What we can learn from the real evangelists?

This is a description of Billy Graham crusades from an academic study I’ve been reading. I’m interested in how real evangelists work (after all, I use the term often enough when talking to colleagues and clients):

Counselors begin their work after the singing, testimonials, collection and Billy Graham’s sermon, which culminates in the altar call. At the moment of Graham’s invitation to “come forward to Christ.” counselors and choir members begin moving forward to an area usually in front of the speaker’s platform or rostrum. To a naive member of the audience or a television viewer, this movement creates an illusion of a spontaneous and mass response to the invitation. Having been assigned seating in strategic areas of the auditorium or arena and given instructions on the staggered time-sequencing for coming forward, the counselors move forward in such a fashion so as to create the illusion of individuals “flowing” into the center of the arena from all quarters, in a steady outpouring of individual decision. Unless an outsider or observer of these events has been instructed to look for the name tags and ribbons worn by those moving forward it is all too easy to infer from these appearances the “charismatic” impact of Graham and his invitation. These strategies promote the respectability of making a public commitment and represent methods calculated to manipulate the consent of the passive, the uncertain, the wary, and the indecisive.

(from: David L. Altheide and John M. Johnson, Counting Souls: A Study of Counseling at Evangelical Crusades, The Pacific Sociological Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, (Jul., 1977), pp. 323-348)


A recent (and criticised) study by Tubemogul on the short shelf life of online video reminded me of some research into views on YouTube videos I did back in 2006. I only looked at about 130 random YouTube videos for the first 20 days of their life cycle, while TubeMogul’s methodology was somewhat more sound (they tracked more than 10K videos for around three months, among other things.)

Here’s the chart from my analysis:
chart of viewer activity on YouTube

And here’s the chart from theirs:

tube mogul video shelf-life research

You can see that it was pretty easy for me to accept their findings.

What does this have to do with evangelicals?

It’s a point I haven’t quite got my head around (that’s what this blog’s for, I’m afraid – to share what I’m thinking about, not to share what I’ve already thought out.)

I’m interested in the idea of momentum (something that my colleague Marian Salzman first brought to my attention.)

By creating the appearance of acceleration (using pre-briefed volunteers and “staggered time-sequencing”) the evangelicals put on a better show. They pull people with them.

Does the gradual build ultimately deliver more volume than the fanfare? What are the timelines?

Apologies: some very poorly put-together thoughts here. More – perhaps – later.


You know the way, when a new social networking tool appears, first one email, then a few, then a dozen of emails from your friends arrive asking you to join them? Or videos always used to be on YouTube, but these days you’re seeing more Vimeo in your mix? Or (for the geekier among you) open source projects were always on SourceForge, but now you’re seeing more on Google Code.

It’s that sense of movement, of a growing surge that we notice, I think, and that can foreground a new entrant in a market heavily dominated by another player.


  1. Mat says

    I don’t think that the Billy Graham Crusade cared all that much about astroturfing. I think – rather – that they wrote the manual.

    You’re right to call me on this though, Whatleydude. I’m fascinated by con-men, evangelists, canned laughter and claques right now (I’ll post more on this later.)

    If you were to represent the consciousness of all the smart people in the game right now, it would probably be long on concepts like “wisdom of crowds”, “long tail”, “the consumer is in control”, “conversation is king”, “authenticity rules”, “do well by doing good”, and so on.

    This was a niche that – like so many others – I thought I had cornered a bit of for myself a few years ago.

    Now that niche feels a little overcrowded. What’s a man to do?

  2. Mat says

    Bright – thanks for your contribution. I don’t know that I’m talking about “real evangelists” — indeed, I’m keener on talking about the fake kind — or at least those evangelists who are willing to use a lot of technique and tradecraft to support whatever divine inspiration they have.

    Marketing people use the word “evangelist” a lot, but tend to forget where the word springs from in the first place.

Please tell me what you think.