Just a moment Janet, we don’t want to interfere with their celebration

August 27, 2008

This post is not for Ankaret, because it is about evangelism and that is very much Not Her Thing. You have been warned, m’dear.

Not particularly Christian evangelism, although I expect I’ll get to that. Any evangelism will do. (Sung to the tune of ‘Any dream will do’, from Joseph, clearly.)

Moi, I am evangelical about the following: Being stylish*. Having some kind of a spiritual life**. Twelve-step programmes.. Aloe vera, both to drink and to put on your skin. Mindfulness meditation. I’m sure there are other things I’ve forgotten. ***

Before you decide that I must be hell to be around (that’s a whole ‘nother post), let us examine what I mean by evangelical. Because mostly I do not evangelise, at least I don’t think I do. (My flatmate might disagree about the aloe vera.)

I’d like to, don’t get me wrong. I’d really like to spend the whole day telling everyone about all these wonderful things that have changed my life so much. I would like everyone to have a chance to benefit from this great stuff – and I really do believe that practically everyone would do so. I think the world would be infinitely better if we all practised transcendence and living in the present, and if we all worked step ten on a regular basis.


When is the last time you did something because someone else told you how good for you it would be? For most of my life, I have pretty much gone out of my way to do the opposite of what was suggested to me, and I’ve noticed consistently that other people do the same. It’s one of Frankie’s Laws of Change: people do not like being told what to do. (I do believe that people change through admiration of others. I think I’ve written here before that one of my favourite quotes is from St Francis of Assisi: “Evangelise wherever you go and, if necessary, use words.)

So I’ve never really understood evangelism. How does it work? Why does it work?

I have recently got to know someone who is an evangelical Christian. He is a really, really great guy. But in our first conversation he suggested that I should come to HTB with him. As it happens, I might sometime, because I really like evangelical services. The singing is fantastic. But it’s not my particular aisle of the broad church that is Christianity, and I would have guessed that I am more likely to be warm towards the idea than most people he asks. I can’t imagine how many times his offer’s been rejected, and I would guess that sometimes that’s accompanied by harsh words, harsh judgments and / or a real sense of invasion and offence.

I’m fascinated. What does it take to keep doing that? I’m torn between admiration of the principle and the struggle to understand the kind of mind that thinks it’s the best way to work – or, even if they can see the pitfalls, so deeply believes it’s the right thing to do that they do it anyway. (Did I get the pronouns right in that sentence?)

I am not that person. I’d like everyone to have the great things that I have. But I don’t think it is my job to make it happen. And I don’t think I could make it happen, even if I felt far more deeply about it than I do.

* That’s a technical definition in my world. It does not involve being fashionable, trying to look like someone else, defining oneself in terms of one’s appearance and various other things designed to enslave women. That’s a whole ‘nother post too.

** Please note that this does NOT mean believing in God. Not not not not not.

*** This is actually quite a small sub-set of the list of things that I’m passionate about and would like to share with the world. I really do get that there are some things that work for me but wouldn’t work for everyone, which is why black cats are not on this list.


16 Responses to “Just a moment Janet, we don’t want to interfere with their celebration”

  1. Sheenagh Says:

    My evangelical friends largely evangelise both because they believe Christianity is truly life-changing, but because they really truly do believe that those who aren’t Christian (or the Wrong Sort of Christian, now I come to think about it) will burn in hell for eternity. Almost anything is worth saving people from that.

    Some evangelicals (I used to be one) have this mindset where you’re friends with someone so you can convert them. They have to encouraged to make non-Christian friends (partly because staying within your own group is always more comfortable,and partly because it’s not nice being terrified your friends will end up in hell) and one way of doing that is suggesting you ‘have’ to have non-Christian friends or who’ll you convert? This leads to that odd ‘first conversation’ stuff. People will work out if you’re only making friends because you want something. What I’ve never been able to get through to the leaders, either when I was an evo, and now I’m not is IT DOES NOT WORK. Not for long-lasting change and not for making long-lasting friends. It’s not even the ideology of it (which I strongly disagree with) it’s that it’s so inefficient! Even on their own terms, it can’t be the best way.

    But to get back to my orginal point. People aren’t going to die and suffer for ever if they’re not stylish or don’t follow a 12-step programme. Their lives may be much worse or less enjoyable. Also, your supreme being (who you should/have to please) hasn’t told you to tell everyone about 12-step programmes or else. I suspect that makes quite a difference.

  2. Francesca Says:

    All makes sense. I’m lucky enough to have a supreme being who teaches that we all have our own path to follow, so I’ve never believed that it would really be helpful to try and get anyone to follow mine. (I have quite enough difficulty following it myself.)

    My ex was a militant atheist and his previous partner was an evangelical Christian who believed he was going to go to hell. Made for some difficulties.

  3. Alithea Says:

    I’m not really a fan of evangelism because I think different things work for different people and most people need to find their own way to things. I guess I am most evangelical about having a spiritual life (as you say, not necessarily involving belief in a higher power) and reading, but both of those are ideas where I’m particularly firm about the different things for different people notion.
    I always think leading by example is the best way forward. I try to be a good advocate of my way of life by living it well. Which, I guess, is what St. Francis means, so maybe I’m more evangelical than I think…

  4. Sarah Jane Says:

    You drink aloe vera?

    I shared a house with evangelical Christians for the second half of my second year at university. They never actually attempted to convert me, and really displayed incredible forbearance given that that was a particularly wild time of my life.

    I’m not sure if I’m actually evangelical about anything. I believe absolutely in feminism and equality and an end to lookism and sizism, but those aren’t good things that I (or anyone else) has, they’re things I think everyone should have. On the whole, I’m unconvinced that just because something works for me it will work for anyone else, and as the poster child for never ever doing what anyone suggests I do I get completely freaked out if people actually take my advice.

  5. Francesca Says:

    It’s a really interesting space. Let me be a bit clearer about what I believe, for my benefit rather than anyone else’s:

    (1) In principle, I am wary of generalisation. It’s always more complicated. Even in mathematics things are often not as absolute as you might think.


    (2) I do not believe I have ever met a person who in my opinion would not benefit from what I describe above. My opinions are not the same as the truth, and wouldn’t be even if there was such a thing as the truth. But this is what I see and believe.


    (3) Of course, the people I know are quite similar to one another. There’s quite a range in age, gender and orientation, but most of the people I know are white and most of them are middle-class and most of them are educated. Few of them are in real financial hardship. So privilege informs my views.


    (4) Even given that, and even given all of the caveats above, I still believe that it would be a very, very rare person who would not benefit. Personally I cannot imagine the circumstance. But I’m quite open to believing that this is a failure of imagination on my part.

  6. Francesca Says:

    Also, I am probably not really evangelical in that sense about being stylish (or aloe vera). I think there is something in the style space for Western women, but by the time I’d defined it to my (and others’) satisfaction, it might not be easily labelled style anymore.

  7. Sarah Jane Says:

    I certainly can’t think of anything in my life that I think every single person would benefit from. Perhaps that’s a failure of imagination on my part (also, I am after all only a week or so away from believing that very few things in my life were any good at all). There are lots of things I’m passionate about and will encourage people to try, but I’m quite prepared for it not to work for them.

  8. Dave Says:

    I think I understand evangelism from that perspective.

    I suspect it’s one of those things where one in a thousand times you get someone at exactly the right point in their lives and they buy in very visibly — either because they really were at a point where they were ready for what you were evangelizing, or because they were at a point where they were open to anything suggested strongly enough, or for some other reason — and that’s very rewarding. Those who stay at it for long enough get reinforced periodically, which results in very stubbornly held beliefs (for the same reasons that periodic reinforcement is the way to go when training animals).

    Much as with diets, the question of whether it creates a positive change a year down the road turns out to be much less relevant to how encouraging it is.

  9. Francesca Says:

    That makes sense. And then either one rationalises that the 999 were worth it or one remembers the 1 and forgets the 999.

    I’m so very pleased to see you here. I don’t want to solicit a letter, but is there somewhere I can go to get updates on how you are doing?

  10. Lesley Says:

    Evangelism tends to start from the premise that UR DOIN IT WRONG rather than ‘you could be doing it better, more effectively, whatever’. This causes most people’s, who are not already saints, hackles to rise instinctively. It’s the pushy ‘can I help you’ salesperson taken to a further level. So resistant am I to this sort of thing I found myself feeling inappropriately stroppy about a mind-clearing exercise in yoga yesterday.

    Also, people tend to find too much intensity, seriousness and downright preachiness general social turn-offs, except in situations where these are already on the appropriate list of behaviours, and probably involving a selected subset.

    Evangelism, I suspect, works, if it works at all, not at the immediate direct approach level: maybe, just maybe, if the person is already receptive in some way, they may get an aha moment some way down the line – MI DAMASCUS RODE, LET ME SHOW U IT. This is why it is (sometimes, and only to the limits one’s nerves and blood pressure can stand) worth engaging in intawebz controversy – even if you don’t convince your antagonist, there may be people reading who are going to take away and think about whatever you’re putting across.

    However, tones of I ALONE HOLD THE ONE TROO WAY are likely to prove counterproductive.

  11. Francesca Says:

    Hello! Did I mention that I lived on the aubergine dip all week and was very happy. Thank you.

    I agree with this. I think language is very important. Twelve-step language is very carefully selected to try and minimise this effect. A phrase that is often used is “It was suggested to me that I should…”, so that it casts the sponsor as a fellow-pupil rather than as a teacher. There’s also a strong dislike of ‘cross-talk’ – commenting on others’ stories – instead, people share their own stories and in particular what’s worked for them, but they don’t make the presumption that it would work for others. That makes it easier for others to give it a go.

    That said, there is also discourse that sets people up to be able to take advice, particularly because a major problem for addicts is ego. One is told ‘if you want what someone has got, do what they do’.

  12. dan Says:

    Once again, you’re apropos my life.

    And once again, I’m resisting people telling me what to do, because of the odd experience of feeling like in fact I don’t get much out of a lot of the things that seem to make other people really happier in practice. The general things you discuss (except aloe, which makes my skin SO unhappy!), yes. But the specific things people often evangelize me about? Not at all…

  13. Francesca Says:

    It’s a really interesting space. Upthread I quoted 12step wisdom: ‘if you want what X has, you need to do what X does’. And I have found that to be true.

    There are two other quotes that are apposite, though. The first is ‘take what you like and leave the rest’. Not everything works for everyone. But the other side of that, which is vitally important, is ‘half measures availed us naught’. Sometimes something truly does not work for us, because it makes our skin unhappy. But for me, more often it has been that I have been unwilling to do the work to change, so I have not got the benefits of change.

  14. Fascinating thread, thank you all. Much love to Lesley for her LOLCHURCHZ.

    I, because I am always coming from a place of “yes, but how can you be self-actualised if you treat your body like that?” (which is, of course, immensely judgmental), would always evangelise martial arts and the low-G.I. diet. But only really if people bring up diet or exercise in their conversation and usually only if they sound as though they want advice; I have seen how evangelism usually backfires, because as you say, people don’t like to be told what to do. So instead, I try to live by example. I love your St. Francis quote.

    I’m torn between admiration of the principle and the struggle to understand the kind of mind that thinks it’s the best way to work – or, even if they can see the pitfalls, so deeply believes it’s the right thing to do that they do it anyway. (Did I get the pronouns right in that sentence?)

    I think you might have been better with the kind of mind that thinks it’s the best way to work – or, even if it can see the pitfalls …. But I don’t think your meaning was lost 🙂

  15. PS – oops, I emphasised the wrong its, above.

  16. thewhiteowl Says:

    Because we’re told to, and because it’s the most important thing in the world.

    I have never made friends with anyone specifically to evangelise them. I make friends with people because it’s _tiring_ working with enemies 😛 And I definitely have never done the first conversation invitation thing. I would say if there’s a public meeting I think would be relevant, but not until I already know the person. And when they ask what I’ve done at the weekend I generally mention church first. In uni we used to don our parkas on Thursday (student booze-up night) and give out tea/coffee and biscuits (and occasionally call taxis, cops and on one memorable occasion, an ambulance.) So of course everyone always asked ‘why are you doing this for free?’, and then we would tell them.

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