Hard Sell Evangelism
by Ethan R. Longhenry
For good reason, people prove skeptical about salespeople in general. We know they get paid to sell us things, and many of them will make a lot of promises, apply a lot of pressure, and engage in all kinds of manipulative practices to get us to sign on the dotted line. Who among us enjoys such a "hard sell"?
"Hard sell" tactics are prevalent in sales because they work for their purposes. "Hard sell" tactics involve a lot of pressure, emotional manipulation, and a willingness to say whatever needs to be said in order to close the sale. The goal is to display how the customer "needs" the item being sold by means of emotional and/or aggressive appeals, and then to seal the deal with while the customer still feels the emotional "high." "Hard sell" tactics represent a high risk, high reward situation: a lot of people are repelled by them, but if just enough are persuaded, a lot of money can be made. "Hard sell" tactics are most often used on large-ticket or "impulse" pleasurable items; the rewards need to justify the risks, and you do not want to have to see the customer again for some time. "Hard sell" tactics are especially ineffective for the sale of any long-term product, like insurance; it is hard to build a relationship while using "hard sell" techniques.
The proclamation of the Gospel and the world of sales share many features in common. Sales involve the attempt to persuade a person they need a product and to obtain that product; evangelism involves the attempt to persuade people of their need of salvation in Christ, and thus how to be saved (2 Corinthians 5:11). To this end, many believe that "hard sell" tactics and techniques ought to be employed in the proclamation of the Gospel. To such an end the Gospel is proclaimed with aggressive emotional appeals, and the prayers, music, and ambiance in the assembly are all designed to facilitate the emotional experience. In smaller conversations, the preacher will use heavy-handed techniques and aggressive appeals to incite a response. They seek to stir up the passions of those who hear so as to get them to "get saved" while the hearer maintains the emotional "high."
"Hard sell" evangelism tactics or techniques are not intrinsically sinful; many have come to faith in the Lord Jesus through aggressive exhortation or emotional revivalism. Whenever Christ is preached, we rejoice (Philippians 1:15-18). Most of the people who evangelize with "hard sell" evangelism are sincere in their belief and well-intentioned in their goal to promote Jesus as Lord. For that matter, there is a time and a place for an aggressive posture in encouraging people to believe in Jesus as Lord; emotions remain part of the human experience and we can appeal to them as we proclaim Jesus crucified and risen. Nevertheless, many features of "hard sell" evangelism often work against the purposes of God in Christ and can inhibit the spread of the Gospel and the effectiveness of growth in discipleship.
We must remember that marketing and sales in the world of business is part of the world, subject to the ways of the world, and can often prove unspiritual and demonic (cf. Ephesians 6:12, James 3:13-18). Thus, just because it "works" in marketing and selling worldly products should not automatically mean we should try it out in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Apostles proclaimed the Gospel of Christ boldly; they understood that the message might well offend many (e.g. Acts 4:23-31). Yet they did not proclaim Jesus in a belligerent or overly aggressive way. Every time the Gospel is preached in Acts the message was invited in some way or another; it was not forced or imposed on anyone. God is love, embodied in Jesus (1 John 4:7-21); love does not seek its own, is not rude or impatient, but kind (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). The way we proclaim the Gospel ought to conform to the Christ who is proclaimed; thus, we ought to speak the truth in love, and according to the principles of love (Ephesians 4:16). To that end an aggressive posture at the beginning may not be advisable; patience and kindness go a long way to opening up a person to be willing to hear more. Far too many times we might imagine that the Gospel must be aggressively pushed for it to really be a Gospel presentation, and such is simply not the case. It may require some imagination, but we can think of ways to speak of Jesus without the hearer feeling as if Jesus is being shoved down his or her throat. Our speech ought always to be seasoned as with salt, to give grace to those who hear (Colossians 4:6).
For good reason, Paul declared that he did not preach the Gospel with excellence in speech or wisdom, but determined to know nothing around the Corinthians except Christ crucified (I Corinthians 2:1-2). The power of the Gospel is not in the rhetorical crafting of the presentation but in the real substance of its message (Romans 1:16-17). To this end, reliance on emotional appeal and manipulation can backfire and easily become counterproductive. The goal of all preaching is to proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ and edify, or build-up, the faith of those who hear (I Corinthians 14:26, II Timothy 4:2-4); such "edification" is no mere feeling but substantive growth in faith. In an earthly construction project, when the dust settles, the building should be substantively larger after the work of edification than it was beforehand, and so it must also be in spiritual edification. The Gospel can be powerfully preached with both substance in its message and emotional appeal, and the emotional appeal can help reinforce the message. But when the focus is on the emotional appeal, and the drive is to "get people saved" in an ecstatic or frenzied state, hearers become conditioned to seek the emotional "high" regardless of the presence of anything substantive. They may say they feel "edified," but it is just a feeling: when the dust settles, their faith is about the same as before. When the times of trial and distress come on, or the cares of the world multiply, such hearers are likely to fall away (cf. Matthew 13:1-8). Furthermore, those who "get saved" in an emotional high often keep chasing the emotional high, and may not even find much value in the substantive message of the Gospel. Such a person will never obtain spiritual growth in discipleship if all they crave is the emotional high and the feeling of rapture at the moment.
It is one thing for a person to walk away feeling as if far too aggressively pushed to buy an item, or to sit at home with a large purchase which has left them with a bit of remorse and a bit of a bad taste in their mouths; it is quite another for a person to be repelled from the Gospel not because of its substance but because of the aggressive, manipulative means by which it was promoted, or to sit as an entertained participant seeking an emotional high and calling it edifying faith. To this end "hard sell" tactics and techniques may not be the best introduction to the Gospel; our goal is not to push people into making a decision they will regret, but to tell them the good news of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return, and encourage them to find life in Him. We want to see the person to whom we preach the Gospel very often in the assemblies of the saints; our posture ought to be meek, humble, gentle, kind, loving, patient, and above all, welcoming, focusing on Christ crucified above all things. May we proclaim the Gospel of Christ in ways that glorify God, and obtain life in Him!