Fads and Fixtures: Ten Deadly Trappings of Evangelism

This article has been around the Internet in a few different forms for several years. It was originally posted by the author, Joe Carter, on a site which is no longer online. I’m re-posting it here because I think his points are valid and his article is worth discussing. As a former Evangelical I share most of his concerns, as well as both his love for Evangelical Christians and his frustration with what that movement has become.

Fads and Fixtures: Ten Deadly Trappings of Evangelism

by Joe Carter

“Virtually all the people on Time magazine’s list of ‘The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals’ share at least one glaringly significant trait,” says Phillip Johnson, “For the most part, these are the fadmakers.” Phil goes on to list a number of “cheerleaders for whatever is fashionable”, including the usual suspects such as Rick Warren and Tim LaHaye, and explains why their programs are fads:

Not one of those movements or programs even existed 35 years ago. Most of them would not have been dreamed of by evangelicals merely a generation ago. And, frankly, most of them will not last another generation. Some will last a few short months (like the Jabez phenomenon did); others may seem to dominate for several years but then die lingering deaths (like Bill Gothard’s movement is doing). But they will all eventually fade and fall from significance. And some poor wholesale distributor will be left with warehouses full of Jabez junk, Weigh-Down Workshop paraphernalia, “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets, Purpose-Driven” merchandise, and stacks and stacks of “emerging church” resources.

Like Johnson, I’m concerned about the way in which evangelicals tend to embrace whatever trends and kitsch happen to be hot sellers at “Christian” bookstores. But while Johnson laments that most of the “stuff you are currently being told you must read and implement will soon seem as hopelessly out of date” I take comfort in knowing that most of this stuff is nothing more than a passing trend. 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 while fixtures remain largely unquestioned.

The following are ten fixtures of evangelism that I find particularly harmful. None of them are inherently pernicious (well, except for #10) but they have a tendency to be used in ways that are counterproductive to 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. Indeed, my primary complaint against each of the other nine methods on this list is that they are usually ineffective in instigating true conversion much less helping 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 many, many, “Christians” will discover after it’s far, far, too late.

#3 “Do you know Jesus as…” — In the fall of 1987 I began my freshman year of college. I was far from home, overwhelmed and lonely on a campus of 20,000 students. While sitting alone in the cafeteria one afternoon, an older student walked up, smiled and asked if he could join me. I was starved for conversation and thrilled to have the company. He sat his tray down in front of mine and took a seat as I prepared to engage him in a heady discussion of his choosing. Politics, philosophy, science. I was mentally preparing for anything he threw at me.

Glancing up from his plate of spaghetti, he asked, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

For a few seconds I was stunned, completely at a loss for a response. “I’m, yeah, actually I have.” I finally managed in reply.

“Oh,” he said, visibly disappointed. “Okay, that’s good.” He wore a look of minor defeat. He had chosen the wrong table; no soul would be won for Christ over this lunch. We chatted politely while I finished my burger. He ate quickly and excused himself. After that lunch, I never saw him again.

This is one question that needs never be asked for it shows (a) you do not know the person well enough, (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 know the person.

#4 Tribulationism — Ask a non-believer to give a rudimentary explanation of “the Rapture” and chances are they can provide a fairly accurate description of that concept. Ask the same person to give a basic explanation of the Gospel message, though, and they are likely to be stumped. The reason for this curious state of affairs is that evangelicals have promoted what I refer to as “Tribulationism” — an overemphasis on eschatology that overshadows the Gospel. 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 your story doesn’t much matter. You are only a bit player in the narrative thread; the main part 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 that,

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. For the latter to try and do so, by appealing to sinners to begin believing here and now, is for man to take to himself the sovereign right of the Holy Ghost. It is an act of presumption, however creditable the evangelists motive’s may be. Hereby he goes beyond his commission as God’s messenger; and hereby he risks doing incalculable damage to the souls of men. If he tells men they are under obligation to receive Christ on the spot, and demands in God’s name that they decide at once, some who are spiritually unprepared will try to do so; they will come forward and accept directions and “go through the motions” and go away thinking they have received Christ, when all the time they have not done so because they were not yet able to do so. So a crop of false conversions will result from making such appeals, in the nature of the case. Bullying for “decisions” thus in fact impedes and thwarts the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. Man takes it on himself to try to bring that work to a precipitate conclusion, to pick the fruit before it is ripe; and the result is “false conversions,” hypocrisy and hardening. “For the appeal for immediate decision presupposes that men are free to “decide for Christ” at any time; and this presupposition is the disastrous issue of a false, un-Scriptural view of sin.

My friend Jared Bridges has pointed out another reason for me, as a Baptist, to despise the term “altar call”: We don’t believe in transubstantiation and we don’t burn offerings, so we have no need for an “altar.”

#7 Witnessing — Evangelism ain’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 Amway products not the Good News.

If you want to be a more effective “witness for Christ” then start by doing what Christ did and love other people. Start by loving the “unlovable” — the smelly, unbathed men down at the mission, the annoying kids at church, the bonehead 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 — Last week one of my fellow coworkers, a young Catholic man, was asked to open our 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 what 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 had an odd ring to it. 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 toppping it all with an 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 this idea come from? We have entire books to teach us how to pray yet Jesus managed to wrap up the lesson in less than forty words. Why isn’t that prayer good enough for evangelicals to use? Why do our prayers sound nothing like His example? (And if you are wondering what prayer is doing on a list of evangelistic fixtures then we are really in trouble.)

#9 The Church Growth Movement — Sadly, this has moved from fad to fixture. Think I’m wrong? Ask the next person you see to define that phrase. In fact, ask the next 100 people 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. (If you do find someone who says that then smack ‘em upside their head with a Scofield for they’re a Purpose-Driven Liar.)

#10 Chick Tracts — Chick Tracts are a tool of the devil. 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’ Prayer after finding “The Long Trip” on the floor of a truck stop restroom.

The term evangelism derives from the Greek word evangel — “good news.” So it’s rather odd how so much evangelism appears to be about “selling” Jesus and hoping that you can convince the unsaved heathen to buy into salvation. This was the way I had been taught during Vacation Bible School classes at the First Baptist Church of Fire and Brimstone. Pass out Chick tracts, recite the canned “how to get saved” speech, get them to say the sinner’s prayer. Above all, close the deal. They may die at any time and their souls would be lost to eternal damnation if I didn’t “make the sell.” By the age of eight I was a cross between Billy Graham and Willy Loman.

Whenever I began to seriously read the Gospels, though, I noticed something strange. People constantly flocked to Jesus despite the fact that he never passed out a single tract. He would walk up to people and say “Follow me” and the next thing you know they’re giving up their lives to follow him around the countryside.

The people responded to Jesus the way they did because he is God. He is what our hearts have always been seeking. When we come face to face with him we may accept or reject him. But we can’t not know him. Calvin claimed that there is an awareness or sense of God (sensus divinitatis) implanted in all people by nature. The context of this universally distributed belief being rather minimal: there is a God, He is the Creator, and that He ought to be worshiped. The Gospel, though, fills in the essential details.

We evangelicals don’t need tools of evangelism. We don’t need fads and fixtures. We don’t need anything more than the Gospel. For that is one fixture of our faith that will never go out of style.

(Note: The last time I posted this article, I ended up caving into peer pressure and admitting that maybe this stuff ain’t all that bad. Two years later I find that I conceded too much. I’ve modified my stance a bit and clarified a few points of contention. But I really do believe that these “fixtures” have become detrimental to the making of disciples. Am I wrong? I’m open to hearing counter-claims.)

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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1 Comment

  1. I so appreciate your comments. For half of my life I was Catholic. Then since I was marrying a Baptist, I became Protestant (had some exposure to them before this). Now, at 52 years of age, I am undergoing instruction for becoming Orthodox. Your words have helped me give some credence to my ever-present discomfort with Protestant evangelistic practices. Thank you! For years I wondered if I had some kind of spiritual bondage or demonic influence to not like “witnessing” or evangelistic “events” so integral to Protestantism. Now I see that there were deeper, holier rumblings at work deep within my spirit.
    Thank you!

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  1. Sacraments, Faith, and Formation | Blog | Why do Catholics not "witness?" - [...] Joe Carter listed the “Do you know Jesus as…” approach as a “Deadly Trapping of Evangelism.” “This is one…

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