Sometimes we lead people to Christ, feel good about ourselves and then back away and never talk to them again, effectively turning them into a project. But as Bill Johnson says, “Who wants to be the project of some religious zealot so he can feel good about his devotion to God? No one wants to be the notch on the back of someone’s Bible.”
We take lots of impatient shortcuts when we turn people into projects. In their book The Art of Neighboring, Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon call us out on doing things like creating false situations to interact with our neighbors. We shouldn’t pretend we need sugar just so we can go talk to someone next door. “It lacks integrity and it is dishonest. If our goal is to model a different way of living to those who live around us, we must strive to be above board with our motives. What’s more, most people can see through well-meaning, but manufactured attempts at interaction.”
This kind of manipulation is a shortcut. We’ve experienced it in all kinds of ways and at all kinds of events. Author Greg Forster says that, “when evangelism is the only way in which Christians seek social influence, the world encounters the church in two ways: gospel presentations and activities designed to manipulate people into hearing gospel presentations.”
Nobody likes being tricked into something. Recently I was invited to a really nice dinner to celebrate a local business’ 50th year. There was great food, music, and speeches. But then a man took the stage to draw everyone’s attention to the envelopes on their table, making the joke that, “No dinner is ever free.” Everybody laughed. I chuckled a little bit, but I felt duped. I accepted the invitation to attend this event without really getting any details about it. And while I know that the people who invited me didn’t do so to make me give money, the “ask” still left a weird taste in my mouth.
And it always does. I don’t know about you, but I feel like people sometimes have insincere conversations with me in order to warm me up to an ask of some sort. I once had a near stranger call me from a school I once attended to talk to me about old times and catch up with me on how life was going. It became clear that they had studied my Facebook page in order to create this lengthy conversation. And then out of nowhere they tried to transition to the whole point of the call: would I like to give money to the school to help support them?
I knew it was coming. I knew the number they were calling from and the season they were calling during. But this was a long phone call, completely fabricated to make their ask look more genuine. In the end, it was cheap, inauthentic, and insulting. It was designed to manipulate me into feeling generous. I can sense these kinds of motives every time, probably because I’ve been so guilty of them myself.
They called me again recently, still practicing the same method. I told them that I didn’t really have any time to talk, but that if they were calling about money, I hadn’t planned on giving any this time around. I felt bad because I once worked a similar job and know how hard it is—that and I could hear the embarrassment on the other end. They mentioned that it was a part of the fundraising campaign, but they also just wanted to check in and see how I was doing. Sticking to the script, she asked if she could call me back a different day to check in about how life is going.
Talk to a complete stranger about my personal life? “Uh… sure,” I said. “Give me a call next week sometime, I guess.”
Almost every time an old friend I haven’t talked to in years asks me how I’m doing out of nowhere, I brace myself, waiting for them to tell me what they actually want me to do for them.
It’s always a pleasant surprise when this doesn’t happen. I had someone invite me out to breakfast some time ago and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had done something wrong. I was shocked to discover that they just wanted to have breakfast. What a blessing!
Once I asked a congregant if he wanted to get lunch, and even though I had a church request I needed to make of him, I decided I wouldn’t. Maybe down the road I would ask, but I refused to make this lunch anything other than lunch. I would not come to it with ulterior motives. I would not turn them into a project. I would not devalue them.
Turning people into projects or treating them a certain way so you can get them to accept your proposal of salvation is a surefire way to shortcut the patience that evangelism takes. It actually makes evangelism about us and not about Jesus. How many people can we get saved (as if we could save anyone) and how quick can we do it? Lecrae reflects on his early misguided evangelism techniques.
[Evangelism] became something of a competition for me to prove to God and others that I was worthy and committed. Instead of just trying to love non-Christians well and treat them like Jesus would, I tried to argue them into a corner where they had to convert in order to escape. Rather than focusing on winning people, I was trying to win arguments…. I didn’t care about who this person was or what he might be experiencing. I wasn’t interested in investing in his life or trying to help meet his needs. I just wanted to win him over so I could check another name off and move on to the next person. I was oblivious to how obnoxious I was and how poorly I treated people.36
Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon call us out again.
We are not supposed to love our neighbors to convert them. We love our neighbors because we have been converted. To put it even more bluntly, we don’t love people so they will believe what we believe. Many of the people we love and serve won’t ever believe, and that’s okay. We just love our neighbors. That’s it. And as we love them, from time to time we will talk to them about what is most important in our lives.
Having been a Christian basically my entire life, I never thought I’d know what it would feel like to be a “salvation project,” but now I feel like I’ve experienced it. Believe it or not, I have a Christian friend who knows I’m a pastor, but always seems to be trying to get me to attend his church. Maybe I’m just reading into this too much, but because I feel this way, everything that this person does looks like it has an ulterior motive to it. Do they really want to hang out with me or are they just trying to get me warmed up so they can invite me to their church again?
People should be more important to us. If our plan is to get them saved quickly and back up out of their life, we’re doing it wrong. The salvation process may go quick or it may take time, but to be sure, helping them grow the fruit of the Spirit will take years. Are you willing to commit yourself to them for the long run? Don’t tell me you can’t disciple them. We’re all at least one step ahead of someone else around us.
We must treat people as people—not as experiments or projects. Stop using shortcuts that make your relationship with them false. Stop trying to sell them something.
Since everyone is always trying to figure out what is going on in millennials’ minds, let me just tell you as a millennial myself: we can smell advertising a mile away and it reeks. We’re aware that you used a girl with large breasts in attempts to get us to click on your ad that has nothing to do with girls with large breasts. We know that if we’re going to try out your new app for even just a second, we’re first going to have to first accept the legal agreement, make an account and embrace your constant emails. We know that you’ll install cookies on our devices to make sure we see your ads everywhere we go.
We’ve been treated like projects. Companies are paying top dollar to figure out how to get at our hearts and retrieve our information. I can’t even buy something at half the stores out there today without them asking for my phone number or email when I’m making my purchase. We’re not stupid— we know what’s going on. You keep telling us that we’re important to you, but we know it’s just a shortcut to get at our wallets.
That being said, it can be a bit difficult to go to church and get the same message crammed down our throats: “You’re all just data to us that will buy into our message and promote our business!”
Please… For the love of God, just shut up and show us who Jesus is. We’ll give you our hearts and all the information you want the old fashioned way: by you earning it.
This is an excerpt from my book, A Taste of Jesus.
Johnson, Bill. Experience the Impossible. Ebook, ch 69, ¶ 3.
Pathak, Jay and Dave Runyon. The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door. Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Books, 2012. Audiobook, 2:54:37.
Forster, Greg. Joy for the World. pp. 59-60.
Moore, Lecrae. Unashamed. Ebook. Ch 8, ¶5 & 13
Pathak, Jay and Dave Runyon. The Art of Neighboring. Audiobook: 2:40:03