I don’t like most Super Bowl commercials produced lately, though Doritos seems to have captured the spirit of Budweiser’s “Streaker” (one of the funniest I’ve ever seen). Regardless of their quality or lack thereof, ads have one purpose: sell something.
Some of the most obnoxious—and generally least liked—product peddlers are car salesmen. When visiting a dealership, it seems like you can barely open your car door before someone approaches like a vulture on a carcass. Even worse, sometimes their antics make you feel like little more than roadkill.
I know there are exceptions, but overall, people just don’t like or trust car salesmen. They are perceived as manipulative, dishonest, uncaring, pushy, and greedy. It seems that all they care about is getting the sale; what happens after is irrelevant. Robert Guillaume’s dealership owning character on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” typified this perception when he told Will Smith, “Once it leaves the lot, it’s a sale” (cf. “You’d Better Shop Around”).
The Evangelist-as-Salesman Fallacy
It seems that some Christians treat evangelism like sales: the gospel is the product, we are the salesmen, and the mission is to rack up massive sales records. The more buyers (i.e., converts) one gains, the better! The slogan of a dealership in my native hometown seems to sum up this mentality: “You pick it out; we’ll work it out.” It’s all about the sale, not meeting customers’ needs. The mentality of evangelist-as-salesman can lead some to incorporate traits of the car salesmen into their evangelism. This leads to some unhealthy and possibly unbiblical behaviors.
Unhealthy Behavior 1: Churchism and Denominationism Replace Evangelism
A car dealership often spends as much or more time selling itself as it does selling the actual vehicles. As a result, their sales pitches often equate the dealership with the vehicle. So proud they are of their local business that they often slap free advertisements for the dealership onto the back of vehicle. You didn’t just by a Ford F-150, you bought it from Jack’s Car-O-Mart!
Churches and Christians, sadly, are often guilty of this unhealthy practice, equating their church or denomination with Jesus and the gospel. Evangelism (proclaiming Jesus) is thus wrongfully transformed into churchism (promoting the local church in lieu of the gospel) and denominationism (promoting the denomination in lieu of the gospel; different from denominationalism). In the name of proclaiming Jesus, they spend as much or more time promoting themselves. Some have even convinced themselves that promoting the church or the denomination is the same as promoting Jesus.
However, Paul said, “preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2), not “preach the denomination or local church that man created.” On the road to Emmaus following his resurrection, Jesus “explained to them [two men] the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures,” (Luke 24:27), not “all the things concerning his local synagogue or his particular religious organization.” Nevertheless, many Christians engage in churchism and denominationism rather than evangelism.
Not only do many Christians promote the wrong product in their evangelistic outreach, they also engage in unhealthy sales techniques borrowed from car salesmen.
Unhealthy Behavior 2: Spiritual Manipulation through the Hard-Sell
Another unhealthy approach many Christian seem to have borrowed from car salesmen is the hard-sell. Car salesmen often use pushy, manipulative tactics to manipulate someone into purchasing, many Christians also manipulate people into buying Jesus. Typical of the evangelistic hard-sell are guilt trips, scare tactics, and pushiness. Rather than simply explaining the truth and letting the Holy Spirit work in the heart of the individual, the religious salesman believes it is his duty to wrangle the person into submission to Christ.
Hard-selling does not necessitate lying. Often, many hard-sell techniques involve using the truth to achieve a goal. For a car salesman speaking to parents, it might include something like this:
I see you have two children. I know you want to keep them as safe as possible. Any parent who truly loves their children will certainly want them to be safe. This car offers 21 airbags, child auto-detectors to regulate the seat belt height, and 47 other safety features. Are you ready to have a vehicle that is safe for your children or is it not that much of a priority at this time?
No lie was told. Everything the salesman said was the truth. However, in this example of a hard-selling, he exploits both the children and their parent’s emotions to manipulate them into a purchase. Christians can also use the truth, and even Scripture, to manipulate people:
There is plenty of evidence to prove that God exists. Just look at nature. Only a fool looks around and denies the evidence, and I’m confident you’re no fool. If you don’t accept Jesus today you will burn in hell forever. It’s no party there, it’s eternal damnation. You and I are sinners, and we are condemned to that fiery eternity. Are you ready to admit the truth that God exists and accept Jesus, or do you want to be a fool who burns?
In this example of a Christian hard-sell, the believer uses to the truth, guilt, and fear to manipulate someone into accepting Christ. While most Christian hard-sells may not be that extreme, spiritual manipulation is not evangelism, it is coercion.
It’s not only the wrong product and the wrong technique that Christians borrow from car salesmen, they also incorporate bad customer service.
Unhealthy Behavior 3: Neglecting Post-Conversion Discipleship
A third unhealthy practice often borrowed from car salesmen is poor customer service after the sale, i.e., a lack of follow-up. Most dealers will tell you all about their post-sale customer service, but during the buying process, the salesman likely has little-to-no concern beyond getting you to buy. Churches, it seems, are often guilty of the same practice. They focus primarily—or even exclusively—on growing their religious customer base (i.e., membership rolls) and increasing their baptism numbers (even if those baptisms are rededications and not new converts; a baptism is a baptism like a sale is a sale). What happens after the person chooses to “purchase,” that is, to accept Christ? Well, that’s less important.
Discipleship is too often relegated to secondary or tertiary status. Scripture makes it clear that, as Christians, we are to continually grow in knowledge, faith, and evangelistic ministry participation. This requires that churches teach doctrine, Christian living, and evangelism. However, many churches operate with inadequate or non-existent discipleship.
Many churches employ a “get ’em saved, send ’em out” approach. They take new believers and immediately put them to work in ministry. However, they lack the theological and practical foundation to flourish. They are like a sapling expected to produce immediate fruit. Fruit will come, but nourishment and growth are required. This approach to discipleship does more harm than good and is unbiblical. Taking a new believer, sending them out into the sinful world, and expecting them to flourish is like taking a newborn baby, putting her into a dumpster, and expecting her to grow.
This approach to discipleship is not only harmful to the new believer, it is also contrary to the method Jesus used. Jesus trained his disciples in doctrine and Christian practice before he sent them out (cf. Robert Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism).
Other churches take in new believers, but never send them out in evangelistic ministry. Rather, they desire to bring the new person into an established social organization, not a local evangelistic body of Christ.
Discipleship in many churches, when it happens, is far from adequate, leaving new believers with a negative spiritual experience. They are plugged into small groups that are often dominated by gossip in the name of prayer requests. They listen to sermons that are either false promises of worldly gain (i.e., health and wealth) or daytime talk show-esque self-help. Rarely is there deep theological teaching. Rather than preaching the Word, Scripture becomes a pretext to unbridled tongues (Jas 1:26) and feel-good messages (2 Tim 4:3-4). When doctrine is discussed, it rarely is deeper than a dry puddle.
A failure of discipleship is a failure of quality spiritual customer service to believers. When a church does not offer meaningful, thoughtful, and deep theological teaching, it does a disservice to Christ and to his bride. When a church does not train its members to be evangelistic, it does a disservice to Christ and to his bride. When a church disregards the post-conversion aspect of ministry, it does a disservice to Christ and to his bride.
Servants, not Salesman
Whenever churches or Christians become God’s salesmen, it’s time for a change. Jesus does not need salesmen, he needs servants. Jesus needs people promoting the gospel with love and boldness. Jesus needs people dedicated to training others how to live a gospel-centered life. Jesus needs leaders passionate about teaching doctrine and raising up disciple-makers. Jesus needs people who love God and love neighbor enough to engage in evangelistic ministry. Jesus needs churches more interested in reaching the lost than in growing their numbers. Jesus needs servants, not salesmen.
How does someone share the gospel as a servant of Jesus? There are three keys:
- Share the gospel with confidence. We must be confident when we share Jesus with others. This does not mean egotistical or prideful. Rather, it means being sure in what we believe and why.
- Share the gospel with love. The people we talk to, even if they are hostile, are created by God in his image. As such, we should love them as we love ourselves. This means not berating or manipulating the person, but instead, finding ways to show how the gospel addresses their needs.
- Share the gospel with respect. Those we encounter are people. Even if we disagree with them, we should respect them and their beliefs. Respecting them, however, does not mean affirming their beliefs. It does mean treating them the way we would want to be treated, i.e., with courtesy and dignity as a fellow human being created by God.
Jesus does not need salesmen. He does not need people pushing a product on others. Rather, he needs servants confidently, lovingly, and respectfully sharing the truth with the world. He needs churches dedicated training believers and reaching the lost. Evangelism is not selling cars, it is sharing Jesus.