Bait-and-switch evangelism

“Okay, I’ll go back. But no Jesus stuff this time.”

What exactly does it take to make a 4-year-old declare that she’s all done with Jesus stuff? Bait-and-switch evangelism.

Here’s what happened.

The Tragedy Begins

It’s the day before Easter. And, unexpectedly for the northwest, it’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon. So, my little girls grab their mom and head down the street to a church that is hosting an Easter carnival. Holding hands, they skip down the sidewalk with images of Easter egg hunts, candy, and cheap carnival games dancing through their young minds, never knowing what is really in store for them.

(This would be a good place to picture a dark cloud suddenly drifting in front of the bright, spring sun, casting a shadow across our happy scene. Or, just imagine some ominous music playing in the background. Either way, you get the point.)

Arriving at the church, the first thing they see is a big booth set up for face painting. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never understood the allure of face painting. But, for little girls, The thought of having someone smear cheap paint all over their faces in a way that vaguely resembles a flying bug is nearly irresistible.

So, they stop. And the tragedy begins.

Because, of course, this is the Gospel booth. And, from the Gospel booth there is no escape. It’s kind of like the Twilight Zone.

The Gospel Zone

Almost as soon as the girls sit down, one of the volunteers launches into the Gospel story. And my girls sit through it patiently. They’ve heard it before, but they’re too polite to interrupt. And, from the enthusiastic presentation, my wife suspects that they might be the only new people the church has seen all afternoon. She doesn’t want to ruin the fun. So they listen to the story.

Twice.

That’s right. Apparently they weren’t sure that my girls caught everything the first time. And they really wanted it to stick. So, as soon as they were done with the story, they launched into it again.

The Twilight Zone does not surrender its victims easily.

Emerging from the Gospel booth almost 30 minutes later, they discover that the carnival is over. No more candy. No more games. No Easter egg hunt. They’ve missed it all.

Bait-and-switch strikes again.

The Old Switcharoo

SwordsmanSr via Photobucket

Bait-and-switch evangelism is any time we tell people that they are getting one thing, and then we slip them the Gospel while they are there. Want some candy? Sure, come and get it. Oh, by the way, you’ll have to sit and listen to this story first.

Are we trying to make little kids hate the Gospel?

Why do we do this? Deep down, are we that afraid that they won’t want to hear? Do we doubt the power of the message that much? Do we think the Spirit can’t handle things?

And, what are we subtly communicating to ourselves and to other people about the Gospel when we do this? I’m afraid that we’re hinting that we really don’t think that the Gospel is all that. If I’m really convinced that I have the most amazing story that will transform your life forever, I’m not going to invite you over to my church for a football game and then try to slip it in between commercials. I’m going to invite you over to hear the story.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with parties, carnivals, football games, or any of the various ways that churches can connect with their communities, share life together, and allow the world to see a redeemed community in action. That must be done. And, along the way, we will have opportunities to share the Gospel as an organic expression of living in community together. But, that’s very different from the bait-and-switch.

When we trick people into hearing the Gospel, we annoy them and we undermine the very message that we’re seeking to promote. I’m sure it works at times, but pragmatic effectiveness is not an adequate measure for appropriate Kingdom living.

The quote at the beginning of this post? That came from my daughter one year later. A full year after her experience at the Easter carnival, she remembered what happened the last time she stepped into the Gospel zone, and she wasn’t about to let it happen again.

No more Jesus stuff for her.

The bait-and-switch at its finest.

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 26, 2011, in evangelism, Gospel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Gosh that is rough. Do you think that if the local church would take its call to be ambassadors seriously that churches would need to do outreach events at all? My preference would be that instead of the church (as in church staff or church ministries) holding an event for the community, that people within the church would hold events in their neighborhood (open house, block parties etc.) and talk to people about the Gospel in that setting. I am not saying church ministries shouldn’t do community outreach, but that it shouldn’t be the norm or primary form of outreach. I think ideally people within the church reach out to their neighborhoods, to their son’s baseball team (coaches and parents), and to their daughters dance class. However, I know building a solid kingdom mindset among a local church is continuous and difficult, but that’s no excuse.

    • I definitely think that “evangelism” should primarily be an expression/extension of everyday living. That really needs to be a key focus in developing mature believers. But, like you, I don’t have any problem with churches holding events that are primarily dedicated to sharing the Gospel with people in the community. Who could object to that? My only concern is that we be up front in doing so. If you’re going to promote it as a fun party, then just have a fun party. If you’re going to have a party and share the Gospel, then tell people to come for a fun party and to hear the Gospel.

  2. If you are going to an “Easter Carnival,” shouldn’t you expect to hear the gospel? 🙂

  3. If you’re curious, there’s an interesting discussion of this post going on over at Reddit.

  4. In Britain, there is compulsory religous education, so all children are told the Christian story.

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  3. Pingback: Bait-and-switch evangelism (via scientia et sapientia) « Hindu Internet Defence Force

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