True story, from a non-religious friend. The family received a Christmas party invitation from the new neighbours who have just moved in. The invitation was to drink mulled wine and sing Christmas carols.
Sing Christmas carols? Not part of the family tradition. They had a closer look at the invitation card. It contained a biblical verse. They decided to decline the invitation.
As I heard the story, there seem to have been two steps to this decision. First, the reference to carols, combined with the biblical verse, marked out the hosts as religious people. To me, a retired priest, both carols and biblical texts are just part of life. I may be mistaken but I would guess that, 30 years ago, sending Christmas cards with biblical texts on wouldn’t have marked you out as specially religious. So here’s a warning for the religious: today, even Christmas carols and biblical texts are enough to mark you out as different.
Second, the conclusion that the hosts were religious was enough to deter the family from attending. They are not anti-religious: they just don’t want to be involved. Here’s another warning. Religious people, these days, are to be kept at arms’ length.
Why? Why is it that, if you are religious, that is a good enough reason for people to decline your invitation to a party? Well, okay, we all know the answer to that one. Religious people try to convert you.
It is the downside of artificial evangelism. Sociologists of religion have studied what happens and I have read very few of their works, but Harriet Harris’ Fundamentalism and Evangelicals pinpointed what seems to be the problem with it. She found, particularly among some American evangelical groups, a contradiction between two parts of their theory. They believed that becoming a true Christian was a non-rational leap of faith. It was something bestowed by God. The new convert could only accept it: to think it through would depend on mere fallen human reason. On the other hand, in order to make Christianity seem attractive to potential converts, they had to communicate with them somehow. In practice, what they did was to create artificial techniques of emotional manipulation.
In my personal experience, especially (but not only) with Christian Union students, evangelism has been a high priority in theory, but in practice it has meant some version of what Harris described: artificial techniques of emotional manipulation. A very common practice has been to invite people to what appears a non-religious event, and then surprise the attenders with an appeal for conversion.
Once word gets round that certain folk are prone to doing things like this, people will decline invitations to parties – just in case. I have no idea whether there was any such intention in my friend’s case, but the fact that religious people have a reputation for this kind of thing was enough to put the family off attending.
Statistics can give a misleading impression. Such manipulative events can be analysed, and numbers of converts counted; but what if there is a downside that nobody is counting? My guess is that my friend’s response is far more common: for every person who is drawn towards Christianity by techniques of manipulation, twenty are driven further away from it.
How, then, to evangelise in a non-manipulative way? Wait for an appropriate occasion. Say what you believe, and why you believe it. Be honest. Give your real reasons. Don’t adorn them with biblical texts or pious language; just say how it works for you, and leave others to judge whether it could work for them too. If they aren’t interested, shut up. Like this.