Nailing the evangelical fads
By Terry Mattingly
Monday, February 23rd, 2009
The upperclassman sat across the cafeteria table from freshman Joe Carter and, in a matter of minutes, asked The Big Question — a question about eternal life and death.
As any evangelical worth his or her salt knows, that question sounds like this: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Super aggressive believers prefer: “Are you saved? If you died tonight, would go to heaven or hell?”
Carter remembers replying: “I’m, yeah, actually I have.”
What happened next was strange. The young man was “visibly disappointed” and “wore a look of minor defeat” because he wouldn’t get to save a soul during this lunch period. He ate quickly and departed and, this is the crucial detail for Carter, they never spoke again.
The evangelist wasn’t looking for a friend or dialogue with a believer. He wanted to carve another notch on his Bible, using techniques learned during a soul-saving workshop. If his blunt approach offended strangers, or even strengthened their “Fundie-alert systems,” that was their problem, not his.
Every decade or so there are new, improved techniques for making these spiritual sales pitches, each backed with snappy catch phrases and, these days, with hot websites, books and videos. Then everything changes again a generation later, noted Carter. What you get are stacks of leftover “Left Behind” video games, “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets, “emerging church” study guides and copies of “The Prayer of Jabez.”
It helps to know that Carter is himself an evangelical who is concerned about evangelism issues. As a journalist, the 39-year-old former U.S. Marine has worked for a number of conservative causes, including World Magazine, the Family Research Center and the presidential campaign of Mike Huckabee. He recently finished helping build Culture11.com, a right-of-center forum for evangelicals, Catholics and mainline Protestants interested in discussing how religion, culture and politics mix in daily life.
That website’s future is uncertain, but before his recent departure Carter nailed a manifesto to that cyber-door — dissecting 10 fads that he believes are hurting evangelical organizations and churches. While most conservatives have been arguing about their political future, in the Barack Obama era, Carter decided to focus on faith issues. (See Carter's entire post below).
It’s a list that will be puzzling to outsiders not fluent in evangelical lingo. The “Sinner’s Prayer, which reduces the quest for salvation to a short “magical incantation,” made the list, as did the emphasis on “premillennial dispensationalism” and other apocalyptic teachings in some churches.
Carter is also tired of long, improvised public prayers in which every other phrase contains the word “just,” as in, “We just want to thank you Lord.” He would like to hear more sermons focusing on the life of Jesus, as opposed to preachers and evangelists focusing on their own dramatic life “testimonies.” And while he is in favor of growing churches, Carter is worried that the “church growth movement” has evolved from a fad into a permanent fixture on the American scene.
“What most people call the church-growth movement is something that grew out of business principles, instead of growing — organically — out of the life of the church,” he said. “People started trying to figure out how they could change the church so they could get more people to come inside, rather than doing what the early church did, which was going outside the church and reaching people by actually getting to know them. …
“It’s like people started saying, ‘What kind of music do we need to play so that more people will join? What do we need to do to the preaching? What kind media can we add to the services?’ “
But the thread that runs through this online manifesto is that Carter is convinced that evangelicals need to spend less time striving to make quick conversions and more time training disciples who stay the course.
In the end, he said, techniques will not carry over from one generation to another.
“Part of the problem is that evangelicals really don’t have traditions,” said Carter. “Instead, we have these fads that are built on the strengths and talents of individual leaders. … But a real tradition can be handed on to anyone, from generation to generation. It’s hard to hand these evangelical fads down like that, so it seems like we’re always starting over. It’s hard to build something that really lasts.”
Ten Deadly Trappings of Evangelism
By Joe Carter
[Note: This is a compilation of several previous posts.]
"Virtually all the people on Time magazine’s list of ‘The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals’ share at least one glaringly significant trait," said pastor Phillip Johnson in 2005, "For the most part, these are the fadmakers." Phil goes on to list a number of "cheerleaders for whatever is fashionable", including the usual suspects such as Rick Warren and Tim LaHaye, and explains why their programs are fads:
Not one of those movements or programs even existed 35 years ago. Most of them would not have been dreamed of by evangelicals merely a generation ago. And, frankly, most of them will not last another generation. Some will last a few short months (like the Jabez phenomenon did); others may seem to dominate for several years but then die lingering deaths (like Bill Gothard’s movement is doing). But they will all eventually fade and fall from significance. And some poor wholesale distributor will be left with warehouses full of Jabez junk, Weigh-Down Workshop paraphernalia, "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, Purpose-Driven" merchandise, and stacks and stacks of "emerging church" resources.
Like Johnson, I’m concerned about the way in which evangelicals tend to embrace whatever trends and kitsch happen to be hot sellers at "Christian" bookstores. But while Johnson laments that most of the "stuff you are currently being told you must read and implement will soon seem as hopelessly out of date" I take comfort in knowing that most of this stuff is nothing more than a passing trend. It is not the dernier cri that will soon be gone that concerns me but the faddage that becomes a fixture. Fads still receive scrutiny while fixtures remain largely unquestioned.
#1 The Sinner’s Prayer — The gates of hell have a special entrance reserved for people who thought that they had a ticket into heaven because someone told them all they needed to do was recite the "sinner’s prayer." I’ve searched through the entire New Testament and can’t find an example of anyone who was "saved" after reciting such a prayer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that such prayer is worthless or that it can’t be used by the Holy Spirit. But salvation is not obtained by reciting a magical incantation as many, many, "Christians" will discover after it’s far, far, too late.
#2 Making Converts — I’ve always felt uneasy about the idea that Christians should be seeking to make converts. Am I wrong in thinking that the making of converts is a task associated with Islam, rather than Christianity? Perhaps I have a flawed understanding of the Gospel, but I always thought the purpose of evangelism is not to make converts but to make, as Christ commanded, disciples. Indeed, my primary complaint against each of the other nine methods on this list is that they are usually ineffective in instigating true conversion, much less helping make true disciples.
Over the next few days I’ll mention the others. None of them are inherently pernicious (well, except for #10) but they have a tendency to be used in ways that are counterproductive to their intended purposes. I’d be interested in hearing what would make your list.
#3 "Do you know Jesus as…" — In the fall of 1987 I began my freshman year of college. I was far from home, overwhelmed and lonely on a campus of 20,000 students. While sitting alone in the cafeteria one afternoon, an older student walked up, smiled and asked if he could join me. I was starved for conversation and thrilled to have the company. He sat his tray down in front of mine and took a seat as I prepared to engage him in a heady discussion of his choosing. Politics, philosophy, science. I was mentally preparing for anything he threw at me.
Glancing up from his plate of spaghetti, he asked, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?"
For a few seconds I was stunned, completely at a loss for a response. "I’m, yeah, actually I have." I finally managed in reply.
"Oh," he said, visibly disappointed. "Okay, that’s good." He wore a look of minor defeat. He had chosen the wrong table; no soul would be won for Christ over this lunch. We chatted politely while I finished my burger. He ate quickly and excused himself. After that lunch, I never saw him again.
This is one question that needs never be asked for it shows (a) you do not know the person well enough, (b) the answer is yes and the person is a lousy Christian, or (c) the answer is no in which case you just activated their Fundie-alert system and caused them to switch their brains into ignore mode. Instead of asking about a "personal savior" you might want to simply try to get to know the person.
#4 Tribulationism — Ask a non-believer to give a rudimentary explanation of "the Rapture" and chances are they can provide a fairly accurate description of that concept. Ask the same person to give a basic explanation of the Gospel message, though, and they are likely to be stumped. The reason for this curious state of affairs is that evangelicals have promoted what I refer to as "Tribulationism" — an overemphasis on pre-millenial eschatology that overshadows the Gospel. I’m sure that somewhere in the three dozen novels that comprise the Left Behind series the Gospel message is presented. But there is something horribly wrong when the greatest story ever told is buried beneath a third-rate tale of the apocalypse.
#5 Testimonies — Several years ago, during a job interview for a Christian organization, my prospective employer asked me to tell him my "testimony." The fact that I was a Christian apparently wasn’t enough. I had to have a good conversion story to go along with my faith. Now you may have a great story about how the "hound of Heaven" chased you down and gnawed on your leg until you surrendered. No doubt your story would make for a gripping movie of the week on Lifetime and lead to the making of numerous converts (see #1). But the harsh truth is that your story doesn’t much matter. You are only a bit player in the narrative thread; the main part goes to the Divine Protagonist. In fact, He already has a pretty good story so why not just tell that one instead?
#6 The Altar Call - In the 1820’s evangelist Charles Finney introduced the "anxious seat," a front pew left vacant where at the end of the meeting "the anxious may come and be addressed particularly–and sometimes be conversed with individually." At the end of his sermon, he would say, "There is the anxious seat; come out, and avow determination to be on the Lord’s side." The problem with this approach, as theologian J.I. Packer, explains is that,
The gospel of God requires an immediate response from all; but it does not require the same response from all. The immediate duty of the unprepared sinner is not to try and believe on Christ, which he is not able to do, but to read, enquire, pray, use the means of grace and learn what he needs to be saved from. It is not in his power to accept Christ at any moment, as Finney supposed; and it is God’s prerogative, not the evangelist’s, to fix the time when men shall first savingly believe. For the latter to try and do so, by appealing to sinners to begin believing here and now, is for man to take to himself the sovereign right of the Holy Ghost. It is an act of presumption, however creditable the evangelists motive’s may be. Hereby he goes beyond his commission as God’s messenger; and hereby he risks doing incalculable damage to the souls of men. If he tells men they are under obligation to receive Christ on the spot, and demands in God’s name that they decide at once, some who are spiritually unprepared will try to do so; they will come forward and accept directions and "go through the motions" and go away thinking they have received Christ, when all the time they have not done so because they were not yet able to do so. So a crop of false conversions will result from making such appeals, in the nature of the case. Bullying for "decisions" thus in fact impedes and thwarts the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. Man takes it on himself to try to bring that work to a precipitate conclusion, to pick the fruit before it is ripe; and the result is "false conversions," hypocrisy and hardening. "For the appeal for immediate decision presupposes that men are free to "decide for Christ" at any time; and this presupposition is the disastrous issue of a false, un-Scriptural view of sin.
My friend Jared Bridges has pointed out another reason for me, as a Baptist, to despise the term "altar call": We don’t believe in transubstantiation and we don’t burn offerings, so we have no need for an "altar."
#7 Witnessing — Evangelism ain’t Amway. It is not a form of Multi-Level Marketing in which you get extra credit for the number of people in your network and you don’t get a great commission for the Great Commission. If you want to sell something door-to-door make it Amway products not the Good News.
If you want to be a more effective "witness for Christ" then start by doing what Christ did and love other people. Start by loving the "unlovable" — the smelly, unbathed men down at the mission, the annoying kids at church, the bonehead who cuts you off in traffic. Yes, you need to tell people about the Gospel. But that is evangelism, not "witnessing." In the context of the Christian life, "witness" should be a noun more often than a verb.
#8 Protestant Prayers — Last week one of my fellow coworkers, a young Catholic man, was asked to open our meeting with a prayer. Without hesitation he began reciting the "Lord’s prayer." Afterward I joked that, having come up with such a fine prayer, he might want to write it down for future use. What I didn’t say what how his recitation of the prayer made me uncomfortable.
First, I’m not used to hearing prayers that don’t contain the word "just" (as in "We just want to thank you Lord…") so it had an odd ring to it. Second, it seemed to violate the accepted standards for public prayer. I had always assumed that praying in public required being able to interlace some just-want-to’s in with some Lord-thank-you-for’s and be- with-us-as-we’s in a coherent fashion before toppping it all with an Amen. Third, I thought that prayers are supposed to be spontaneous–from the heart, off the top of the head–emanations, rather than prepackaged recitations. If it ain’t original, it ain’t prayer, right? Can I get an amen?
But where did this idea come from? We have entire books to teach us how to pray yet Jesus managed to wrap up the lesson in less than forty words. Why isn’t that prayer good enough for evangelicals to use? Why do our prayers sound nothing like His example? (And if you are wondering what prayer is doing on a list of evangelistic fixtures then we are really in trouble.)
#9 The Church Growth Movement — Sadly, this has moved from fad to fixture. Think I’m wrong? Ask the next person you see to define that phrase. In fact, ask the next 100 people you see. Let me know if you find anyone that tells you they think the church growth movement is a movement in the church to grow disciples.
#10 Chick Tracts — Chick Tracts are a tool of the devil. That fact — and yes it is a fact — is not changed just because you know a guy who knows a guy who heard testimony about a guy who said the Sinner’s Prayer after finding "The Long Trip" on the floor of a truck stop restroom.
The term evangelism derives from the Greek word evangel–"good news." So it’s rather odd how so much evangelism appears to be about "selling" Jesus and hoping that you can convince the unsaved heathen to buy into salvation. This was the way I had been taught during Vacation Bible School classes at the First Baptist Church of Fire and Brimstone. Pass out Chick tracts, recite the canned "how to get saved" speech, get them to say the sinner’s prayer. Above all, close the deal for Jesus. They may die at any time and their souls would be lost to eternal damnation if I didn’t "make the sell." By the age of eight I’d become a cross between Billy Graham and Willy Loman.
Whenever I began to seriously read the Gospels, though, I noticed something strange. People constantly flocked to Jesus despite the fact that he never passed out a single tract. He would walk up to people and say "Follow me" and the next thing you know they’re giving up their lives to follow him around the countryside.
The people responded to Jesus the way they did because he is God. He is what our hearts have always been seeking. When we come face to face with him we may accept or reject him. But we can’t not know him. John Calvin claimed that there is an awareness or sense of God (sensus divinitatis) implanted in all people by nature. The context of this universally distributed belief being rather minimal: there is a God, He is the Creator, and that He ought to be worshiped. The Gospel, though, fills in the essential details.
We evangelicals don’t need tools of evangelism. We don’t need fads and fixtures. We don’t need anything more than the Gospel. For that is one fixture of our faith that will never go out of style.
Posted on Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008 at 9:49 pm and is filed under Faith.