycle of recruitment. When the goal is nothing but converting people who will in turn seek to convert people, we are left with a circular pursuit that lacks any real substance. As a friend once said, we are recruiting soldiers, whose battle is nothing more than doing more recruiting.

The alternative to this empty scheme is that we pursue being obedient followers or disciples of Christ that make meaningful contribution to those around us, bringing blessing and peace. We want to make real disciples.

However, even “disciple-making” can easily shift into pyramid scheme. One can easily teach disciple-making as an alternative to evangelism for the purpose of making reproducing disciples. But again, if the goal is simply reproduction, without meaningful transformation that leads to substantive impact for others, in which case, disciple making has simply become a more sophisticated and effective pyramid scheme.

In a pyramid scheme, marketing (particularly by leveraging friendships) has overtaken the product or service itself, as the central component of the organization. Christianity must not be centered solely on marketing or reproduction, because it demonstrates that the core essence of Christianity (the fruit of the Kingdom, and the King himself) are not worthwhile themselves, and that relational manipulation is needed to grow. Followers of Christ exist to glorify the ways of God, not to demonstrate their own marketing and growth expertise.

To illustrate this further, I like to compare Amway and Apple. The former company is known for relying on multi-level marketing to sell products. No one (except the participants who are trying to sell) really considers Amway to have exceptional products. Rather they are known for exceptionally successful recruitment and marketing push. On the other hand, Apple is a company that has thrived on the reputation of their products. People buy their products not because a friend, who will get commission if he makes a sale, has convinced them they are good, but because of their reputation for, and people’s direct experience with their beautiful, well-designed products (this isn’t always the case, I am actually not a big fan of Apple products myself, but I certainly recognize their high reputation. There are a number of other companies that are perhaps even better examples of being built on product reputation, with very little marketing investment, like Asics, Krispy Kreme, and Sriracha.)

Scriptures frequently use the analogy of fruit to describe the result of meaningful faith. The primary significance of fruit is that it is distinctive in substance and nature from the rest of the tree. A tree consists of hard wood, but fruit is an entirely different substance. When a fruit tree grows, this can be good and healthy, but it is not fruitful if it only increases in size and branches. It must produce an distinct substance (something that can be distinctly tasted as good) from just more wood. Likewise, this means that while it is very good when Christians spread Christianity, and this growth is important, this alone is not fruitfulness. Fruitfulness is demonstrated not when Christianity produces more Christianity, but when it produces distinctive fruits (love, joy, peace, etc.)

Ultimately, the Gospel is good news, not good marketing. To love the gospel is not to be a lover of persuasive communication, but rather a lover of the revelation of the goodness of God.

Ultimate Purpose

The second questionable assumption of relational evangelism is that the outcome of conversions, and the number of conversions, is the central goal of Christianity. Indeed this is a logical conclusion if we assume that all humanity is destined for infinite joy or infinite sorrow, and every other finite matter (reward or punishment) is infinitesimal in comparison. This conclusion makes logical sense to me. But apparently it didn’t to Jesus, as his ministry does not align at all with this conclusion. Jesus, throughout the gospel, consistently pursued a holistic ministry, not a sole focus on conversion. However, this conclusion is perhaps most clearly contradicted in John 6. Jesus teaches that “whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (vs 56). The response: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (vs 66). We are left with one of two possibilities. Either Jesus had no idea how poorly his sermon would go over, or he had something more important in mind than how many people would simply label themselves as followers or “Christians”.

I believe that the Bible makes clear that the central mission of God is to glorify Himself. And He works through the church to reflect his amazing wisdom, grace, love, and justice (Eph 3:10). God is honored and glorified by a church that truly reflects these characteristics. The church in America has reflected many of these characteristics at times, but in contrast we also struggle with dishonoring God as our actions and attitudes build up a reputation of hypocrisy, judgment, arrogance, and selfishness. This struggle for the church to properly reflect God, to pursue His honor, is our most critical pursuit. And it seems nearly absurd to think that this struggle will be solved or even significantly helped by increasing the numbers and size of the American church. In a country where tens of millions, the majority (or nearly majority) of the country, identify themselves as Christians, the quality of the church properly representing and glorifying God hardly hinges on growing or shrinking a few percentage points (and possibly it may even fulfill its role better with fewer numbers).

As we consider how to glorify God, imagine that we were to make a serious research inquiry into who was the greatest leader in human history. How might we evaluate different leaders? While we might consider the number of followers as a simple filter for who to consider, we would almost certainly value things like integrity, inspiration, morality, and courage above simply the number of followers. For example, who would seriously think that Hitler was a greater leader for leading tens of millions than Oskar Schindler, simply because he only led a few thousand?

After leveling some criticism at relational evangelism, I want to try to now more clearly affirm the positive aspects of relationships and evangelism:

  • God delights in healthy, loving, self-sacrificial relationships themselves. Relationships don’t have to serve some other end, to be God glorifying, relationships that reflect His love and selflessness can honor Him regardless of whether they lead to presenting the gospel.
  • Relationships can authentically reveal the gospel that have developed in the spirit of mutually, humbly pursuing a right, just lifestyle.
  • A true, genuine relationship is characterized by people sharing their deepest cares. If God is the center of our lives, than honestly revealing ourselves should include revealing our passion for Him.
  • A community of healthy, loving relationships can be a brilliant display of God’s character and a great attraction to others.
  • Relationships themselves can communicate God’s hope.
  • Disciples in a mutual pursuit of God, and learning to obey His ways, can be one of the most power foundations of a friendship.
  • We are called to be ambassadors for God. Part of being reconciled to God is helping others be reconciled to God.
  • Evangelism can be one of the higher forms of praise. When we freely proclaim God’s goodness in response to how we have genuinely experienced Him, we are offering one of the greatest forms of worship (more than simply evangelizing out of duty or reward).
  • While I believe the American church doesn’t lack for size, many cultures and regions of the world lack a viable expression of the church. Strategically building trust and relationships that communicate the good news to enable the worship of God in every ethnicity is clearly integral to God’s vision of being glorified and worshiped in great diversity (Matt 28:19, Rev 7:9).

While I have perhaps been a bit critical of some evangelistic strategies, strategy is definitely in the Bible, and next I want to look at some of the strategy that is revealed.

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One response to “Evangelism and Pyramid Schemes

  1. How odd, we just had a good conversation about this with the leadership or our church, just a few days ago. I don’t believe it’s something I had ever considered before, now twice in one week, hm…. Just yesterday I was laughing about my neighbor how has been on a hard core Amway push for over 2 years. He approached me about 2 years ago to sell but I declined but said I would definitely buy products. I’ve tried to buy from him several times and he’s completely disinterested. It seems so odd to be a up and coming salesman that doesn’t sell. I’m sure there’s a spiritual lesson or metaphor in there, I’ll let others tease it out. By the way Kris, I always had a feeling you liked Krispy Kreme more than Apple.

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