...and that ye be renewed in the spirit of your mind (Ephesians 4:23).

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09 June 2010

Evangelism in the 21st Century (3): Modern Evangelistic Methods

We have spent some time considering evangelism in the 21st century. We have surveyed the modern religious climate and have demonstrated how the first century offers many parallels with the twenty-first century. We also considered the modern trend toward isolationism and the need for the church to be the community of God's people that God desires it to be. Having seen the religious condition of the twenty-first century, what can we do to promote the Gospel in this day and age? What methods are currently being used, and do they really accomplish what God desires?

As we survey the religious landscape around us, we see many different groups attempting to promote their given brand of Christianity by many different methods. All kinds of evangelism fads are present; many persevere, others go by the wayside after awhile.

Some of the current fads involve "seeker friendly" services. A given church will go "all out" to attract potential members, using the entire assembly and everything surrounding it to make the seeker feel "welcome". These services (along with many others) are designed to be entertaining, trying desperately to appeal to the vanity of average twenty-first century Americans. Very few, if any, negatives will be presented; much of what is said could easily pass as a self-help resource. The service is very comfortable and familiar for the twenty-first century American-but would it be familiar to God?

Assemblies of Christians in the New Testament were not designed to be "seeker friendly" or "seeker resistant": they were designed to encourage and edify the members of the church (Hebrews 10:24-25, 1 Corinthians 14:26). Unbelievers may enter the assembly and be present within it, and may even be convicted of their condition (1 Corinthians 14:23-25). The assembly, however, is never described as the vehicle of conversion-it is designed for the members, and if the service always focuses on "seeker" matters, it will never provide the spiritual meat so necessary for proper maturation and growth (cf. Hebrews 5:12-14).

Other fads involve small, focused groups, bringing together people in similar conditions. One can find community with fellow divorced persons, or never married persons, or married persons for that matter; if you can think of a group of people in a similar condition, there likely is a small group in some church tailored for such persons! After all, if you can get someone to feel as if they are part of that small group, they can become part of the larger community.

While there can be value in such groups, and building of community is important within the church (cf. Acts 2:42, Romans 12:10), the community is to be based in a shared walk in the Lord (1 John 1:6-7). The Gospel does not discriminate or segregate (Romans 1:16-17, Galatians 3:28), and neither should its promotion.

Appealing to the needs of the flesh has been a constant in evangelistic programs in many places. Food, be it in a fellowship hall or through a food pantry, is often present. Many hospitals and other forms of medical assistance are provided. Gymnasiums are built to provide a place to exercise and to witness about Jesus. Some churches have even developed cafes and bookstores to these same ends. Not a few promotions are based on popular video games or big sporting events.

While it is necessary for individuals to do good to all men (Galatians 6:10), and Christians should be benevolent people, benevolence and evangelism are different tasks indeed (cf. Acts 6:1-7). The example of Jesus and the 5000 in John 6 clearly demonstrates this: people were easily converted to the fish and loaves, yet only the Twelve were converted to Jesus' spiritual nourishment. The good example of Christians living benevolent lives may open hearts to the Gospel (cf. Matthew 5:13-16), but we cannot confuse providing physical needs from spiritual needs. Attempting to provide spiritual instruction or guidance using fleshly appeals cannot properly succeed; the two are opposed to one another (Galatians 5:17-24), and we are quite deluded if we think that we can appeal to the flesh and then slip in the Gospel and fulfill God's mandate. If we appeal to the flesh, people expect to fulfill the desires of the flesh; if we desire people to be spiritual, we must appeal with that which is spiritual.

All of these methods, along with many others, miss the mark because they do not faithfully present the point. In all of these methods examined, the Gospel remains unpreached. It is as if there is shame involved in the message, and we must find other inducements for people to come! As it is written,
"By their fruits ye shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but the corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Therefore by their fruits ye shall know them" (Matthew 7:16-20).

If our message is a "seeker friendly" service that intentionally presents a disfigured Gospel, we will reap people believing a disfigured Gospel. If our message is to bring people in based on social connections, we reap people being present for social connections. If our presentation involves fleshly desires, we reap people desiring to fulfill fleshly desires. It stands to reason, therefore, that if we seek to reap people to be obedient servants of God, we must sow the Gospel message directly and fully.

This, then, represents our difficulty, for we are not inherently appealing to the vanity of twenty-first century Americans. We cannot promote Christianity like marketers sell products. It has indeed happened according to the words of Paul:
I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables. But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5).

Myths are as popular today as they were in the first century. "Have it Your Way Christianity" is quite popular. "I deserve to be the focus Christianity" also has many adherents. Christianity that appeals to the desires of people here and now with only positive reinforcement is on the rise. There are more than enough people willing to preach these messages and satisfy itching ears. If we desire to be faithful to God, the message itself must be the focus, both in ways acceptable to the average modern American and also where it may offend his sensibilities.

The means of promoting the message are many. We have seen that direct preaching in the midst of large crowds, as done in Apostolic days, is not as feasible in our isolationist society; nevertheless, Bible correspondence courses, door knocking programs, Bible lectures or studies open to the public, bulletin or tract distribution, and other ways can be variously used to promote the message. Some methods are more successful in some areas and not in others, and different methods of course will appeal to different persons. Such means of promoting the message may bring in some who would otherwise be unfamiliar with the truth.

Of course, there never is a substitute for the Christian who is living according to God's standard, being the light in the darkness, and actively promoting God's message to those with whom he comes into contact (Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 1:16-17, Romans 12:1-2). Such Christians exemplify Galatians 2:20, and God's message is able to be delivered both in word and in deed. All of us can work to do better in this area.

As we have seen, there are many evangelistic methods present within our world, but anything that diverts from the core message or uses other incentives before promoting that message should be reconsidered. Paul never needed to use a potluck to get people to hear the Gospel. Peter did not go into a Roman arena to promote a Gladiatorial tailgate party with a little Gospel thrown in at the end. John did not encourage the churches in Asia Minor to develop "seeker friendly" services. All of these people went out and preached God's message to everyone who would hear, and did what they could to put that message into practice in their own lives. The same is expected of us, come what may.

In the end, any results-based evangelism program is almost certainly doomed to failure and is entirely against the point. God's message is sound and powerful not because of us, how we may present it, how novel the way of its promotion, or in any way because of our labors. God's message is powerful because it is His means of salvation (Romans 1:16). Our task is to preach it-to inform our fellow man of the Gospel and encourage him to obey God. Any conversion or growth is due to God, not to our own feeble labors (1 Corinthians 3:5-8). Evangelism is promotion-based, not results-based, and the message should not be altered due to the vicissitudes of culture or tradition. Let us do all that we can to promote God's saving message in Christ Jesus, that He may have the glory in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry
December 2007

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