Christian Heuristics

When I took my first Systems Analysis class, I was introduced to the word “heuristic”. Wikipedia defines heuristic as a rule of thumb used to solve a problem among other things that you can read on your own.

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but I partly haven’t had time, nor have I known exactly what I wanted to say. I also realize that what I want to say could violate some principles that I’m supposed to hold to, or at the minimum could hurt some feelings.

Christians in 21st century America (at least, this is where I live, possibly it’s the same in other western countries) have developed some strange heuristics, or rules of thumb. Some of them are starting to drive me nuts. I have no idea where they come from, I have no idea where the idea that they have any effectiveness came from, and I have no idea why they persist despite no evidence of any fruit whatsoever being produced by and through them. All I really want to accomplish with this post is to share some thoughts, and maybe get a productive discussion going about them. That’s all I want. I don’t want to hurt any feelings, attract any flames, or cause any problems.

I belong to a meetup group. The group includes an email list, and many of the members operate under the heuristic that having a discussion by replying to the email list is the most effective way to communicate with the other members. Personally, I could use less email, but I’ve set up filters so I just let it accumulate in another label in my gmail account and deal with it when I have time. I tethered my phone to my work laptop while I was setting up in the conference room this afternoon. The other two guys that I needed to work with decided to go to somewhere near Florida to get lunch. At least, they took long enough. I figured I’d get caught up on personal email while I was waiting. Somebody sent an email out to the entire list about prayer, which got really long and basically became one of those “repent and ask Jesus Christ to be your savior”. That’s fine as well as it goes, but the mailing list doesn’t exactly include all Christians. Aside from that, I already am one so I see it being less than productive to read those evangelistic emails over and over and over and over and over again. At least it didn’t include one of those idiotic lines at the end like “send this to ten people immediately or else you don’t love Jesus!” I always delete those. Must be my fallen, rebellious nature… As I said, this mailing list contains people of a variety of worldviews, and sure enough some atheists piped up asking for it to stop. They were polite enough, but clearly annoyed. To be honest, so was I.

One more before we set up. My wife and I started taking our children to an AWANA program at a Baptist church. The church does hold an adult Bible study while the children’s program is going on. The first couple of weeks I was traveling on Wednesday, but last week I was able to stay for the study. It was on forgiveness, but because of an apparent high number of visitors, the study basically became a review of the Gospel and an appeal to repent and believe. Again, that’s all well and good but how many times can a person take this step? What really kills me in these situations is that the elderly members of the congregation (doesn’t matter which one because they all seem to do it) contribute to the discussion as if it’s the first time they’ve had a chance to share while somebody was presenting the Gospel.

I grew up in the Christian Science church. I had a friend who was a Southern Baptist. Every now and again I’d attend a youth function at his church. One time in particular I went to a weekend retreat at a camp center in the Texas Hill Country. We lived in San Antonio, so that wasn’t too far. The activities were fun, the other teens from the church were nice, the food was good, but every now and again they’d take us in a room and preach. Then we’d be asked to bow our heads and close our eyes. Then the organ music would start. Then they’d start the appeal: “If you haven’t trusted Jesus Christ as your savior, come forward and we’ll pray for you.” They kept that up. I knew they had to be talking to me, since I was the only person present who wasn’t a member of that church. They kept it going for a long, long time, to the point where I wanted to come forward and let them baptize me just to shut them up. Somehow I knew that wouldn’t be intellectually honest, and I wasn’t convinced about the Gospel at the time anyway. I just kept my head down until it was over, and we could go back to running through the hill country or eating or something cool.

So that’s where I come to my question. Where exactly do we as Christians get this heuristic from that the only way to save people is to, basically, annoy them into repentance? I’ve come to Christ myself, but not in this manner. I’ve read tons of conversion stories, and not a single one contained the account of “Well, I was on this mailing list, see, and somebody sent out one of those “Trust Jesus” emails, and I believed.” Honestly, I’ve never seen it. Chick Publications contains plenty of testimonies of people who “came to Christ” by reading his tracts, but I have yet to meet anybody personally who has. I am in no way comparing the two, but those late night “become a millionaire in Real Estate with no investment and no actual work” gurus have testimonies of people who claim to have succeeded with their program. That doesn’t mean I’ve met anybody who has.

The worst part is visiting other churches, or even  when it happens in my own. Why do people in church assume that every single visitor is unsaved? Why do they assume that the only possible subject matter of interest is to dumb the Gospel story down to it’s most basic? I feel like I’m perpetually auditing a Kindergarten class. Didn’t Paul tell the Hebrews (OK, nobody can definitively prove who wrote Hebrews, but I think it was Paul) to get off the milk and onto the meat? Why do we preach that Jesus Christ is on every page in the Bible yet only teach a tiny, tiny part on a very low level?

When I’m teaching, I like to teach expositionally. That means I go verse by verse. I usually teach out of the Old Testament. Mostly I like the history, but I have come to a conclusion that a lot of false doctrine or even off base beliefs in the church come from not understanding the Old Testament, so I do what I can to strengthen that understanding within my church. When I have a visitor, I don’t sidetrack my entire class to the “What Must I Do To Be Saved?” pamphlet. I keep going on my subject material. I figure that even if I did manage to get that one person in North America who knows nothing about the church or the Gospel and just stumbled into our church that day and into my class, perhaps I can throw out something intellectually challenging and get a discussion going.

I don’t buy into the “seeker sensitive” church idea. From the studying I’ve done, it seems to me that the gathering of believers is supposed to be just that: a gathering of believers. We’re supposed to get together to worship, study, bear one another’s burdens, love, cry, eat, and whatever. This doesn’t have to be in a million dollar church building either. There’s nothing wrong with that, to a point, but the early church gathered in houses. How are we supposed to grow spiritually or intellectually or anything when our churches do nothing but feed milk either to what they hope are the “unsaved” or to the “baby” Christians? We’re supposed to go to church to eat “meat” then take milk out into the street, or out into the world. I’d love to find a church that preached and taught near a seminary level.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I have exactly zero (0) known souls to my credit. I’ve probably driven more people away from Jesus than I’ll ever coax to Him. I still can’t reduce myself to “evangelism by annoyance.” I can’t do it. Doesn’t the golden rule apply here as well? Why would I expect to use an “evangelistic” method on somebody else that would never have worked on myself? The “God, please save me from your followers” bumper sticker comes to mind.

Back to my original question on the heuristics of Christians: can anybody produce any objective evidence that sending out those emails or sidetracking Bible classes for assumed to be unsaved visitors has produced any fruit? Or are we just stuck on a cultural system from times past that persists today? I’m a firm believer that the Gospel MESSAGE should never be changed. It is constant and timeless. However, the Gospel METHODS can change across time and cultures. The Apostle Paul as a Pharisaical Jew would roll into town, hit the synagogues, and start preaching Jesus as the Messiah from the Hebrew Scriptures. That was his predominant method at the time. How far would that go today? I can’t see that working very well for me. 50 years ago, a tent revival would attract a lot of people Try to put one up today and see what happens. I still can’t say I see a time when email bombardment would have worked.

Anyway, that’s my essay, for better or for worse. That’s what I’m thinking and where I’m at intellectually at this time. Ma
ybe I’ll develop these thoughts more or find answers to my questions. Maybe I’ll change a few of my opinions as I go along. In any case, I’ve been wanting to put these thoughts to text for a while to help me process them. I figure I’ll put them out on my blog in the hopes of getting a discussion going. Any thoughts or comments? Bear in mind that on my blog, the Golden Rule applies. The First Amendment does not. The First Amendment begins “Congress shall make no law…:” Sometimes I wish the founders had stopped right there, especially after that “bailout” recently. I am not the Congress nor am I making a law by deleting comments off of my blog. I’ve only had to do that for spam in 4 1/2 years of blogging. That shows you how many comments I get. Anyway, if you read this far, what do you think?

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5 Responses

  1. Depends on the place. Twenty years ago (and more recently) tent revivals in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe were still working fine.
    But definitely, emails of an evangelistic nature, especially with those ‘If you don’t forward…’ appeal to a more fundamental insecurity of the sender. I tend to believe that such senders are somewhat superstitious (whether they know it or not). I also wonder if they tend to be a little legalistic, since this kind of ‘threat’ would appeal to those who don’t fully trust in Jesus’s work already done.

  2. That’s what it seems like to me. I’m all for evangelism, but in light of the Golden Rule, I always wonder how effective I would be trying to evangelize someone else using a method that never would have worked on me. I try to approach evangelism from a “plant” or “water” perspective. I figure I’m not likely to gain an on the spot conversion worthy of another chapter being added to Acts, but I never know what seeds could be planted in somebody’s soul through interaction with me. Perhaps I can water another seed that somebody else planted. That’s how it happened with me. A whole bunch of seeds planted over years suddenly took root one day. I’ve never understood how people can think that sending out emails like the one that set off this post can be productive. I’ve never seen evidence of it.
    Thanks for commenting.

  3. A related aside. I believe it was Campus Crusade for Christ who did an analysis of all the ways that students came to faith in Christ. This was twenty five years ago.
    Anyhow, one of the findings was that Christian music *also* turned up zero results.
    Almost all conversions come from genuine friendship-based personal contact.

  4. That’s what I’d say did it for me. I’d been “witnessed” to over the years, but most of it was a turn off. I had one friend that I split an apartment with for several years who patiently answered my questions, but never pushed too hard. About 7 years ago, my wife and I hit a rough spot. A woman she worked with had been through something similar with her husband, and they reached out to us. They invited us to their church, and at that time I would have tried anything. We kept going to that church. I was baptized the next month and we still worship there.
    And of course I’m still in touch with the friend who was patient with me. Not only is he still my best friend, but we’re brothers in Christ. None of the standard tactics most people used worked with me.

  5. […] 2 years ago, I wrote a post called “Christian Heuristics”. In it, I asked why we comment that Jesus Christ is written on every page of the Bible, yet we […]

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