A while back, there was someone at my college yelling, quoting Bible verses, and saying people were going to Hell. He (or maybe someone else with him, I forget) was holding up a black sign that said “NO [long list of various nouns] will inherit the kingdom of Heaven.”
When I got to class shortly after passing by him, I heard my classmates joking around about how they were going to Hell, but that was OK with them.
Today again, there was an old man (or maybe middle-aged, I forget) in a black suit with a bunch of white writing about Jesus and such on it, going on about rock-and-roll dudes, queers and sorority girls looking to steal people’s virginity.
One of the people he was preaching at responded, “They already took my virginity, and it was great!” He then turned to his friends and said something about sorority girls being promiscuous like rabbits and how we need more girls like that.
Now, there are so many things wrong with these situations that I hardly know where to begin.
First, these preachers are appealing to emotions to get people to convert. Emotions are not the best part of humanity. A conversion based on emotion is going to fade away as the emotion fades away. To inspire a lasting conversion, you have to appeal to reason; what someone feels changes depending on the situation, but what one believes is true is much more stable.
Second, these preachers were appealing to fear, and that is a rhetorical blunder in this situation. Emotions are inherently reactive; you feel happy because you’re eating your favorite dessert on your birthday, or you feel angry because someone insulted your mother, or you feel desire because you saw a commercial for the new Zelda game, or you feel fear because you’re face to face with a lion, etc. People don’t feel anything about something that doesn’t seem real to them. But if you’re preaching to people, then your audience presumably doesn’t believe in your religion. So what’s the point telling people who don’t believe in Hell how scary Hell is? To them, you just look like a child rambling on about the monster in his closet. First convince your audience that Hell exists, then tell them about how scary it is.
Third, this preacher clearly wasn’t taking into account the reputation of Christianity among the general population. In modern-day America, Christians are considered archetypes of prudishness and excessive seriousness. So if you stand there going on about Bible verses and Hell, then your audience will conclude that they were right in thinking of Christians as a bunch of party-pooping alcoholophobic virgins, unable to keep up with science, who enforce a slew of rules without putting any thought into it just because their parents said so. Yes, Christianity is not of this world, which means that you’re going to have to distance yourself from modern culture with all its promiscuity etc. But the way you present your message has to seem, if not palatable, at least reasonable to your audience if you don’t want to be laughed off your soapbox. Rhetoric doesn’t happen in a vacuum; you have to take context into account, as Aristotle realized 2000 friggin’ years ago. Yes, I understand that people tend to be too complacent and probably need a shock to get them to do any sort of reforming of their lives. But you can’t make a good movie with nothing but a climax; you have to build up an emotional connection with the audience in order for the climax to mean anything to them. Go ahead and tell them how scary Hell is, but tell it to them after you’ve convinced them that human nature is real, that therefore morality is real, that God exists, that it’s right to worship Him, that worshiping God entails not just praying but also ordering the rest of one’s life in a proper way, etc.
Fourth, these preachers were framing their arguments in a way that portrayed their own group as the one that would go to Heaven and their audience as the group that would go to Hell. Socially, this is implying that their group is superior to their audiences’. This is just begging for their audiences to get mad at them, or at least see them as enemies. That just is the thing that happens when you act like you’re better than someone, just as falling just is the thing that happens when you drop something, and just as saving 15% or more on car insurance just is the thing that happens when you switch to Geico. This is as directly contrary to their purpose as it’s going to get. They’re supposed to be getting people to join their church. How can you get people to join your church by making enemies of them?
And really, just what are these people expecting to accomplish? How many people come up to them while they’re preaching and say, “You’re so right, I’m going to change my ways and attend your church from now on”? Do they not see their audience laughing at them? What made that old man think it was a good idea to tell a bunch of college guys to watch out for their virginity? How many of them does he think are virgins?
Their whole project is poorly thought out from start to finish, and it just plain doesn’t help.