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Spam Evangelism

26 April, 2005 2:45 PM

The past few days I've been getting random invitations to group instant messaging conversations on my MSN Messenger. I'll be happily blogging away when suddenly a window opens up with a group conversation going on with 10 or so others. They have been a pretty friendly group who randomly invite people to join their conversations which range from the gross, to the deep to the disturbing. My initial reaction to them was not a positive one but I decided to try and be a little gracious and hang around the other day to see what they were doing.

I was particularly interested in how others reacted to the invitations to the chat. You see I was not the only person to get an invite - they were constantly inviting people to join in and on the whole the reactions from those dragged into this conversation ranged from the mild displeasure to outright outrage. It seems people don't like like being approached by strangers randomly on the internet - in some ways what these MSN chatters were doing was SPAM.

I watched this cycle of invitation, attempt to engage and rejection over and over again. As I worked I left the window open and I saw the same process repeated many times. Only occasionally would anyone stay for a chat (perhaps 5% or less) - even when they did they didn't usually last long and probably stayed more out of curiosity than anything.

As I watched the cycle repeat itself - seeing angry people leave the conversation every minute or so I found myself remembering a similar cycle in real life. It was a couple of years ago when I was in the CBD of Melbourne waiting for a friend to go see a movie. I was sitting on a bench on a busy city street/outdoor mall. I was early (as usual) and settled in for a 20 minutes of people watching (one of my favorite hobbies).

It was lunch time and a lovely day so the mall was busy and people were milling about. One person caught my attention the most - he was a middle aged guy who had strategically stationed himself on a street corner where he had a prime view of those coming towards him from a number of directions. He systematically scanned the crowd as people walked towards him and after spotting a target would shuffle across to them and put himself directly in their path.

Whilst I couldn't hear the conversations I could tell from the body language that this guy was selling something. He interrupted the person's journey - making it very difficult for them to continue - attempted to engage the with words (and a pamphlet). The person usually looked very defensive and quite annoyed, usually trying to physically edge around the guy - sometimes they simply side stepped him and continued on but often they were forced to stop and listen to his sales pitch.

Very few stayed with him for more than 10 seconds - the majority of them left obviously angry or with more negative body language than when they'd first been approached. The cycle was the same as the MSN conversation I was observing - interruption, invitation, rejection, anger - with only a tiny proportion of those 'interrupted' responding and most leaving angry.

Of course the guy doing the selling was, on closer investigation, a Christian doing evangelism.

In a sense I came away from my observation of his style feeling I'd just watched a Spammer at work.

Whilst I don't doubt the earnestness of the heart of this guy I wondered at the overall impact that his strategy was having - was the Kingdom of God brought about in any fuller way through his efforts? I certainly hope so - however I wonder if the fruits of his labors left more people further from the Gospel than close to it.

It's easy to pick on Spam Evangelists like this guy - but as I pondered his actions I wonder if more of us are guilty of it than we might think - in more subtle ways.

Evangelism training these days talks more about 'relationship or friendship evangelism' but I still wonder as I flick through the books on the topic if there is something a little manipulative about the process. Is befriending someone because we'd like to see them converted just a slightly more subtle way of doing what our Evangelism spammer was doing?

I agree its probably more of an effective way of doing it - but something about the process leaves me feeling like its still manipulation - an interruption - with ulterior motives.

I'll be honest with you - I haven't worked out a nice answer to these feelings and hunches that I get. I take seriously the call to make disciples - but I wonder whether there is another way?

These are half finished thoughts - interested in others experiences and ideas.



Greetings from the UK.
I think you're right to feel uneasy. Friendship should be just that, and anything that inserts an element of 'selling' into a relationship is dodgy in my view, even if it's Christian evangelism.
I appreciate that this is for the best of intentions, but it is still manipulative and, paradoxically, I think it's one of the things that puts people off some elements of Christianity.
I think we should also understand that despite our beliefs, Christianity may not be the best path for everyone. For example I have a Buddhist friend who lives a more exemplary life than most Christians I know, and I would hesitate to suggest a 'better' way to him. (I know this is controversial.)
To my mind, the very best way of evangelising others is to lead by example. I never make any secret of the fact that I am a Christian (Catholic, actually), nor that I am a questioning and thinking Christian. For example I might refer in conversation to going to Mass, visiting friends in a monastic community, concerns about the new Pope or whatever. But only when the subject arises naturally. When people ask me about my beliefs, I tell them.
Most importantly, I try (and often fail) to live by Christian values. I think the single most helpful thing for people thinking about Christianity is to see a normal fragile human being attempting to live up to something wonderful. If you keep picking yourself up and trying again, then people will notice. But of course that isn't why you should do it!

Tess » 26 April, 2005 9:43 PM

I'll have a dig here!

I have no hesitation seeing friendship evangelism as ok - or having relationships where my intention is to share Christ. I don't feel deceptive in it or manipulative (I'm not feeling accused here Daz so don't worry :) )

I can only have a few friends - real friends - so if I am to follow the calling on my life - to be a missionary/evangelist I need to accept that not eveyone I share the gospel with will be a real friend or even a long term aquaintance.

As I look at Jesus, Paul and the other early apostles I don't see them having this issue. Many of them were almost 'hit and run' types!

If anything I think the pendulm is swinging too much the other way so that now we talk of 'non-violent' mission - as if it were violent to try and lead a person to a full life here and now and a secure eternity.

Of course there are ways that are more effective and respectful than others and the end does not simply justify the means - but I am for sharing Christ wherever I can with whoever i can!!

hamo » 27 April, 2005 12:41 AM

I think we feel like it is still manipulation because it is. It is "spam" evangelism that takes a little bit longer. However, engaging with someone because you see value in them through Christ, and not being their friend to witness to them, but to be their friend seems like a good way to me! Obviously you will be closer to some friends than others, but when you hang with people, conversations happen. Non-intentional witnessing you could almost call it. Truly living like Christ means that you will share him with people, if He is Lord of your life, your savior, that will come out in your conversations with people.

Luke » 27 April, 2005 5:00 AM

Hmm, its an interesting one indeed, a question I've often struggled with.

I remember at Liquid we were talking about the whole relational/incarnational mission thing, and the question was asked 'Would you still be friends with that person if somehow you knew that they would never be a Christian?'

I know it certainly made me think!

Digger » 27 April, 2005 10:19 AM

I was also added into an MSN spammer conversation yesterday, by someone who does this often. She'll invite all of her contacts to the conversation, and then go offline. Only one other person actually conversed, and this was in order to tell me exactly what they thought of the person who had started the conversation.
I also get targeted a lot by the Christian evangelists when I'm in Melbourne CBD, which is always annoying.

One thing I think is important in my friendships with people who aren't Christians is that I don't have an attitude that it is up to me to convert people, but that I have to let God use me.
Also, rather than having an attitude that says I have to help them in their spiritual journey, I try to see how they could be helping me in my own journey as well.

Christop » 27 April, 2005 10:37 AM

It would probably be fair to say that the passage in the bible that gives us the strongest message that we should be sharing the truth about God with others is the Great Commission. In Matthew 28 Jesus tells his disciples to go and 'make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything' he had commanded them.

There is no methodology implied in this statement, just an imperative to go and make disciples. There is no command to interrupt people in the street to share the gospel with them . . . that's just an approach some people believe is worth taking. There is also no command to make friends with people and then tell them the news about Jesus . . . that's just an approach some people think is a helpful one.

I think the issue at play here is about more than just methodology though. It is about appropriate conduct, particularly that of people who claim to follow the one true God.

I think employing relational evangelism as a method to share the gospel is problematic because it can encourage people to be deceptive. Though it doesn't seem a bad way to describe what is happening when people become friends with a nonchristian and then share the gospel with them.

Getting back to the conduct question. The problem with spam evangelism is that it doesn't value the person as God values them. And the problem with relational evangelism, when the relationship isn't real, is that it is deceptive.

God certainly wants us to share the truth about him with others, but he doesn't want us to do it in ways that don't reflect his character. If we did that we'd be totally missing the point!

Tim Jeffries » 27 April, 2005 10:29 PM

So what do you think of what Paul said in 1 Cor 9:22B, NKJV "By all means, save some"?

Kitty » 28 April, 2005 12:00 AM

Hi there, greetings from Germany!

There's still some element in this discussion missing, just one point I'd also like to have considered (I'm not finished with the attitude-forming process either, though):
Didn't Jesus say, that we would not be loved for doing what we are doing? That the people who will not understand the message of the cross would call us unwise/freaky? Jesus was not friendly and courtious to every single person he met, in fact he became so unpopular with the pharisees that they had him crucified! Sometimes I have such a concern for the people on the street, as so many of them will be lost for eternity- I would just want to call it out to them!But I don't - because I'm a coward/an intelligent personal evangelizer?..
Of course I know we should try and "make deciples" in an intelligent way, according to the culture of the people we're approaching. (trendy nowadays: personal evengelism, as mentioned already) Spam evangelism might have worked in our culture some time, or it might work elsewhere. ??? It expresses the concern some christians have for so many lost people even though they do not know them personally.
But what if we christians sometimes just would try out how it was if we were - JESUS FREAKS!!!

lidia » 29 April, 2005 5:58 PM

I think that it is really important the we keep in mind why we are evangelising, not that we discuss the right "strategies" for evangelising, as such. This is because if we keep in mind why we are doing it, because we love people like Jesus loved people, then that is the important thing. Once we love people, it doesn't matter how we are evangelising, just that we are doing it for the same reasons that Jesus is. If the motivation is right, the right methods should stem from that.

Corinthians says somewhere that you are basically a crashing cymbal if you don't love people, no matter how great you are in other areas. And crashing cymbals are annoying. If people are annoyed by your evangelism, chances are there is no love. But if you are affecting people, chances are you love them, and Jesus is shining through.

All in all... it means you need to focus on faith, not on strategy.

Zaydana » 29 April, 2005 6:47 PM

Hi from the Gold Coast
I think it's a matter of integrity. Is the way I'm relating to someone going to be life giving for them? And I'm not just talking about 'eternal life'. A lot of abuse is justified on the basis that people need a good knock around the head to stop them stepping into the abyss. It comes back to the way Jesus lived and taught. "Love one another as I have loved you".

It also comes back to the model of communication we use. Is it a banking approach where I must insert some knowledge in unbelievers? Or is it a model of dialogue in which we learn to relate to one another, learning each other's language, testing each others' assumptions and stimulating growth?

Duncan Macleod » 1 May, 2005 1:58 PM

Wish I had an answer on this one!!

I have non christian friends whom i very much doubt will ever become christians.... sure... and i have certainly been guilty of having some relationships only to "convert"... had an experience that really challenged me in that but cant share in a public forum... sorry :( and i tend to be scared by personal evangelism because of the cheapness, the "salesman" approach it brings to relationships... I hate the whole idea of being approached to buy something, to give money etc..... but then i wonder, sure with my non christian friends i am open about who i am, what i believe, why i do what i do, but then, what am i doing for them to share with them Jesus... the best thing i have ever known?.... I just dont know.... honest truth is people generally (in my experience) dont want to consider new ideas... so do we say "thats ok, i respect that, i accept you arent interested in Jesus, and are missing out"... or do we say, "whatever, i dont care if you hate me i am gonna keep telling you about Jesus and annoying you....." surely neither?

heath » 3 May, 2005 9:52 PM

Heh, I think I've done a 360 on this over the years. And since you haven't got years to hear it, my short answer:
Stay open to God.
Stay open to people.
Someone plants, someone waters, someone harvests, but it is only God who causes the growth.
Your whole person and life is a mission field.

saint » 4 May, 2005 6:33 AM

I think that their is another method, that is actually better and it is more about loving people and having compassion and looking at what the needs are in their life and seeing where you can help, wether it be financially, in prayer, in helping mow a lawn, or paint a house, or encouraging, or using whatever skills you do or maybe don't have to help someone in need, whether they are your friend or not

�johnman� » 4 May, 2005 9:11 PM

Despite the negative image of chat invitations and chat rooms, we have had some very positive experiences. In some ways it is similar to chatting with a person next to you in a line or sitting together on a plane.

MYNIPPON » 25 May, 2005 4:00 AM

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