The other day, I ran across some interesting information about Cru (the former Campus Crusade for Christ), that long-running campus evangelism effort. They’re mighty proud of a three-prong approach to evangelism. They claim that this approach consistently, reliably converts people to their brand of evangelicalism. But it’s not new or unique to Cru. Rather, it’s just a formalized riff on a style of evangelism that sales-minded evangelicals aspire to cultivate. Nor is it going to help ease Christianity’s decline, for one simple reason that we will explore right here!
(This post first went live on Patreon on 5/16/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too, and should be available by the time you see this <3)
Cru began life as Campus Crusade for Christ
In 1951, Bill Bright co-founded Campus Crusade for Christ with his wife Vonette at UCLA.
He’s an interesting character all by himself, incidentally. Initially from Oklahoma, he had moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s to start a candy business. In 1946, he decided to quit that business to become a full-time seminary student. (That’s also when he asked Vonette to marry him. They would finally wed in 1948.) But he struggled with his studies. So miraculously, he figured out that Jesus actually wanted him to go evangelize college students instead of getting a divinity degree.
Campus Crusade for Christ began with Bright, his wife Vonette, and some volunteers from nearby churches and Fuller Seminary. As you might guess from its name, Bright intended it to recruit college students to his flavor of right-wing evangelicalism, then mentor them to get them started in the faith on the right foot.
However, he also wanted his new group to fight Communism, which he and many other evangelical leaders saw as a huge threat to their religion, country, and entire way of life. To him, there could be no better place to take the fight to the streets, so to speak, than UCLA. The school was already becoming known as a friendly space for radicalized students.
Within a year, Campus Crusade for Christ had converted a claimed 250 UCLA students.
Bill Bright shaped the new group, for better or for worse
Other campus-based ministries didn’t care much for how they recruited people, but Bright doesn’t appear to have cared what they thought. After losing the support of megapastor Bob Jones over being suspiciously liberal, he drew closer to Billy Graham’s style of recruitment.
In 1965, Bright wrote what would become an evangelical classic for decades to come: The Four Spiritual Laws. He wrote the booklet/tract to aid Campus Crusade for Christ’s recruiters in making their sales pitches. Even in the modern day, you can find these “laws” everywhere in evangelicals’ recruitment tools.
Bright’s legacy to modern evangelicals cannot be overstated. He helped establish funds and fundraising to enshrine evangelicals’ rules into law on culture-war fronts of equal marriage, legal and accessible abortion, and may well have been one of the factors drawing hardline culture-warrior Catholics into bed with like-minded evangelicals.
He initially seemed quite open to the Jesus Movement, even arranging a 1972 concert affectionately dubbed “the Christian Woodstock.” But he’d soon veer the group to hard-right conservatism.
Cru’s name change and general growth
Bill Bright is even closely associated with the disturbing theocracy movement called Seven Mountains, or 7M. It began in 1975. Evangelicals following this supposedly-divine mandate believe that Christians are ordered by Jesus to dominate what they’ve identified as seven separate spheres of life (family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business, and government). They also believe that once they do that, the Endtimes can finally begin. This movement still exists, and its members were still seeking power as recently as the 2020 Presidential election.
Right before Bright died, he even co-signed the 2002 Land Letter. Big-name Southern Baptist leader Richard Land wrote it before his eventual firing over racism and plagiarism, and lots of other big-name evangelicals signed it. The letter offered a “just war” and thoroughly Jesus-y rationalization for the invasion of Iraq. That letter helped then-President George W. “Dubya” Bush push through his potentially-illegal invasion the next year.
Bright died in 2003, but his group lived on—and it flourished.
By 2011, the group would claim 25,000 missionaries operating in 191 countries. That’s also when they renamed the group to Cru to avoid “crusade” overtones, which they’d just discovered caused offense (especially to Muslims). Back in the 1950s, crusades were fine and dandy, but not anymore. In recent years, the group had also expanded its focus beyond just college campuses, so losing the “campus” part of the name made sense, they said.
Over the past couple of years, Cru has been having the same internal conflict as the Southern Baptist Convention over critical race theory and systemic racism. It’s beyond hilarious that it’s literally the same exact squabble, with exactly the same talking points, accusations, and proposed solutions being flung from each side.
Cru as a reflection of Boomer-era evangelicalism
I bring up that racism fight in Cru for a reason. A large component of traditionalists in Cru want to turn the group’s focus back to recruitment. That was Bill Bright’s entire primary reason for starting Cru, after all. Like the Southern Baptist traditionalists, Cru’s version view the group’s expansion into other concerns as a dangerous diversion of resources—and a decided mission drift. Worse, faction warfare over racism would, they insist, hurt Cru’s “unity,” which is something else one hears out of Southern Baptists. And like their Southern Baptist brethren, Cru’s traditionalists are positive that Jesus-ing harder will totally fix racism forever anyway. So why bother focusing on it at all?
In a lot of ways, Cru’s racism struggle reflects big differences between its largely-Boomer elders and their Millennial and Zoomer up-and-comers. Cru’s evangelism strategy is largely the same as it’s always been, and it looks like younger members are chafing under a system that simply doesn’t work as well as it used to—and which has some downright cringey aspects (like how their group’s social system perpetuates systemic racism) that older evangelicals either can’t perceive or resent being shown.
So as we go through their evangelism strategy, be thinking about that generational divide. Be thinking about how much older and much younger people would respond to these overtures.
Cru and the ‘three modes of evangelism’ model
I first ran across a description of Cru’s three-part evangelism model on a post over at LinkedIn, of all places. Alas, I don’t remember anymore what link I followed to get there. The biography of the guy who wrote the post, Ben Seiler, tells us about him:
Building OK Cru [circle emoji]. Coaching college leaders to live as SENT leaders. Telling stories about campus to encourage leaders that God is at work.
In the post, he further explains that he wants “to reach 30,000 students on campus [in Oklahoma] with the message of Christ.” To do that, he’s using Cru’s three-component strategy: Saturation, Evangelism, and Community. This current post covers the middle term and describes Cru’s three modes of evangelism. These modes are:
- Natural mode
- Body/life mode
- Ministry mode
Each mode contributes to the recruitment process in turn.
(As you might guess, “sending” is a big concept in Cru. Their “send model” outlines a number of other listicle components that are part of the process of doing missionary work for Cru. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Cru Twitter account defines “#SENT leader[s]” as Cru members who “walk deeply with God and make disciples.” I’m sure SENT means something specific. The all-caps thing hints at an acronym. But I’m not sure what it would be.)
‘Natural mode’ evangelism
The first mode could be called simply friendship evangelism. To do it, Cru members simply make friends and acquaintances all over campus. As Seiler explains:
Natural mode is relationally connecting to people God has put in your life. For you that may be co-workers, neighbors or other parents on the same soccer team. With Cru on campus, we try to saturate the campus with as many relationships as possible so students have connections to develop friendships with.
That sounds downright alarming, all things considered. We know that evangelicals have a lot of trouble making real friends.
Evangelicals go to all that effort to gain the opportunity to make a recruitment pitch. If their target rejects the pitch, all too often the recruiter vanishes from their life—along with their supposed friendship.
Back in the wild 1950s-1980s, when today’s biggest names in Cru were cutting their salesmanship teeth, people didn’t know much about this strategy. Increasingly, we also know that non-members are catching on to it.
‘Body/life mode’ evangelism
This mode simply consists of Cru members inviting normies to hang out with them or attend their church services or satellite groups’ devotions and activities. As Seiler explains:
Body/life mode is when you invite someone into Christian community and they experience the body of Christ. They have the “There is something different about these people” thought as they meet others. This is done by inviting people to Chruch [sic, I’m sure — CC], a community group or a men’s or women’s group in the morning. On campus, we have community groups in the places students live to make this mode work well.
Of course, this component requires the group to make itself seem as winsome and appealing as possible. The group must look like something that their target would naturally want to join and support.
And again, in recent years that might be difficult. Every up-and-coming age cohort of young adults (15-24) gets praised to the skies as being much more sophisticated and marketing-savvy than the previous one. Often, I’ve seen this praise delivered by a Boomer-or-older pastor who conveys a gee-whillikers sense of wonderment that such a thing could even be possible. My first pastor (70+ years old in the 1980s) said it about Gen X. I’ve heard pastors say it about Millennials. And now, pastors are saying it about Zoomers.
But Zoomers may be the first generation that fully earns that praise and then some. They’re the first generation to grow up knowing all about social media and smartphones. Heck, they probably got their start on the Sidekick, which debuted in 2002 and ruled middle and high schools till 2011. But more than that, they increasingly know all about the intrusiveness of media, algorithms, and marketing.
Sure, Zoomers may be fooled by a group on its best behavior for a while. But they won’t miss the red flags that evangelicals constantly wave.
‘Ministry mode,’ since Cru kinda has to do that too, one supposes
The last mode, ministry mode, feels like it is still part of the model through obligation. Seiler explains:
Ministry mode is what you think of when you think of classic evangelism styles. Having a spiritual conversation with someone you do not know. We do this on campus through surveys and follow up conversations to pledge talks. You can do this by taking a co-worker or friend to lunch and asking them about their faith.
That sounds incredibly dishonest to me. These would-be soulwinners are starting “a spiritual conversation” with a stranger under the guise of it being a survey or it just being a general conversation about their faith (or, increasingly, their lack thereof).
Increasingly, even evangelical Zoomers feel very reluctant to strike up conversations about faith. One can see why. It’s an intensely private topic. Our beliefs aren’t arbitrary or accidental. They reflect a lifetime’s worth of subjective experiences and conclusions. Demanding that someone else discuss those very private thoughts, or even worse demanding that other person change their entire belief system or religion, is a supreme violation of boundaries and trust.
And I doubt it’ll take Zoomers very long to realize that literally none of these recruiters are really dying of curiosity about their beliefs. Evangelical recruiters only ask that question to get to the point of the recruitment pitch they actually want to make.
I just can’t see how Cru recruiters can avoid getting Zoomers pretty pissed off at them by doing this.
But Cru’s data is clear, apparently, if impossible to find
Seiler concludes his essay:
Our data shows that for someone to come to know Christ, a person needs to experience all three modes of evangelism. It’s not likely that just one will work. For this reason, our three evangelism strategy reflect these three modes.
That made me very curious about just what their “data” might be—and more to the point, when Cru gathered it.
In that Christianity Today post about Cru’s struggles with racism (relink), Josh Chen, a Cru leader in Portland, linked differing solutions to racism to generational shifts in evangelism itself. To Chen, addressing racism constitutes an integral part of evangelizing younger generations:
“I think the way that we’ve talked about the gospel for decades is a contextualization of the gospel to the baby boomer generation,” said Chen, who ministers primarily to young postgrads. “And for those who are trying to do the hard work of reimaging the good news for this generation we are being deemed as unbiblical.”
Before the three modes model
But a 2009 paper by Patrick McLeod examining Cru’s evangelism methods doesn’t even mention these three modes by name. He does talk about “body-life principles” (p. 248), but there the term indicates the principles that should govern church congregations’ behavior and attitudes.
Instead, McLeod specifically probes the differences between Washington State University’s “proclamation model” of evangelism and Bowling Green State University’s “embodied witness” model. McLeod explains that the latter model “emphasizes such actions as welcoming, service, and inviting” (p. 224 in the PDF file; all page numbers refer to their PDF file page #.)
Far from bravely “proclaiming” their recruitment intentions, Bowling Green’s Cru leader, Michael Brown, ran stealth-evangelism events in the 1990s (p. 229). He tried to (in his words) “fly under the radar” of university officials—in other words, to avoid detection of Cru’s real activities. Moreover, he very much felt that Cru was on enemy territory at Bowling Green, and so he responded in kind by organizing his recruiters as “penetration teams” that each had its own territory to infiltrate and conquer.
Very occasionally, a Bowling Green recruitment target might get a formal invitation to an actual Cru event. But it would look at “cool” and welcoming as possible. Cru leaders tried very hard to pitch their group as a way to gain access to “the ultimate source of satisfaction” for the emotional needs that college students felt at the time.
It was stealthy, but it still looked recognizably like evangelism.
But then, Cru leaders changed everything
In 2000, McLeod tells us, Michael Brown and his Cru directors at Bowling Green introduced some sweeping changes to how Cru sought, courted, and gained recruits. The group became more service-oriented, ecumenical, and welcoming to a variety of different kinds of people. McLeod writes,
Small groups still gather each week to discuss the Bible, but many of the students that attend these groups do not even consider themselves Christians. Cru is still well known by the university administration, but not as the obnoxious Christian group that threatened to sue the university for not allowing one of its student leaders (who was also an employee of the University) to lead a Bible study in his dorm, but as the go-to group when the University needs help. [p. 232]
It’s very clear to me that these changes came about because of a weather change in how different generations of Americans engaged with evangelism. More and more Millennials were showing up in college, and they were nowhere near as open to stealth evangelism. In that post-2000 atmosphere at Bowling Green, we can perceive something more like Cru’s three-modes system:
[T]he word “evangelism” hardly exists within the vocabulary of the Cru culture. Scores of students share their faith regularly, but never by approaching someone they don’t know and trying to share with them the content of a religious tract.
To illustrate just how separated Bowling Green Cru members were from evangelism, McLeod relates a funny story from one of the first interviews with student leaders there. The young woman barely seemed to know what evangelism even was, asking: “By evangelism, do you mean reaching out to the lost and stuff like that?”
Why Bowling Green Cru changed everything
Brown changed from a classic SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY model to his far more relationship-based model because he felt that the classic model didn’t connect enough with evangelism targets. He also felt that previous generations may have responded better to that former approach, but it no longer worked as well with modern college students (p. 241).
Of course, the new approach was definitely sales-oriented. At no point did Brown want any of his Cru recruiters to forget that they were now immersing themselves in heathen relationships purely to draw those heathens closer to conversion (p. 246).
It was also just as deceptive as Brown’s earlier strategies. He has a memorized list of favorite (and oh so presumptuous and cringey) Just Asking Questions questions he likes to teach Cru recruiters to ask their targets:
What is the most annoying thing about Christianity to you? or, Have you ever met a Christian whose message didn‘t match their life and what did that do to you? If someone is antagonistic I like to ask them, “Tell me about that Christian friend who burned you.” [p. 262]
Again, nobody in Cru is really dying of curiosity to hear heathens’ answers to these questions. They’re simply the launchpad for an eventual recruitment pitch.
Cru recruiters’ chirping in this paper about all the awesome new friends they were making makes me wonder what happened if someone definitively rejected a recruitment pitch—or refused any fake friendship that was entered into solely to move them along the conveyor belt to evangelicalism.
I also wonder how many of those friends were happy to discover that Cru’s recruiters were that friendly only in hopes of changing their religious opinions. I can tell you that my Evil Ex Biff’s atheist targets in college in the mid-1990s sure weren’t thrilled to find that out.
This approach very clearly caught on with Cru as a whole
This 2010 presentation doesn’t mention McLeod’s paper at all. But very clearly, the proposals it makes were inspired by Michael Brown’s approach at Bowling Green. We see quite a telling admission on p. 10 about the Millennials that Cru recruiters were meeting lately:
We found in a world where savvy collegians filter most incoming information, our presentational approaches have become the unwanted “pop-up ads” on the computer screen of their lives.
Another Cru recruiter asked the unthinkable on p. 13:
Dr. [Bill] Bright said, “The majority of non-believers throughout the world are ready to receive Christ when properly approached with a clear and simple presentation of the gospel by a Spirit-filled witness.” What if this is no longer true in our context?
Another asks on p. 29:
“Most would agree that the culture is radically different in Boston today than it was at UCLA in 1951…so why are 15 year old practices from the mid-west still being pushed?”
Rough audience! But on page 17, we finally find two of their three modes named and laid out:
In general, “natural mode” and “ministry mode” fit into the definitions we found from Seiler’s essay.
By 2013, “body mode” (inviting normies to hang out with Christians doing Christian stuff) had joined these two. In an evangelism interview that year, Keith Davy discussed the three concepts together:
Keith’s research showed that of the students who trusted Christ, 50% came to Christ through the body mode. Someone invited them to a large gathering of Cru students and responded to an invitation to give their lives to Christ. 25% of believers came to Christ through the natural mode—a friend shared the gospel and they came to faith. The other 25% came to Christ through an outreach event…the ministry mode.
Davy also offered Cru followers a surefire conversion tactic:
The critical move was simply asking a friend a question something like this: “As long as we’ve known each other I’ve never heard your spiritual journey. At some time…” (Keith calls this their “At some time” strategy). That one question sets in motion the following dominoes [. . .]
Using this technique, Davy claimed that 4 out of 5 friends would play along, resulting in “a spiritual conversation.” Three of those would “result in a gospel conversation.” (That means an official sales pitch.) And 12-15% of those would lead to a conversion.
Just thinking about bright-eyed Cru students taking that claim seriously makes my heart hurt for them.
Cru’s evangelism model gets set in stone
So Cru has been developing this “three modes” model since at least 2000. They’ve had the whole three-part model in place since 2013. And I’m wondering if it even works still.
In a 2020 presentation Cru published, we still see the three-mode model pushed as essential (p. 8). It also echoes that “at some time” technique (p.11) that Davy discussed back in 2013, along with absolutely stellar claims of success rates—along with tantalizing promises of the super-low chances of a heathen ever having a negative reaction to a recruitment pitch.
In these and other ways, particularly the “Soularium” section on p. 12, this presentation could easily double as a multi-level marketing recruitment guide. On p. 14 and p. 21, it even offers completely dishonest “survey questions” for Cru recruiters to use to gain buy-in for future recruitment attempts. If you check out the presentation, don’t miss the horrifyingly cringey sample non-versations starting on p. 21.
I’d consider these scripts and fake survey questions hamfisted and obvious, and I’m a Gen Xer. It’s hard even to imagine the scorn they’ll provoke from the average nonreligious Zoomer. If this editorial feature from last year is any indication, those kids are gonna eat these people alive. They won’t even hesitate before going for the throat.
The alarming culty nature of Cru’s approach to evangelism
In past years, the new style of evangelism Cru developed clearly worked. And it worked because Millennials were sitting ducks for expressions of friendship and compassion. In McLeod’s 2009 paper (relink), we find these heartbreaking statements:
According to Jay, a new student who visited Cru, “This is the only place on campus where people remember my name.” [p. 269]
One of the most popular Cru topics, “Black Box Night,” [sort of like PostSecret] is emblematic of how Cru makes the lost person feel like this meeting is for them. [p. 269]
Whatever may be said about Cru evangelism, to be initiated into Christianity through this evangelistic movement is to be initiated into a community that loves being together. [p. 270]
Alex serves as a prototypical example of just such a student. He, in fact, received one of those Monday morning phone calls that came after Brown had prayed and asked God who he should initiate with that week. Ironically, Alex‘s personal struggles had climaxed the night before. [p. 271, and Alex converted “a few weeks later.”]
Likewise, Mary said, “They just care, and that made a huge impact. Just having this community that cares about you is nothing I have experienced in any faith.” [p. 272]
Luke may have summarized it best when he said: “The relationship I would say is the absolute most crucial thing that I had with Michael that allowed that (referring to spiritual conversations) to take place – I felt like he cared about me – I felt like he loved me.” [p. 272]
One wonders if those enthralled students ever found out that the literal only reason that Cru recruiters befriended them, carefully learned their names, called and visited them, and had constant conversations with them was so they could recruit them to their flavor of evangelicalism. It’s downright sinister that Cru didn’t tell these students why all of this love-bombing was happening. They appear to have allowed their prospects think all that lovey-ness was happening naturally because Jesus’ love just overflowed from them, not because it was simply a deliberate tactic their mother ship had deployed to the satellite campus ministries.
That said, it’s not surprising that people joined up. As young college students who were likely far from home for the first time, they needed companionship, friendship, intimacy, and all that other social-human-herd-animal stuff. And they had no idea that what Cru offered them was superficial at best, nor that it was completely contingent upon them, as prospects, at least seeming open to the idea of eventually converting.
Cru and the Rice Christian phenomenon
Sheer interpersonal intensity marks this evangelism model. Cru’s immersive evangelism technique is designed to consume new converts and settle them into a loving, caring church community that embraces them and is always intensely interested in them. Recruiters go to enormous lengths to socialize with their prospects, learn all about them, and present their recruitment pitches in ways those prospects will resonate with.
When those recruits leave college and start attending a regular evangelical church, the difference between Cru’s love-bombing and their new church’s attitude toward them has to be just staggering. Even in the mid-2010s, I was hearing Millennial evangelicals complain that their older leaders seemed utterly disinterested in them and their ideas about changing how churches did things. I can’t imagine that today’s church leaders are any more enthused with Zoomer members than they were with young Millennials.
It kinda sounds like Cru’s love-bombing could create what missionaries call Rice Christians. These are people who join Christianity purely to get the material benefits that missionaries often hand out to converts, notably food (rice). If the missionaries stop handing out those benefits, these Rice Christians dissolve into the mists of time. They were only there for the help the missionaries gave them. In a similar way, I wonder if Cru’s past converts ever became alienated when they stopped getting the love and community that Cru’s recruiters had showered upon them.
If so, it’s not like Cru would tell me, I reckon.
And why this style of evangelism won’t stop Christianity’s decline
For that matter, it’s impossible to say what’s happening with Cru’s overall membership and participation rates. Their website claims that their campus ministries operate in 2300 locations to serve 101k students and faculty members across America. If you’re wondering just how long they’ve claimed that, the answer is since at least 2018 with no changes at all.
However, if you compare the two links then you’ll notice Cru has updated other items on the page, notably about their movie version of Jesus’ life. Viewer numbers have grown, so they’ve updated their count accordingly. I’m guessing, then, that the other figures that weren’t updated just didn’t reflect growth.
They probably didn’t, at that. No matter what spaghetti evangelical leaders fling at their walls, none of it sticks. The religion becomes more irrelevant to a growing number of people within each new successive generational cohort.
I can see why Cru might not want to share exact membership numbers, though. By its very nature, a college parachurch ministry is an ephemeral presence in most students’ lives. They attend college for a few years, and then they’re off to grad school or work.
An utterly exhausting evangelism model can work for the temporary short term, especially if its masters are willing to throw paid staffers around to make it work. But even if it produced converts as reliably as Cru promises, it wouldn’t be the solution evangelicals need if they want their religion to grow through conversion.
What evangelicals need for that are groups that Zoomers actually want to join and support—a product they actually want to buy and keep buying. Unfortunately for Cru (and very fortunately for the rest of us), that’s increasingly not evangelicalism. And all Cru’s got to win them is a 20-year-old evangelism strategy that likely doesn’t work anymore on Zoomers.
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