This I Used to Believe: Evangelism gone wrong

May 28, 2009

Coach Kris Hogan

This is Part 3 of a series on This I Used to Believe.

Last time, I shared an amazingly good example of evangelism. This time, I share an amazingly bad example …by the same person!

This American Life aired a show called This I Used to Believe, which featured a conversation between Trisha, a self-described lapsed Catholic, and Coach Hogan, an evangelical Christian. This segment caught the attention of another radio program called Last Words Radio, and they began their discussion by stating, “One thing we’re not doing is critiquing Coach Hogan.”

I will not be so kind.

As I shared in part 2, Coach Hogan used a football game as a conduit for the gospel. This powerful story touched many people including myself, and a woman named Trisha Sebastian. I won’t repeat what was broadcast — you can catch that in part 1 — but will dive straight into Trisha’s interactions with the coach.

Email Sets the Stage

When Trisha read the story of the football game, she emailed Coach Kris Hogan. She wrote, “I’m a very lapsed Catholic leaning toward agnosticism who has seen too many people who claim to be Christians behaving in a very unchristian way,” and went on to thank him for being “an example of being a good Christian.” So off the top, we know a little bit about Trisha’s journey of faith, and that she was impressed by the coach’s Christlike example — impressed enough to email a stranger.

Kris emailed her back the same day. I immediately noticed Christianese: “my spirit was pressed,” “my heart is heavy,” “exhortation,” “bless you.” These should have been red flags, an indication that here is somebody who does not speak the same language as normal people. But neither Trisha nor the host, Ira Glass, mentioned this. They seemed willing to shrug it off, so I did the same. Yes, this comes back to bite us later. But for now…

Kris expressed concern that Trisha was “leaning towards agnosticism because of the actions of Christians,” and offered to dialog with her about “the idea of God.” I find this strange. Trisha had expressed her skepticism about God, but also expressed her openness toward a “good Christian example,” which ultimately points to Jesus. There is a common assumption that one needs to believe in God in order to believe in Christ, so we need to lay “God” as a foundation and then build “Jesus” on top of that. But the point of openness varies from person to person, and in our culture, I bet there are a growing number of people who believe in Jesus first, and believe in God because of that. (To reach New Agers and spiritists, it might make sense to begin with the Holy Spirit instead.)

Anyway, Trisha was not sure that she wanted to hear “his pitch about Christianity,” but replied to explain that the main thing that caused her to begin questioning her faith was the death of her friend from cancer. She declined his offer, and thanked him again for his example.

This is where things begin to get interesting. Three weeks later Kris wrote to her again, explaining that he had tried to let her email go, but that God kept waking him up in the middle of the night. I recognized this, and so will many of you who have had similar experiences: the Holy Spirit is at work, and Kris was sensitive to this leading. I began to get more excited as I listened, wondering what this Spirit-led person would do.

Now at this stage, Trisha has explained a fair bit of her journey away from faith in God. She has stated that her friend’s sudden death was the big turning point. And we listeners know (and I assume she explained to Kris) that she found comfort in the idea that her friend’s death just happened, for no cosmic reason. She is a little weirded out (and intrigued) that a stranger — a celebrity, even — would told her he has a message from God for her.

Like I said, I recognized things up to this point. To me, so far, this all smacks of God.

But once the phone conversation began, I recognized something else.

Phone Call #1

So now we reach the meat of the show, when Trisha and Kris actually talk on the phone. Trisha opens with a biggie: “I’m just wondering what you think God’s message to me right now is.”

The first job of a missionary is to listen.

Kris opens well enough, by sharing his side of the story, about how God keeps waking him up at the same time every single night. …By the way, Kris? I understand this. But to a normal person, it sounds really weird. It would help if you would say something like, “This is going to sound weird, but…” or “Isn’t that bizarre?” And I’m positive there is some kind of prophetic significance to the times 1:30 and 4:04.

Kris then launches off into his discussion of God. Wait, wait. Dude, why are you talking? Why aren’t you asking Trisha to tell you more about herself? The first job of a missionary is to listen, to form relationship, to build mutual trust. What do you do for a living? What things do you share in common? What was your Catholic upbringing like? Tell me about your friend, what was she like? How did you cope with her death? What are you doing now? It’s only as one listens that one can discover what God is already doing. We aren’t bringing Jesus to godless people; Jesus is already there, and we need to cooperate with him.

But no. They talk for an hour so only snippets are aired on the radio show, but it sounds like Kris spends the time on apologetics (rational arguments) for the existence of God:

  • The second law of thermodynamics (entropy) as an argument against evolution and therefore for creation. Yeah, I remember learning that one. By the way, it’s a misapplication of the law.
  • Arguing against the Big Bang. Huh? This just confuses me.
  • Arguing against evolution. Again with the huh? If you take a normal person and pit faith against science, faith will lose. This is a false dichotomy.
  • Subjective vs. objective good or evil. Though it became awkward, this has its roots in solid writing by C.S. Lewis. (The first section of Mere Christianity is “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.”)
  • “Of course, [Hitler] gets his worldview from Charles Darwin.” This is not only arguing from misinformation (Hitler was in fact a creationist), it is the use of the logical fallacies Guilt by Association and The Hitler Card.

Worst of all: When a person has lost someone dear to cancer, telling them about someone else’s miraculous healing from cancer is about the worst approach I can think of. At best, it raises difficult questions; at worst, it creates defensiveness and hostility. (I believe in divine healing; Kay & I learned the five-step model of healing prayer, and we have seen some weird stuff! We also saw a couple who was unusually gifted in praying for healing lose their son to leukemia.)

Kris does hit on an important bit by explaining that God does not answer every prayer positively. But comparing “winning the lottery” with “not letting my friend die” is an emotional stretch. Still, the point is taken, that God may have a larger plan. Then why not say that? Why not wonder, “Maybe God has a special plan for your life that you wouldn’t have stepped into without your friend’s death?” Explain that the kingdom of God has come but not yet in its fullness. Explain that a lot of sucky things happen in the meantime, but that God’s specialty is turning suffering into beauty. Jesus taught extensively about the coming of the kingdom of God, but for some reason his followers often seem unaware of it.


During Trisha’s debriefing with Ira Glass, we hit one of the saddest twenty seconds I have heard on this show:

Trisha: “And now I’m still left with all these questions.”
Ira Glass: “Is there any small part of you that thought he might be able to put the religious message in some way that would finally make sense to you, like he would say to you…”
Trisha: “I was… Yeah.”
Ira: “You did hope that.”
Trisha: “I really did hope that. I, I… Deep down, and I’ve said this to so many friends of mine, I really want to believe again.”

This was followed by one of the funniest twenty seconds: Ira offers simple, God-focused comfort to Trisha which touches her, and comments on how sad this is, since he doesn’t believe in God. As Terri said in her comment on part 1, “If God can use an atheist moderator to touch her soul, shouldn’t we learn some better ways ourselves? Ouch!”

Ira Glass, you see, speaks Trisha’s language. Kris Hogan does not. This is crucial to understand: Just because we both speak English does not mean we speak the same language. One of the first tasks of a missionary is to begin to learn the language.

Phone Call #2

So they try another phone call, being clear that the purpose is to discuss Trisha’s questions about why God allowed her friend to die. It’s a good question. It’s a tough question. And from my perspective, even a direct question like this should not have an immediate answer, but be treated as an invitation. Trisha is exposing a very sensitive part of her heart, and that calls for respect and an exchange of trust.

Again with the Christianese.

But Kris Hogan doesn’t waste any time sticking his foot in his mouth: “This is the most common question that folks who are anti-God ask.”

Whoa! In a single statement, he slaps Trisha as “anti-God,” and dismisses the possibility that earnest followers of Jesus also wrestle with that same question. Amazing. Now I don’t want folks to rush to the coach’s defense, because as you will soon see, I’m not blaming him.

And then he starts talking about sin, and that “we live in a fallen world.” Again with the Christianese: sin, fall. These terms are meaningless to Trisha, or worse, misunderstood. As Leonard Sweet says in his new book So Beautiful,

This requires not only a new ability to tell the story but also a fresh way to reframe the story for “a sinless society,” a mission field where people don’t see themselves as “sinners.”

How difficult would it be for would-be evangelists to stop using the word “sin” or “fallen” and start using the word “broken”? “We live in a broken world. God has a plan to heal it, and that plan centers on Jesus Christ. And God is inviting you to be part of that plan.” Yes, this is more than a semantic change; it requires a complete rethinking of what the gospel is in the first place.

Don’t Blame the Coach

OK, now that it looks like I’ve gone on a total anti-Kris Hogan bent, let me be clear: I don’t blame him. He responded to God’s annoying wake-up call. He reached out to Trisha. He took a huge risk in agreeing to taped conversations that would be edited for radio. (How many of us have the guts to do that?) And in the end, despite all the things I critiqued, the show concludes with, “But in the weeks that have followed, he has accomplished this: Trisha has been thinking a lot more about God, she says. She doesn’t really believe just yet, but she says she’s open to it.” Though I give his evangelism a poor grade, God still used him! (That is good news for us all.)

So who do I blame? After I listened to this show, I shared about it with my wife over lunch, and she nailed it. She said, “I blame his teachers.”
“What?” I said, surprised. “Explain.”
“The coach was doing his best with every tool he had been given. He was taught this stuff, just like you were taught it, and it’s pure crap. The teachers are totally to blame.”

Most of what you were taught about evangelism is now irrelevant. Actually, in a post-Christian society, it’s worse than irrelevant — you may inadvertently be practicing “devangelism”! For your outreach to be effective, you must adopt a missionary mindset and missionary methods. If you have a teacher who is talking about evangelism without training you to be a missionary, walk away and find another teacher. With the Holy Spirit guiding you, that teacher needs to be a “native.”

It might be someone like Trisha.

Update: Trisha says she’ll respond to me on her own blog.
Related posts: 14 Reasons to Stop Evangelizing Your Friends

This I Used to Believe series:

  1. Introduction
  2. Evangelism done well
  3. Evangelism gone wrong

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

20 responses to This I Used to Believe: Evangelism gone wrong

  1. Hmmm. Much food for thought here. I agree mainly with the “teachers” part. People born bred and raised in Christiandom are still set on the “old ways” that presume things about society that are no longer true. On the other hand, God is so totally at work in this gals life. I almost think it hardly mattered what Kris said. she is hungry and searching and just wants SOMEONE to help her get past the humps and into Gods arms.

  2. Starr,
    I do see God’s fingerprints all over this, and not just in Trisha: It aired on a leading radio show. We listened to it. And here we are discussing it. Will it be a wake-up call to some who are still in Christendom, maybe folks who are on the edge wondering what happened?

  3. Loved your insight Jon. Keep it up.

  4. I totally agree, and I love your insights on what he could have done differently. I also cringed when I heard him use the term anti-God. I mean, she showed that she was open to hearing more about God, and what better way to close her down?
    It also implies that the questions she is asking are not okay. That she is wrong for questioning. Then the adversarial style of going through all of the standard arguments, setting yourself up as somehow above the person who is asking the questions.
    I remember learning all of those tactics, and even using some of them before. I never felt comfortable with them, and they were never effective. I remember getting assignments, “Reach out to one person this week.” and sharing our evangelism experiences. But what about just being a friend to someone?
    I want to think more about this, and I have more to say, but I don’t have time to explore it right now. Great post!

  5. Great post! You got me thinking about alternative models for evangelism — I posted some thoughts on my blog rather than clutter your comments page.

  6. Kevin, thanks for the encouragement.

  7. Sami,
    I didn’t think I was the only one who remembered learning these same “tactics”! I was probably more comfortable with them than you were. Gosh, I realize that part of it was being taught to ignore my own discomfort!
    Going from “enlightened teacher” to “fellow traveller” is a big shift.
    I look forward to more feedback from you later!

  8. Maria,
    Wow, great thoughts, especially on the questions you raise about replacing “evangelism” with “spiritual coaching.”
    Everyone else, go check out what Maria wrote.

  9. I really like Maria’s thoughts, too. I think the reason that the football game was so great was that the coach was looking at what would be a blessing/helpful to those boys, and focusing on that. With Trish, he seemed to just go right into the script that he has learned, “Start with original sin, and go from there.”
    I mean, why in the world would you start arguing evolution when someone is greiving for a lost friend? When she never even remotely mentioned the subject? That’s just confusing! It makes no sense except from the point of view that there is a “one size fits all” approach to evangelism. You have to cover these 6 points in order to present the gospel. Oh yes, I remember well being taught these tactics.
    I am still working through my distaste and resentment for the old way and trying to find a new way.
    But you’re right, God used even this approach. How amazing is that?

  10. Jon,
    I listened to the program and I must admit that I was disappointed in coach Hogan. He preached at Trisha instead of addressing her basic concerns.
    Knowing both Trisha and Kelly (the incredible woman that started this saga), I spent the entire episode desperately hoping that he would hook in to what she was really asking. That he would try to answer the very basic question. Which was “why didn’t got listen to me and answer my prayer.” That is what Trisha was really asking and it is a point that the coach entire missed. He had a beautiful opportunity to teach a lesson and he missed it.
    I sent a message to Trisha after and I told her that she was asking the right questions of the wrong person.
    Kelly was my best friend. And if anything her death strengthened my belief in God. But I had a very different view of the events than Trisha did.
    I think though that were I in a precarious position spiritually coach Hogan would have turned me off instead of brought me closer.

  11. I am not sure I can go with the term “Broken” to describe the world, and this might be a key difference between my beliefs and others. Broken, to me, implies that it was not broken before, and that it could possibly (maybe not surely) be fixed.
    That does seem to be the basis of the biblical stories of Genesis (“And he saw it was good”,”Fell from Grace”) and revelations (That would be the fixing part).
    I am trying to think of a better term, “Imperfect” comes to mind, but that implies that there is a state that would be perfect. Out of Balance? Indescribable? Unknowable works best for me?
    In the end, this is what I believe. The world is the way it is and things happen the way they do, because it is what it is and things happen because of a very complex and not completely predictable set of conditions.
    I don’t find comfort in any of Coach Hogan’s statements that he pulled from his evangelical bag of tricks.
    I think that Trisha was struggling with her faith and really already knew what she believed, and was really just looking for someone to listen to her. Someone to bounce he thoughts off of, and repeat them back to her so that she could feel comfortable with what she already believed. That requires an impartial listener. The host Ira Glass provided that to her. Coach Hogan spent his time telling her what she should believe and why.
    That is why I don’t believe that you can change what someone believes by telling them what they should believe. Most of the time, that comes off as just you trying to get someone else to believe what you believe because it validates your belief.
    The best evangelizing is giving people the tools to find the truth. If they come up with a different result than yours, then maybe they weren’t given good information, or that what you believe is wrong, or more likely, people won’t always all agree.
    Maybe that is the difference between evangelizing and saving. Coach Hogan wasn’t trying to evangelize Trisha, he was trying to save her.
    By the way Jon, your doing a bang up job on this. Good job!

  12. Sami, thank you for reminding us about the football game. It really shows how courageous and creative followers of Jesus can be if they will just leave the script!
    Deconstructing the old ways is unpleasant, but it is healthy as long as you don’t stop there. So keep pressing into the new ways! And know that you’re not alone.

  13. Kitarra,
    Thank you for your comment — especially as a friend to both Trisha and Kelly. I am honored. I wonder if the coach might see this? If that ever happens, I hope he is able to read through to my conclusion.

  14. Tim,
    While many Christ-followers do think the world was originally unbroken, this is not fundamentally necessary for belief. But “the fixing part” was actually begun in Genesis, reached its climax in Jesus, and then will result in the re-creation painted in Revelation. It’s “the fixing part” that, I believe, we are all invited to participate in now (as opposed to “getting into heaven”).
    I identify with what you identify as the difference between evangelizing and saving. It has been helpful to me to realize that I cannot save anyone; that’s God’s job.
    Glad you liked it!

  15. Jon:
    I’ve only listened to part of the interview in snippets and read some on it as well.
    You treat the issue fairly.
    I also think you hit one several reasons why much evangelism training fails — it doesn’t answer today’s questions in today’s language.
    As a trainer, I try to help people learn to ask questions, learn to listen to the other person, and learn to walk with them. I also try to help people listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to help guide us in that process.
    I think you are fair in your critique, and accurate in your objections. I also don’t blame Coach Hogan for messing up or anything. I admire his desire to talk with her.
    Chris W

  16. Chris,
    I’m glad there are trainers like you out there! (I like your words “trainer” and “coach.”) Yes, Coach Hogan went for it and in the end, we are all benefiting.
    You remind me of the old joke: “Jesus is the answer.”
    “Uh, what’s the question?”

  17. Kris is an imperfect messenger. He did what he could by the Lord’s lead. Its not his job to give the perfect words in the perfect. Halleluyah for that!
    Is 55:11
    “So shall my word be that goes forth out of my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”

  18. Ted,
    Yup! While I’m pretty hard on Coach Hogan’s approach, I hope it’s clear that I respect him and his courage.

  19. Great post and comments! It seemed to me as I was reading this, the coach was more focused on the radio audience and making sure they heard “the four spiritual laws” than on ministering to her.

  20. Dana,
    Actually, I think what you’re hearing is not the coach trying to reach a radio audience, but practicing the style of evangelism he was taught — a style that is focused on “telling you what you need” instead of “ministering to your needs.” …Hey, that was catchy. 😉