In a prior career phrase I did a lot of legal work with sales people. It seems to me that sales work and evangelism amount to pretty much the same thing: persuasion, that is, helping someone to adopt a new mindset and then to act on that mindset. This experience has made me tend to think of evangelism, especially to nonbelievers and doubters ("NBDs"), as a sales problem.
Servanthood: Answering the customer's specific objections
Sales work isn’t just order-taking. A sales rep seldom has the luxury of sitting back and waiting for customers to come to him, begging for the product. This is particularly true if a prospective customer isn't convinced she needs the product in the first place, as tends to be the case with NBDs; in that situation, an effective sales rep must be a servant whose most important tasks, arguably, are these:
- to identify the prospect's objections to buying the product;
- to do the necessary homework to find answers that address the objections; and then
- to provide the prospect with those answers, in a manner that’s convenient for her.
Not all salesmen do this, of course (just the good ones). Imagine this conversation between a prospective customer and a not-so-good salesman:
Prospective customer: “Hey, I dunno about your product; it's not clear to me that I need it, and besides, what about [specific objections X, Y, and Z]?”
Salesman: “Have you read books A and B and C? You haven’t? I’m astonished; the answers to your objections are all there. Go read them, then come back and we’ll talk.”
Think the prospect will do as the salesman asks? That's highly doubtful; chances are that our salesman has blown that particular sale.
Unfortunately, some evangelists react in the same way the salesman did when NBDs point out their objections to The Faith Once Delivered. These evangelists seem to think that an appropriate response to the "prospect" is, "the answers to all your objections can be found in the writings of the great Christian thinkers; go read those writings, come back and show us that you're conversant with them, and then we can talk about your objections, if you still have them."
The Great Commission doesn’t allow us the luxury of such a passive approach. Jesus reportedly commanded his followers, not just to preach, but to “make disciples” of all nations. His phrasing suggests that he was interested not just in effort, but in results. This means that, when NBDs raise objections to the Christian faith, we need to respond the way a good sales person would, and that is, as servants: We need to do the digging, and we need to come up with specific, targeted, persuasive responses to those objections.
But what if the problem is in the "product" itself?
The persistent decline in mainline Protestant church attendance of recent decades, especially among the educated, suggests that the church' s evangelism efforts may have deeper problems than just poor sales work. The religion about Jesus, proclaimed by the church for hundreds of years, has some serious credibility problems. Certainly that religion has enjoyed considerable success for centuries; it's been responsible for much good (and much evil). But the brute fact is that the claims of traditionalist Christianity are seriously vulnerable to cold-eyed critical scrutiny.
For example, here’s one credibility problem that I would guess makes a huge impression on NBDs: The church doesn’t offer any verifiable reason to be a Nicene Christian instead of a Mormon, a Muslim, or even a Moonie. Think about it for a minute. Every one of those religions claims, more or less, to be the one true faith. Yet all of them are based on unverifiable — and mutually-contradictory — theological assertions. They can't all be true, and there's nothing to confirm that any of them is.
Some traditionalists argue otherwise. They claim, for example, that people who truly believe the tenets of Christianity tend to be blissfully happy. But if we do a differential diagnosis, we immediately note that people find similar happiness in other religious beliefs (and even in non-religious practices such as yoga and meditation). It's great when people find happiness through trust in Jesus, but it doesn’t prove much, at least nothing that supports traditional Nicene christology and soteriology.
Competing with theological "nonconsumption"
Like the rest of us, NBDs know the world is full of misguided claims. Sometimes the folks making these claims are well-meaning, but often they aren't. As a result, plenty of NBDs simply shrug their shoulders about religion, dismissing all unverifiable theological claims. They see no need to spend any time thinking about such things; instead of participating in a church, for example, they spend their Sunday mornings at Starbucks with the newspaper.
In sales terms, these NBDs aren’t satisfied with any of the theological “products” being offered; in their view, nonconsumption is a perfectly-acceptable and indeed preferable choice.
A widget company's sales were declining. A few of its customers had switched to a new brand of widget, but more and more customers and prospects were deciding they didn't really need widgets in the first place. They reasoned that it's impossible to tell whether widgets in fact were useful enough to justify the cost and inconvenience of using them.
The widget company came up with a new ad campaign touting the claimed benefits of widgets. But the company could never come up with evidence to verify those claims, and sales continued to decline. The company's board of directors decided that the sales- and marketing VPs weren’t sufficiently fervent in their belief in widgets; the board replaced those individuals with energetic, enthusiastic, true believers. But an alarming number of prospective customers continued to decide they didn't need widgets at all.
The widget company shouted out to the public: “Wait! You don’t understand! If you use widgets, you'll be happy forever when you die, but if you don't, you’ll face an eternity of misery!” But the company was unable to point to a single example of anyone who had verifiably incurred either eternal happiness from using widgets, or eternal misery from not doing so. Widget sales declined still further, along with the company's credibility.
* * *
If the widget company’s shareholders are lucky, at some point, the board of directors will tumble to the real problem: Fewer and fewer customers and prospects see any reason, let alone a need, to use widgets any more. Customers and prospects know they have alternatives to widgets that, to all appearances, offer comparable benefits at less cost. For them, the choice is a no-brainer.
Sure, the customers might turn out to be wrong. It could be that using widgets really was the only way to go. But if the widget company had gone out of business in the meantime, it would have failed in its mission. The company can solve its problems only by taking a hard look at its line of widgets, realistically diagnosing their flaws, and fixing them.
Time for a fresh look at an old version of the "product"
The church is in danger of going down the same path as the widget company. With good reason, fewer and fewer "prospective customers" are believing the claims we make about our theological "product." We're not going to compete successfully with NBDs' theological nonconsumption by just repeating the same old unverifiable sales pitches over and over. It's time for us to face those facts.
Happily, we have an attractive alternative product that we can offer. If we believe the reports of the gospels, the religion of Jesus — that is, what the man actually preached — was a compelling one back in his day. It's equally compelling now, for reasons that fit quite well with an NBD's mindset. 
That's what the church should be "selling" in its evangelism efforts.
If we were to refocus our efforts on the religion of Jesus, would that actually do a better job of bringing people to God? I could tell a few anecdotal stories about intelligent, educated friends who’ve said to me, in effect, what you’re saying makes sense; why doesn’t the church preach that. But an even better example is Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church, right up the street from my house. I’ve heard him preach several times on TV and once in person. From what I can tell, Osteen's sermons are essentially variations on, and corollaries of, excerpts from the Sermon on the Mount. So far as I know, Lakewood's congregation never recites the Nicene Creed, whose tenets I'm not sure are even mentioned much there. Yet Osteen packs them in, Sunday after Sunday; his is one of the fastest-growing megachurches around. Lakewood's high attendance is no doubt due to a lot of factors, but deemphasizing much of traditionalist Christian doctrine doesn't seem to have hurt it.
There's a lesson there for the wider church, I think.
 See also:
- Christianity's Elephant in the Room
- Six Reasons for Skepticism About Traditionalist Christianity
- Reasons to Question the Reliability of Scripture
- My Favorite Theological Question: "How Do You Know That?"
- The Apostles' Teaching Didn't Seem to Include a Divine Jesus
- Putting God First Means Facing the Facts
 Traditionalists typically respond to critiques of their doctrines with other counterarguments such as, "the early Christians died for their beliefs, and no one would die for a lie!" That fact doesn’t make those beliefs true; in any case we find a similar willingness to die in other religions as well. I address this and other traditionalist responses here; scroll down to “Some Possible Counterarguments.”
 See also:
Excellent article, DC.
Posted by: Gawain | March 16, 2007 at 02:42 PM
I think like with all other products, word of mouth testimonies are very effective. If someone sees God working in my life, they will be encouraged to join me - and tell others about it. The world is looking for success. As christians we need to be proud of our salvation and not be ashamed. We should be living testimonies that our 'product' works.
Posted by: Kenya | June 28, 2008 at 08:52 AM