There are two types of evangelicals in America: those who naively embrace whatever trendy items happen to be hot sellers at “Christian” bookstores—WWJD? bracelets, Testamints, prayer of Jabez scented candles—and those who shun such kitsch. I am solidly of the second type. Like a good Pharisee, I thank God every day that I’m not like those people.
But I take comfort in knowing that most of this stuff is rather harmless and nothing more than a passing fad. It is not the dernier cri that will soon be gone that concerns me but the faddage that becomes a fixture. Fads still receive scrutiny; fixtures remain largely unquestioned.
The following are ten fixtures that I find particularly harmful not just to evangelicalism but to evangelism. None of them are inherently pernicious (well, except for #10) but evangelicals use them in ways that do not serve their intended purposes.
#1 Making Converts. I’ve always felt uneasy about the idea that Christians should be seeking to make converts. Am I wrong in thinking that the making of converts is a task associated with Islam, rather than Christianity? Perhaps I have a flawed understanding of the Gospel, but I always thought the purpose of evangelism is not to make converts but to make, as Christ commanded, disciples—and to make disciples of nations, not just individuals. Indeed, my primary complaint against each of the other nine methods on this list is that they are not useful for instigating true conversion, much less make true disciples.
#2 The Sinner’s Prayer. The gates of hell have a special entrance reserved for people who thought that they had a ticket into heaven because someone told them all they needed to do was recite the “sinner’s prayer.” I’ve searched through the entire New Testament and can’t find an example of anyone who was “saved” after reciting such a prayer.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that such prayer is worthless or that it can’t be used by the Holy Spirit. But salvation is not obtained by reciting a magical incantation, as far too many “Christians” will discover after it’s far too late.
#3 ”Do you know Jesus as . . . “. As I’ve said before, this is one question that needs never be asked since it reveals (a) you do not know the person well enough, or (b) the answer is yes and the person is a lousy Christian, or (c) the answer is no, in which case you just activated their fundie-alert system and caused them to switch their brains into “ignore” mode. Instead of asking about a “personal savior” you might want to simply try to get to personally know the person.
#4 Tribulationism. Ask a non-believer to give a rudimentary explanation of the “end times” and chances are he can provide a fairly accurate description of popular eschatology. Ask the same person to give a basic explanation of the Gospel message, though, and he is likely to be stumped.
The reason for this curious state of affairs is that evangelicals have promoted what I would call “Tribulationism”: an overemphasis on pre-millennial dispensational eschatology. I’m sure that somewhere in the three-dozen novels that comprise the Left Behind series the Gospel message is presented. But there is something horribly wrong when the greatest story ever told is buried beneath a third-rate tale of the apocalypse.
#5 Testimonies. Several years ago, during a job interview for a Christian organization, my prospective employer asked me to tell him my “testimony.” The fact that I was a Christian apparently wasn’t enough. I had to have a good conversion story to go along with my faith.
Now you may have a great story about how “the hound of Heaven” chased you down and gnawed on your leg until you surrendered. No doubt your story would make for a gripping movie of the week on Lifetime and lead to the making of numerous converts (see #1). But the harsh truth is that as compelling, and even useful, as your story may be, it is not the most important story you could tell.
You are only a very, very minor character in the narrative; the starring role goes to the Divine Protagonist. In fact, he already has a pretty good story, so why not just tell that one instead?
#6 The Altar Call. In the 1820’s evangelist Charles Finney introduced the “anxious seat,” a front pew left vacant where at the end of the meeting “the anxious may come and be addressed particularly—and sometimes be conversed with individually.” At the end of his sermon, he would say, “There is the anxious seat; come out, and avow determination to be on the Lord’s side.” The problem with this approach, as theologian J.I. Packer, explains is,
The gospel of God requires an immediate response from all; but it does not require the same response from all. The immediate duty of the unprepared sinner is not to try and believe on Christ, which he is not able to do, but to read, enquire, pray, use the means of grace and learn what he needs to be saved from. It is not in his power to accept Christ at any moment, as Finney supposed; and it is God’s prerogative, not the evangelist’s, to fix the time when men shall first savingly believe.
#7 Witnessing. Evangelism isn’t Amway. It is not a form of Multi-Level Marketing in which you get extra credit for the number of people in your network and you don’t get a great commission for the Great Commission. If you want to sell something door-to-door, make it the good products of Avon, not the good news of Jesus.
If you want to be a more effective “witness for Christ” why not start by actively loving our neighbors? Start by loving the unlovable—the smelly, unbathed men down at the mission, the annoying kids at church, the inconsiderate jerk who cuts you off in traffic. Yes, you need to tell people about the Gospel. But that is evangelism, not “witnessing.” In the context of the Christian life, witness should be a noun more often than a verb.
#8 Protestant Prayers. A few years ago a fellow coworker, a young Catholic man, was asked to open a meeting with a prayer. Without hesitation he began reciting the “Lord’s prayer.” Afterward I joked that, having come up with such a fine prayer, he might want to write it down for future use. What I didn’t say was how his recitation of the prayer made me uncomfortable.
First, I’m not used to hearing prayers that don’t contain the word “just” (as in “We just want to thank you Lord. . .”) so it sounded strangely unprayer-like. Second, it seemed to violate the accepted standards for public prayer. I had always assumed that praying in public required being able to interlace some just-want-to’s in with some Lord-thank-you-for’s and be-with-us-as-we’s in a coherent fashion before capping it all with a hearty, but humble, Amen.
Third, I thought that prayers are supposed to be spontaneous—from the heart, off the top of the head—emanations, rather than prepackaged recitations. If it ain’t original, it ain’t prayer, right? Can I get an amen?
But where did that idea come from? We evangelicals have bookshelves filled with tomes to teach us how to pray. Yet somehow Jesus managed to wrap up the lesson in less than forty words. Why isn’t his prayer good enough for evangelicals to use? Why do our prayers sound nothing like his example?
#9 The Church Growth Movement. Sadly, this has moved from fad to fixture. Think I’m wrong? Ask the next evangelical you see to define that phrase. In fact, ask the next hundred evangelicals you see. Let me know if you find anyone that tells you they think the church growth movement is a movement in the church to grow disciples.
#10 Chick Tracts. Chick Tracts are a tool of the devil—pamphlets that provoke fear, pervert the Gospel, and divide the body of Christ. That fact—and yes it is a fact—is not changed just because you know a guy who knows a guy who heard testimony about a guy who said the Sinner’s Prayer after finding Chick’s “The Long Trip” on the floor of a truck stop restroom outside of Tucson.
Am I saying that all of these ten fixtures are worthless? No, I’m not (well, except for #10). I may be pharisaical, but I’m not a complete legalist. All I’m saying is that we evangelicals don’t need these tools of evangelism. We don’t need any fads and fixtures at all. We don’t need anything more than the Gospel. For that is one fixture of our faith that will never go out of style.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.