The Poor Sales Technique of Evangelicalism

After a rather acrimonious exchange with an evangelistic commenter, I’m reflecting on the technique they use to spread their views.

I’m not a natural salesman, but I’ve run my own businesses, and so I’ve depended on being able to sell, at least a little. There are a few things I’ve learned, from experience and from reading dozens of books:

1. Listen more than you talk. Assaulting someone with a wave of benefits doesn’t work. Find out where they are and what they need.

2. Ask questions. Even when you’ve finished listening, it is better to ask questions rather than to go into a sales pitch. Questions allow you to understand needs better, and lets the person you’re selling to understand that this is about their decision to buy, not your need to sell.

3. Use the terminology of the buyer. There are lots of jargon terms you use to think about your product. But the sales process isn’t about getting the buyer to speak your language, but being able to speak theirs.

4. Acknowledge the benefits of the alternatives. I often have been selling a service that otherwise the buyer would have to do themselves. So I acknowledge that they are my competition, and don’t diminish their skills. Even with other external competitors I acknowledge the competition and indicate the beneficial difference of what I’m selling.

5. Genuine flattery works. Except when it is obsequious, or obviously faked, when you can come across as two-faced. But honestly pointing out the obvious strengths of the buyer is a good way to build trust. Again, because I tend to be selling a service otherwise done in house, it is important that I make it clear I don’t think I am better than them or their team in a general sense. Just that their obvious expertise lies in one region, and mine in another, and they can get the best of both worlds if we join forces.

So five things that I think help my sales.

Five things I’m musing on, because — in my experience — the way folks are taught to evangelise is often the absolute opposite of these. So there have been several folks who’ve arrived on this blog with evangelistic zeal who:

1. launch into evangelistic spiels, without listening to what is said to them,

2. assume they know everything there is to know without asking any questions about where I am or what I think,

3. fill their comments with theological jargon,

4. deride any reasons I might have for thinking what I think (and as per 2, they have no idea what they might be), and

5. insult me.

Now, other than being quite willing to be as snarky and nasty back, I don’t really mind this. I quite enjoy arguments, and always have. There have been some folks on here who’ve found creative ways to insult me, and that’s always fun.

But what terrible sales technique. Why is it that evangelicalism, a religion based on the whole idea of spreading the faith, is so incompetent when it comes to sales technique?

Perhaps I should be glad. But it does seem odd.

Have you ever had a religious ‘sales’ experience that has done it right?

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “The Poor Sales Technique of Evangelicalism

  1. I love it that this encounter bothered you so much — just shows what a nice guy you are. All your points are excellent. Poor listening bothers me the most. Heck, even nice comments on my blog bother me if I they show that a person is not listening but just picking up a few phrases to free associate off of.

  2. I feel I have had a good evangelism experience. I told them I was just fine with my life as it was. They went away. All around, I think that was a win-win. They could quickly move onto a more appropriate “buyer.” I could get on with my life. Overall think evangelism isn’t really about getting more people into the “fold,” but instead about making the person delivering the message feel good.

  3. Ian

    Thanks Ashana. Yes, I think there’s often an undertone of control in evangelistic pitches, which I guess is about the person justifying themselves.

    Sabio. I agree. Thanks for the kind words, and on the other post. These discussion don’t normally escalate to threats, so I think it is just playing on my mind because of that. I’ll probably try to be a little less derisory myself in future situations.

  4. Why is it that evangelicalism, a religion based on the whole idea of spreading the faith, is so incompetent when it comes to sales technique?

    Most Christians have no interest is selling their religion to you. Their interest is in securing their own place in the hereafter. So they evangelize out of obligation (or duty), rather than out of a genuine desire to sell their ideas. Worse still, many have a poor knowledge of their own religion.

  5. I think you handle yourself admirably on this blog, Ian. I don’t know if you’re a self-proclaimed Atheist (I’m not atheist, rather I’m secular; I find most atheists to be too one minded) but if you are, you are unique in that you seem to adjust your view and actually consider who’s reading.

    The most successful religions “sales” technique I found was the Wiccans I ran across in the late ’90s. They were called Full Circle and they held ceremonies that were open to the public, advertised mostly via flyers. I didn’t know about it, but my coworkers did. Several of them celebrated Wiccan holidays and mentioned the events to me. Some of them knew me better than I knew myself, it seemed.

    The ceremonies were amazing, held in large spaces and beautifully decorated. The witches were usually off in a corner before the ceremony, chatting with each other in secret. There was no interaction except with other people who came for the event. The event itself was amazing, before that though it was shrouded in secrecy (but not deception; people were to take away from it whatever they felt was right). A pretty effective tactic, as I casually followed the religion for about five years.

  6. Ian

    @Neil – Thanks. I’m currently the special project of a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I definitely get that sense from them. And it is interesting that they are very knowledgable on their church’s teachings, but know almost nothing about its history, or its relationship to Christian thought generally.

  7. Ian

    @Amelie – thanks for sharing that experience. I would really love to attend something like that. Did the witches not appear standoffish by keeping themselves separate?

    Thanks for the compliment. I tend to call myself different things in different contexts, whatever I think is most communicative. But there’s no perfect term: I agree that ‘atheist’ has connotations that aren’t helpful. I would use the term if I deliberately wanted to make it clear I was opposing someone (i.e. if I wanted its confrontational sense), or if I was having a more philosophical discussion where the narrow sense of the word would be understood. But mostly I don’t refer to myself as anything. If asked I tend to say I think gods are human constructs, and there is no such thing as the supernatural.

  8. It’s hard to paint the picture but no; they did not appear standoffish at all. They were off by themselves but they were clearly paying attention, scanning the room all the time. They always led the ceremonies but managed to vanish during any “free” time and were almost impossible to track down even when they were in the room. Very elusive in a way, I think it made the whole thing more intriguing. Wiccans don’t proselytize and most newcomers have to find the way on their own.

  9. By the way * it’s important to find a high quality group; there are many wannabes and when Full Circle left the area it lost a lot of meaning for me; although I still celebrate the change in seasons.

  10. Ian

    Elusive and mysterious… I think I would be more intrigued by that too. Thanks.

  11. I expect there exists a wide diversity in approaches, polite and otherwise. Most atheist commentators on the internet receive serious diatribe from wacky individuals. There are enough of them to constitute a serious pest to bloggers and online commentators. But my experience has been in being approached in public places. I have normally found them very polite and courteous. They are in a situation where it is a numbers game so being quick, smart at evaluating chance and where hopeless polite and quick withdrawal seem to be more useful to them. And many of them in my experience are genuine. But I have had Christian friends de-friend me (in real life, not Facebook) because I am not a Christian and this to them means a genuine friendship is not possible. It seems that their Christian perspectives are so pervasive in their lives that they cannot see any common humanity. I have also found that those who are Christian and closest to me as friends are less likely to genuinely want to listen to me. They ask about my atheism only to try an find out what sort of grudge I’ve got and to argue points (if they have sufficient experience in apologetics). As a result, I never discuss my views on religion with Christians I know because I consider them to be genuinely non-genuine in their motives.

  12. Jonathan

    I was drawn to read more from this quirky little number “7 Steps to start a megachurch” and “I’d like to tell you the good news” (Which seems to be giving issues – had to check Wayback machine for it) and have found myself hooked.

    Evangelization, in my opinion, has become something “other”. It does not seem to deal with an individual’s needs, but in forcing values and ideals (often in direct opposition to early Christianity) and is quite unseemly, especially when one is accosted in shopping centres or door-to-door.

    I am a convert to Catholicism (Roman Rite) because I love history, tradition, and beauty. I am also a music major and have fallen in love with early music especially Byzantine chant and polyphony. Unfortunately, what I experience does not seem to live up to its ancient splendour, but as most of you will understand, we can take quite a beating if we genuinely believe in something.

    I have a very close friend who is an Athiest -with some wiggle room for agnosticism – who seems to use similar tactics (or rather antics) as many evangelicals. It upsets me because I often imagine Atheists more open to individualism and free thinking, but because of our individual experiences, this would vary from individual to individual. This is something I seem to struggle with, but enough about that.

    I really like how your post focusses (point 2) on the needs of the individual, as ironically it is something that is not a problem religion can “fix” directly. In my particular town, people are stressed out (high cost of living, high levels of crime) and need meaningful connections. If this is addressed in a religious institution, the “faith” seems to follow and is open to change just as quickly as it came. This often happens in smaller groups especially Jewish Roots groups which is a fast growing faith community in my neck of the woods.

    One thing common to varying groups of beliefs is a bit of a herd mentality. We tend to agree and flock towards certain people because of common ground, yet I wonder why, even though beliefs and received values, in my opinion, should penetrate every thought and action, this separates rather than unifies. We put ideologies and philosophies above people.

    There is a lot we have in common because of our common humanity, and there is much to be done. One cannot be prescriptive of those outside the bounds of the “group” one belongs to, and I think Benedict XVI and Francis have been especially clear on this in my particular case.

    Ultimately we have one person to be truly accountable to, and one person to bring to transformation – ourselves – for our last hour in this life will be filled with our thoughts, our fears and our memories. Nothing else, and no one else will matter then.

    Please keep up the great posts, it is rare to find a gem such as this in the blogosphere. I hope you don’t mind me linking to your articles or quoting you when I get my Theosis blog up and running 🙂

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