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steve tomkins
crows nest
By Stephen Tomkins
More Crow's Nests here
Profitable evangelism
July 2000

If you've ever had occasion to engage in evangelism, you'll have a pretty good idea what banging your head against a brick wall is like. The church has tried all kinds of techniques over the years to persuade people to listen to its message.

There's the Big, such as Dr Graham's stadium rock approach, and the Subtle – wearing a little metal fish on your lapel. There's the Classical – outlawing alternatives and burning heretics; the Modern – the tearful kitsch of televangelism; and the Ultra-post-modern – putting tracts on the Internet.

There's the Liberal, rewriting the gospel to meet the demands of the contemporary market. And there's the Scary: an associate of mine stands outside Costcutters with a megaphone, a harmonica and a shopping trolley covered in Bible texts.

Now, however, Rev Michael Pfleger has, I believe, come up with something entirely new. You could call it a more cynical take on human nature. You could call it an expensive insight into the grace of God. Or you could call it a last resort.

Whichever way, Rev Michael has decided, rather than searching for new ways to engage his target audience's attention, to buy it. The scheme is aimed at the prostitutes and drug dealers who live in his parish in the South Side of Chicago.

"When you go to somebody who says, 'I charge this much for half an hour,'" explains Pfleger, "you need to use a new approach. Let's say, 'We're going to buy your time. But for this half hour, we want to sit down and talk about God's love for you.'"

Unveiling the scheme to his congregation in a Sunday sermon, he told them that they had to be willing to try radically new ways to reach people, and that he was sending them out in pairs at night.

"Instead of wasting money going to banquets,'' he urged, in a suggestion open to serious misinterpretation by anyone who hadn't been following the sermon up to that point, "let's take that $20 banquet ticket, let's go out and find the prostitutes and drug dealers."

The congregation, responded immediately with donations and volunteers.

Crow's Nest gives Rev Michael an uncharacteristically sincere salute and tot of rum. It might be said that his approach does not, in itself, address the fundamental social problems of the group he aims at – but then how many ministers do?

The beauty of Pfleger's scheme is its efficiency. Just think of all the money and effort that churches plough into elaborate productions to persuade people to listen to the Christian message. The music, the drama, the preparation and practice, the sound and light and other equipment, the preachers, the publicity, the stadiums, the crusader uniforms. And usually to audiences the vast majority of whom are actually Christians. Pfleger simply cuts out the middleman. Cut through the palaver and give the money straight to your audience.

That's got to interest more people than having the youth group act out the parable of the prodigal son.

And the precedent is good. Christian campaigners like William Booth and Lord Shaftesbury believed that before you preach to people who struggle to make ends meet, you have to earn a hearing, and so offered them food and accommodation. Pfleger just seems to trust people to spend the money for themselves.

And the fact is that money talks. The church may claim to speak a different language, but that claim is somewhat belied by the importance it places on fundraising, offerings and tithes, by the wealth of the established churches, and by the phenomenal market of the multi-media Christian sub-culture.

The church talks a lot about the good news of the value that God places on human lives. And so it should. It preaches about it, sings about it, writes about it, yells about it through a megaphone outside Costcutters. Pfleger and his church are making a wild bid to cash in the rhetoric and put their money where their mouth is. Since they are not merely talking about valuing people, but doing it – placing enough worth in their audience's attention to pay for it – maybe the message could even get through.

Good luck to them, I say. And if it doesn't work, I know where they can get hold of a good megaphone.
also see
hubris 2
Mark Howe's regular rant about Internet culture
strangely warmed
Andrew Rumsey's regular column about the religious life
loose canons
Stephen Tomkins' regular round-up of the saints of yore who were one wafer short of a full communion
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