Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Only Two Kinds of Evangelism

A Philosophy of Personal Evangelism 4

In the last post we briefly sketched for you a history of evangelism from the time of Early Church to the birth (or re-birth) of mass evangelism in the eighteenth century. This is a series that attempts to teach you the reasons that underlie our emphasis on personal evangelism. To do so, it helps us to understand how evangelism has flowed through history. In that light, let us pick up the thread of the story again in the eighteenth century where we last left it.

Following the birth of mass evangelism, or perhaps I should say along with it, came the birth of enlistment evangelism. Robert Raikes (1736-1811), out of a desire to see the street children of his day receive both a religious and a secular education, revolutionized England via the Sunday School. He was so successful that by 1831, within twenty years of his death, one out of every four children in the country were receiving a religious education in Sunday School.

This successful idea naturally came to America, and then spread around the world as the re-birthed modern missions movement pioneered by Carey sent British and American preachers into every continent.

The original premise of the Sunday School system was an attempt to enroll unchurched people in a small class. This brought them under the influence of the Word of God and the sound of the Gospel. At the same time, it explained to them doctrinal concepts about God and man in a non-threatening manner. In his own inimitable style Mark Twain humorously shows us this in his classic Tom Sawyer. With Sunday Schools being started by the thousands all across the world the result in the nineteenth century was a wide scriptural literacy and huge numbers of people being evangelized.

As the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth the pace of technological change began to accelerate. The century that would begin with horseless carriages still being relatively rare would end with the dawn of the information superhighway. In the early decades of the century this technology was aimed squarely at enabling humanity to communicate faster and wider. Evangelistic minded Christians immediately seized upon radio, television, and then the internet to communicate the gospel. We broadly label this approach as media evangelism.

Historically, in Western society, pastors did not attempt to build churches. By "build" here I mean to grow them. They did not need to for the vast majority of the European and American population attended church, period. They preached the Gospel and pastored the people but they did not put much emphasis on church growth methods. I am not aware of any church growth book written in the nineteenth century, let alone centuries prior. But in the twentieth century that changed as church attendance began to wane. The result was an increasing emphasis on adding programs that would appeal to, attract, or reach various subsets of the population.

I call this concept niche evangelism. Modern churches have programs centered on divorce recovery, addicts, prisoners, senior citizens in nursing homes, young mothers, teenagers, college students, athletes, etc. About once a month I get a call from a random Christian comedian who wants to come to Maplewood. What is that (besides ridiculous)? It is an attempt to reach people who like comedy. CCM artists do the same thing with music. Examples of niche evangelism are numerous.

Some of this is done inside the local church structure and some of it is not. But they are all
aimed at getting some subset of people to show up at a club, group, meeting, concert, etc. In a sense then this is another example of enlistment evangelism. Perhaps the most widely used example of this synthesis in our circles of niche and enlistment evangelism is the bus ministry.

I would be remiss if I did not include before I am done with this sketch the rise of personal evangelism that began in American society with the post WWII generation. Motivated in part at least by a desire for church growth but also a sincere burden for the lost, influential and large churches in the 1950s increasingly emphasized organized personal soul winning. Every person reading this blog understands that because we grew up in that kind of a church culture, were nourished in that culture, and if we did not we have certainly encountered it. It is found most often but not exclusively in Baptist circles, and though it has waxed and waned through the decades it is certainly still incorporated on a wide scale.

If the purpose of this brief sketch is to learn from history what do we learn? I think we could answer that several ways but in the context of this series we see this: in reality, there are only two kinds of evangelism – personal and impersonal.

Mass evangelism has reached millions, and I am glad for that. But did the evangelist individually talk with each of those people? Did they respond in a back and forth conversation? No. It is impersonal evangelism. Media evangelism has reached countless numbers of people, and I am glad for that. It too is impersonal evangelism. Much of the time enlistment or niche evangelism is likewise impersonal, although its structure allows for much more personal interaction than mass or media evangelism.

Personal evangelism – one person talking to another person about his need for Christ with a view of bringing him to a decision – is different than all of these. It is individually tailored. It is almost certainly the method that guarantees the highest rate of clarity. And it is also the only one that has a real possibility to reach every person.

In the weeks to come we will explore this last paragraph in more depth. As always, you are more than welcome to add your own perspective here. It is always welcome.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Evangelism’s First Two Thousand Years

A Philosophy of Personal Evangelism 3

I love history. It has long been my favorite subject of study. I have read thousands of history books, including many on church history. I am reading two right now on the Roman Empire. I love history for many reasons but primarily because a better knowledge of the past almost always directs us toward better choices in the present. To that end I am going to briefly sketch for you the progress and regress of evangelism in the past two thousand years of church history. It isn't fair to attempt such a thing in a blog post or two. I apologize for the brevity but such is the limitation of this medium.

Ephesian amphitheater 
We see, first, the extent of evangelism in the Early Church through the prism of one church, Ephesus.

Acts 19. 1 And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples… Paul brought them into New Testament Christianity, split the synagogue over Jesus, and launched a brand new church.

7 And all the men were about twelve.
8 ¶ And he went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God.
9 But when divers were hardened, and believed not, but spake evil of that way before the multitude, he departed from them, and separated the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus.
10 And this continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.

Now, it certainly helped Paul get attention for the Gospel that he had the capacity to do miracles, and a rather sensational conflict with a demon, but nonetheless, the Ephesian church grew rapidly.

17 And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.

20 So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed.

23 And the same time there arose no small stir about that way.
24 For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, which made silver shrines for Diana, brought no small gain unto the craftsmen;
25 Whom he called together with the workmen of like occupation, and said, Sirs, ye know that by this craft we have our wealth.
26 Moreover ye see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands:

The term "Asia" in the KJV does not refer to the entire continent as we use it today but rather to a specific region around Ephesus so named by the Roman Senate. We see then that this early church at Ephesus had clearly evangelized their entire city, and had then taken the Gospel into the wider province around them. And they did this in only two and a half years.

At the risk of being melodramatic, next we sadly see the death of evangelism.

A Roman mosaic of a Christian
held by a gladiator being destroyed
by a wild beast
Initially, the devil's response to the Early Church was persecution.

I Thessalonians 2. 14 For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews:
15 Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men:
16 Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.

But persecution could not stop the church; indeed, persecution actually produced more growth.

Acts 8. 3 As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.
4 ¶ Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.

How then did the devil manage to slow the explosive growth of the Early Church? First, he stirred up a veritable plethora of doctrinal controversies and heresies on the second century of our era to sidetrack it. The response to this was codified statements of doctrinal orthodoxy via Empire wide church councils. But at the same time ecclesiastical authority became centered more and more on the Roman see. Constantine, in an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em moment, married the declining Western Empire to the Church, and thus co-opted the growing movement and birthed the Roman Catholic Church.

The resulting conglomeration of authority and doctrinal error would rule most of the Christian world and much of the secular as well for the next thousand years. The Roman Catholic Church calls this the Golden Age; history calls it the Dark Ages, with its almost complete collapse of inter-community commerce and communication. Isolated churches and regions burned bright with the genuine gospel of Christ but by and large that isolation prevented wider evangelization. For the most part, in this era, though men still came to Christ, they did so more often because of what they read than whom they heard.

The Protestant Reformation – begun via a Martin Luther converted by reading Scripture – did much to wrest the Europe from the grip of the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation was marked by a return to an emphasis on preaching and sound doctrine, but it largely ignored evangelism. For example, John Calvin, one of the most influential authors in the history of Christianity, birthed a detailed system that is today called Calvinism or Reformed Theology. It posits an orthodox view of justification by grace through faith but it boxes it into a harshly closed looped that practically kills most motivation for witnessing.

God in His grace broke through this doctrinal and practical logjam with the life of William Carey and the birth of modern missions. Carey was an English cobbler with a love of geography and an aptitude for languages. He constructed a map of the world, and hung it over his cobbler's bench so he could pray while he worked. This led – and, remember, prayer feeds evangelism – to a desire to go to that lost world with the gospel. He took the increasing burden of his heart for the lost to his Calvinistic denomination and was told, "Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen world, He will do it without your help or mine." Boldly ignoring such stifling pontificating he formed the first missionary society and in 1793 he sailed for India. Soon the Moravians, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists followed his example and the nineteenth century saw a virtual explosion of missionary driven world-wide evangelism.

Billy Graham
As this missionary minded Christianity advanced it was also marked by a rebirth of mass evangelism at home. John Wesley and George Whitefield in the eighteenth, Charles Finney then Dwight Moody in the nineteenth, and Billy Sunday then Billy Graham in the twentieth centuries brought millions into the Kingdom with enormous city-wide crusades.

This approach continues today though usually on a smaller scale. In fact, one could argue that the concept of event evangelism – using special days and promotions in the twentieth century such as Christmas dramas, Easter cantatas, and Big Days – is simply a local church expression of mass evangelism. In these the lost are gathered into crowds, the Gospel is preached, and men and women trust Christ.

This brief sketch shows us some of the swings in emphasis and application of evangelism through church history. I shall continue it next week and then chase it with some applied wisdom.