I submitted the following article to a local paper as part of a book promotion and speaking trip to Canada this past weekend. I don’t think they printed the article, but I did get an interesting interview which resulted in a short story that ran today.

When I first meet people, I don’t usually tell them exactly what I do. It’s not that I’m embarrassed by my career; it’s just that I would rather not immediately get dismissed as some kind of weirdo or jerk. So I describe myself in general terms such as author or speaker. The whole truth is that I am a Christian evangelist. Unfortunately, to many that is the equivalent of being a snake oil salesman, and who wants to sit next to one of those on a plane?

Of course I think it is false to characterize me as a “traveling huckster.” However, I do not think it is unfair, especially considering how many people understand religion. The simple fact is that a large percentage of contemporary pastors and evangelists (and not just the TV variety) have much in common with the shady con-men of the past, and most of their converts have very similar mindsets to the old-time purchasers of cure-all elixirs.

I say that because today most people understand religion as a consumer product to be used by its adherents. Religion is seen as something that provides a service; meets a need or desire; scratches an itch. Particular religions are chosen, then, according to how they meet the specific needs, wants, or even whims of people.

For example, how do most pastors and evangelists try to convince people to join their church or religion? They emphasize what their brand of faith offers: “Want some meaning in life? Inspiration? Moral guidance? Fun for you and the kids? Come to our church! Join our religion! We have what you are looking for, and we’ll even throw in a high quality coffee bar as a bonus.” It’s no wonder that the term evangelist has become linked to sales. Selling is exactly what many of us do.

And buying is what many religious followers do. Spiritual searchers treat their quest like a trip to the mall, choosing religions and spiritual practices according to how what is being offered matches up to their shopping list.

According to a recent survey of over 35,000 people by the Pew Forum of Religion and Public Life, we are more willing than ever to change religions. It reported that “44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.” As columnist Timothy Shriver noted on the Washington Post website, religiously, we’re on the move doing what we do best: shopping. “And we’re shopping for God.” He goes on to say that “what’s clear is that we’re not going to accept religion based on the past. It’s got to meet our spiritual needs or we’ll move on.”

Exactly. Shriver then did his own brief survey to find out what those needs are. He asked, “What’s on your list when you go shopping for God?” Answers included: “I want to feel joy”; “I want a community of love”; “I want an experience that helps me discover magic and peace and the spirit of the universe” and “I can’t pay attention most of the time, and I get distracted easily, and it’s hard to stop my mind from wandering all over the place. If I were shopping for God, I’d want to go to a place where there was some way to help me be peaceful and quiet.”

Shriver thinks religious leaders should see this religious shopping spree as a positive sign. After all, it shows that at least people are spiritually hungry: “Nobody makes the effort to shop for something they don’t want.” As a religious leader, I disagree. I don’t have a problem with people switching religions, but I do have a problem with them switching religions for the wrong reasons. As great as I think it is that people are willing to learn about different religions and continually explore the spiritual dimension of life, I am very troubled that they approach this quest as a shopping trip. To do so exposes a grave misunderstanding of the nature of religion that may have very dangerous results.

Religions are not consumer products that have relative value according to the needs and desires of the consumer. In selling chocolate bars, the customer is always right. Not so with religions. They are much more like maps, which have objective value according to the accuracy of the facts they are alleging to communicate to their followers.

Religions, by their nature, do one thing above all else: explain ultimate reality. They offer propositional truth claims about the most important questions of life: “Is there a god?” “If so, what is he, she or it like?” “Why are we here?” “What is wrong with the world?” “What happens when we die?” “How should we then live?” 

Like a map, they present what is supposed to be an accurate and objective account of certain aspects of our existence. As such, the most important question we must ask when considering a religion is not “What can it do for me?” or “Do I like it?” but “Is it true?” The one thing we need to know above all else is whether or not this religion accurately describes the nature of our existence. If it does not, it is ridiculous to join it, no matter what aspects of it we may find appealing. And if it does, it is ridiculous not to join it, no matter how many aspects of it we may find unappealing.

Suppose we were offered several road maps claiming to be of North America, each one painting a radically different picture of the landscape and infrastructure. How would we decide which one to use? I trust that we wouldn’t ask “Which map was printed using my favorite colors?” or “Which map gives me the shortest commute to work?” The one question we need to ask is “Which one is true?” It does not matter how much we may like the idea of having a nice view of the mountains from our front porch. If there are no mountains, there are no mountains, regardless of what the map tells us. If a map is false, there is no point following it, no matter how many aspects of it may “work best for us.” And if the map is true, we must follow it, no matter how much we may dislike certain aspects of reality.

The same is true of religion. Therefore, when evaluating religions and churches, we should research what they teach and figure out which one is most likely to be accurate.

Religion is not a product, so parishioners should not to be consumers and evangelists should not be sales people. To misunderstand this is incredibly dangerous, because the stakes are so high. Imagine trying to reach a vacation spot that doesn’t even exist using a map that is completely false. It would be incredibly frustrating, and you would waste a lot of time, effort and money. That is why we are careful to plan our trips carefully and use only trustworthy guides. How much more then, should we search for a trustworthy guide to the journey of life. The destiny of our souls (should they exist) is on the line. It is one thing to be wrong about whether or not a great fishing lake exists and how to get there. It is quite another to be wrong about whether or not Heaven exists and how to get there.

Don Johnson Evangelistic Ministries