EVANGELISM FOR YOUNG
If any single word may be
said to sum up the task of Christian mission and lifestyle as seen by
Young Evangelicals, it must be "witness." The role of the egalitarian
Christian communities is to "witness" to mainstream society that there
is a better way. The purpose of demonstrations against CIA torture or
nuclear power is to “witness" to the Principalities and Powers of the
message of reconciliation. Yet this word is surely familiar to Young
Evangelicals not only from their present struggles on behalf of the
oppressed, but also from their religious background. For many of today's
radical Christians passing out protest leaflets can (perhaps with a
wince) recall handing out evangelistic tracts not too many years ago.
Such approaches to “witnessing for Christ” were left behind because of
their social irrelevance. Jim Wallis recalls his encounters with campus
evangelists: "What about the Vietnamese, you blessed little Christian
peace makers? Oh, I see, that's a political issue that might divide the
Church. Real peace is through Jesus, eh? Kinda like magic." 1
indignation, many decided to stop dealing the opiate of the people. And
their call to social justice has been heard far and wide, restoring
balance to a lopsided American gospel. Yet have they overreacted? Have
the Young Evangelicals in fact fulfilled the predictions of the
Fundamentalists that social action would only wind up distracting
Christians from the task of evangelism? It may be time, then, to take
another look at evangelistic witness, to see what sense can be made of
it for Young Evangelicals today.
First, we must ask just
what objections might be raised against traditional evangelism. We have
already referred to its isolation from social concerns, yet this flaw
might be corrected easily enough if one, e.g., wished to read through a
copy of The Four Spiritual Laws with the non-Christian next to
oneself in a sit-in at Seabrook. But, as most readers know, this is not
likely to happen! There must be deeper flaws seen in traditional
One important feature of
Fundamentalist evangelism theory was its frenzied character. The
nonbeliever was often warned to accept Christ right now since
after all he might die tonight on the way home from the meeting. The
believer was under similar constraint since if he or she passed by any
opportunity to witness, someone’s blood might be on his or her hands! J.
B. Phillips describes the scene accurately, “’Consider,’ cries the
passionate advocate of foreign missions, ‘that every second, thousands
of pagan souls pass into a Christless eternity.’” 2 Now
anyone who has taken such exhortations seriously will be aware that many
Evangelicals do not. "If they did, they would be screaming in the
streets, taking daily full page advertisements in the newspapers” (Alan
Watts). 3 But some do, the group of "soul-winners" held up
for emulation in every Evangelical church.
Every Christian should
aspire to be a soul-winner, but the price is high. For one thing, there
will be little time for other pursuits. John R. Rice advises Christians
to "be absorbed in [soul-winning] . . . and [to] have all one's powers,
all one's energy and enthusiasm harnessed in this great work.” 4
Specifically, one should take quite literally every opportunity to share
Talk to anyone any time or,
better still, talk to everyone every time.... The drugstore clerk, the
barber, the shoeshine boy, the beautician, the grocery clerk, the
milkman, bread man, service station attendant need the Lord and we
should witness to them.... So... make it a habit of asking people
everywhere you go, “Are you a Christian?” (Jack Hyles) 5
Wherever we are, we should
be looking for ways to spread the good news by talking about Jesus...
[e.g.] by greeting people with “God bless you” or “Jesus loves you”
instead of just a “hi” or “hello.” (Arthur Blessitt) 6
The zeal here is
understandable, or at least well-rationalized. After all, if you
discovered a cure for cancer you probably would immediately rush out,
like Archimedes, and tell everyone. But what reaction is such a
one-track approach liable to elicit from the targeted nonbeliever? One
of the heathen shares his reactions: "Obviously a Jesus-freak.... The
main problem with all [of] ‘em--at least the ones I've met is--they're
all fanatics. ... As far as I'm concerned, they're generally a
nuisance.” 7 (Ray F. Wood) So if the Christian witness
follows the path marked out by Rice, Hyles, and Blessitt, he or she may
be perceived as "walking about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may
Witnessing has caused
something of a public stir recently because of the techniques employed
by Moonies, Hare Krishnas, and other cultists while recruiting or
soliciting. They practice "heavenly deception" believing that a sublime
end justifies sub-ethical means. What is not so often noted is that
several features of traditional evangelism lie open to the same
objections. The allegedly disinterested, nonsectarian (but actually
evangelistic) “survey” is one obvious example. But even interpersonal
“friendship evangelism" often smacks of heavenly deception. High School
Evangelistic Fellowship staff train their members in the technique of
“turned around conversations.”8 Campus Crusade's Bill Bright
elaborates. “Begin a conversation on any appropriate subject and then
turn the conversation to spiritual things. Talk about current world
problems and ask if they see any likely solutions. They will ask you the
same, which will enable you to share The Four Spiritual Laws
and your personal testimony." Bright then explains the need to "Listen
carefully to the person with whom you are sharing your faith so that you
can make specific applications for him in your presentation of The
Four Spiritual Laws. Take hints from the things he says.” 9
“It is like rowing around an island, carefully studying the shoreline
for an appropriate landing place. We explore our non-Christian friends'
religious and family backgrounds, cultural interests, needs, dreams, and
fears.”10 (Rebecca Manley Pippert) This is all clearly
deceptive, as well as manipulative, since the witness is supposed to
feign spontaneous interest in topics he or she otherwise would care
nothing about. One may also indulge in flattery: “Every time you go to a
home, brag on something. We live in a selfish world. It is good to say,
'You sure have a nice suit,’ or 'Isn't that a precious child?’” (Hyles)
11 Jard DeVille tells readers how to cultivate “the
friendship you need to influence them.”12 One good “way to
get through a person's defenses is to offer him a sincere compliment."
Yet how sincere can such instrumental devices be? We have here a classic
example of what Paul Watzlawick calls the "'be spontaneous' paradox.”13
How can "spontaneous" actions be either commanded, or induced by prior
motives? Instead, this kind of flattery represents the "love bombing"
practiced by Moonies in order to "soften up" a potential convert.
And since what the personal
evangelist is engaging in is really not so much a conversation as a
sales pitch, he must follow a careful strategy. "Once we have some idea
of who we are talking to, we must learn to arouse their curiosity about
the gospel," by means including, e.g., being a bit vague initially, so
as to prompt a request for clarification. (Pippert) 14 And,
"As you ask feeling-oriented questions, phrase them so he cannot answer
them with a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer” (DeVille). 15 But
most important, "Just stay right on the subject." If any objections are
raised, "tell them the same thing: 'That's a good question.' You plan
the speech, and don't let anything he says get you off the main line.
Don't spend time answering his questions or he will be governing the
conversation. You govern the conversation.” (Hyles) 16
And speaking of questions,
one may feel free to duck them since they are only a smokescreen. The
nonbeliever is simply assumed to have bad faith. "Failing to recognize
that faith is a gift and not exclusively a product of the human will,
certain conservative Christians refuse to believe in the integrity of a
man who says that he cannot believe” (Virginia Mollenkott). 17
Billy Graham voices this common assessment: "Often many so-called
intellectual arguments against the Christian faith are actually just
excuses for refusing to let Christ take control and rule our lives.”18
Of course, skeptical questions might be mere evasion, but
ironically the witness is trained to practice exactly such evasion him-
or herself. This is the old strategy of “Say, that's a good question! I
don't have an answer, but I'll try to get one for you. Meanwhile,
wouldn't you like to convert anyway?” Pippert testifies, "I often tell
people I am very grateful that God is using them to sharpen me
intellectually when I am stumped by a question. I tell them I do not
know the answer but I cannot wait to investigate.”19 She is
serving notice to the nonbeliever that while she wants him or her to
consider the facts rationally and open-mindedly, she on the other hand
assumes automatically that no objection could prove to be of sufficient
weight to make her change her beliefs. It is a foregone conclusion that
God has an answer and is simply keeping her on her toes. Her beliefs
are, then, virtually unfalsifiable and defended by sheer willpower. Who
is being evasive here?
Can such evangelistic
strategists be oblivious to the manipulative nature of their approach?
DeVille anticipates charges like those leveled here. “The methods I
teach [are] not... a subtle form of manipulation. Rather they are in the
format that a psychologist or psychiatrist often uses to help a client
discover both his problems and what will enable him to live a satisfying
life.” 20 But this analogy refutes DeVille’s own argument.
The psychological counselor’s approach is avowedly "manipulative," with
its probing and loaded questions, but no one objects since the devices
of the counselor are analogous to surgical instruments or medicines. But
to approach an interpersonal exchange in this manner would be
intolerably patronizing (as anyone with an amateur psychologist in the
family can attest!).
Again, let us ask what the
perceptive outsider thinks of all this? "The poor bastards want
their beliefs to be true so damned bad they feel anything is
justified if it will convince some poor stupid jerk into going along
with 'em.” (Wood) 21 And what might the Apostle Paul have to
say about it? "We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use
deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by
setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's
conscience in the sight of God." (2 Corinthians 4:2, NIV).
By now it is plain why
Young Evangelicals have repudiated evangelism as they were taught to
practice it. They have too much respect both for themselves and for
nonbelieving individuals. And it is all too clear that a single-minded
zeal for evangelism can become a narrow-minded zeal, suppressing and
ignoring legitimate cultural and personal interests. Life is more than
witnessing, after all. Nor is this concern purely self-oriented. For, if
the whole Christian life is a matter of converting others (as Rice,
Hyles, et al. teach), then what are those others being converted to?
We are then recruiting recruiters of new recruits to do more
recruiting, ad infinitum?
Still, it might be
objected, doesn't J.B. Phillips' “passionate advocate of missions" have
a real point? What about all those souls slipping into a
Christless eternity? Dare we “waste” time with other pursuits? And do we
need to be so legalistic in our honesty if a little manipulation would
facilitate someone’s conversion? Perhaps these questions may be answered
with an answer often given by the personal evangelists themselves. When
asked "What about the heathen in Slobbovia who have never heard the
gospel?" the witness replies, "God will deal with them justly, though I
don't know what that will mean in specifics. Meanwhile what about you?”
Even so in our case. What about those souls we miss reaching
because we are instead enjoying culture or refusing to manipulate our
friends? God will deal with them justly, whatever that may mean.
Meanwhile we are doing what God wants--living a well-rounded life and
If these brief observations
help clear the ground for a more balanced and humane approach to
witnessing, how might such a new approach look in practical terms?
Basically, it would mean that the Young Evangelical would share his or
her faith only when circumstances naturally called for it, and of course
they might call for it often, if he or she is living a transformed life
that prompts people to "ask of you a reason for the hope that is in you"
(1 Peter 3:l5b). But no more sniffing out "opportunities.” Anyone who
uses subterfuge to spread his or her belief either knows deep down that
there is something wrong with it, or is embarrassed by it and so shares
it only out of legalistic guilt.
In addition to renouncing
"heavenly deception" the Christian witness need not call every
non-Christian "intellectually dishonest," as if the facts pointed
self-evidently in one direction. Why not admit that honest minds differ,
and leave the person's fate up to God? Bill Bright defines evangelism as
"sharing Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results
to God." Why not?
So far I have tried to
outline a new strategy for personal evangelism that would respect the
honesty and integrity of both the witness and the nonbeliever. The key
was simply to realize that despite the threat of hell for the
nonbeliever, other considerations leave "breathing space” for the
Christian witness to remain honest and to have normal social
relationships. But observation of current trends among Young
Evangelicals makes it apparent that these concerns, as important as they
are, do not pose the only problem with evangelism. For with increasing
dialogue and cooperation between Young Evangelicals and people outside
the Evangelical tradition, we are beginning to see a blurring of the
traditional "us-versus-them” boundary along which evangelistic strategy
was traditionally planned. If it becomes less clear as to precisely who
are the sheep and who are the goats, what happens to evangelism? Here, I
suspect, is another reason for the decline of evangelistic witnessing
among Young Evangelicals.
This melting of the old
dichotomies can be observed in several areas of Young Evangelical
interest. In the area of theological dialogue (e. g., the Theological
Students Fellowship and the Evangelical Theology Consultation of the
American Academy of Religion), Evangelicals are beginning to see Liberal
theologians not so much as people without saving faith, but merely
as Christians whose
faith is articulated in a theologically inadequate way. Other Young
Evangelicals are currently involved in a move toward greater
identification with the larger catholic tradition of the church, and
thus find themselves fellowshipping with church people who are
unaccustomed to talking about "being born again" and "having a personal
relationship with Christ.” Still others find themselves working
shoulder-to-shoulder with theologically Liberal or Roman Catholic social
The result? Bill Lane
Doulos, 22 after working with the Catholic Workers Movement,
has repudiated (some would say climbed over!) "the wall erected by
doctrine. Those who believe are in; all others are out. Some are going
to heaven, some to hell. A lot of us evangelicals have never quite
learned to accept this wall that has been built around the orthodox
camp. Some of us have had the good fortune to see Jesus bulldozing his
way through the cherished creed of his religious culture, and of our
The Fundamentalist has no
hesitation about witnessing to Catholics and other "nominal Christians"
if they cannot claim a personal relationship with Christ. But Young
Evangelicals are beginning to suspect that to make such an experience
requisite for salvation would put one on the same level with the fringe
Pentecostals who say only those who speak in tongues will
be saved! Does this mean
that the "born again experience" is no longer to be considered
important? Not at all. Instead, one need only return to the way in which
"personal relationship with Christ" language functioned in German
Pietism and the Evangelical Revival in England. There, a "crisis
experience" denoted not salvation, but renewal. It was not always
assumed that those without a "heart-warming experience" were damned;
perhaps they simply needed the Spirit's renewal. In fact, this is
precisely the understanding of the "born-again experience" in the
Catholic Charismatic Renewal today. And there is no reason that Young
Evangelicals could not adopt the same model.
In conclusion, let us take
the same question a step or two further. Suppose Young Evangelicals
(whether individually or on the whole) came to believe in some kind of
doctrine (e.g., Barthian) of universal salvation. In this case, no form
of Christian allegiance at all would be necessary for salvation.
Incidentally, it is not particularly evident that things are moving his
way. But here and
there one finds isolated hints, and it would be useful to chart the
prospects for evangelism in case universalism should prove the way of
the future for Young Evangelicals. At any rate, evangelism would
continue to merit a place on the Young Evangelical agenda. It is not
uncommon to hear it objected against universalism that "there is no
point to the Great Commission if everyone is going to heaven anyway!"
Really? Such a sentiment reveals a rather low view of the dignity of
Jesus Christ. Isn't it fitting to spread the good news of his
enthronement as Lord, and of the salvation he has won? He ought to be
praised for it here and now, just for his own sake, regardless of
whether people are going to hell. The old self-effacing motto (of the
Hopkinsian Calvinists) that one ought even to be willing to be damned
for the glory of God might be turned around: for God to be properly
glorified, must anyone be damned?
Suppose that dialogue with
members of completely different religions led Young Evangelicals beyond
a belief in universal salvation, to the belief that in some real sense,
all religions are true, and truly salvific? After all, it becomes
increasingly difficult to look into the faces of non-Christians whose
love or piety is patently as real as one's own, and tell them they are
damned, or at least that their faith is all a mistake. Paul Tillich
discovered this. “An existential contact with outstanding
representatives of non-Christian religions forces one into the
acknowledgment that God is not far from them, that there is a universal
revelation.” 24 Wilfred Cantwell Smith also found that "so
far as actual observation goes, the evidence would seem overwhelming
that in fact individual Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and others have
known and do know God.” 25 One wonders if Young Evangelicals
will not also begin to suspect uneasily that they have been attributing
the work of the Spirit to Beelzebub. If they do, what happens to
To be sure, there would
still be out-and-out atheists and “secular humanists” available, but
what of the other religionists? Witnessing to them about one’s
experience with Christ would still be appropriate, though the Christian
would have to be reciprocally open to the edifying testimony of the
Buddhist or Muslim. We might imagine the situation on the analogy of an
Evangelical testimony meeting. At such a gathering one joyfully shares
"what God’s been doing in my life,” with no thought that such a witness
of faith contradicts or competes with the analogous reports of others.
Instead, the believer rejoices to hear that God has been at work in
different ways in the lives of the others present. If he has worked in
different ways with the Jew or the Hindu, praise the Lord!
Keep in mind, nothing in
this discussion has indicated whether these theological shifts toward
greater openness would be a good idea. The point is simply that if Young
Evangelicals eventually make such changes, the task of evangelistic
witness, though changed in implications, will by no means be made void.
And if our argument has been cogent, it will be apparent that, though
Young Evangelicals have rightly rejected some forms of traditional
witnessing, evangelism still can and should form part of their agenda.
1 Jim Wallis, in Dennis
MacDonald, "The New Left Student Movement and the
Christian Liberal Arts
College," pp. 84-114, of Mark Tuttle (ed.), About School
(Houghton, N.Y.: Lanthorn Publications, 1972), p. 97.
2 J. B. Phillips, Your
God is Too Small (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 55.
3 Alan Watts, Beyond
Theology (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), p. 83.
4 John R. Rice, When a
Christian Sins (Chicago: Moody Press, 1954), pp. 122- 1 23.
5 Jack Hyles, Let’s Go
Soul-Winning (Murphreesboro, Tenn.: Sword of the Lord Foundation,
1970), pp. 9-10.
6 Arthur Blessitt,
Tell the World (Old Tappan, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell Co.,
1973), p. 84.
Ray F. Wood, “The Visitation,” pp. 20-24, of GALA Review, vol. 3,
no. 12, December 1980, pp. 20, 21.
(Tenafly, N. J.: High School Evangelism Fellowship, 1971), n.p.
9 Bill Bright, Sharing
the Abundant Life on Campus (San Bernardino: Campus Crusade for
Christ International, 1972), pp. 43, 42.
10 Rebecca Manley Pippert,
Pizza Parlor Evangelism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), p.
11 Hyles, p. 22.
12 Jard DeVille, The
Psychology of Witnessing (Waco, Texas: Word Books Publishers, 1980),
pp. 66, 75.
13 Paul Watzlawick, How
Real is Real?
New York: Vintage Books, 1977), pp. 19- 2l. “It occurs whenever somebody
demands of another person behavior that by its very nature must be
spontaneous but now cannot be because it has been demanded.” (p. 19.)
14 Pippert, pp. 25-26.
15 DeVille, p. 77.
16 Hyles, p. 27.
Mollenkott, Adamant & Stone Chips (Waco: Word Books, 1967), p.
18 Billy Graham, “My
January 23, 1981, n.p.
19 Pippert, pp. 23-24.
20 DeVille, p. 15.
21 Wood, p. 23.
22 Oh what self-effacing
humility, that a radical Christian, once known simply as “Bill Lane,”
should add “Doulos” (Greek for “slave”) to his name, advertising his
Christlike kenosis for all to see! I am reminded of the mid-Seventies
gag button the Wheaton College Chaplain’s Committee issued on campus:
PROUD OF IT!”
23 Bill Lane Doulos, “Mere
Orthodoxy,” in Sojourners, December 1976, p. 25,
24 Paul Tillich,
Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p.
25 Wilfred Cantwell Smith,
The Faith of Other Men (New
York: New American Library,1965),
Robert M. Price