To “convert” someone, as most people use the word, means to get that person to change in some profound way, usually beginning with and centering on the person’s beliefs. Conversions, in this sense, are happening on a regular basis, some good and some not. This is the second part follow-up to my previous post on the subject of how not all conversions are equal. I argued that there are two main reasons for this. First, it makes all the difference what exactly is being embraced by the new “convert.” The actual substance of the message and worldview that will shape the convert’s thoughts and actions may be something true and good. But it may be a terrible deception that brings destruction to that person and others. If you want to read more about this, see the previous post.
The second reason not all conversions are equal has to do with the process by which a convert is won. If the first reason involves the message, the second involves the method. There’s more than one way to get someone to see things from your side. Consider the tools you might employ to get people to profess what you want them to: you could frighten, threaten or terrify them; you could brow-beat or manipulate them; you could lure them, bribe them, make them great promises; you could use subtle mind-games or clever tricks known to the best advertisers; if you have the power to do so, you might institute a program of heavy propaganda; you might make use of the potent pressure of peers or forces of pop culture; you could play to their emotions, toy with their feelings, confuse or bewilder them; if you want more assurance of success, maybe you could turn to the most direct empirical methods available – mind control, brain manipulation, the use of drugs. The fact is that if the result is all that matters to you, and if any means will justify the end you seek, then any number of these methods might get the job done.
I’m sure you’re aware that everything listed in the previous paragraph has in fact been used to get people to think and do what other people wanted them to think and do. And the reason is simple. It’s easier to use these kinds of tactics than it is to convince people by the legitimate method of making a good case. Advertisers and politicians know this all too well. Today’s world is image-driven, we’re told. Making a good impression is all that matters for a brand or politician. In fact, politicians running for office today are marketed as brands themselves. The goal is a good impression, creating a positive vibe that reverberates across social media and gets people to like the candidate, even if it’s only because his voice sounds authentic or he has caring eyes or some other shallow reason.
Our culture has shown that it can be swayed in record numbers and in a surprisingly short amount of time on major moral issues without thinking all that critically about them. Not long ago I heard an interview with a sociologist on NPR about the change in public opinion on gay marriage. In an accent that was hard to nail down, he described a research project he had spear-headed among people under 30 that made it pretty clear to the researchers that the majority of those in that age category who have become supporters of that particular cause over the last five years have done so for personal and emotional reasons. People cited personal relationships with gay friends or family members, as well as the influence of likeable gay public figures or fictional gay characters depicted in movies and TV shows. Few of those surveyed, the researchers found, had come to their position because of arguments on behalf of gay marriage. The sociologists was quick to add that this is characteristic of the American public today, in fact. If you want to change people’s minds, the old fashioned approach of giving them a well thought-out list of reasons is probably not the best way to do it. You’d have much more success with a simple repetition of your message and perspective in the lyrics of the music on their iPods, in the voices of the characters on their favorite shows, and in the social circles populated by their peers.
While it grieves and frustrates me to admit it, I can’t argue against that. More outlandish examples of groups of people being persuaded to believe something bear out this same principle. There’s all the more reason, in fact, to use means other than direct argument if the thing you’re trying to get people to believe seems intuitively problematic and would not fare well under scrutiny. Ask yourself: could the Nazi party have persuaded so many German citizens to go so far down the pathway of the “final solution” using plain arguments in a fair and open forum? Would North Koreans really fall all over themselves worshipping the “Great Leader” if they hadn’t been subjected to a lifetime of isolation, state mind control and fear? Would prosperity televangelists be hailed as ‘anointed’ teachers and have such large followings if they weren’t playing upon the greed and desperation of people looking for a quick miracle fix or a ticket to sudden wealth?
Note that the more striking cases have in common something of the religious element. There is truth to the well-worn proverbial wisdom about what a powerful tool for manipulation religion can be. If you keep up with world affairs to any extent, you’ve heard about Christians being imprisoned in places like Iran due to accusations that they dared to persuade/convert someone. Pastors like Youcef Nadarkhani and Saeed Abedini (look them up) have been sent to hellish prisons where they receive torture and the repeated pressure to renounce their beliefs and convert to Islam in order to save their skin. How’s that for a missionary strategy? I’ve often wondered just how truly devoted to Islam the people of [take your choice – Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Indonesia, etc.] would be if those societies allowed genuine religious freedom. In other words, if the playing field were leveled in those places such that for a few generations people enjoyed the liberty to discuss, debate, disagree, and attempt to convert by legitimate means, what overall religious landscape would take shape as a result?
Regardless of what Islam (or any other worldview, religious or secular) does, Christians simply cannot allow themselves to revert to illegitimate tactics of persuasion. All of these prohibited strategies– and I am referring again to anything other than the free profession of a person who has genuinely come to believe – are categorically outside the parameters of missions and evangelism for Christians. There is simply no ground for using any of the alternative methods of persuasion, regardless of how enticing they are due to being easier and getting better ‘results’ (which I put in quotes because I will argue that the ‘results’ are actually not better even if numbers are high).
So why can’t Christians allow themselves to use the slick methods that so many others use to get people to agree with them? Here are few reasons that should suffice: those methods are unbiblical, they don’t produce the result(s) we really want, they water down the message, they build growing resentment, they bring about a group of people who never really believed and are likely to feel hatred toward those who manipulated them, they bring ill repute to the Church because many people see through the cheap tricks we might employ to gain converts.
Cheating in anything is an alluring prospect because people want to win. When I see a religious group gaining a lot of converts, I always try to inspect how they’re doing it, and I usually find questionable reasons for their success. For example, when I began living in Utah years ago I heard a great deal about how large the Church of Latter-day Saints was and they maintained an impressive growth rate. But I came to see that they have no problem with conversions achieved by lesser means. For starters they apply a ton of social pressure upon the children they raise (and they raise a LOT of them). Scores of people raised in Mormon families but, by any reasonable standard unbelieving, remain loosely affiliated nevertheless just to avoid the terrible consequences of openly denying or departing from it. As for getting converts who weren’t raised LDS, there are plenty of opportunistic situations for that as well. I can’t begin to tell you how many people I met and knew of who converted in order to date or marry a certain person, or to open certain social or economic doors and opportunities. But again, winning people over by social pressure or ‘missionary dating’ is as illegitimate as using brute fear (as in much of the Islamic world) or manipulative promises of health and wealth (Robert Tilton-style).
None of this is for New Testament believers. History teaches us what disastrous consequences can follow if a Christian society allows conversions by illicit means. One of the darkest examples is the Spanish Inquisition, called for and overseen by a zealous king and queen and targeting supposed Christians who were secretly practicing other religions. But the whole context for the decades of injustice and brutality that were to follow was created by previous widespread ‘conversions’ that should not have happened. The “other religions” were mostly Judaism and Islam, from which the questionable mass conversions had come. Tensions in multi-cultural medieval Spain had led to riots in which Jews or Muslims in Spain were pitted against the Roman Catholic population. When Spain became unified under Ferdinand and Isabella, a strong Roman Catholic government began to assert more influence. During some of the riots in certain places, large numbers of Jews converted to avoid trouble. Other Jews converted for social and economic opportunity, the ceiling of possibility being much higher for Catholics at the time.
Those events over those years brought about a large number of people who had outwardly converted to the Christian faith but who had never truly come to believe. These people lived double lives, and eventually the royal couple agreed that it was a problem that had to be addressed. That is why they petitioned to establish their own Inquisition tribunals. And so began a long and sad chain of events that would see trials, imprisonments, confiscations of property, ruining of reputations, impetus of some to flee and become refugees, and of course burnings at the stake. It was all made possible by ill-conceived conversions secured in completely faulty ways.
Americans have the blessed benefit of having never really felt the more brutal kinds of influences to convert to a new view or way of life. The government established by the American founders remains, thankfully, in compliance with the famous initial amendment to her constitution. There has been no formal establishment of a religion by the state nor prohibition of religious free exercise for citizens. Christians are among those who want to keep it that way. But aside from government influence, there is always the temptation to win people over by other defective means. Our culture is moving in a direction that prizes emotionalism over critical thinking, and so it is tempting to abandon the latter and to “fight fire with fire,” as it were, by ditching outdated notions of in-depth teaching, of delving into ancient texts and theological mysteries. After all that stuff doesn’t do anything for people anymore and it won’t win the big crowds. Thus do we see religious figures employing the game plans of marketers, advertisers and politicians. Churches might as well go all out and combine the best of advertising, politics and entertainment, all of which seem to be so effective in getting lots of people today to think and act in specified and targeted ways. Churches should hire media consultants, campaign strategists and entertainment moguls to market their spiritual ‘wares’ to the religious ‘consumers’ so that they’ll have better ‘box office’ numbers. Anybody feel like puking yet?