Engaging Culture

Christian Witness and the Lure of the Negative

Over the years I’ve worked with literally hundreds of churches, ministries, and nonprofits. As part of that process, I’ve sat in more fundraising, donor development, and marketing meetings than I can count. After all those years and all that experience, I know two things:

1. Creating an enemy helps raise money.
2. Creating an enemy doesn’t necessarily help the cause.

Criticizing a community, industry, business, project, or idea will rally the troops. Protesting at abortion clinics will get people riled up. Boycotting a movie or business will build a mailing list. Launching a petition drive against something political will mobilize your people.

People rally against a perceived enemy. The question is, while it can raise money, as Christians, does it ultimately help the cause? Does being known as “The people who are against everything” help our long term goal of reaching the culture with the gospel? Does criticism really make people stop and take our message to heart?

I didn’t come up with it, but on this blog I’ve often used the example of missionaries. If criticism, petition drives, or boycotts worked to reach people, then why don’t missionaries do it? Let’s surround a local village, criticize their beliefs, and threaten to not buy anything from them until they convert. Will that win them to Christ?

Probably not.

So if it doesn’t work for missionaries, why do we think it will work in Hollywood, for political causes, or people who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas?” What do missionaries do? They develop a relationship with the people – even if that means taking some abuse at first. Live with them. Build their trust. Then share the message.

The bottom line is that because being negative is good for raising money, I worry that it’s become a default position for too many Christian organizations. Believe me, I understand the need to raise money for the cause. I just wonder if the long term perception by the culture is worth it. I do think there is evil out there, and we shouldn’t be afraid to call it by name. But if we really want to make people re-think their beliefs, sharing (or shouting) what’s wrong with them may not be the best approach.

What do you think actually impacts people’s behavior when it comes to spiritual change? Is there a better way to raise money AND change minds? What do you think?

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  1. I agree that one of the easiest ways to raise support is to create an enemy … a perceived threat that can be used to stir up fear, anger or a sense of injustice. These are powerful emotions and all too often it seems that using these tactics are the fastest way for organizations to raise money.

    I remember a little over a decade ago the ministry I was working with was going through a significant policy battle with a government agency. We were telling the story to our donors so they could pray and support our costly legal efforts. However, I was startled at how many other ministries, who had no direct connection to the issue made the government an enemy of the Gospel and raised millions of dollars based on the anger, fear and sense of injustice they were able to communicate. Ironically, none of those funds were ever actually used to help us with the problem.

    I share this story simply to say that all too many organizations use negativism to motivate giving… whether or not the issue is real to them.

    People typically give based on emotional triggers – anger, fear, hope, need, desperation, reward, exclusivity, etc. But, they also respond to spiritual triggers – changed lives, reaching the world with the Gospel, bringing hope, humanitarian aid, etc.

    While there are certainly times when we need to rally together to fight a common enemy – far more often it is better to share a life-changing vision with your donors. People want to be part of something that is larger then themselves. They want to make a difference in the world and they are looking for a trusted partner to help them do it.

    By sharing a truly wonderful ministry vision in a compelling way you can enlist and engage partners who will enthusiastically stand with you to help change the world. But this takes real work… prayer – meditation – creative thinking and engaging creative.

    Uniting against a real enemy is certainly valid – but it should never be the default position. God has a bigger plan for us…

  2. I very much agree with your concern, Phil. As a young evangelical living in Los Angeles, I’ve found great success in the “in but not of” approach. But you have to include the “in” part, and that is where many Christians get off on the wrong foot. They aren’t actively involved in the culture so their witness of not engaging in the sinful aspects of it mean nothing to my generation.

    An easier example is the work we try to do in bringing together Jewish, Protestant and Catholic public figures at our events. We get push-back from some evangelicals who are uncomfortable with the idea of someone with something meaningful to say from another faith tradition. The time I spend with people who share my values (if not my theology) is refreshing and inspiring. But that’s because I know those Jewish and Catholic friends. It’s easier to attack and pigeon-hole when you don’t have to bother with even interacting with them.

    It’s hard to raise money. It’s hard to run a for-profit Christian company. But easy isn’t rewarding. And easy isn’t our calling. I prefer to lead by example when I see things I don’t like happening in Christendom.

    Thanks for your thoughtfulness on this, PC!

  3. Such amazing wisdom Phil. Unfortunately there are many thin red lines that Chrristians walk in life. Whether it’s a salvation issue, raising money or even the proclaimation of the gospel, the line is different according to the conviction of each man. I pray that my generation truly embraces the grace, truth and love in the gospel that pierces the hearts of the world.


    Brandon Crouch

  4. Change that is spiritual in nature would probably require inspiration that is beyond what the flesh can accomplish. But when the idea of “raising money” gets into the picture of any Christian who has a motive to influence others towards Christ, compromise becomes the sad norm.

    I think it all boils down to being authentic in our relationship with others, nothing beats authenticity when it comes to gaining influence. It’s inexpensive and it speaks the universal language of life.

    And yes the long term perception of who the Christians are in exchange for funding will never be worth it.

    It does not always have to be “what’s wrong with them”.. It can be something as impactful as “what are their potential and how can we fit into the bigger picture of sharing them ours”.

  5. Many feel like the best way to address issues is to make as big a noise about the negative and basically talk the issue to death. The actual miss is that just talking is not following the example of Jesus. Jesus made this point very clear when the tables were overturned in the temple. Going through the motions is not what we are called to do. Talking a good game delivers the first part of the message, but we can never get away from taking action to present our faith in a credible manner. Unfortunately, we get so caught up in attacking a negative, that we lose our perspective.

    As Christians, we must be missional in our focus. We need to bring the issues to light through our verbiage, but then be prepared to walk the walk to reinforce the point. The historic concept of being a “Missionary” and going and telling the story is just a component of our Commission. We must represent through our actions exactly what our words are relaying to all that will hear. In the end, being credible will yield the support that we all seek, and also honor our calling. If we are who we say we are 24/7, our words will be reinforced through action and the support of others will come.

  6. Ninety seconds. That is all I get. Ninety seconds a prospective donor will spend on the direct mail letter I sent …and even less on an e-blast communication.

    Screaming about an enemy (ALL CAPS, underlined, and with yellow highlights) does raise money; it is a one time emotional reaction. Long term, it does the charity/ministry no good. One more reason, Phil, people should not do it.

    More important (and honest) is the dire consequences of the donor taking no action. The child will not get the operation, the village will continue to drink water that can kill them, our nation will lose its credibility on the world stage … all of those are very, very real reasons to give.

  7. My new book “Grace Wins” will be released Summer of 2014. Here is an excerpt from the book that relates to this.

    Why does the world think Christians are bigots trying to impose their antiquated sense of morality on others? Many atheists equate fundamentalist Christians with the Islamic Taliban and accuse us of trying to drag the world back into the first century. Is this because Christians tend to be known more for what they are against then known for their grace?

    We are known for being anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-drinking, anti-smoking, anti-gambling, anti-R-rated movies, anti-television violence, and anti-just about everything else that the world perceives is fun. The core message of Christianity is forgiveness, love, and acceptance. But too often our message seems to be one of unforgiveness, disagreement, rejection, and hate. Is this really what God wants the church to be known for?

    The truth is that many Christians are saved by grace, but few live by grace. Instead of focusing on grace and forgiveness, the church often preaches the Law. We try to put the Ten Commandments up in schools and courthouses. We try to “impose morality” on others. Instead of offering the love of Christ, we bash people over the head with our Bibles.

      1. Correction from the wording above: The truth is that ALL (not many) Christians are saved by grace, but few live by grace. Did I just make an enemy? Just heavily belief oriented.

        Bottom line, Christ did what he did by supplying truck loads of grace continually, that is what draws us to Him, un-human grace, love that has no bounds, mercy that is beyond imagination. Building bridges instead of burning them is seriously the way to go. Appreciate your premise Phil.

  8. “Christian Witness and the Lure of the Negative” is an oxymoron and yet we see the definition of this word practiced in the name of our Christian faith often in our culture. It has done immeasurable damage to our credibility as Christians and to the name of Christ. When will we learn that making everything/everyone the enemy has not gained us ground in the fight to raise money, save souls or help save the world? There are better ways to fight the good fight… which have already been mentioned here in the comments listed. Great post.

  9. I have always found it is much more powerful to be positive. Rick Warren is my current sherpa who models is consistently.

  10. It was a biblical worldview that empowered the Apostles and the early Church to wage a nonviolent revolution. A revolution that forever changed the world by establishing the baseline for Truth. This revolution wasn’t fought with weapons but with Christ’s presence in individuals. Individuals whose
    lives were no longer theirs but the Lord. Seeing with His eyes. Loving with His heart. Performing miraculous acts with His supernatural power. Their lives were no longer divided into the spiritual and secular but were one and the same because God’s Truth was the compass for all problem solving and decision making strategies. Authenticity permeated their existence. Let us once again wage a nonviolent revolution were we wage war not according to the wisdom of man but the wisdom of God.

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