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.