A good evangelist, especially in college ministries, acts as if there is no agenda to his or her evangelism. It’s very, “Do you want a cup of coffee? How are your classes going?” with a lot of understanding head nodding. The goal is to stay cool and not seem threatening (even though eternal damnation is at stake). A good evangelist then finds the opportunity to advance on whatever personal problem the interlocutor divulges, and the solution from the evangelist remains constant: “You need to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”
A ‘good evangelist’ does not believe this interaction is an agenda at all, as evidenced by new slogans popping up in evangelist circles. There is “Jesus without Religion,”“I am Second,”“H20,”“Freedom Churches,” etc. All of these evangelist slogans attempt to portray “real” Christianity as something other than doctrine, simply a relationship with God, a freeing experience, a nonthreatening choice.
There are of course problems with this position. Some are obvious and practical; the printing press was invented in the 15th century, so bible-only, church-free Christianity is only possible on the backs of technology and literacy education, not Jesus. Other problems are theoretical; I argue that the bible is fundamentally a doctrinal set of rules, so doctrine-free religion is an oxymoron. Finally, some problems are ideological; there is complex ideology to evangelism, but one to frequently go unnoticed is its heavily patriarchal agenda.
When I use the term ‘patriarchy’, I do not only mean that men are the ones to take on leadership roles. I also mean that in a patriarchal system, women are subordinated and oppressed both knowingly and unknowingly, through economics, politics, and cultural discourse. I also do not use the term neutrally, as if patriarchy and matriarchy are equal systems that can be implemented either/or, unproblematically. When I use the term ‘patriarchy’, I am referring to a system that advances men’s interests to the detriment of both women and men as individuals, and also nation-states and the environment.
The fashion of today’s evangelism is this low-key, “come as you are” vibe, often with “hipster” inflections in order to appeal to a mainstream demographic while appearing outside of the mainstream. The film God’s Not Dead, and most college ministries, market Christianity in fashionable ways that make it “feel” nonthreatening and fun, with their focus on camping trips, sports, and coffee shop conversations.
This marketing is starkly misleading. The more “religion-free” Christian Evangelists appear to be, the more socially conservative they are. Despite their inclusive rhetoric, they are often against equal rights for gay citizens, non-white citizens, and female citizens. While many anti-women leanings are demonstrated by churches through their use of male-only pastors (which is often the case even when they preach gender equality), rhetoric about nuclear families, and self-imposed gender roles, some of the anti-women leanings are political. The largest evangelist church in Grand Forks, North Dakota, recently came out publicly and inexplicably against equal pay laws for female workers.
It is difficult to imagine a Christian Evangelist who is not anti-women, even when they’re women; what would that even look like? Most evangelists build their families with the man as the head of the household and teach others to do the same. Many of the women are stay-at-home mothers who do not involve themselves with business outside of the household. While these decisions are not necessarily related only to religion, it is difficult to imagine an alternative. Would a Christian Evangelist be okay with a stay-at-home dad, or a female partner who was ambitious at work? Inevitably a prayer leader or pastor would say priorities were off, and try to reset “priorities” with the woman being at home and the man at work. Or, the family unit would function as usual but they would call the husband the “leader of the house,” even though it doesn’t happen in practice. It’s the “feeling like a [patriarchal] man” syndrome, in which the wife pulls most of the weight domestically and financially but attempts to remain subordinate in order to appease her patriarchal husband.
We can also see the stronghold patriarchy has over Christian Evangelism in the discourse that is used during evangelist interactions. Before the conversation over coffee happens, evangelists typically plan strategies in order to convert unbelievers.
In Francis Chan’s Crazy Love, which for the most part stays apolitical and even criticizes the Christian Republican, the one leftover from conservative America that remains is patriarchy. In the book Chan interprets the bible literally and encourages Christians to not be lukewarm, but to instead do everything that Jesus asks, including selling what they own. But even when Chan admonishes American Christians (Republicans) for their pro-business capitalism in the midst of terrible poverty and wage inequality, he still holds tightly onto the vestiges of patriarchy. Chan uses language like “The Gospel must conquer” when referring to other cultures who are mostly non-Christian. This is colonialism thinly veiled. Evangelists also use terms like “Christian soldiers,” “battleground for Christ,” and “army of God,” as if Jesus were a rifle that can be pointed at those who stand obstinate to the Gospel.
Evangelists use this martial, patriarchal, and nearly phallic language in what was once the innocuous conversation over coffee. This language binds gender roles that have no basis in actual Christianity, and also propagates a militarism and colonialism that has plagued Christianity since the crusades. Speaking of the crusades, which murdered millions of innocent people in the Name of Christ, campus missionaries inexplicably title themselves “Campus Crusade for Christ.” As self-aware Christian Evangelists may be in terms of marketing (videos with hipster skateboarders who love Jesus abound), they are for the most part completely unaware of their deep-seated, insidious patriarchy that is detrimental on personal and political levels.
Until Christian Evangelists legitimately let go of all the privileges white, middle-class patriarchy has granted them for so many years, Christianity is going to be massively unappealing to anyone who isn’t white, middle-class, and male.
Erin is a PhD student in Educational Foundations and Research at the University of North Dakota and the Director of Writing Center Services at Mayville State University. She is interested in liberation theology, feminism, educational foundations, and composition pedagogy.