Science in Christian Perspective



Social Psychological Analysis of Mass Evangelism
Graduate School of Psychology Fuller Theological Seminary Pasadena, California 91101
Departments of Psychology and Urban Studies
Simpson College
San Francisco, California 94134

From: JASA 31 (March 1979): 25-29.

Mass evangelism is examined in the light of social psychological research on mass communication, attitudes and attitude change. Four principles of mass communication, with respect to its effectiveness in changing attitudes, are explored. Implications for mass evangelism strategy are discussed.

Mass evangelism is a widely discussed subject among contemporary evangelicals. Church leaders vary greatly in their feelings toward it. A British bishop has asserted, "Mass evangelism has been permitted by the Devil to keep the Church from practicing the biblical ideal of community evangelism."' This extreme view is balanced on the other hand by those who eagerly embrace any method that will increase audience size, motivated by the naive assumption that a large audience guarantees a large response.

It is undeniable that modern technological advances have opened up numerous new and exciting methods for fulfilling the Great Commission not available to previous generations. Television, radio, tape-cassettes and other means have been used in an attempt to reach greater numbers of the unsaved with the Gospel. Although we have seen some positive results through utilization of a mass communication approach, the church is far from fully realizing the potential power of its new tools. This is due largely to a failure to understand the strengths and weaknesses of mass communication which leads in many eases to a haphazard evangelism strategy. Careful study of existing mass communications research needs to he explicitly coupled with research which specifically investigates mass evangelism.

The purpose of this paper is to examine mass evangelism in light of contemporary social psychological research. By examining literature on mass communication, attitudes, and attitude change we are better able to understand mass evangelism and its proper application. Studies of attitudes are particularly relevant to mass evangelism because faith, which may be considered the end goal of Christian evangelism, meshes well with the contemporary understanding of attitudes. Attitudes are conceptualized with three components: (1) cognitive (or beliefs), (2) emotional (or feelings), (3) behavioral (or action). These three components are all a part of Christian faith .2

Components of Christian Faith

First, there is a cognitive element in Christian faith. The early kerygma of the Christian church, as summarized by Professor C. H. Dodd,3 contained statements which were essentially factual. "The faith, in the sense of the message which the apostles and evangelists proclaimed, was an affirmation of what God had done in Christ.4 Orthodox theologians have always understood faith as being rational, or based on belief in objective, historical events.

Christian faith is also emotional. This is to say that a Christian strongly identifies with his faith and has
strong feelings toward it. Faith in Christ can never simply be intellectual understanding devoid of feelings. It must always consist of the "yes of the whole personality to the facts of Christ.5

There is also an action component in the Christian faith. "Faith . . involves personal decision, trust, commitment and obedience; it is a wholehearted acceptance of the claim of God upon a man, in the situation in which he exists, with the appropriate response in life and action."6 True Christian faith must involve not only understanding, but also commitment and obedience. This point is made clear by James when he says, "You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder." (James 2:19) The mere cognitive acceptance of a sound creed is not enough. It is necessary for a person to commit himself actively to what lie is intellectually arid emotionally convinced of.

Inasmuch as faith consists of the same three elements that constitute attitudes, it can he examined in the light of research dealing with attitudes and attitude change. We will now examine some of the characteristics of mass communication with respect to its efficacy in changing attitudes. This will aid us in evaluating mass evangelism.

Mass Communication Research

Joseph T. Klapper reviewed some twenty-odd years of mass communication research and reports the following four basic principles as clearly emerging.

1. Mass communication rarely serves as an agent of attitude conversion.
2. Mass communication ordinarily serves as an agent of reinforcement for such attitudes, opinions, arid behavioral tendencies as the individual audience members already possess.
3. Mass communication often modifies existing attitudes of the audience . . . but to a degree short of nullifying the attitude or of effecting conversion.
4. Mass communication has been found extremely effective in creating attitudes or opinions in regard to topics on which the audience member had no previous opinion at all.7

The remainder of this paper is organized around these four findings. Each is examined with respect to its causes and implications for the Church's evangelism strategy. We do believe that the Holy Spirit can and does at times work contrary to these social psychological principles in His ministry of personal conviction. This, however, does not excuse us from planning and researching evangelism, relying simultaneously upon the leading of the Spirit and the fruits of our academic inquiry. To ignore either reflects poor stewardship.

1. Mass communication rarely serves as an agent of attitude conversion.

In order to appreciate this finding more fully it is important for us to understand some of the characteristiss of the audience. Early psychological research in the area of attitude change relied heavily on what has become known as the "hypodermic model."8 This model was based on the assumption that the communication was a pure stimulus which, when presented to the audience, would either produce the desired response or would fail to do so. The audience was regarded as primarily passive and the majority of research was directed toward the nature of the message or the characteristics of the communicator.

In many ways the church still seems to he operating under the assumptions of the hypodermic model. Primary, and often exclusive, emphasis is placed on the message in evangelism. This leads to what Engel and Norton call "one-way communication-the message is sent from the pulpit, over the air, in print, or in person; the response on the other end is only a secondary consideration.9 Message purity is important but must not be stressed to the point of ignoring message relevancy.

Present research devotes much more attention to what have become known as "mediating factors."10 These mediating factors concern the response of the individual audience members to the message. Message recipients are no longer regarded as passive receivers, but rather as active processors of the information which is presented to them.

A person will usually ignore, distort or forget any message which threatens a centrally important belief.

One reason for the difficulty in changing attitudes through mass evangelism is that religious beliefs are likely to be central in the individual's inter-related system of attitudes. According to Bokeaeh, "the more a belief is functionally connected or in communication with other beliefs, the more implications and consequences it has for other beliefs, and, therefore, the more central the belief."11 Changing a central belief involves repercussions in many other areas of that person's belief system. These repercussions can often he seen in the dramatic change in the lives of new believers. Because of their importance in maintaining attitudinal consistency within the individual, attitudes of this type are extremely resistent to externally based arguments. A person will usually ignore, distort or forget any message that threatens a centrally important belief.

One way of avoiding such threatening communication is through "selective exposure". People are more likely to expose themselves to information with which they agree. A person is not likely to subject himself to media which will challenge attitudes important to his maintaining a sense of attitudinal balance. This is a major shortcoming of mass evangelism. It has very little effect in reaching those who are strongly opposed to the message of the Gospel for the simple reason that these people do not usually expose themselves to "Christian" media.

It must be understood that attitudes serve many, varying needs within the individual. Katz has proposed four functions which attitudes perform. They are (1) instrumental, adjustive, or utilitarian, (2) ego-defensive, (3) value-expressive, and (4) knowledge.'2 According to his "functional approach" to attitude change, it is first necessary to determine the function which a particular attitude serves for an individual before a
prediction can he made regarding how and when that attitude will be changed.

This theory accounts for much of the failure of mass communication in producing attitude conversion. It is particularly relevant in evangelism, for "the typical religious message which is directed toward attitude change is constructed with but one or two aspects of attitudinal function in mind.13 In most cases the knowledge function alone is addressed to the exclusion of the others.

A major reason for the difficulty in addressing the other attitudinal functions is the lack of information available to the originator of the evangelistic communication. He almost invariably has no data regarding the nature of his audience's attitudes. Thus, he is unable to structure his message to meet their particular attitudinal needs.

According to Katz, the knowledge function of attitudes is most susceptible to the mass communication approach. This type of attitude will be changed upon presentation of new information which creates uncertainty in the mind of the recipient. If the facts are presented in such a way that they create sufficient dissonance within the individual audience member, it is predicted that he will change his attitude.
Changing the other three types of attitudes via mass communication is somewhat less successful, especially in the case of ego-defensive attitudes. "The usual ways of changing attitudes have little effect on . . . (them), (i.e. increasing the flow of information, promising and bestowing rewards, and invoking penalties). In fact, these procedures usually have a boomerang effect."14 Thus, a person with this type of attitude may, through exposure to a communicator who is unaware of his particular attitudinal characteristics, become unreceptive to any further presentation of the Gospel.

This principle must he seriously reckoned with by every Christian communicator in order to avoid placing stumbling blocks in the future spiritual development of his audience. The type of audience most susceptible to this boomerang effect are those who have not chose!) to expose themselves to a particular message but have had it "forced" upon them. An example would he a spot ad on secular radio. Such an evangelistic technique has little chance of effecting a major attitudinal change unless it has been specifically designed to meet the need of the individual audience member. If it is not so designed, it can cause more harm than good.

It is poor strategy to spend much money and time beaming evangelistic messages to an audience that consists almost exclusively of Christians.

It would he extremely valuable if evangelists engaged in research prior to any major presentation of the Gospel. They should try to discern as accurately as possible the feelings of their audience toward Christianity. If at all possible, messages should be directed toward relatively homogeneous populations. This procedure would greatly increase the effectiveness of any evangelistie attempt while decreasing its potential for harm.

2. Mass communication ordinarily serves as an agent of reinforcement for such attitudes, opinions, and behavioral tendencies as the individual audience members already possess.

According to Klapper, this finding is probably the most basic and widely confirmed principle in the entire field of mass communication. Two intrapsychic mechanisms, selective retention and selective perception, are largely responsible for the reinforcement tendency of mass communication.

Selective retention refers to the tendency of the individual to recall material with which he is sympathetic far better than material with which he disagrees. Not only is sympathetic material recalled better in tests of short term memory, but this difference in recall rapidly intensifies over time: unsympathetic material is forgotten more rapidly than sympathetic material. This fact has been borne out by much research and is another reason for the ineffectiveness of mass communication in attitude conversion. When the individual is presented with material with which he does not agree, he is more likely to forget it, thus reducing the dissonance which he may have momentarily experienced.

Selective perception suggests that people tend to misperceive and misinterpret unsympathetic information in such a way that for them it becomes information which supports their own view. A person who receives threatening information may simply distort the message and view it as lending credence to what he already believes. This response has also been widely validated by much research.

These selective processes point out the importance of feedback in communication. Without adequate feedback, a communicator is unable to determine how his audience is treating his message. Mass evangelism does not lend itself to feedback of this type. The evangelist is therefore not in a position to counter the attempts of his audience as they mentally struggle to escape the force of his presentation. Thus, in some instances, audience members will actually use the message of the evangelist to further strengthen their attitudinal opposition to the Gospel. Evangelistic communicators must be careful to avoid this possibility.

The role of mass communication in reinforcing attitudes, opinions, and behavioral tendencies which are already held has tremendous implications for building up the body of Christ. Christian radio stations, television, and literature, as well as the usual Sunday morning sermon, have all proven effective in strengthening the faith of individual believers. This ministry to Christians should be the main goal of "Christian" mass media. Such media have little chance of reaching the unsaved due to selective exposure-unbelievers will usually change the station. It is poor strategy to spend much money and time beaming evangelistic messages to an audience that consists almost exclusively of Christians.

3. Mass communication often modifies existing attitudes of the audience . . but to a degree short of
nullifying the attitude or effecting conversion.

This finding is extremely important in helping to outline our evangelism strategy. It seems reasonable, in light of the fact that mass communication rarely produces major attitude conversion, that we should take a closer look at our concept of mass evangelism. Must "conversion" always be the immediate goal of every evangelistic effort or would it perhaps he better to set a goal of attitude modification when using a mass communication approach? Research suggests that the latter would prove far more fruitful.

Rokeach has defined an attitude as a "relatively enduring organization of beliefs about an object or situation predisposing one to respond in some preferential manner."15 The "central objects" of Christian faith are Christ: his life, death and resurrection. This belief is organizationally related to many other beliefs (i.e. beliefs dealing with the nature of man, the church, the purpose of life, etc.). Since mass communication is relatively unsuccessful in effecting a major change in the uusaved persons attitudinal core, it would be far better to direct the bulk of our mass communication efforts to changing more peripheral beliefs and aiming toward modification of existing attitudes rather than conversion. This modification would "soften" a person's attitude and pave the way for a future conversion.

James Engel has devised a model of what he calls the "Spiritual Decision Process'" (see Figure 1). This model, along with well-planned pre-evangelism research aimed at determining the nature of a particular audience's attitudes is a helpful tool in planning evangelism strategy. Engel illustrates how people vary in their attitude toward, and their understanding of, the Gospel. According to Engel, people range in their attitude toward the Gospel all the way from -8 (awareness of a supreme being-nothing more) to -1 (at which point a person makes a commitment to Christ).

The point which seems most relevant to this study is -4 (positive attitude toward the Gospel). It is this point which seems to set the limit for those who could be converted by mass evangelism. Conversion for those between -4 and -1 would not require a major attitude change, as those people are not strongly oppossed to Christianity. Thus, it is only necessary to clarify and modify those attitudes which the individuals already possess. Research suggests that mass evangelism would be very successful in modifying and clarifying the attitudes of persons with these basically positive attitudes. This type of person is often found at large scale evangelistic crusades due to the weeding out process of selective exposure. This, along with the working of the Holy Spirit, most likely accounts for a great deal of the success of men such as Billy Graham.
We should avoid trying to "convert" those in the -5 through -s stages via mass evangelism. Not only will our successes with these individuals be extremely sparse, but we might even inadvertently strengthen a person's opposition to the Gospel. With an audience of this type it is more important to concentrate on proclamation, rather than persuasion. Attitude modification should be the goal-not conversion.

4. Mass communication has been found extreme!,,, effective in creating attitudes or opinions in regard to topics on which the audience member had no previous opinion at all. When no previous opinions are held the importance


God's Role     Communicator's Role              Man's Response 

General Revelation                                    -8      Awareness of Supreme Being but not of Gospel
   Conviction      Proclamation                   -7       Initial Awareness Gospel
                                                                -6       Awareness of Fundamentals of Gospel
                                                                -5       Grasp of Implications or Gospel
                                                                -4        Positive Attitude Toward Gospel
                                                                -3        Personal Problem Recognition
                        Persuasion                        -2        Decision to Act
                                                                -1        Repentance and Faith in Christ
         Regeneration                                                         New Creature
   Sanctification                                         +1       Post Decision Evaluation
                        Follow-up                        +2       Incorporation into Body
                        Cultivation                        +3       Conceptual and Behavior Growth


of mediating factors is greatly reduced. In these cases the "hypodermic model" mentioned previously is helpful. The intrapsychic dynamics of the audience become less important because the individual's attitudinal balance is not being threatened. With audiences of this type, message and source factors often are sufficient to "produce" successful attitude formation.

Unfortunately, there are few people, at least in America, who do not have rather centralized religious attitudes. It is rare to find an individual lacking beliefs regarding Christianity. For this reason, the principle of attitude creation has little relevance for mass evangelism in America.

The implications for foreign missions, however, are great. This finding suggests that mass communication could he used very successfully in effecting conversion in those who are relatively unaware of the basics of Christianity. Although the potential for foreign missions is great, the temptation to assume that mass communication will always work when a person is unfamiliar with Christianity must be avoided for the following reasons. Due to the nature of Christian faith, belief in Christ must be integrated with a great many other beliefs in a person's interrelated belief structure. Thus, a presentation of the Gospel is potentially threatening to an individual's attitudinal balance even though the beliefs which have been challenged do not specifically relate to Christianity. Examples of such beliefs are those dealing with moral behavior, societal structure, cultural norms etc.

For this reason, Christian communicators must he extremely cautious to strip the Gospel of its American, middle class clothing when presenting it to foreign cultures. This will reduce the chance of a person rejecting the message of Christ because he perceives it as threatening a previously held belief, which in reality might have nothing to do with Christianity. While making certain that biblical principles are not compromised, missionaries should make every effort to adapt the message of Christ to those beliefs which members of a particular culture already hold. This will reduce greatly the role of mediating factors and increase the effectiveness of the communication.


Four principles of mass communication have been examined and each has been shown to have relevance for mass evangelism strategy. In most eases the term "mass evangelism" has been used in its most general sense. Specific forms of mass evangelism (i.e. mass rallies, television, radio, literature, mailings etc.) each have their own particular characteristics and for that reason it is necessary for the Christian communicator to examine his own media with respect to the four principles described. In that way a specific program of evangelism can he mapped out taking into account the nature of the audience's attitude structure, the degree of immediate attitude change desired and the type of media to he used. Hopefully this sort of evangelism strategy will he used by the Holy Spirit to bring many to an attitude of saving faith in Jesus Christ.


1Quoted in Edward F. Morphey, "Mass Evangelism is not Obsolete," Christianity Today, Feb. 28, 1975. pgs. 6-9.
2For a more in depth study of Christian faith as an attitude see Vern C. Lewis, "A Psychological Analysis of Faith," Journal of Psychology and Theology, 1974, 2, pgs. 97-103.
3C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching, new ed., 1944.
4Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (New York, 1958), p. 24.
5ibid, p. 24.
6ibid, P. 30.
7Joseph T.Klapper, "Mass Communication, Attitude stability, and Change" in Attitude, Ego Involvement, and Change, Sherif and Sherif (Ed,.) (New York, 1967), P. 298.
8ibid, p. 298.
9James F. Engel, and H. Wilbert Norton, What's Gone Wrong With the Harvest? (Grand Rapids: Michigan, 1975), p.24.
10Klapper, op cit, p. 300.
11Milton Rokeach, Beliefs, Attitudes and Values (San Francisco, 1968), p. 5.
12D. Katz, "The Functional approach to the study of Attitudes," Public Opinion Quarterly, 1960, 24, 163-177.
13Bichard Sizer, "Christian Worship: Preaching as a Technique of Behavior Change," unpublished paper presented at Western Association of Christians for Psychological Studies convention May, 1975.
14Katz, op cit, p. 174.
15Rokeach, op cit, p. 134.
16James F. Engel, "World Evangehzation: A Myth, A Dream, or a Reality?" Spectrum, 1975, 1, pgs. 4-6.