Herein I have laid forth my observations of the natural and consequent ramifications flowing from the two primary forms of evangelism used to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ since the mid nineteenth century. This examination is not meant to discuss the propriety or accuracy of either model. That is another discussion and analysis altogether. Rather, I want to answer the question of skeptics and critics abroad: "Why does it matter? As long as Christ is preached.." In doing so, I humbly submit my thinking to the Word of God and gladly affirm any brother or sister in their efforts to preach the Gospel. And yet, I want to encourage these same brothers and sisters to see the Gospel, to live the Gospel and to understand the Gospel before they endeavor to reach others with that Gospel. I am convinced that the primary problem with churches in the United States is that they are filled with unbelievers who are convinced they are Christians. For this purpose, I want to draw attention to, invite discourse concerning and meditate carefully on those responses that are Biblically based. In this spirit I anticipate with hope that someone will respond with like care and attention to give an answer, a response as to whether and how my analysis is incomplete, un-informed, partial or biased, inadequate or simply without Scriptural support.
Decisional Evangelism vs. Faith Evangelism: a Primer
Before I can begin to put forth a rational discussion of the observed or predicted consequences and ramifications of the two evangelism models there is of course the requirement that both models be understood commonly. The first model that I will undertake to describe is so-called Decisional Evangelism. This is the model I grew up with in the heartland of America - the Bible Belt.
By Decisional Evangelism, I mean that form of presenting the Gospel that focuses on obtaining a decision from the audience or one hearing the presentation. I think back and remember those sermons which at the conclusion asked that all eyes be closed, all heads be bowed and that those who are ready to make a decision for Christ raise their hands. The evangelist would then be heard saying "Yes, I see that hand. Yes, I see that hand as well. And that hand, Praise God." At which point those who raised their hands might be asked to publicly affirm their decision by going forward; or perhaps they would be met for conversion counseling.
This form of evangelism is used widely in America today and draws its roots from the likes of Charles Finney, D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and their modern prodigy. I was first exposed to this form of evangelism as a child attending vacation bible school. Later I would see it used by the Nazarene denomination, by the Southern Baptists, by Campus Crusade, on the television during Billy Graham's Crusades, and in Young Life type youth evangelism organizations.
What distinguishes this form of evangelism from that used by other evangelists is the person-centric approach. Usually, but not always, the sales pitch begins with creating a need in the mental perception of the customer. Perhaps the customer is told that God loves them and offers a wonderful plan for their life but that they are a sinner and are separated from that God and his plan by sin. Neither of these two assertions are necessarily incorrect. But from the beginning, the focus is on the customer. The focus is on what God can do for the customer.
The solution to the problem is given quickly. This is key. The customer is not allowed to discover the depth of the problem or dwell on the severity of the problem. Instead the customer is brought back to his or her own self with the proposition or question: "Do you know for certain if you were to die today where you would spend eternity?" Today's modern presentations go further to emphasis the customer by changing the question to "Do you want to go to heaven when you die?" Again, the focus is on the customer. The evangelist has created a need by assuring a benefit to the customer (God's wonderful plan for your life) tied to a present inability to realize that benefit (sin is in the way). To close the deal, the evangelists puts forth the question meant to draw from the customer an emotional commitment to the process: "Do you want to get rid of the sin so you can get busy realizing the benefit of God's wonderful plan?"
Almost always the customer is going to either respond affirmatively or wait to see what the cost is. A good salesperson is not going to let the customer get away with being distracted by the cost. Quickly the evangelist will point out that all the customer has to do is:
- Make a decision for Christ
- Invite Jesus into their heart
- Pray to accept Jesus into their heart; or
- Pray, believing that Jesus will come into their hearts, accepting Jesus' sacrifice for their sin
After the sale, almost as if to protect the sales process from buyer remorse, the customer is asked to memorialize the commitment perhaps by writing a notation in the back of their bible, or by joining a local church or by being baptized. In most cases these memorializations are meant to hedge against future uncertainties by providing a moment in time that they can look back and examine their decision, knowing that if they were sincere in their decision, then the sale is good. In effect, if the customer ever questions the value of God's wonderful plan for their life, or whether indeed they have secured a place in heaven, they are asked to refer back to that prior decision, perhaps asking if they were really sincere. And if the challenge is met with an affirmative answer then the customer is assured that the sale is good, and God has to honor it.
Prior to the mid nineteenth century the principal method of evangelism was structured in a way that I will refer to as faith evangelism. I do not mean to suggest that there was no element or talk of faith in decisional evangelism. Nor do I mean to suggest that there are no sales elements in the presentation of the Gospel in faith evangelism. What I do mean to suggest is that the end object in the sales person, the evangelist, is securing faith in the customer.
Before I can speak to the process of faith evangelism, I should distinguish what I mean by securing faith versus securing a decision. One might challenge me that one has to decide to have faith. Scripture may be used to support this proposition in the form of Joshua's admonition to the Israelites "as for me and my house..." or Paul's admonition in his epistle to the Romans to "confess with your mouth." But again, the purpose of this inquiry is not to determine the rightness or wrongness of the two competing forms of evangelism, but to investigate the results of the two.
In light of this purpose, I hope it is sufficient to note that not everyone believes the customer chooses to believe. Some in fact believe that faith is freely given to the chosen and elect of God. Some believe that faith is something that rises in the heart and soul of the one who is responding to the Gospel message by the conviction of the Holy Spirit and through the author of our faith, Jesus Christ himself.
These evangelists approach the potential convert differently. Instead of trying to obtain a decision, they are instead interested in assuring themselves that they have accurately presented the Gospel of God in a manner that brings glory to God. The response or reaction of the audience is of no concern to them. They might preach the Gospel to one person sitting in a lone chapel during a snowstorm or they might preach the Gospel from a prior written sermon read in monotone so as not to distract from the glory of God. They might preach the Gospel to thousands or they might preach the Gospel to an empty forest. For to these evangelists, the power is in the Gospel itself and there is glory in repeating and preaching it regardless of who hears it or what their response is.
Because there is no desire to obtain a decision, modern sales techniques and their concomitant psychological devises can be dispensed with. There is no need to be 'relevant' or entertaining or 'engaging.' Instead of starting with the attempt to create a need in the mind of the audience, the faith evangelist begins with introducing the God of Jacob and Isaac and Abraham to an audience that knows almost nothing about who God is. The faith evangelist knows that no faith can exist in the heart of the customer until they begin to understand who God is.
Personal testimonies that share what God has done for that person, whether it be delivering them from a drug addiction, or curing them of cancer, or giving them purpose in life.. these stories are not only unnecessary, but they distract from the primary goal - that is, the discovery of who God is. The faith evangelist is not as much interested in what God can do for his audience as he is whether his audience even knows who God is.
Much can be said on this account and it is beyond the scope of this examination to develop how inaccurately we see God today in our culture. Suffice it to say that the beginning of faith evangelism is the introduction of the person, the character, the holiness, the righteousness, the power and the love of God. Saying that "God loves you and offers you a wonderful plan for your life" is not only insufficient, but it borders on irreverence and lacks the honor and humility that any who portent to approach the throne of God should have in their hearts. While not necessarily untrue, the statement is so simplified as to reduce God to a cosmic Santa Claus or genie in a bottle.
After the introduction of God, usually the faith evangelist will move to the particular sin of the audience. Sin is not introduced exclusively in a general and universal sense. Instead, as Peter addressed the crowds at Pentecost and as Paul addressed Festus, as Jesus addressed the pharisees and as John the Baptist addressed Herod, sin is brought to the forefront in a personal way. Yes, the faith evangelist believes and preaches that all men sin, that we are all dead in our trespasses before our transformation and adoption. But the faith evangelist does not shy from being particular in the denouncement of sin in the lives of the customer.
Herein is the single largest distinction between decisional evangelism and faith evangelism. For the decisional evangelist is reading this with horror in his heart thinking that any such particular singling out of a customer will be an immediate turn off. The deal will be sunk before the price can even be discussed. It is tantamount to intentional sabotage. Nothing is more abhorrent to the decisional evangelist than the discussion or examination of particular sin in the customer's heart.
However, we remember that the faith evangelist is not interested in a decision. He recognizes that most will reject the Gospel. He recognizes that most will not find this Gospel attractive. But the Gospel is not the Gospel until such time as the horrible infamous egregious and inexcusable sin of the audience is brought to life. The Holy Spirit convicts man in his heart through the Gospel, and ignoring or brushing lightly over that man's sins does disservice to the Holy Spirit and that man.
While the most important distinction between decisional evangelism and faith evangelism is the discussion of particular sin, it is not the only distinction. And the most important difference in the immediate consequence of such a presentation is seen in the moving of the Holy Spirit. We tread carefully here, recognizing that the Holy Spirit is God, omniscient, omnipotent and not bound by our presentation techniques. He can move in the heart of one reading the text of Isaiah. He can move in the heart of one intently focused on destroying Christians. He can move in the heart of thousands just accused of deicide. He is not limited by our methods or intents.
But we do see a difference in the general mood of a faith based presentation of the Gospel versus a decisional based presentation. Immediately following decisional evangelism there is relief, euphoria, joy and gladness. These are all emotions seen just after someone purchases a car or house as well. A big decision has been made - or perceived to have been made. The process is quick to get to this point and stays at this point longest.
Conversely, immediately following the faith evangelism presentation of the Gospel we see despair, sadness, grief, humiliation, despondency and extreme sorrow. We see the man beating his chest crying out to God "oh God be merciful to me, a sinner." We see the thousands cut to the quick and crying out "Brothers, what shall we do?" We see the man fallen on his face unable to look at the Lord cry out "Lord, what would you have me do?" We see the woman wiping her Lord's feet with her tears and hair. We see the man cry out "Lord, depart from me for I am a sinful man." And we rarely if ever see God interrupting the sinner's sorrow.
It is not that the faith evangelist will not eventually find the convert with joy, assurance, and relief and euphoria. But when the faith evangelist finds his convert with joy, it is joy unspeakable and immeasurable. The two different joys are hardly comparable. The joy of the first is the joy of one who has purchased a car. He or she is excited about getting to heaven, or realizing the wonderful plan God has for him or her. The joy of the second is the joy of one released from the concentration camp, the joy of one released from decades of confinement in a solitary cell, the joy of one who finds her dearest loved one is alive when they were thought dead. There is joy in both evangelism camps, but they can hardly be compared.
Finally, the question should be answered, how does the faith evangelist close the deal? What is the hard sell? The grace of God is presented in any true pronouncement of the Gospel. For the Good News can hardly be good if we leave off the grace of God. And yet, there is no sale. The grace of God is glorified, worshipped and pronounced. How is it pronounced? By Peter it is pronounced "Repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins" By our Lord it is pronounced "Take up your cross - your instrument of death - your flesh-executing equipment, and follow me" We confess with our mouths and believe in our hearts - if God grants. The faith evangelist is free at this point. He or she is not responsible for the results of his work of evangelizing. Yes, he has used the words and terms of his audience. Yes, he has used relevant terminology and analogies. Yes, he has tried to be all things to all men. But he has not compromised the Gospel, and he has not appropriated for himself the results or the efficacy of the Gospel. If ten thousand are saved he glorifies God. If none hear, he glorifies God.