Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Biblical Evangelism

I recently listened to and read a series of lectures by Rev. H. R. Curtis entitled Freed From the Shopkeeper's Prison. Rev. Curtis persuasively argues that the Biblical doctrine of election and the way that we see evangelism done in the Scriptures should affect the way we do our evangelism. He argues that most of what is practiced as evangelism in Lutheran churches is a form of functional Arminianism. I think this is even true of many Calvinist churches. Anything that is of value in this blog post is probably borrowed from Rev. Curtis. Anything that is not of value is probably the result of my own stupidity.

Throughout evangelicalism, it is generally believed that it is every Christian's duty to be an evangelist and that those who do not actively participate in some sort of evangelism program don't care about those going to hell and are responsible for the damnation of those around them. It is believed by many that the names that are written in the Book of Life will change based upon the behavior of individual believers. Numbers and statistics are often used to show how many converts a person has made or what percentage of the world is unreached.

These beliefs work themselves out in various evangelism programs. If it's all up to us to convert people then we need to find methods where we can reach the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time. Bible tracts are used to attract people with different interests. Some have frogs on the front for those who like frogs. Others have a baseball bat for those who like baseball. When you open them up there will be some message loosely tied to the pictures on the front and a sinner's prayer that you can say at the end to "get saved." Jack Chick has his cartoons that are designed to scare you into becoming a Christian. They even contain bad historical information. Some programs heavily promote streetcorner evangelism. You need to stand outside and yell at the pagans to repent or else their blood is on your hands and you probably aren't a real Christian. Other programs tell you to try to befriend people with the sole purpose of trying to convert them.

Are these programs Biblical. I've read through numerous attempts all over the interweb to determine if there is some sort of real Biblical basis for what many in evangelicalism and those who have borrowed from evangelical programs are doing.  What I've found is a string of Bible verses taken out of context to support something that evangelicals are already doing. I don't think that anyone would arrive at these evangelism programs from reading the Biblical text itself. Rather it seems that the evangelism method was determined to be the most successful (by whatever measurement) and that then those who developed these programs looked for texts in the Scriptures to back-up what they were doing.

One belief that is common to all of these programs is that every Christian is an evangelist. But is this true? Where is the Biblical evidence for this position? Paul tells Timothy to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5) but he doesn't tell everyone in the church to do the work of an evangelist. Timothy was a called and ordained bishop in the church. There is no command within the Scriptures that says if you are a Christian it is your duty to make a Christian of everyone else. The so-called Great Commission is often emptied of all its Biblical content and then said to be the responsibility of every believer (Matthew 28:18-20). The "commission" is given to the Apostles, not to every individual in the church. The "Go" is often emphasized but in the Greek it's not a command. The Apostles are not told to go anywhere here. It's a participle. They are told that all power has been given to Christ and that as they are going they are to disciple the nations. The Discipling is done by baptizing and teaching. It's not by handing out tracts or yelling at people. Often, Romans 10:14 is used to show how important it is to bring the Gospel to people but verse 15 makes it clear that the ones preaching are those who are being sent forth by the church to do so. These are not self-proclaimed evangelists. People are often told about all the unreached peoples of the world but Romans 10:18 says that the Gospel has already gone out into all the world as does Romans 16:26. According to the Apostle Paul there are no "unreached" people groups. There are no seekers either (Romans 3:11).

Aside from the matter of who does evanglizing, what does it actually look like in the Scriptures? Acts 20:20 is often used as a proof-text for door to door evangelism. But if we read the passage in context we find that Paul was going from house to house because that is where the Christians were gathered. He was going to whatever house the Christians happened to be meeting at on that particular day. He was not going to the houses of unbelievers but to the houses of believers. Also notice that Paul does not tell every person in the congregation to do this. Paul says that this is what he did.

The modern "evangelist" tends to think of Jesus and Paul as spending most of their time outside yelling at the pagans or going door-to-door to pagan houses but that's really not what we find in the Scriptures. If we read the Gospel lessons we actually find Jesus spending most of his time teaching in the local synagogue. He does not seek out pagans. Sometimes we find him outside because of the size of the crowd or in some other locations but even in these cases, his audience is not pagan. He is preaching to the Jews. He spent much of his ministry bringing very harsh law to the Jews to drive them to repentance and prepare them for the Gospel. His audience was the old covenant church. He does speak to a Samaritan woman but she was not a pagan. She was part of a sort of group that had broken off from the old covenant church. On occasion, he is approached by Gentiles but these are not pagan Gentiles. These are Gentiles who came to worship at the temple but had not undergone circumcision. Jesus did not go to them. They came to Him for help. The only example of a pagan Gentile who ends up being ministered to by Jesus is the Syrophoenecian woman (Mark 7:25-30). Jesus does not seek her out. When she asks for help He refuses and refers to her as a dog. When she admits here "dog" status and continues to beg for mercy, only then does Jesus grant her request. Jesus was not very seeker-sensitive. When Jesus sends the 72 out into the different Jewish towns in Luke 10, he specifically tells them NOT to talk to people on the road. When they get to the town, they are not supposed to go door-to-door. They are told to go to a single house and ask to stay there.

Some might argue that this was prior to some new dispensation and that now things are different. Certainly Paul would not behave in this way. He was the Apostle to the Gentiles after all. But if you read what Paul is actually doing in the book of Acts, he doesn't really differ from Jesus. He goes from town to town preaching in the synagogues. He never seeks out pagans. But what about Mars Hill? Doesn't Paul walk up into the pagan temple and start setting these pagans straight. Not exactly. In Acts 17, Paul goes to Athens, sees Mars Hill, gets irritated by the idolatry and goes right to the synagogue. Afterward he spends some time in the marketplace talking with some of the Jews and some of the pagans overhear him. They are curious about this new teaching and take Paul to Mars Hill so that they can learn more. Mars Hill was a place where people would meet to discuss religious matters. Paul did not go voluntarily. Paul was not standing outside of the pagan temple handing out tracts.

What about the conversions that Paul speaks of while he was in prison? We never really see any examples of Paul "evangelizing" as it is understood today while in prison. He's not going up to people and telling them to repent and so forth. In Acts 16 we get a glimpse into what Paul did in prison. He kept the traditional hours of prayer which along with the fact that he was thrown into prison for preaching Christ would naturally lead to questions from his fellow prisoners and the guards. He doesn't go around trying to convert all the prisoners. He appears to be a model prisoner. We don't read of him trying to start any riots or threaten lawsuits. Even when God sends an earthquake and opens the prison doors he doesn't try to escape. He only explains the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the jailor when the jailor asks for an explanation. When Paul is being transported with other prisoners on a boat in Acts 27 he doesn't take the opportunity to tell all the prisoners that they could be shipwrecked at any moment and if they do not make a decision for Christ they will all go straight to hell. He does practice his Christian faith by giving thanks prior to eating but he doesn't behave in the ways that modern evangelists would expect him to.

Doesn't Paul care about the lost? Doesn't Jesus care about the lost? Why did they act this way? Why don't they seem to be desparately trying every method under the sun to try to convince people to convert? Why didn't they tell people that if they walked outside and got hit by a chariot without making a decision for Christ they would go to hell?

The reason they didn't is because they believed the Biblical doctrine of election. Read what Paul wrote in Roman 9 or Ephesians 1. Paul knew that he could not add or subtract anyone's name from the Book of Life. No matter how zealous or how lazy he acted, the same people were already written in the Book of Life. God works through means. But if Paul were lazy, God would send someone else to preach the Gospel of Christ-crucified and gather the elect into the kingdom.

It was Paul's job to preach the Gospel in the places where the elect were most likely to be found--in the synagogues and later on in the churches--and to respond to others who asked questions. Neither Paul nor Jesus regarded every single individual as someone who converted be converted if only they found the right techniques.

God's ways are not our ways. We like power and numbers and immediate results. The Jews were expecting Jesus to come to earth, wipe out the Romans, and establish His earthly kingdom. Instead He came in humility and was crucified. Most of the people on earth had no idea who He was or knew that He was crucified. He was crowned a king with a crown of thorns and began His reign while nailed to a cross--not exactly the type of success most people would hope for in their ministries. Prior to His crucifixion He gained a bit of a following among the losers of society but even they thought He was too much of a loser for them when He started telling them they had to eat His body and drink His blood. If we judged Jesus' preaching by the number of converts He made He did a pretty lousy job. Does this mean Jesus was a bad pastor? Not winsome enough?

I have no doubt that many came to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the preaching of Billy Graham but those same people would have come to believe the Gospel through someone else's preaching if there were no Billy Graham. From a numbers perspective, Billy Graham's ministry looks very effective--sort of. There have been statistical studies done that have shown that there has been virtually no growth in church membership after these crusades and that the vast majority of the people who came forward to "make a decision for Christ" were already Christians and members of a church. Of the few unchurched, if they started going to church at all most stopped after a few months. Billy Graham is a human being. He is not the Holy Spirit and he does not have ability to add or subtract names from the Book of Life. He cannot convert anyone through his methodology. He can only create an emotional experience and some confuse that emotional experience with conversion. Others are truly converted through the preaching of the Word in spite of the strange new methods being used but the strange new methods only introduce confusion into their understanding of their own conversion.

I think most of the people in evangelicalism who are involved with these unbiblical types of evangelism have the best of intentions. They love Jesus and want others to know about Him as well. But to use these new methods shows a distrust in the power of the Word of God and His power to bring His elect to hear the preaching of the Word.

So now we should all sit at home and wait for Jesus to come back because we can't get anybody saved anyhow. No, not really. In some ways the Biblical method requires more work. I've gotten in some theological discussions with self-proclaimed evangelists that often end with the other guy saying, "I'm just an unlearned man." When Paul gives the list of qualifications for a pastor, most about not engaging in negative behavior. The only positive qualification is that the man be able to teach well. In order to teach well he must know the Scriptures well and the doctrines taught in them. He must be able to rightly explain them. If you are an unlearned man that disqualifies you from serving as a pastor. The Great Commission tells pastors to disciple people by baptizing them and teaching ALL that Jesus taught. In John 20, Jesus gives pastors the power to forgive sins in His stead. In order to rightly interpret the Word of God they must spend much time studying it and studying it in the correct way. Jesus said that all of the Scriptures are about Him. So if he preaches on a passage and does not find Jesus there in the passage he is not preaching correctly. If he decides he needs to stop preaching Christ-crucified to focus on holy living then he is not preaching Biblically.

But what about lay people? What is our calling as Christians? We need to be regularly receiving the forgiveness of sins from our pastors both in the preaching of the Word and the sacrament of the Altar. Most importantly we need that forgiveness of sins. Less importantly, your frequent attendance shows your neighbors that you consider Jesus to be something that's pretty important. I have been to so many churches that spent so much time telling the congregation how important it was for them to go out and evangelize all their neighbors but would not preach the Gospel to the congregation. I even heard one sermon where the pastor kept insisting that he was preaching the Gospel during the sermon but never did. We need to be somewhere where we will be forgiven for our sins on a regular basis. That might mean changing churches. Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15 that we must be ready to give answer for the hope that is in us. I don't think that means we all need to be experts in apologetics but we should have a clear understanding of what the Gospel is. I was a member a church that was part of a Calvinist denomination for a number of years and that denomination endorsed something very similar to what I'm endorsing. But I think they failed because Christ-crucified and the forgiveness of sins was not the central message. People were well-equipped to explain the differences between the Reformed denomination that they were a part of and other Reformed denominations but they were rather ill equipped to give a reason for the hope that was in them.

When Peter gives instruction to women who are married to unbelieving husbands (1Peter 3), he doesn't tell the wives to evangelize their husbands. He tells them to be good wives and be respectful and obedient. Peter and Paul don't instruct slaves to evangelize their masters. Peter and Paul instruct them to obey their masters and be good slaves. There seems to be a pretty clear and consistent message in 1 Peter 3 that is in harmony with the teachings of Paul and Jesus. Do the best job you possibly can for your employer or husband or wife or whomever else you come in contact with. Be a good neighbor. Do not return evil for evil. Be respectful. As you engage in your work, hobbies, family life, or whatever else people will ask you questions about what you believe or why you are missing some event to go to church because they have a certain trust and respect for you or maybe just curiosity. At that time you should be ready to give an answer and perhaps invite them to church with you.

The modern evangelical method runs counter to all of this. Standing and yelling on a street corner does not exactly make someone a respectable or trustworthy person. Most people think the person is a nut. Most can't distinguish between the Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, and the Christian who come to their door and most don't care. Are you really happy when the Jehovah Witness comes to you door? Do you have a lot of respect for telemarketers? Do they have a good reputation? If we believe that Jesus is really as great a thing as He really is, should we really try to "close the deal" like we're trying to sell people something that they wouldn't buy if they had time to think about it?

Lately, I've heard lots of stories about people who get arrested or are asked to leave for shouting at people on a street corner. Often, they refuse to get permits and sometimes retaliate with law suits or end up in lengthy court battles. But since Christ did not command us to do this, aren't we just giving Jesus a bad name by disturbing the peace in his name?

If we follow the Biblical pattern, we might still be persecuted but we can rejoice because we will know that we are truly being persecuted for the Gospel. If we suffer for yelling at people with a bullhorn we are suffering because of our own obnoxious plans.

Trust in God. He is not some poor and weak god that can't get His plans done without you. Rejoice that He has forgiven your sins and don't let anyone add to God's Word and tell you what you would be doing if you were a "real" Christian. Salvation has already been won by Jesus on the cross and that message will be delivered.


Anonymous said...

Chuck, That was by far the most thorough explaination and most well written I have seen on evangelizing biblically.
Love Mom

Anonymous said...

You beat me to it and did a better job than I would have. The modern thinking of evangelism totally discards the notion of vocation. If everyone were to be evangelists, we'd all go hungry. :)