Cringe communication #1: Student survey tricksters

14 March, 2014 — 17 Comments

This is the start of a blog series where I will give some real-life true stories of what I call cringe communication from the church. I want your feedback: do you agree that my example is bad communication? If not why not? You can vote in the poll below.


I believe that the way people outside the church see the church has a massive impact on their understanding and appreciation of and for the church. This then affects any possible engagement with the church and the story of the church (or using in-house speak: the gospel). All of this comes down to communication, in particular communication from particular church representatives to those outside of the church (the society in which we live). I believe we can improve the communication of the church by eliminating cringe communication.

My post 2 weeks ago about Bible classes in schools had plenty of engagement in the comments section. One commenter by the name of Dylan, who appears to be outside the church, made mention of:

an angry man on a Queen Street corner [in Auckland] will actually point at people who walk past and scream at them that they are going to burn in hell.

Dylan carefully says of this man:

I find it difficult to believe he’s getting a lot of converts.

It was this comment that gave me the idea of some blog posts that expose what I would call examples of bad communication. You may have some to share as well.

Student survey tricksters

Within one week in February 2013, I had two pairs of Asian students stopping me on the streets near the university campus asking if I would help them with a “short survey” they were doing for their study.

Being a researcher myself, I am often willing to help others as they gather data so I agreed to help these students. They had an iPad and told me I just needed to watch a short video they had made, so I agreed and they pressed play.

The opening title on the professional looking video was “Introducing the Bible”.

I had been conned

I watched the first 30 seconds to confirm my suspicion that they were Christians getting me to watch an evangelistic video trying to convert me to their faith. I could see the video was five minutes long, and I was not interested in watching it so excused myself.

Maybe their “research” was gauging the reactions of people to their video, but I suspect they were intentionally tricking people into watching their version of church propaganda.

I felt cheated, that my goodwill and intelligence had been taken advantage of. What they presented was not what I had expected. It wasn’t research. They tricked me.

Motivation versus strategy

Notwithstanding my criticisms here, I do not necessarily doubt the sincerity of the Christian beliefs underpinning the communication I am taking issue with: I am sure that if I were to have open conversations with these Asian-student-Christian-survey-tricksters they would have well-intentioned reasons backed with passionate commitment to the cause of their interpretation of the Christian church and tradition.

In hindsight I wish I had taken the time to discuss this with them – I think it was the difference between a “short survey” and a 10-15 minute conversation that was too big a diversion from the mission I was on at that particular moment…

The nature of this communication is, in my opinion, through my own observation and understanding, at odds with the kind of communication that could be more accessible with people outside of the church, or at least done in a way that shares common ground and understanding.

Do you agree?

I’m interested in your feedback, please take a second to anonymously vote in the poll below, or leave a comment sharing your own stories or experiences.

Other posts in this series

Cringe communication #2: same-sex marriage “a failure of democracy”.
Cringe communication #3: Cult of personality?
Cringe communication #4: Billboard bashers.

Image “Cold man freezing in miserable winter snow storm” courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt at 

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  • Carol

    We had a similar experience in our own home. Two students knocking on our door right at dinner time, requesting we take part in a survey for their studies. Once I saw the beginning of their iPad presentation, I asked directly about the purpose of the survey, which seemed to put them on the spot. So I politely thanked them for their interest, and explained we are very happy with our current church. I did ask them if they had many ‘participants, which they said they had not…and I asked if perhaps their method may need to be re-thought?
    I remember this was just after the census last year. Seems this may have been a nationwide campaign? Or at least multi-centred.

    • Thanks Carol – it’s interesting to read Tim Hodge’s comment above where he mentions the rejection from this ‘method’ of ‘evangelism’ might be rejoiced over through an “ill-informed doctrine of persecution.” If this is the case, then your polite rejection of the surveyors at your door could have actually been something of an encouragement to them(!).

      • Carol

        Wow! And I thought I was just being polite! When did life get so complicated?

  • Norman

    Just about everything I have read about communication says that we need to start where people are at now and as a result we need to start building our argument from there. So stopping people in the street and trying to evangelise them in my
    opinion will almost certainly never work and worse put people off religion in

    There seem to me a lot of people in the community who can see some value in religion but have a lot of questions and doubts about religion and the typical evangelical ignores this and talks at them rather than with them.

    Churches seem to discourage even their own members from expressing doubts or alternative views on just about anything that happens in their church. So much seems to be said by those in control without any theological, biblical, or even logical basis whatsoever. They believe that their beliefs are the truth as though they had a hot line to God!

    Just before
    reading this blog I read on The Ship of Fools about a man in the UK who
    objected to a woman preaching on a bus. One person commented that when they
    were in Ghana it was accepted that people would preach on buses and people sat
    near the preachers seat in the bus to hear them.

    Every non-Christian who has spoken to me about
    street evangelists in New Zealand strongly dislikes their approach

    • Hi Norman and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      I think you’re right about what you’re saying about communication, and I think my student-survey-tricksters are an extreme example of what is happening in many more subtle ways without considering communication issues such as a quest for shared understanding and common ground.

      Your point about churches discouraging critical engagement reminds me of the James Fowler “Stages of Faith” which New Zealander Alan Jamieson made use of with his “Churchless Faith” research where he suggested a lot of churches cater for the unquestioning ‘stage 3’ type people, and people not in that stage are more likely to leave because of a lack of critical engagement:

      Your Bus-preaching comment reminds me of the saying “You’re not in Guatemala now Dr. Ropata”…

  • Mark Day

    During my time at Waikato Uni I was part of a parachurch evangelistic organization which used surveys as an entry point to discussions which would hopefully lead to calls for people to give their life to Christ. Maybe it’s the same group which approached you. I had a number of concerns at the time and many of them remain (on issues far wider than the question of surveys etc). I had a lot of friends in that group too and they remain friends (some of them now as staff in that campus ministry), so this is not an impersonal matter for me :)

    At the time l felt the survey in-road was bordering on deceptive, though I wouldn’t charge any of the people involved with being knowingly deceptive or having deceptive motives. In their minds & hearts they were trying to share the Gospel. My estimation was that it was an american organization (in origin), and was thus shaped by a culture of method & results-based, business-like thinking, which went too far in its devotion to the “methods which get results.” Ultimately I found this a distraction from what I felt God called Christians to do, even if the ends (calling people to follow Jesus) were in theory the same.

    Interestingly what you’re suggesting is that this method is no longer in fact an effective means of communication – so they’re damned by me for being too method-focussed, and damned by you for having a bad method to begin with.

    I can’t recall encountering anyone who openly expressed that they’d felt deceived, but if I held secret doubts that that’s what we were doing I’m sure others received it that way. There were occasionally letters to the editor of the student rag which bemoaned the surveyors; usually the complaint was that folks wanted to enjoy their lunch in peace.

    • Hi Mark – it’s great to hear about this from a more ‘insider’s’ perspective – and interesting to hear the doubts you had.

      For me the trickery/deception was in saying it was a ‘survey’. It wasn’t. It would have been great communication if they had simply said: “Excuse me, would you like to watch our 5 minute video introducing the Bible?” Why don’t they say that? Because they know most people will say: “no thanks”, which I would then say is an indicator of the times and an outcome of the negative perceptions those outside the church have of the church. Meaning they might as well give up trying to show people on the street short Bible videos and come up with something else to do with their time that might attempt to improve the perceptions people have

      For example, I would have been more intrigued to have seen pairs of students walking around (perhaps wearing subtle non-cheesy t-shirts that had something like “TSCF” or “Student Christian Group” or something) with rubbish bags picking up rubbish or cleaning off graffiti… Or something more relational such as setting up study groups for first-years who are struggling with [paper name] 101…

      • vikingqueen

        I actually had someone from one of the many Christian groups on campus actually do the setting up a study group, I had stopped to chat to a friend who was sitting with a lot of people from that group and she asked how my study was going. When the slightly older girl next to her heard what I was studying and that I was struggling she sat me down and helped me with thats weeks work (same course year above) then hooked me up with a study group they had. Shortly after that they did actually get me coming along to their group.
        I also found out through this that this group volunteered at the tea party picking up rubbish and helping people who got into trouble.
        So some groups are doing things like that around campuses.

        • Hi vikingqueen and thanks for your comment! It’s great to hear this positive report of student activity happening on your campus.

      • Tim Hodge

        Agreed Mike – on your first paragraph.
        And agreed on your second too – this is one of the things that I try to encourage students who are part of TSCF to do around NZ, customised to each context. Each week during the toastie-making operation on pub night at Lincoln there are always questions from semi-drunken halls students about ‘why are you serving me cheese toasties at 1am?’ Great question. Great opportunity to say why and to see where the conversation goes.

  • Tim Hodge

    Hi Mike

    Thanks for highlighting this, and sorry for your experience.

    As someone working in university student mission with TSCF, I too cringe when I hear students doing this. It seems there are far too many groups that equate evangelism with impersonal surveys rather than whole of life living for Jesus and speaking for Jesus with their own peers in classes and flats. It’s dangerously close to the opposite of Paul in 2 Cor 4:2 ‘we do not use deception’. The old ‘switch and bait’ trick, like you’ve encountered, isn’t honouring to God, despite maybe good intentions on the part of the ‘survey-takers’. It may, or may not, be appropriate in other places around the world, but using that ‘technique’ (evangelism shouldn’t be about technique!) in NZ shows a distinct lack of missiological thinking in our Kiwi university culture – indeed cultures plural as each campus is distinct and each campus has multiple cultures within it.

    To equate switch and bait surveys, and number gathering, with evangelism, to believe that evangelism IS that, and anything else is something else, something less. So the idea of befriending class mates, or post-uni, colleagues, and sharing meals and long discussions – all that which I commend – is anathema.

    Anecdotally, sadly, many raised in this ‘method’ come unstuck on leaving uni and fail to be part of a church and fail to have a vibrant faith with and in Jesus just a few years down the track.
    Yet also anecdotally, I am encouraged that some in this mold are seeing and realising that rather than rejoicing over lack of responses through an ill-informed doctrine of persecution for the gospel, they are beginning to realise that the communication methodology is at fault and working on and praying through changing long-held beliefs over methodology. This is good, but progress is slow.

    • Hi Tim – it sounds like you’re doing good work at Lincoln! And by vickingqueen’s comment below there is good stuff happening from the student perspective. More of this, less surveys! It’s 2014!! :)

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