• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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?