They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Well, I used to have a couple of wearable sandwich boards that begged to differ!
In this article, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on “free lunch evangelism”; what it is, why we naturally want to do it, and why it might be time for a rethink.
This is part one of a four-part series looking at evangelism in the 21st century. I’ll be covering…
What is free lunch evangelism?
“Free lunch evangelism” is a term that I’ve literally just coined. But it certainly isn’t a new idea.
Apparently, back in the late 19th century, saloons in America would lure customers in with the offer of a “free lunch”. This lunch would naturally be nice and salty, to encourage plenty of drinking.
And it led to the aforementioned expression, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. After all, the saloons wouldn’t have been offering the free lunch if they didn’t expect to at least cover the cost through additional drinks sales.
In reality, it was all about the drinks!
If you’re into your Christian jargon you’ll know that a lunchbar is an evangelist event put on by university Christian Unions in the UK.
Lunchbars take place on campus at, you guessed it, lunchtime. And they usually comprise a short gospel talk and a free lunch.
Back in 2010, I took over the role of Evangelism Secretary at Nottingham Trent Christian Union and that meant I inherited the job of running the lunchbars. I would book the venue, find a speaker, get the flyers printed, and make sure we had plenty of food for our “free lunch”.
I also inherited a couple of wearable sandwich boards that had “FREE LUNCH” plastered on the front and back in all caps. CU members would walk up and down campus wearing these and handing out the flyers.
As you might expect, plenty of students were interested in getting a free lunch. They were less interested in sticking around for the Jesus talk. And most were able to come up with a half-decent excuse for why they needed to dash off just before the speaker got going.
That is free lunch evangelism at its most primitive!
But it doesn’t have to literally be a free lunch that you’re using to lure people in to your evangelistic talk. The “free lunch” can be all sorts of different things.
- A live band/jazz night
- A quiz
- A sports tournament
- A party/fun-day
- A standup comedian or magician
- A breakfast/curry/BBQ etc.
Absolutely anything that you’re using to get people through the doors and bums on seats. It really doesn’t matter what it is.
I’ve been involved with every single one of the alternative free lunches listed above. A sports quiz, with a 10-minute gospel talk in between rounds. A table tennis tournament, with a testimony before the knockout stage. A comedy night, where the comedian switches gears at the end and starts talking about Jesus.
That’s free lunch evangelism. You came for the free jazz, drinks and nibbles. But, in the end, you realise you paid for it by listening to the talk.
A free lunch (with a talk) vs a talk (with a free lunch)
Before we move on to looking at why we love putting on free lunch evangelistic events, I want to briefly highlight a good reason for offering a free lunch at your evangelistic event.
St Nick’s Talks meets every Thursday at St Nicholas Cole Abbey in London. They meet at lunchtime, are openly evangelistic, and give everyone a free lunch.
But St Nick’s Talks is not free lunch evangelism!
Here’s the key question you need to ask…
Are you offering a free lunch to make it easier for people to come to the talk or is the “free lunch” the main thing being advertised to get people to the talk?
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against providing people who are attending your lunchtime talk with a free lunch. That sounds like a great idea!
City workers probably don’t have time to attend your talk and go and grab food in their lunch break. So, instead of making them choose, why not sort out lunch for them?
The issue is when the free lunch becomes the main draw. The bait you’re using to lure people in.
When we were putting on our lunchbars at Nottingham Trent, we could have put the title of the talk on the sandwich boards and then told people that lunch is also provided. Instead, we went for… FREE LUNCH!
Why we love free lunch evangelism!
Most churches I’ve come across engage in some form of free lunch evangelism. Why is it so popular? I think there are a few reasons.
1. The numbers
When we put on an evangelist event, we generally consider it a success if lots of people come and the room feels full. And we assume we’ll get a lot more people through the doors for a “truffle making and chocolate tasting” event than an evangelistic sermon.
So, when planning an event, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out which type of “free lunch” our demographic will find most attractive.
We end up with lots of dodgeball tournaments and open mic nights at universities and plenty of arts and crafts mornings and jazz evenings everywhere else.
Most of the time, lots of people do come to these. Because plenty of students are up for a dodgeball tournament. And seemingly, baby boomers can’t get enough of jazz music!
2. The easy invite
The general impression is that Christians find it difficult or uncomfortable inviting their non-Christian friends to a gospel talk, and that it’s much easier to invite them to a church BBQ or a sports quiz.
So, we put on a “free lunch” evangelistic event hoping that the congregation will be a bit more enthusiastic about inviting people from their “network” (family, friends, colleagues).
And, in general, we probably are more likely to invite our friend from work to “a film night happening at our church next Saturday” than to a talk from Luke’s gospel.
3. The brand perception opportunity
We have a sneaking suspicion that the world around us thinks Christians are boring, stuffy, old, stupid, uncool, or whatever. Perhaps an exciting “free lunch” evangelistic event could be just the thing to change their minds?
We’re normal. We’re cool. We’re intelligent. We’re sophisticated. We’re fun.
Something like a wine tasting event ticks all of those boxes. It’s fun. It’s cool. It’s alcohol – surprise! It’s high-end.
Is it time for a rethink?
I think it is. And here’s why.
I think it’s strange that we’re putting on evangelistic events that are, at most, only 10% gospel – if not 5%, or even 0%! If the power is in the Word then shouldn’t it be given the majority of the time?
I’ll admit that I don’t know a great deal about historical revivals. But, as far as I’m aware, they were built out of Christian meetings and preaching – rather than local churches trying to cobble together, for example, a circus and then sticking a 10-minute “God slot” in the middle of it.
And, from what I’ve read in the New Testament, I don’t think Paul chose to implement any evangelistic tent-making workshops as a part of his missionary journeys either.
I don’t know about you, but free lunch evangelism has always made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Like we’re not being 100% honest with people. Like we’ve got a hidden agenda.
We’re putting on a creative writing workshop, for example, but we don’t really care about helping you to improve your creative writing. The only reason we’re doing this is to get you through the doors so that we can tell you about Jesus. And we figured you wouldn’t come if we were more open about it!
And the more I think about it, the more it all just starts to feel a bit desperate. As if we’ve decided what we’re offering isn’t very good so we’re trying to get people in with something else instead.
It reminds me of something my wife told me after visiting Tom Kerridge’s Pub in the Park. Naturally, she and her friend were drawn towards the tent giving out free brownies. But once she got inside, a lady started talking to her about Trinity Theatre.
Trinity Theatre don’t really care about brownies. It’s certainly not what they’re passionate about. Surely it would have been better if they’d used the art of drama to engage with people, rather than confusing them with brownies!
Free lunch evangelistic events are meant to be easier to invite people to. But I’m not convinced they are.
For starters, most of my non-Christian friends don’t really want to come to a jazz evening. They’ll often decline the invitation before I’ve even mentioned there’s going to be a “short gospel talk” at the halfway point. It’s the “free lunch”, the random extra bit, that’s putting them off!
Let’s say I do find a friend who likes jazz and enjoys going along to jazz nights. Well, now I’m a bit embarrassed to ask him. I’m assuming he probably isn’t going to be that impressed with the church band’s attempt at a jazz night. It’s certainly not going to live up to what he’s used to.
And am I inviting him to a jazz night or to an evangelistic talk? Kind of both, right? But it’s actually pretty hard to invite someone to two things.
So I start by asking him if he fancies coming along to a jazz night at church. But then often there just isn’t a natural opportunity to mention that “there’s also going to be a short gospel talk at some point during the evening”. And if there is an opportunity, what am I meant to say anyway? I can’t remember the vague provisional talk title – if there even is one.
I reckon that the majority of guests at free lunch evangelistic events are at least slightly surprised when the vicar gets up and starts speaking from the bible. And with that in mind…
We need to remember that we’ve probably been to so many of these free lunch evangelistic events that we start to forget how weird it is.
Imagine a friend invited you to come bowling with him and some of his mates from the local Green Party. And you thought, “Why not? I like bowling.”
And then, in between the first and second game, some random man stands up and spends 10 minutes telling you why everyone should join the Green Party. You look around and most people there already are part of the Green Party. They all know each other. They’ve got their Green Party badges on. So he’s basically just saying you should join.
And then after the talk, your friend turns to you and says, “So, what did you think of the talk?”
What’s the alternative?
I think a lot of churches have started to realise that free lunch evangelism is a pretty awkward, clunky, and altogether odd way to tell people about Jesus.
It makes people uncomfortable. It feels a bit deceptive. It rings of what happens when you’re on holiday and they try and sell you a timeshare.
Because of that realisation, I’m seeing more church “evangelist” events where the free lunch isn’t only taking priority over the message, but there simply is no message. The whole event is just a free lunch.
These events become an opportunity to serve the community. Or to get to know the community. Or to show Jesus’ love to the community. Which is fine. But it’s not really evangelism any more, is it?
I’ve heard this sort of event being called “pre-evangelism”. The “first step” of developing a relationship with those outside of the church.
But I won’t say any more about that today, otherwise I’ll spoil tomorrow’s article (part two) on what I’m calling “funnel evangelism“.