A recent ruling by the High Court in Britain condemned UK banks for mis-selling Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) when offering mortgages for individuals to buy property. The court took the view that customers had agreed to take on the extra cost involved because they believed that they might not be granted the loans if they were to refuse.
There is little evidence that banks overtly told customers that this was the case but the methods employed in the transactions left a clear implication that agreeing to PPI was an essential part of the process.
There are perhaps lessons for the church, and related mission based organisations, to learn from this ruling.
Firstly, people agree to propositions for a variety of reasons and we should not assume that the overt call for a response is fully understood by the hearer.
An alter call might well be seen as having a clear evangelical message by those who attend the church regularly. The visitor, however, might be responding to the suggested answer to a particular felt need on that occasion.
For example; a young girl arrives at church fresh from the break up of a long standing committed relationship. During the sermon the preacher affirms that speaking with God can offer comfort to those in crisis.
The regular attender hears this as a call to 'become a Christian' and 'start attending the church'. The guest, however, hears that their pain can be eased by praying.
The appeal is given and the woman responds. The church counts this as a decision to become a follower of Christ and processes her application for assurance according.
Thus there are two different interpretations of the same event. The church now speaks to her as if she has made a full commitment to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. She is 'sold' personal assurance on the back of responding to receiving comfort for her felt need.
Secondly, churches and agencies might offer an individual some much needed help in their moment of crisis. During the delivery of this kindness a church worker explains the gospel and offers to pray with them if they desire to respond.
The person in need senses that to refuse this part of the deal might lead to the help being withdrawn or limited and so agrees to become a 'follower of Jesus'.
The church worker may not have intended to mis-communicate the message but in their eagerness to see people respond they perhaps ignore the emotional vulnerability of those in need.
If we consider the high court ruling and allow this to reflect on the two examples above we might consider that some parts of the church could be accused of mis-selling.
Here are a few thoughts to help church leaders avoid falling into such a trap.
1. Avoid using the Barnum Effect*
We perhaps need to be careful in our calls for a response to the gospel that we do not offer a proposition so wide that it could include just about everyone whilst making it look as if we are speaking specifically to individuals.
Appeals that start off with some suggested insight into the circumstances of the intended responder but end up being aimed at 'anyone who is breathing' undermine the strength of the message.
2. Avoid the commoditisation of individuals.
There is a danger that churches measure such responses as the number of 'souls saved' as if this were some key performance indicator. We should never turn people's story into a mere measurement of our success.
It's not that measurement is in itself wrong but that we can begin to count the initial act of getting people to respond as the main indicator of success.
Every person's back story is more important than the ecclesiological statistics of any given church.
3. Understand that behind every person there are many others.
Behind those who responds are others who will develop their own commentary on how the church treats this newcomer.
Families are understandably concerned when their loved ones adopt new patterns of behaviour. The church is rightly judged for how it treats these people.
Much of our teaching, explicitly or otherwise, draws people out of their old life and into a new community. This can cause a division between individuals and their families. One has to question whether this is a goal consistent with the gospel message.
I have often heard evangelical leaders asking the question 'why is the back door bigger than the front?' in the context of church growth.
Perhaps to fully answer this we need to understand more about the journey made by those coming into the church.
If, as we have seen, there is the possibility that the church and those who respond to an appeal can view this transaction in a different way, we must make every effort to handle these moments with care.
We don't want to be accused of mis-selling personal assurance.
(* The Forer effect (also called the Barnum Effect after P.T. Barnum's observation that "we've got something for everyone") is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people.)