Back in the seventies, it was still all the Christian rage to go “street witnessing,” much like something you will see in the old film, “The Cross and the Switchblade.” My corner of the greater Church became quite taken with street witnessing, and the practice was still encouraged as an activity for young people when I was a teenager. It still had all of the flavor of the “hippie” mentality of days quickly passing us by then. People were laid back and they were concerned about people as people, but the climate was changing then, now 30 years ago. The adults who were most effective at this were the ones who were genuine and kind to people, showing concern for their well being. (That may seem stupid to say if you’re not an Evangelical or if you’ve never been on one of these witnessing excursions yourself, but sadly, I believe that it needs to be said.)
The cold call on the main street of one’s city can be intimidating, and teens would go with an adult to observe and interject into these conversations. The most effective street witnessing efforts I saw always seemed to involve the very poor, and quite obviously, these people needed tangible, practical help. Sadly, I only every saw one adult pay for a meal for one of these unfortunate and broken people. And often, these indigents were reluctant to accept anything because they understood something that I did not come to appreciate deeply enough until I was much older: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” They understood motive, and even with Christians, motives are often selfish. If these unfortunate people stood to gain something, they understood that they probably risked losing something.
They understood Cialdini’s principle of “Reciprocity,” the human tendency to feel obligated to return a kindness if one has been shown kindness or given something. Salesmen use this technique every day, particularly in multi-level marketing venues. If a Kirby salesman comes to your door, they generally will offer you a free gift as a “show of appreciation” for taking time out of your day to listen to their presentation. That sounds good on the surface, but it is misleading. Something else takes place when the person receives the “free gift.” The salesman has just dramatically increased his chances of “closing the sale.” The relationship between the salesman and the gift recipient has been established and built upon obligation (thought it may well also be about the vacuum, too) to the great advantage of the salesman. To continue in this relationship or to grow in it, the consumer understands on a very deep and subconscious level that obligation drives this relationship. The consumer feels pressure and will be expected to reciprocate.
The salesman knows that acceptance of the gift sets off what Cialdini describes as a “Click…whirr” automatic response of innate human tendency, one of which is “Reciprocity.” Just as a click of a mouse can open up a process in a computer system, the salesman knows that he has turned on human nature’s machinery in the mind of his target or “mark.” Most people are completely oblivious to the powerful tendency, something that we humans “just do.” The good salesman capitalizes on it, and many exploit it, in order to put food on their table. If they are good at what they do, they will also capitalize on the other “Weapons of Influence” that Cialdini describes and more (see this post, particularly the Wizard of Oz graphic).
Through the school of hard knocks, I believe that the indigent who were offered a cup of coffee or a sandwich on a cold autumn evening had expert knowledge of this principle. They understood well that most everyone who engaged in this activity were SELLING SOMETHING. If they accepted “our deal,” they would be obligated to listen to us talk about how Jesus could help them, and He was usually presented as some magic panacea for every area of life like a genie in a bottle. The woman who I saw was most effective at this, different from the rest, did sincerely want that person on the street to have a full belly and warm toes, regardless of whether they would even agree to pray with her. She was not selling anything. She was offering comfort to those who were in need without expecting any return on her investment. She was very different, because she had the right motive: she wanted to share her bounty of the comfort she’d received from others in the name of the Lord. I get the impression that she also empathized with these needy people on a deeper level. She wanted the relationship with them, however simple and short-lived, to be built upon kindness rather than obligation. The recipient would have to make a “leap of trust” to receive from her, even if it was just a cup of coffee on a cold night.
As a young teen, I also gained my first experience witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses, but this was all done completely on my own without another adult present. (That is another topic I’d like to get to one day.) I did not have anyone to observe, and I had to “arm myself” with knowledge of the belief system and the Scriptures that countered the JW arguments. When I first sought out help (prayer, encouragement, guidance, and information) as a 14 year old, never at any time did anyone explain to me that rank and file members of these groups were sincere and kind people who were being manipulated. Sadly, it is something that I would not understand for many years, and I now see this as the most critical element in “one-on-one” counter-cult witnessing.
I was given doctrinal information which was fantastic, but I now assume that because Christians find distortion of the traditional understanding of Scripture so highly offensive, they primed me to be what I would call an aggressive approach. The three early experiences that I had with JWs were all entirely on my own without any supervision, and I was once “tag teamed” and outnumbered by two adults at age 15. They were aggressive, so I sometimes “survived” by returning their aggression in kind. I learned through unspoken communication that people I respected believed that the JWs themselves were somehow enemies of mine and almost evil in some way for “rejecting the truth.”
The truth is that most of these JWs were ignorant of the truth about their religion and its problems. I know well that, at the time, if I had asked any of my resources – these adult Christians – if the rank and file JW was evil, they would deny it, but their behaviors and approaches to the topic and to me clearly communicated this strong impression of the JW as a type of enemy. I actually ran into one of these women about ten years later, and we BOTH apologized to one another. I regret that I never acknowledged these people as earnest people, perceiving them rather as my enemy. But I followed what I was taught and could only walk in the light of understanding that I had at the time. What do you really know when you are 14 years old? I knew doctrine…
Now that I can fully empathize with the cult experience from many vantages including former membership in a cultic church myself, I see things very differently. And I think most people, even other Christians who have come out of cults, have major motive problems. The intent of your heart will be revealed in the process, because it is a difficult thing to confront someone about such matters. (NOTE: In terms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, their founder claimed to be an authority in Greek but in a court of law, he could not demonstrate knowledge of the Greek alphabet. This contrasts with the scientific discipline and the art of peer reviewed tradition of the translation of ancient text.) If your motives are not good ones, you will run into major problems and will not reap good results, in my opinion. For one-on-one witnessing, you must hold the best interest of the “lost” or deceived person before your own desires or expectations, and your motive must be for their good, not your own gain.
How does cognitive dissonance come into play here? If your motives are not good – if you are seeking something other than the best outcome for the spiritually abused person above all else – you will experience much cognitive dissonance yourself. This makes the work of helping others more difficult for you, and it will be difficult enough without motive conflicts.
More on motive to follow….