The PR of Evangelism

The public relations aspects of evangelism are really about understanding others’ needs.

Yesterday I sat down at a coffee shop on Grand Rapids’ west side (The Bitter End) to kill a few hours while Conner took his class in Mackinaw Harvest’s sound studios. A copy of USA Today was lying on a table next to me, so I checked it out and found an interesting Forum piece by Tom Krattenmaker titled “How to sell Christianity? Ask an atheist.”  Krattenmaker writes about “recovering evangelist” Jim Henderson, who learned from atheists all of the common practices of evangelicals that turn non-Christians off.

I don’t think that Henderson is less of an evangelical today. He just approaches evangelism differently.  He allows *who* he his and *how* he is in relationship to *you* to be the message.  He doesn’t come at you with a sales pitch. He comes to you with his hands open, palms up, being who he is and demonstrating a true interest in you, REGARDLESS of your response to him.  It doesn’t matter if you become a Christian or not, he will still be interested in you because, after all, that’s what God has called for Christians to do. Love others as you love yourself.

After intentionally talking with atheists, Henderson discovered all the things that Christians do that turn people off.  Things like “I’m right, you’re wrong” and referring to non-believers as “lost.”  I also loved Krattenmaker’s assertion that “if you want to have influence … you have to be willing to be influenced. … If not, would anyone want a conversation with you?”  It’s true in religion, politics, and just about every sphere of life: Don’t discount my thoughts, my ideas, my experience. I want to hear about yours, but you need to listen to mine, too.  That’s really important in Social Media, by the way. It’s OK to want your ideas to be heard, but to get there you’re going to need to listen and respond to the ideas and expriences of others, too.

Good public relations involves research and understanding your target audience, so it’s not much of a surprise to me that evangelicals, when considering a PR approach, need to do a better job of understanding their audiences and refining messages and approach. Too often organizations turn off their target audiences because their messages sounds too much like a sales job. This is true for Christians on a “mission” to convert non-believers and it’s true for sales companies looking to convert the general public into buying consumers.

I think the best sales approaches are the ones that don’t have to try to hard to get people to nod their assent.  Instead, people are attracted to the organization or the product because it solves a need in their life. The person or program representing that entity has made themselves available and open to the target audience. In the process, you might tell your story or you might create a lasting impression, but you do not hit them over the head with it in a way that makes their eyes glaze over.

The most effective examples of evangelization to me are those who strive to “be” the message. Here I am, an (oh so) imperfect man, saved by the grace of God alone, because he loves me and all of mankind. I fail Him all the time in my response to circumstances around me and the choices I make, but He does not fail me.  This gives me peace.  Now, tell me about you. What do you want to talk about?  I want to know you better and find out how I can help you! No strings attached.

Mother Teresa was a good example. I have no doubt that her mission also was to expand God’s kingdom and to witness unto others. But her approach was to minister to the needs of those in Calcutta. Of course, the needs there were so extreme and obvious, it was perhaps a more obvious approach than here in North America, where the needs of an otherwise healthy, well-off non-believer may lie below the surface.

Opinions about what public relations is will vary depending on who you talk to. For some, it’s the function that tries to get media mentions for brands or organizations. For others, its the party-planning function. Some think it’s speechwriting. Others think it’s “spinning” a bad situation good…convincing you the “rightness” of my point of view.  For me, what PR does is in the name. PR relates to publics. That means we know the publics and they know us. We can empathize with those publics and understand their needs. We have an open, two-way communication based on mutual respect. I want to introduce myself, get to know you, understand how I can help you, and let  you know when I need your help. 

Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it?

Author: Robin

Communications professional with more than 25 years' expertise in PR, crisis communications, social media, community relations, marketing communications and more!

3 thoughts on “The PR of Evangelism”

  1. LOVE this post. Great stuff. You hit the nail on the head. So often, organizations want to beat people over the head with their message or it’s full of corporate speak. Businesses, churches and organizations need to learn to cut the crap and simply communicate with their audience. With the advent of social media, this is more important now than ever. Promotional pieces rife with corporate buzz words will just be tossed aside. It’s time to communicate like a real human being.

  2. Obviously I’m late in reading this :-)

    I was commenting in a post by someone in a forum online, and some of the things you used to say over on the amway blogs about the future of social media have sparked some thoughts of what I see as the future for companies online…. Thought you might find it of interest, so I will cut and paste it here for you to check out-

    “The big buzz in todays corporate age is “harnessing social media”. Unfortunately, this means that 99.5% of companies stick a couple employees with the task of throwing up a blog, or a forum, then the head cheeses sit back and pat themselves for being “in” the trends. What they miss out on, especially in this instance, (Verizon) (and just slightly better at it are google and motorola) is that we are in the information age. Duh! You might say, but the vast majority of companies DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS! Information as we know it has gone beyond the antiquated mode of “them” telling me what they want me to know (remember the days of yore when you ordered something with only the promise that it should arrive within 6 weeks?) to “me-centricism”. If I order from a company, I had better be able to add to or change that order up to the point it leaves the warehouse….. I want to know by what carrier its coming, and I want to know the day and time of arrival. This same principal applies to information- namely, not only does the consumer look for information flow from the corporation, but said information flow has to fit the “me-centric” criteria of its relevancy to the individuals consumer product experience. This will be the next paradigm shift we see in the future of the internet, and as with all other shifts thus far, the companies that step up to the plate and deliver the goods first will be the next mega successes.

    So, to the OP, for right now, the information that they are willing to release is what we have to be satisfied with, but treating consumers this way will change in the future, and if they want their business to thrive, not only will they have to create a great product, but they are going to have to understand that once that product has moved to the consumer, the winner in the game will be the company that understands the consumers emotional investment and treats it just as seriously.”

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