Evangelism: As Strategic as Electoral Politics?

James Surowiecki writes in The New Yorker about so-called micro-targeting research that intends to find those precious U.S. voters who are actually undecided and persuadable in a campaign. This research is then correlated with studies intent on finding what techniques work best to persuade such people. Behold: those techniques tend to be low-tech, “high-touch” modes such as door-knocking visits and friendly, chatty phone calls from volunteers—versus mere broadcast advertisements or scripted calls made by professionals. (Politicos call such modes “the ground game” in a campaign, versus “taking to the air” via broadcasting and similar methods of diffusion.)

It occurs to me, as it often does, that the children of darkness are shrewder than the children of light. I wonder: What research has been done by Christians to identify which kinds of people in which kinds of circumstances are most open to conversion and to identify which modes of sharing the gospel are most likely to be helpful to them as they consider such a huge life change?

Not being a sociologist, but having read and even written some sociology, it would seem to me that such research is eminently do-able. Take any congregation and identify who you think are your model Christians, the “soundly converted” so far as anyone can tell. Then interview them carefully and at length to hear their stories and probe what factors led to their conversion.

Such research will have to be informed by a variety of related fields in order to produce critical and thus meaningful results. I think, for example, of the historical work by my colleague Bruce Hindmarsh on the conversion narratives offered by many believers in the eighteenth-century revivals that show the influence of a kind of template, a kind of “normal trajectory,” for conversion into which believers naturally fitted the actual details of their stories. Trying to ascertain what really happened from what people later think ought to have happened in their conversions will require researchers with savvy and sensitivity in equal measure. But extensive enough interviewing and the proper sifting of the data thus found might help congregations do what political campaigns do: direct their limited resources of personnel, creativity, and funding on the most fruitful fields. Indeed, such research might also demonstrate that some well-intentioned evangelistic modes do more harm than good, annoying people rather than drawing them closer to Christ.

Some of you might indeed be sociologists who are aware of such studies and results that might be usefully shared. But to date all I’ve seen are mass surveys with very limited questions and answers that, in my view, are not designed to listen well to the complexities of people’s experiences and therefore to produce conclusions of much use.

Are there some good studies out there? If not, who will conduct them—and fund them?

4 Responses to “Evangelism: As Strategic as Electoral Politics?”

  1. Charles

    Ask Bill Hybel. In my opinion, though, you have to balance being “everything to everyone” and relying on the Holy Spirit as the means of conversion, not man and his strategies. I enjoy Rommen’s Get Real on this subject (though E.O.).

  2. Carmen

    That would be great research to see – though biased by the interviewers’ idea of what model Christians look like. Also, current christian culture will be selective against certain people-types, resulting in a population deficient of people-groups to whom current outreach methods are ineffective. You will therefore hear from less converts from those people-groups, resulting in them having a disproportionately small voice into policy. I would suggest also interviewing apostates to help see what the church is doing detrimentally, trying hard to not simply fit what they say say to the preconceived “christian narrative trajectories”. But I agree – it would great to see ANY research along the lines of what you have described.

  3. Mike in Pennsylvania

    I know that Gordon Smith used to teach classes at Regent regarding conversion and he had students write their conversion narratives, but I’m not sure if he’s ever correlated and published the data.

  4. nate shoemaker

    nah, i think this has been done. and at best it simply serves the same purpose as the electoral process: it leads them to show up 1 time for 1 purpose and the lead the life they led before. this is a ‘butts in seats’ strategy.

    i think it makes more sense to teach people how to build relationships and how to model how they’re becoming like Jesus. living a life worth imitating makes more sense than just convincing people to vote for Jesus 1 time…

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