Pyramid Scheme Evangelism

7 Nov

It happens to all of us. A Facebook message. A random text. “Hey, man,” says the kid from high school you haven’t spoken to (or thought of) in nearly a decade. It’s so utterly predictable what is going to happen next. “What will it be this time?” I think to myself.

$80/month fruit juice? Time share? Beauty products?

Everything inside me wants to avoid this annoyance. But I’m a pastor and sometimes these messages are folks wanting prayer, so I respond. Pleasantries are exchanged and feigned interest is attempted. But then, it’s down to business….

“What are you doing for life insurance?”

It used to infuriate me. I would think, “We haven’t spoken a word to each other in years and now you bait me into conversation so that you can sell me some crappy, overpriced product!?”

I wonder if non-Christians see Christians the same way I see these earnest and irritating juice-hawkers.

I think we’ve done a pretty good job in recent years getting away from evangelistic models that don’t work. We’re not into handing out tracks anymore. We laugh at street preachers that scream outside of big sporting events. Instead, we’ve adopted a relational-evangelism model over the confrontational means that we’ve seen to be hurtful and ineffective. But I can’t help but think our relational-model sometimes mirrors the offensiveness of multi-level marketing. It’s still a sales tactic.

This is what these companies are really asking of you:

“We don’t have capital or any marketing budget so here’s the deal… We want access to all your friends and family. And since we can’t get into their living rooms or onto their iPhones or internet browsers, we need you to leverage the relationships you’ve spent your whole life building to sell our juice for us. And if you are successful, we’ll give you about 8% of the profits from the transaction.”

The people that are a part of these programs are now unable to see family and neighbors for who they are. Rather, every relationship is now an opportunity for a new customer. And even if a real relationship (or conversation for that matter) is sought, their attempt is met with suspicion. Everything now feels disingenuous because the person (target) knows what the overall goal is to convert them into a customer.

I don’t want to belabor the point, but I hope you’re seeing what I am getting at.

When we enter into relationships with people with the sole purpose of “cashing the check” with them, we are no better than the pyramid scheme folks. Instead of a juice company, we’re working for an atonement theory we’ve been sold or an anemic soteriology. Or perhaps we’re just working under the weight of guilt we’ve been put under to “spread the gospel at all costs.” We’ve been duped into thinking of evangelism in terms of transactions. We’ve been told our goal is to (rather quickly) get the non-believer to say a prayer and move on to the next person (mark). It’s all about numbers. Some think you can’t become a platinum member of the kingdom without adopting the sales mantra of “always be closing.”

Don’t you see how this idea would sabotage any chance of real relationships? People know when they’re projects and aren’t particularly fond of it. It’s easy to put together a list of “non-believers” and make that a target list. It’s hard to actually enter real relationships with folks and be mutually vulnerable. It’s hard to have conversations that you’re not directing. It’s tough to be honest about your doubts and struggles.

Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”

At best, I think much of our evangelism is trying to convince people that there is a field that has treasure in it that exists. But we never let them get out there and search for it. At worst, our approach is to scare the hell out of people about what’s going to happen if they don’t find the treasure.

Jesus also said “seek and you will find.”

I’m not sure we believe that for non-believers. In our arrogance and zeal we try to be their guides in the treasure hunting business. Like over-bearing parents pointing out all the easter eggs, we drag people along trying to be the center of attention in their salvation story.

A lot of folks like to quote (or perhaps misquote) St. Francis’ famous words, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words” these days. Some use it as an excuse to never speak. I’m not advocating a wordless faith. Words are necessary for communication. My point is, before you use your words, use your life. Don’t feel the pressure of “sealing the deal” with every encounter. Plant seeds. Be obedient. Build genuine relationships that aren’t contingent on results. Jesus will use our being faithful and real to advance his kingdom. 

“Evangelism is believing and living as if this is really good news, as if it’s incredible news and we have something to say. Evangelism also means that we learned to say it the way Jesus said it and not just the way we want to say it. We have to learn his methods as well as his truth. So we learn to treat people with dignity.

-Eugene Peterson

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