[I found this image here.]
Back in October, a spontaneous idea turned out to be very fruitful. I started a new spirituality group for Nones and Dones on Meetup.com. Perhaps you’ve heard the religious buzzwords ‘Nones’ and ‘Dones’ before. If not, Nones are a growing population of people who are religiously unaffiliated. Dones, meanwhile, are people who claim a religious identity but have left traditional, religious institutions behind (most frequently, Christians who have left institutional churches for good). I wanted to create a community space that feels inviting and safe for friendships and meaningful conversations, so in the group description, I knew we should say outright, “This is no bait and switch, trying to get anyone to join a church.”
Why? So many people have had experiences of showing up to an event only to discover it has a hidden, religious motive attached. To my joyful surprise, since the Meetup Group came into being, Michigan Nones and Dones has become a community. But to my sad surprise, I have discovered the depth and breadth to which people regularly feel manipulated by Christians. Though I expected some of this, the extent of these experiences is so much larger than I anticipated.
Fortunately, this is not the primary atmosphere of our community space when we are together. The participants create a different kind of experience. Personally, I concern myself with this a lot, as I am the most obvious, religiously affiliated person in the group (I’m a Presbyterian minister and often self-identify as a ‘quasi-Done;’ I love my faith and tradition, but I want to see a new wave of reform in churches). Perhaps because the space feels safe enough for it — it’s not a bait and switch — people can tell their stories authentically. I am learning so much from them. In this community, we keep the details of stories confidential, but I can say that manipulation is a common theme in the emerging narratives.
In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that for many people, their primary experience of Christians involves Christians trying to sell them something. It seems to take two primary forms:
- I am trying to save you from hell. This involves a lot of techniques to convince people that their ideas and backgrounds are wrong so they will see the right-ness of Jesus and have an experience of salvation.
I suppose if someone’s belief, theology, and expectation of hell is truly that strong, it would be somewhat loving to try to save people from it. But. . . I also wonder, if you believe that God can only show grace and love to people after they formally become Christians, can you authentically love the people in front of you right now? Can you learn anything from these people, or are you the sole teacher (ahem, salesperson) trying to move them from one set of beliefs to another?
- I am trying to save my church from decline. This involves a lot of techniques and marketing to sell the value of a church community to people in the hopes that they will affiliate, thus increasing worship numbers and bringing in more pledge dollars to sustain the financial needs of the community.
There’s nothing wrong with authentically welcoming and inviting others into an experience of Christian community. That can be a beautiful expression of discipleship and friendship. But. . . I think we need to evaluate which motives are fueling our invitations. Do we have authentic love and welcome for the people we invite, or are we trying to ‘get’ them back through the doors of churches to ‘get’ some form of institutional survival from them?
I recognize that these strains above seem extreme, but I find them to be very active. And I’m sad — truly so very sad — that sales, marketing, techniques, and manipulation are some of the most frequent experiences people have with Christians.
Meanwhile, however, I’m also discovering this:
People are pretty cool with Jesus.
There are a variety of beliefs about Jesus, but I find that most people, including Nones and Dones, have great admiration for him. Alongside that admiration though, Jesus has sadly become a symbol of our manipulation.
It makes me wonder then, what kind of life-giving conversations could happen around the teachings of Jesus if we were not working to convince, or if people were not bracing themselves to be manipulated? Whether folks are Christians or not, I’m also finding that many would welcome Christians following the teachings of Jesus more and more in the world.
So can we lean more fully into the love, respect, and teachings of Jesus?
If so, let’s start here:
Thou shalt not manipulate.