Perspectives on effective evangelism

paul-at-mars-hill

by Mike Morell


Within the Christian effective altruist community, the concept of “effective evangelism” is controversial. This post offers a brief introduction to the terrain, not a comprehensive review or a definitive conclusion.

A small survey found that Christian effective altruists care about various causes to varying degrees, with poverty tending to be the primary concern. Evangelism was unique in exposing a clear difference, with many respondents considering it “extremely important” and many others labeling it “not important”. In discussions, the disagreement runs deeper than just prioritization; there is debate whether principles of effective altruism ought to be applied to evangelism at all.

Evangelism is arguably a high priority for Christians. Following Jesus’s instruction, the apostles went among the towns of Israel (Matt 10:5-14) and then to all nations (Matt 28:19-20). Paul’s ministry also prioritized evangelism, and gave human effort an important role to play (e.g. Rom 10:14, “how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?”).

Personally, I note the value that the good news brought to my life; the hope and joy that flows from faith in a loving God are at least as precious as health or wealth. Also, even within a modest range, I notice that fluctuations in the strength of my faith correlate positively with both my happiness and the willpower I have to live generously.

Does my experience reflect a more general phenomenon? While the literature on the topic is complex (in particular the interplay between belief itself and the communities that form around belief), most of the evidence, such as this recent survey, indeed supports a positive link between religion and happiness. It is plausible spreading the good news (in particular, to those whose existing worldview is more pessimistic) could be at least as important as causes aimed at improving physical well-being. In principle, some forms of evangelism could be supported even on purely secular, utilitarian grounds. In Christian theology, the benefits of evangelism in this life are not measured solely in units of happiness; deeper relationships between God and His children are inherently good.

If there are reasons to engage in evangelism, then it seems right to do it as effectively as possible. Biblically, one finds much encouragement for using one’s head in sharing the Gospel effectively. Passages like 1 Cor 9:19-23 (“all things to all people”), 1 Cor 14:23-25 (“if an unbeliever/inquirer comes in”), and 1 Pet 3:15 (“be prepared to give a reason”) all suggest apostolic concern with the duty we have to help along the process of conversion.

On the other hand, some claim conversion is God’s job, not ours, citing Eph 2:8 (“this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”) in support of this. This viewpoint doesn’t imply people have no role to play, only that the grand strategy behind evangelism ought to be left to God. In several biblical passages, people are prompted to take action in support of evangelism, but not to plan out all the steps. Examples include Matt 10:7-14 (“no bag for your journey”), Luke 12:11-12 (“do not worry about what you will say, the Spirit will teach you”), and 1 Cor 1:17 (“not with words of eloquent wisdom”). Perhaps bringing one’s head too far into the process of evangelism could crowd out the Spirit’s voice.

This is part of a larger debate within Christian effective altruism about how to incorporate prayer or calling into a framework that also lifts up the use of reason and evidence. Perhaps the “default reason ethic”, recommended here, could be applied in a loosely analogous way to evangelism. For example, unless the Spirit were to clearly tell me what to say in some situation (not something I have yet experienced personally), I am inclined to interpret scriptures that suggest otherwise as contextually applicable to their immediate listeners, and proceed to use reason and evidence to help me be as effective as possible, and for me this includes thinking strategically. Others may have experiences or interpretations that lead them to a different view.

Rigorous analysis of “effective evangelism” is difficult to find. One of the few empirical attempts, World Christian Trends, found the “cost per baptism” ranges from a high of $2,720,658 (Japan) to a low of $1,366 (Mozambique), with most Western countries near the top. Even if these estimates are very rough, the idea that a dollar goes further overseas can appear as powerfully as it does in a GiveWell context. From this perspective, evangelistic effort should focus on developing countries, especially those with low Christian populations.

On the other hand, just as Christianity in recent centuries spread from bases in developed countries, irreligion (now dominant among certain influential populations in those same countries) might expand further if not confronted more thoughtfully and strategically than it has been thus far. In principle, a well-designed intervention among key populations in the West could have a great deal more leverage than traditional campaigns elsewhere.

Either way, there are concerns about prioritizing evangelism to specific populations (whether inexpensive-to-reach or influential). Jesus went out of His way to give attention to people at the margins of society, but refused to work miracles in a private audience with Herod. This is one difficulty in fitting Jesus’s mission into a neat framework of effectiveness. Humility regarding our own ability to systematize God’s plans is warranted. Evangelism is not unique here; such critiques also surround the application of effective altruism techniques to other causes. 

Furthermore, religion is a highly charged topic and the potential for side effects is larger than for most charitable interventions. For example, a campaign of highway billboards with blunt, aggressive messaging may trigger conversions in some, but will also be noticed by many others, for whom the same messages may reinforce negative perceptions, pushing them further from faith. The ability to measure the net impact of a particular evangelistic program is more difficult than for programs in many other cause areas.

You may have noticed that I’ve thus far avoided one of the most obvious considerations regarding evangelism – its impact on the afterlife. One common view is that afterlife outcomes are binary, permanent, infinite in duration, and connected entirely to faith. A potential complication arises, in that anything with truly infinite consequences becomes a kind of utility monster, frustrating any effort to prioritize anything but evangelism. On the other extreme, strict forms of predestination suggest that human effort cannot affect afterlife outcomes at all.

Neither of those viewpoints reflects my own, so I will leave it to others to explore their implications. Nonetheless, under most of the other Christian perspectives about the afterlife (e.g. purgatory, C.S. Lewis’s depiction of hell, etc.), consequences of choices in this life will be felt in the next, so few Chrisitians will see evangelism solely in terms of earthly impact. 

To summarize, one’s view of evangelism’s relative importance as a cause will depend on one’s theology. Furthermore, identifying a specific intervention worthy of time and money has significant practical difficulties. These issues are likely to explain the divergence of opinions seen in the aforementioned survey.

 

3 thoughts on “Perspectives on effective evangelism

  1. I have often wondered how evangelism would fit into an EA framework so thank you for this very thoughtful and balanced piece.

    While afterlife outcomes are of course of immense importance, I agree that it is very difficult to measure these in any meaningful way. Even if we can be theologically certain of the existence of an afterlife, we have very limited information (or at least limited consensus) on what that will look like or how various outcomes are attained. So we need to focus on the here and now, where we have the empirical data to hand.

    As you point out, there is compelling evidence that religion is good for well-being. For example, Clark and Lelkes (2005)* find that religion effectively acts as insurance, sheltering people from the storms of life, while my research** shows that religious and spiritual activities are among the most meaningful and pleasurable things that people do. But I think more evidence is needed to tease out exactly what it is that enables Christians to have more joy in their lives relative to non-religious people. In particular, is it possible to replicate some or all of these experiences in other ways, for example by substituting prayer for mindfulness or church attendance for membership of some secular group such as Action for Happiness? This will help us to assess the true added value of evangelism to human well-being.

    Also, it is important to note that while the gospel is by its nature good news, the process of repentance that it demands from us can be (and arguably should be) a painful experience. The process of “sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death … to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11) promises an abundant net gain in this life and the next, but if people get stuck in a place of guilt and don’t really follow through on receiving the gift of new life (rather like the rich young man in Matt 19) then you could argue that they were better off not hearing the good news at all!

    *Clark, A. and Lelkes, O. (2005). “Deliver us from evil: Religion as insurance.” Paris: PSE.
    ** https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/economics/research/serps/articles/2018004

    Like

    1. I’m glad you raised this point: “the process of repentance that it demands from us can be (and arguably should be) a painful experience.” I also think it’s worth adding-on that the direction and goal of repentance is sanctification, which we could maybe think of as a combination of improvement to spiritual wellbeing (how well we relate to and love God) and ethical well-being (how well we treat ourselves and others).

      There will be some who, by getting “stuck in a place of guilt” and not repenting, end up being tormented and overall worse-off in this life (as an example of this, King Claudius from Hamlet comes to mind). But we need to consider the implications of the afterlife and judgment. Paul writes that “each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:12). I don’t fully understand what the afterlife will be like; however, it seems intuitively true that, when giving an account before God, one will be better off having started the process of repentance than having not.

      Like

  2. > the “cost per baptism” ranges from a high of $2,720,658 (Japan) to a low of $1,366 (Mozambique), with most Western countries near the top … From this perspective, evangelistic effort should focus on developing countries

    In other words: desperate, uneducated people are more receptive to nice missionaries giving them stuff and brainwashing them, so let’s target them first.

    If you Christians want to help actually make the world a better place, wonderful. If any religion makes people happier, then let’s discuss why that is true (clearly it’s religion, and not Christianity, that is responsible). I hope you understand that “effective proselytizing” will not earn you many friends in the EA community – I was on the fence whether this “EA for Christians” things was a good idea, but this post has really turned me off.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s