Stuck at Go- A Case Study in the Failure of Modern Evangelism

March 31, 2009

Since deciding to take this past year as a period of casual learning before jumping into seminary and formal pastoral education, I have found myself taking part in several church and generally “Christian” activities.  One of these is an evangelism group in which people are meeting weekly to learn a system of evangelism and then heading out to use it in attempt to reach people who have indicated an interest in our church.  To be honest, I am excited to be going out for evangelism and trying to take people the message of the cross every week, but I could give or take the particular system we are being trained in.

The system isn’t one of the fancy named deals like F.A.I.T.H. or Evangelism Explosion, but is a mixture of the general principles involved in these, all centered around the “Bridge to Life” tract put out by The Navigators.  I would imagine many Christians are familiar with this illustration; it is the one where man and God are separated over a chasm caused by sin and the only way for man to make it to God’s side is by the cross of Jesus, which allows him to choose eternal life over eternal destruction.  Now aside from the fact that this is an unabashedly Arminian presentation and that it utterly abuses passages such as 1 Timothy 2.5, Revelation 3.20, and John 6.47, this system does attempt to teach reconciliation with a righteous God through the grace of the cross and so I stomach going through it, even if I won’t necessarily plan on using it once on the field.

However, this past week, instead of being with my usual evangelism partner I teamed with another highly active member of my church, a slightly older guy (late 30′s-early 40′s), who serves as a deacon and teaches children’s Sunday School.  We had one prospect to visit, a Korean family who had come to our church the day before and who my partner casually knew through involvment in the public schools.  What happened during our visit was indicative of my greatest fears in the style of evangelism we have been taught, a style not that different from most other evangelical congregations, and served to further bolster in my mind the weakness of the modern Christian church’s view of salvation.

So we arrive at this person’s house, knock on the door, introduce ourselves, and get invited in.  We sit and make small talk for a minute, finding out what they thought of our church and how it was that they came to visit us.  Then, since my partner had a previous rapport with the family, I let him lead in with a testimony about his salvation experience and follow that up with the “key” question: “If you were to be in front of God for judgment tonight, what would you say to him about why he should let you into heaven?”  This, in some variation or another, is the basic first or second question in most contemporary evangelism schemes (the other being, “If you were to die tonight do you know where you would spend eternity?”), and their response is then used to lead into the gospel presentation if anything other than a “faith” answer is given.  However, on this night, the question was short circuited right from the start when our prospect told us that he is not particularly concerned with the afterlife but prefers to focus on how he lives his life today.  You could tell it from my partners eyes– our system has no ability to respond to that– and that is a problem.

Honestly, the objection that this man raised is (a) not in itself a bad train of thought, and (b) increasingly common in our postmodern culture.  Heck, I even find myself in this place often times, not that I don’t care about the afterlife, but that I find my motivation in living for God being more focused on how I serve him practically day-to-day and less in where I’ll go when I die.  The problem is, if a person really doesn’t invest too much in thinking about heaven and hell, what good does the “key” question do?  Moreover, why is it that we have left our congregations so inadequately prepared to deal with a very simple and prevalent kink in their system?  

This is one area of agreement that I have with the emerging/postmodern mindset.  We cannot just focus on trying to automatize evangelism and teaching God.  There are many legitimate variations on Christian thinking and experience that the modern evangelical framework is impotent at addressing, but that the church should not have any trouble dealing with.  Unless we train our people solidly in the Bible, and not just in some cute, 5-page presentation intended to astonish unbelievers into submission, there is no way that they will be able to stand a chance in the well read, broadly spiritual age we are living in, and their ignorance will continue the stigma against the church as being a simple-minded, anti-intellectual hot bed of judgmental radicals.  

The Scriptures really are sufficient, but unfortunately modern evangelism is neglecting a great portion of them in trying to advance easy believism, turn-or-burn Christianity.  This was one example how.