Author’s Note: This post takes a dim view of trying to befriend people and then using the ensuing goodwill to try to convert them. If you’re a fan of abusing the trust of others to get what you want, I highly recommend getting professional help. Also, you’re not going to like this post. Finally, this post does discuss and link to some advice on converting people to Christianity. Some of these articles were tough to get through.
The other day I ran across this post over on Zoe’s blog. She copied and pasted a comment interaction between her and some guy who claimed he might have “lost his way[.]” By the end of the discussion, he gave her the admonition – with all the subtlety of a heart attack – about the thief on the cross next to Jesus. For people who aren’t familiar with that story, it’s commonly used to show that people can get “saved” at the last minute.
Something about the whole exchange seemed off to me. I didn’t want to assume whether this person was intentionally trying to carve another notch on his spiritual bedpost. It still stuck with me, so I read the exchange again.
Then I realized I’d seen similar stuff in the past.
At the time, I didn’t realize there was a term for what was going on in her comment exchange. Later, Zoe said it looked like a form of “friendship conversion.” I looked it up, and I found some pretty creepy articles about it.
Here’s one article which talks about how to make friends and then direct them towards the nearest Adventist church. It describes three elements: (1) establish a genuine friendship; (2) find out what the friend needs; and (3) start implying that faith can meet those needs. Although it says that there shouldn’t be an expectation on the non-believing friend, there’s an implied expectation that the believing person should do everything to get someone into a pew. If that wasn’t enough, the article also discussed how people are more likely to consider converting when they go through trauma or transition.
In other words, capitalize on moments of weakness. This is borne out in some other advice. There, people are encouraged to be paragons of virtue because their friends will eventually need them in troubling times. Make sure to be there, Bible in hand. Just make sure not to tell them it was all their fault to begin with until after the offering plate is passed.
Even criticism of friendship conversion seems creepy. Tony Miano of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) says it isn’t biblical. Instead, put your deity before any friendships. Remind everyone who will listen that they’re going to burn for eternity unless they’re really saved. At no point is there a mention of one simple fact: friendships don’t exist under ulterior motives.
The closest any Christian writer came to this admission is here. “Friendships with agendas are never true friendships.” In the end, the person who wrote these words encouraged Christians to just be more open about what they’re doing. This undoes any mutuality a person’s friendships might have.
After reading this and more, I realized that the person Zoe chatted with didn’t exactly follow the script. If anything, he reversed it. He alluded to a lack of faith to elicit a dialogue and then used the opportunity to evangelize. Does this make it friendship evangelism?
The answer doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s all creepy.
I’ve received anonymous emails similar to what Zoe experienced. I’ve also been around people who think that being a friend will win me back to Jesus. I’ve read too many exchanges that other former Christians have had where they get lied to just to get them to go back to church.
The only thing that matters is that it involves some sort of deception. This will taint friendships over time. Eventually people of faith will have to come clean about what they’re doing, or they’ll make things worse by saying it’s someone else’s problem. Worse, they might follow the advice of CARM and think that all your friends are going to burn in hell because they won’t make some magic wish upon a reincarnated demigod.
The shame of it all is that it sows mistrust with people of faith. How am I supposed to tell if a Christian is friends with me just to get me to sign back up? Is every nice thing they do just another thing they’ll point to when I’m in need of help? Am I just a hobby for them to work on, to make them feel better about their own religious insecurities?
These questions – and their answers – are not healthy. People shouldn’t have to worry about the religious fantasies of others. Yet it will still happen, and the tragic thing is that it poisons the bonds between people.
Right now, I’m calling it Jesus creeping.
It’s more honest than “friendship evangelism,” but I don’t think it fully conveys how sinister this really is. When all the fluff and side issues get taken away, this is about people using other people. The reasons can vary. Sometimes it might even involve non-religious people trying to change religious people (a different rant for a different time, perhaps). Still, we’re discussing something where a person reduces everyone around them to some sort of imaginary score. Is that really what human friendships are?
I don’t think so. When I read the exchange between Zoe and this other person, I saw Zoe trying to reach out to someone who might have been in pain. She didn’t know, but compassion compelled her to take the effort. To use an analogy, it’s like seeing someone drowning. In this case, I think the person was trying to drown her – in a baptismal font, no less.