Should the church use evangelistic strategies that gather crowds of unbelievers together in order to provide an opportunity for them to hear the gospel?
I know from personal experience that by asking this question I am treading on controversial ground here. The impulsive answer that many people would give is ‘Yes!’ But I would ask you to think about this question carefully before you answer. First, be sure you understand what I am asking. For the sake of clarity, I am not asking:
- If we should preach the gospel to crowds of unbelievers. I am assuming that we should preach the gospel to every creature as the Lord gives opportunity, whether as individuals or in crowds. Crowds themselves are not the issue.
I am also not asking:
- Whether we should have meetings where preaching is taking place and unbelievers are present. I am assuming (with the Scripture – 1 Cor. 14:23-24) that this will happen and it is a good thing. The presence of non-Christians is not the issue.
My question is about evangelistic methods. My question is, should we develop a strategy to gather non-Christians together for the sake of evangelizing them?
My answer to this question is a qualified ‘No.’ No, we should not develop a strategy to gather non-Christians for the sake of evangelizing them…if that strategy would employ carnal means to attract these carnal people. I have numerous reasons for this conviction. I will mention a few of them below which arise from (1) biblical, (2) theological, (3) ethical concerns.
1. The first reason is an acknowledgment of the biblical pattern:
- Jesus at times preached to largely unconverted crowds but never made any strategic plan to gather a crowd of unbelievers.
- The apostles at times preached to unconverted crowds but never made any strategic plan to gather them.
- The early church at times preached to unconverted crowds but never made any strategic plans to gather them. (see for instance Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, p. 300ff.)
Not only is this kind of strategy (purposefully gathering a crowd of non-Christians) a biblical novelty, but it tends to reverse the biblical trend of taking the gospel “out” to an unbelieving world. It moves in the direction of a “come” mentality for unbelievers rather than a “go” mentality for believers.
2. The second reason is an argument from the biblical theology of evangelism. What is the primary goal of evangelism? Where is the real power in evangelism? The way we answer these two questions will largely determine (if we are consistent) the way we do evangelism.
As Christians we are responsible to tell the right message. But we are also responsible to tell the message the right way. We are responsible to share the gospel in such a way that God’s power is demonstrated and not man’s abilities of persuasion (1 Cor. 2:1-5). Our methods, as well as our message, must come under the authority and scrutiny of Scripture. Man’s ability to cleverly draw people to visibly respond will pervert the message and make the message void (1 Cor. 1:17). The reason God wants the gospel to be cloaked in the “foolishness of God” (1 Cor. 1:25) rather than the wisdom of men is because God is jealous for His own glory and does not want any one to boast in his own accomplishment when it is God alone who does the work (1 Cor. 1:29).
If the Holy Spirit is drawing a person to Jesus, that person will be attracted to the truth of the Word of God and the love and fellowship of the Body of Christ. The only reason we would have to add carnal attractions into the mix is if the Holy Spirit was not drawing them. But if that were the case, nothing we do will be ultimately successful anyway. God successfully draws sinners to himself as we hold out the glory and grace of Christ. There is no need to confuse things by adding the gimmicks of man.
Contrasting Evangelistic Philosophies:
- A pragmatically-driven evangelist says we should use any and every means available to reach people that the normal means God gives won’t (or can’t) reach. A pragmatist’s primary concern is effectiveness (i.e. “closing the deal”) in getting people saved. This is an example of man-centered evangelism.
- A biblically-driven evangelist says we should use the means that God prescribes because they point to God alone as the author of salvation. The mission of the biblical evangelist is to present the message, not produce the converts. His or her primary concern is faithfulness to God, not effectiveness in work. Effectiveness is left in God’s capable hands. We are simply called to plant seeds and water them with the absolute confidence that God in His sovereignty will give the increase (1 Cor. 3:6). By this God glorifies himself. This is an example of God-centered evangelism.
3. The third reason is an ethical problem. Sometimes there is an element of deceit involved in this kind of campaign to gather non-Christians, particularly evident with teenagers. Too often a non-Christian has been invited to a basketball game or a festival or some other thing, only to find out that he has been ambushed by religious zealots and put in a situation where he has to listen to a message that he is not at all interested in. And quite frankly, he is often irritated that he was snookered into being a captive audience. This is a classic bait-and-switch technique.
It is quite shameful that the church has to be taken to task by non-Christians for our less than honest evangelistic techniques. I don’t recall anyone ever saying in surprise, “Hey, Jesus…you never said you were going to get all religious on me! I thought we were just going to the basketball game.” Jesus and the apostles were always honest enough to lead with the gospel. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel and don’t be an evangelistic card shark. Show your hand up front. Non-Christians are people too and they appreciate the courtesy of knowing what we are inviting them to.
Conclusion: We should not ignore or diminish the importance of biblical theology and biblical patterns for evangelism. To do so may betray a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the gospel itself.