Lately, we’ve been checking out the friendship evangelism techniques pushed by a minor evangelical leader named Larry Dixon. For a few years now, he’s been on a tear about the benefits of being an evangelical like himself. We’ll talk more about the specific entries in this 52-part series later, but for now I want us to examine the heathen at the very heart of it: Mike the Tennis Heathen.
There’s a very particular way that Dixon talks about Mike the Tennis Heathen—one that serves his selfish interests in a very particular manner. His fake friendship with Mike has inspired a mountain of posts. But we’ll examine that friendship today, along with analyzing how it works and well, how it’s worked in terms of Dixon’s ulterior motives.
(The four archived pages of the “Benefits” series: Page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4. See also: Larry Dixon and the Chalice of Antiprocess. Also, I use the term “heathen” to mean anyone deemed by a judging TRUE CHRISTIAN™ to be going to Hell. Of course, pagans use the word in an entirely different way. They often capitalize it as well. Lastly, don’t confuse this Larry Dixon with the artist and fantasy fiction-writing husband of Mercedes Lackey. I know, I wondered too.)
(This post went live on Patreon on 3/30/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there as well and should be available by the time you read this!)
Yay, another evangelical has figured out how to fix the tribe’s unending decline
In 2019, Larry Dixon published a book called Unlike Jesus: Let’s Stop Unfriending the World. It contains Dixon’s surefire evangelism advice to fake-befriend heathens to convert them to their flavor of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. Yes, it’s just friendship evangelism. Here’s the blurb from Amazon:
Unlike Jesus makes a convincing and convicting case that we who love Jesus must also love the lost — and must stop cocooning ourselves within our churches. Christians need to get out more. But this doesn’t mean we become friends of the world (a decision some disciples make contrary to God’s Word and detrimental to their spiritual health).
Some Christians have simply “lost sense of the lostness of the lost” (Francis Schaeffer). Our hearts are not only “perpetual idol factories” (John Calvin), but are experts in excuse-making for not spending significant time with sinners. Unlike Jesus dismantles the top five excuses believers make for not being like the Lord Jesus, “a friend of sinners.”
Practical advice is given to church leaders for developing a friendship-evangelism mindset in our churches. We’ve even interviewed some of our unsaved friends on what keeps them from taking the gospel message seriously.
As of today, the book has earned one rating of five stars—but no actual reviews. (We find the same exact situation on GoodReads, but with the added bonus of the wrong Larry Dixon attributed as its author. After extensive searching, I seriously think absolutely nobody has reviewed this book anywhere.)
Somehow, this book failed to set the evangelical world on fire. Now that I think of it, the first I ever heard of it was from a 2020 post on Bruce Gerencser’s excellent blog.
But a little thing like utter obscurity has never stopped any evangelical from believing their work will definitely, without a doubt transform millions of lives.
A 52-part series meant to inspire evangelicals to perform friendship evangelism
I’m willing to bet that Larry Dixon is one of those evangelicals who regularly commits the error I’ve come to call as the night the day. The name of the error, of course, derives from Hamlet.
This above all,—to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
All too often, evangelicals believe that if a Christian believes the correct ideology and embraces the correct talking points, then their behavior will always completely fall into line. That’s how we get long, impassioned Bible studies about prayer that are supposed to lead, invariably, to the adoption of regular prayer habits. Except they don’t. Oops. If there’s one thing evangelicals have demonstrated repeatedly over the years, it’s that they can, indeed, believe and embrace all the correct things and still be complete hypocrites.
In today’s case, shortly before his book was published Dixon embarked on a 52-part series about the supposed “benefits of being a believer.” Well, I say 52 parts. In truth, Dixon seems to have petered out around entry 36, which appears to be “a biblical understanding of the Devil.” (And as you might guess, the entry makes zero sense as a “benefit” of Dixon-style evangelicalism.) These entries are meant to inspire evangelicals even more to fake-befriend heathens.
Dixon wrote #36/52 a solid year ago. Oh, I mean he still updates the blog itself. Its last archived entry is dated March 15. For some reason, though, he’s left his series behind in the dust in favor of quick little jabs at heathens and listing the lyrics of songs he likes.
Almost all of his posts receive no engagement at all.
Now let’s meet Mike the Tennis Heathen
Mike the Tennis Heathen shows up in the very first entry to the Benefits series. There, we learn that Mike took a survey that Dixon created to help him write Unlike Jesus. We also learn that in the past, Mike has played tennis at the “national tournament” level. Since Dixon himself likes to play tennis, this fact must have made a fake friendship with Mike all the more appealing.
Here’s how Dixon describes their meeting:
Mike was kind enough to take the short survey I used in my Unlike Jesus book about people who are “still on their way” to faith. With his permission I included his response to my questions in my book — and my response to his response. I have prayed for my friend Mike’s salvation almost every day without fail. You need to know that I try to be very careful in witnessing to those I know will be long-term or even life-long friends.
Dude plays the long con, to be sure! He wants to be very careful not to alienate his marks too quickly. Still, he befriends heathens for the purpose of converting them. Indeed, we’ve already seen that his book’s bio blurb at Amazon cautions TRUE CHRISTIANS™ about getting too friendly with the unwashed heathens of their world. It’s still friendship evangelism—a fake friendship struck up with an ulterior motive in mind, and one that I guarantee Dixon doesn’t reveal up-front to his marks.
But that survey bit caught my eye. As someone who made friends with an atheist leader, Dale McGowan, as the result of his own book’s pre-writing survey, I guess I just notice stuff like this.
Did you catch how Dixon defines Mike the Tennis Heathen?
“Lost as lost can be” apparently equals “‘Still on [his] way’ to faith”
I was unable to scare up a copy of the survey that informed Unlike Jesus. All I have is what Dixon says about it in his own blog entry. And in that entry, he says that Mike selected, as his self-description, that he was “‘still on [his] way’ to faith.”
In the first paragraph of his blog entry, Dixon also informs us that Mike the Tennis Heathen is “lost as lost can be.”
These two phrases may sound mutually contradictory, but I’ve seen this wording often in evangelical writing.
Sales-minded evangelicals don’t like to let a heathen’s no be no and their yes be yes, as Jesus told his followers to do. A “no, never” would mean that those heathens have indicated permanent disinterest in any and all future evangelical sales pitches, and no evangelical can accept that finality—at least, not from someone they view as beneath themselves! So I very much doubt that Dixon even allowed heathens the option of selecting no, I’m never joining your weird death cult.
Instead, like the hard-sales recruiters that they are, they prefer to think that no actually means not now; ask me later.
Indeed, in entry 14 (“Godly Hatred,” yikes x∞∞), Dixon says this about Mike the Tennis Heathen:
We believers in Jesus are so blessed! Do we realize all the benefits of being saved, made right with the Lord? My unsaved friend Mike doesn’t. Yet.
And I’m sure Dixon sees absolutely nothing wrong with talking like this. Me personally, I’ve often been on the receiving end of this sort of treatment. It feels like an invalidation attempt every single time.
Friendship evangelism almost requires these redefinitions
To me, a “nope, never joining your flavor of Christianity, and never gonna acceptjesusasmypersonallordandsaviorforeveramen” response would be more like “lost as lost can be,” at least as evangelicals understand it.
If Dixon did allow such an option, it’d surprise me. Evangelicals really don’t like to allow their marks to close the door forever. That’s why David Kinnaman persists in calling ex-Christians “prodigals” instead of the term we ourselves have created and regularly use. I mean, you know what happened to the Prodigal Son, right? That popular Bible story is very obviously what Kinnaman wants evangelicals to think about when he uses the term.
I’ve never found any ex-Christians who perceive themselves as just being temporarily on the outs with their cosmic Daddy. It’s a patronizing, condescending insult to redefine us in that way. Similarly, no heathens would define themselves as being “‘on their way’ to faith.” But ex-Christians and heathens don’t buy these books. Evangelicals love to see their marks presented in this way, so evangelical writers won’t be ending the practice any time soon.
But if Dixon did offer such a choice, and if Mike the Tennis Heathen had selected it instead, Dixon would have known his potential mark wouldn’t welcome any kind of evangelism. If he had an option for a firmer reply but chose “on his way to faith,” then he is very far from “lost as lost can be.” Instead, Mike the Tennis Heathen sounds like he’s got one foot in the baptistry pool.
It reminds me of that quote from Dumb and Dumber: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”
And hilariously, Larry Dixon mucked up his evangelism opportunity almost out of the gate.
Let the friendship evangelism begin!
Unfortunately, a sales-minded evangelical is about as subtle as a beagle that’s just heard the doorbell ring. According to his blog entry, Dixon offended his new bestest-ever pal before ever even meeting him in the flesh by referring to him in the book as “lost” and “unsaved.”
“‘On [his] way’ to faith,” indeed. But Mike the Tennis Heathen was still willing to set him up with some tennis matches with his friends.
It sounds like Dixon was in town for a couple of weeks, but he only actually met up with Mike in the flesh once. During their one brief conversation, Dixon apologized for offending him (but not for using those terms in the first place, I notice; in the series, he continues to use the same terms). For his part, Mike the Tennis Heathen seemed to understand that Dixon was expressing his opinions on the matter.
And to his credit, Mike doesn’t let Dixon’s insults upset him. I’m betting he’s an older fella who’s been around enough that he knows better than to get riled up over stuff that doesn’t really matter. Dixon, of course, takes Mike’s easygoing equanimity as an open door to further predation.
And now, see if you can catch this super-subtle friendship evangelism pitch:
Right afterward, Dixon slipped a quick lil sales pitch into Mike’s metaphorical drink:
I was also able to say to him that the Lord is the answer to his loneliness (his wife passed away two years ago). And that was it.
Absolutely vile, predatory, and reprehensible—and considering the utter failure of Jesus-ing to solve evangelicals’ loneliness, disgustingly false advertising.
However, Dixon doesn’t relay his mark’s response to that oh-so-subtle, super-clever lil attempt. I’m guessing it was not receptive—probably not even a “Well, thanks for the thought” or whatever. If it had been, Dixon would have told us about it and counted it as a victory for Team Jesus.
After that, as far as I can tell Dixon does not once, not ever again mention meeting up with Mike the Tennis Heathen or speaking with him on the phone, or even emailing or texting him. He says he’ll stay in touch every day. But as far as the series goes, he never again mentions any new contact. In fact, he professes complete ignorance about Mike the Tennis Heathen’s daily habits.
I guess this is why he told Bruce Gerencser that he only wanted to be an exception to the rule of evangelicals ghosting their friendship evangelism marks after rejection. At the time, I immediately guessed Dixon wasn’t yet one.
And you know what? I think he still isn’t.
Another friendship evangelism campaign bites the dust
Notably, Mike the Tennis Heathen never converts. In #35, which was written in March 2022, Dixon relays that Mike still remains unconverted:
My friend Mike — who has not yet trusted Christ as his Savior — reminds me of a number of blessings which I enjoy — or should enjoy — as a believer.
Remember, by now Dixon has been writing for a solid three+ years about all the qualities that he imagines Mike lacks. Dixon’s told us for those same three years that he’s been praying almost every day for Jesus to magically change Mike’s mind. I’ve read through almost all of his entries, and every one of them so far has mentioned talking to the ceiling about Mike. And for some wacky reason, Jesus hasn’t made with the strong-arming.
There’s probably a good reason why #36 doesn’t mention Mike anymore. Instead, Dixon uses the far more generic “unsaved/unbelieving friends” as his proxy marks:
“You believe in the devil? Really?” “Yes!”, we might answer our unbelieving friends. The Bible is crystal clear in its teaching about a supernatural enemy by the name of Satan, or Lucifer, or the devil. And I’m pretty sure that my unsaved friends —
And that is literally the last entry in the series. After that, Dixon seems to have lost interest in the project as a whole. Maybe the entries just didn’t bring him the same pleasure when he wasn’t beating Mike the Specific Tennis Strawman to death every week.
Why evangelicals don’t perform more friendship evangelism
In a lot of ways, this entire situation tells us a lot about why evangelicals don’t tend to like starting up a friendship evangelism campaign.
First off, it feels gross to act friendly to someone when long-lasting friendship isn’t the real goal in and of itself. The person pursuing friendship evangelism doesn’t tell the mark what their goal is. Instead, they hide it.
Second, in friendship evangelism evangelicals gather sensitive information about their marks, then callously use that information to try to score a sale. Dixon did exactly this when he learned that Mike the Tennis Heathen was a recent widower. He immediately told Mike that his product would help with the resulting loneliness. Evangelicals must always be looking out for a sales opportunity!
Third, evangelicals are constantly told by their Dear Leaders that getting too close to heathens is dangerous to their faith. They’re taught never to befriend heathens without the ulterior motive of evangelism. Ultimately, evangelicals think that heathens are a whole other—and entirely subhuman—species, and we see that mindset on full display in all 36 entries of Dixon’s “Benefits” series.
Fourth, evangelicals are just like everyone else in not having enough time, ever, to do what they need and want to do. Evangelism has always been put on the back burner with them, but friendship evangelism may reside on the back burner’s back burner due to the sheer amount of time it takes to cultivate fake friendships. At least in regular evangelism the engagement is quickly finished and over with. In friendship evangelism, the evangelical may need to wait months or years to fully explain their Plan of Salvation to their mark.
And last, once the evangelical finally gets that information out into the open, the mark almost always rejects the sale and closes the door to future attempts. Without the hope of a sale, the evangelical has zero interest in maintaining the relationship.
Friendship evangelism is a ton of time spent being dishonest and predatory, only to result in hurt feelings and no sales.
The final word on friendship evangelism (perhaps got spoken 50 years ago)
Maybe Larry Dixon remembers this classic 1970s PSA commercial. Either way, he needs to heed its message:
If an evangelical calls someone their “unsaved friend,” then that person is not really their friend. It’s that simple. Similarly, if an evangelical strikes up a friendship hoping that one day their friend will change their religion to match the evangelical’s, that person is not really their friend. Rather, that person is their designated fix-it project.
“I love you—now you need to change” is abusive and evil. It treats people like props and extras in the movie playing in an evangelical’s head. And since that’s the very heart of friendship evangelism, you can probably guess my general opinion of it.
If Mike the Tennis Heathen had ever been Larry Dixon’s actual real friend, Dixon would have simply called him “my friend.” Instead, Mike resides in that nebulous category of designated fix-it projects that Dixon maintains so he can feel more Jesus-y.
For all that I’ve said about this hilariously failed strategy, though, friendship evangelism as a concept makes evangelicals feel so good that I don’t think they’ll ever drop it. They like the idea of a huge gulf of separation between heathens and TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (but we’ll have to talk more about that later; this is long enough already). So they’d rather keep teaching it than find a recruitment method that actually works.
So yes, today is another bit of good news for us at a time when we can sorely use it.
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