Inside the Mind of User-Friendly Evangelism
Inside the Mind of User-Friendly Evangelism
The evangelistic mission of the church is not an option. In large measure it defines the church's existence and purpose. Yet this essential task of bringing the gospel to the world constitutes a perplexing challenge for the church today. How are lost people, in a society as secularized as our own, to be reached with the gospel? How can the church gain the ear of unsaved people who are so enamored with the power of technology and scientific knowhow? How does the church reach those who are completely out of touch with church teaching and church culture? Let's face it, most unbelievers would rather attend a funeral than attend a worship service. They recognize "church" as a foreign environment wherein they are socially and spiritually inept. Add to that the abuse some people have been subjected to by an uninvited visitor at their door, asking threatening questions about heaven and hell, besides the public scandals of some well-known television evangelists, and we see what a perplexing challenge evangelism is.
Consequently, many church leaders and pastors are ever on the lookout for a "model" approach to evangelism, one that is both successful and doable. What is sought is a method of evangelism that shows itself to be effective in reaching unsaved people and can be implemented within one's own church and ministry.
Today, in the minds of many, what is called "seeker-sensitive" evangelism represents such a model approach. It is a method of evangelism, turned into a movement, that is shaping the work of ministry and changing the ecclesiastical landscape in North America more than anything else since the rise of neo-Pentecostalism. It is not without its commendable feature. But, if I may tip my hand at the outset, I also believe the seeker-sensitive approach to evangelism is infected with spiritual compromise and endangers the health of the church. What is more, the seeker-sensitive, or what some have dubbed the user-friendly movement, is making some Reformed people insecure or at least defensive about their life and practice as church. The question for debate, at the extremes, is whether this movement is a heaven-sent model which churches should emulate, or is it a modem idol that threatens to press us into its image?
The user-friendly movement is making itself a visible presence in communities large and small across North America. Many churches of varying size are adopting, as best they can, this model for ministry. And it should be noted, if success is measured by numbers, many such churches are successful.
The seeker-sensitive or user-friendly movement offers a theology about church and evangelism. I think it also offers a distinctive theology about God and preaching, the latter bringing a crisis for the gospel itself.
In this article I want to get inside the mind of user-friendly evangelism, kind of a takeoff from a popular user-friendly title by Lee Strobel, "Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary". First, I propose to outline what the seeker-sensitive approach is; and then, secondly, look at five specific theological miscues in this approach. I also hope to offer some observations for a Reformed approach to evangelism today.
In giving a brief outline of what is involved in this new way of being church and doing evangelism, I will be focusing particularly upon Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. I choose Willow Creek because it is spearheading the movement. Moreover, the best resources are available about that church.
The co-founder and senior pastor of Willow Creek, Bill Hybels, believes that traditional churches fail to organize themselves according to spiritual gifts, and do not have proper discipleship mechanisms in place. Moreover, most traditional churches, according to Hybels, "do not understand or practice Biblical worship." They generally are just "teaching centers" that try to influence people primarily for an hour a week. They also tend to be seeker-hostile, meaning that they make no effort to welcome and minister to those outside of the church.1
The matter of providing an environment to which to bring a disillusioned former churchgoer or an outright atheist is really what set Hybels to rethinking how to do church and how to do evangelism. Having grown up in a typical CRC in Kalamazoo, Michigan during the sixties (he even attended Dordt College for two years), Hybels, reacting to some personally sour experiences in his home church, determined that the traditional church was seeker-hostile. It was a foreign, unfriendly, uncomfortable, utterly alien environment for unbelievers, whom he affectionately refers to as "unchurched Harrys" and "unchurched Marys." He determined that a type of gospel-service needed to be put into place where "seekers" could feel comfortable, that is, a service that is user-friendly. With that basic principle in mind, all aspects of ministry were scrutinized and run through the grid.
The result is that the church is completely restructured in order to be seeker-friendly or seeker-attractive. For Hybels this ought to begin with the church architecture: "unchurched Harry" isn't comfortable with anything that feels "churchy." Hence, the Willow Creek facilities do not look like "church" – you'll find no crosses, no steeples, no stained glass, no pipe organ. Instead, in the words of one author, what you find as you approach the campus is a massive but attractive edifice of concrete, steel, and glass beside a beautiful lake. The narthex is like stepping into a huge four-star-hotel-like atrium, which leads to an auditorium, filled with individual, well-cushioned movie theater seats.2 Willow Creek feels more like a modern civic center than a church — and that's by design.
As for the seeker services themselves, each one is carefully crafted by Hybels and his ministry staff, and each is geared to appeal to the unchurched — both the ecclesiastically disenfranchised, as well as the hostile or skeptical unbeliever. Since "unchurched Harry" will likely visit a church only on a Sunday, if he visits a church at all, it is imperative that the seeker service takes place on Sundays. These services for seekers, according to Hybels, are not worship services; they are evangelistic services (this in part distinguishes Willow Creek from some other seeker-sensitive churches). Thus, there is no reciting of creeds, and no use of hymnals (in fact, designing songs for unbelievers to sing about God has proved to be a challenge). If a collection is taken, the unchurched are encouraged not to participate in that part of the service. Contemporary instrumentation and music, professional drama and multi-media, complement a message geared for the unchurched. According to Hybels, these media are attractive to "unchurched Harrys and Marys," and disarm them.
On that score, Hybels is insistent — and believes it is essential — that the church make use of a wide variety of artistic genres in order to communicate the gospel and make unchurched people more receptive to listen to the gospel. He does not, in his words, believe in the use of drama, or contemporary Christian music, or multi-media in order to "entertain" or "titillate," but since God is the master composer who created the arts, why should the church narrow its options and select a "talking head" as its only form of communicating the most important message on the planet? He states,
Even though preaching is the primary way the truth of God has been and should be communicated, we add texture and feeling and perspective to it through the use of music and media and drama.
For Hybels, Willow Creek is simply following the pattern of the first-century church. He also believes that Willow Creek has recaptured the important theological point — that lost, wayward, irreligious people, in spite of their sin, really matter to God. The three parables in Luke 15 about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a missing son, make the point, says Hybels, that that which is missing really matters to somebody.3 Integral to the program of finding the missing and the lost, is the lay witness of Willow Creek attendees, whose task it is to develop a friendship with Harry and share a verbal witness with him. Then Harry is invited to a weekend seeker service.
Perhaps the best single source for understanding the Willow Creek philosophy is Lee Strobel's book (which I mentioned earlier), Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary: How to Reach Friends and Family Who Avoid God and the Church. Strobel is a teaching pastor at Willow Creek.
For many in our modern ecclesiastical climate, Willow Creek is the megachurch par-excellence. And the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Numbers don't lie. Willow Creek has the numbers. The church regularly has between 14,000 to 15,000 churched and unchurched attendees on any given Sunday. They do baptism by the hundreds. Over 280,000 audiotapes are sold annually. Certainly by human standards, at least, it seems that Hybels and Willow Creek are a huge success. In fact, three times a year the church sponsors a conference at which over 500 church leaders from around the country gather to see how it is done. And in 1992 Willow Creek created the Willow Creek Association — which currently has a membership nearing a thousand churches — to provide support to other seeker-sensitive congregations. Many believe that Willow Creek is the model for doing church in the 21st century. It has already spearheaded a worldwide movement that is revolutionizing churchesGG.4
I know that there are some people who respond to this with a wave of the hand. They say, "That's not reformed," or something similar to that, and are done with it. Others respond with unrestrained enthusiasm. Leaders at Christian Reformed Home Missions are so enthusiastic that they sent about a half-dozen copies of Strobel's book to each of the churches. I count myself in neither camp. I think we have to give the user-friendly movement our attention for at least three reasons:
- because I believe more and more churches under the Reformed umbrella are trying to model the seeker-sensitive movement to some (detrimental) degree;
- because inevitably our own people will become exposed to it and some of them will likely become intrigued by it; and
- because if we disagree with this movement, then we need to know why, and we need to be prepared to offer a Biblical critique of it.
The movement miscues on at least five points, each of which merits our attention.
My first concern is what I call the problem with pragmatism. In 1993 John MacArthur, Jr. published a book entitled, Ashamed of the Gospel, in which he severely critiques the user-friendly movement by showing its similarities to what became known as the "Down Grade" controversy in the ministry of Charles H. Spurgeon. Spurgeon warned the church of his day that Christianity was on the slope of decline, the gospel was on the downgrade. Christian leaders were becoming worldly and doctrinally inept; increasingly wishing to attract a crowd, the preachers and church leaders of the "Down Grade" resorted to using worldly models for doing ministry. Spurgeon believed that this constituted a forfeiture of the gospel itself, a selling out of evangelical truth; and, according to MacArthur, history has proved Spurgeon right.
This all serves to warn us, says MacArthur, about what is happening in the evangelical community today. However, instead of modernism, which was the dragon Spurgeon sought to slay, today the dragon is pragmatism. According to MacArthur, when pragmatism supersedes theology and Biblical truth in the life of the church, when "What works?" becomes the question before "What's Biblical?", then tragic results are inevitable. Success displaces an unashamed proclamation of God's Word and, consequently, church doctrine is sacrificed for church growth; attracting a crowd through various vehicles of entertainment supersedes a ministry of edification and spiritual growth, and truth yields to "what works" — or worse, truth is redefined as what works.
I believe MacArthur's concerns are on target. For example, Bill Hybels is the ultimate pragmatist. This is confirmed by Dr. G. A. Pritchard who has degrees in both the social sciences and theology. Pritchard spent two and a half years intensively studying Willow Creek. In making his study, he attended all Willow Creek services and its various programs during that two and a half-year period. He even transcribed a year of weekend messages (from June 1989 to May 1990) and did a content analysis of these talks, using a computer concordance to sort out thematic emphases. Besides all this, he interviewed countless Willow Creek staff people; he sorted through their written materials. The end result was a dissertation of more than 800 pages and 1,900 footnotes. Pritchard has recently published a simplified and abbreviated version of his dissertation entitled Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church.
In Pritchard's analysis, Hybels will use any aspect of academia if it helps the cause. Hybels is particularly fond of psychology, business management, and a commonsense apologetic, while, curiously, he disdains education itself and doesn't have much use for seminary training. Seminaries are for book people, not people people. While the whole seeker-friendly movement may not be painted with that brush, the leaders of the movement at Willow Creek fit the portrait. Pragmatism has no time for academics; it is not interested in theology or the Christian past. It simply wants to know what works, what gets results. Productivity is the final authority. Hybels frankly admits his pragmatism:
I'm a pragmatist, and I measure things by whether or not they work.5
It is of course Hybels' prerogative if he wishes to be a pragmatist. But it is not his prerogative to think that's Christian. If what works is the standard, where does that leave Paul and Jesus? How is it that our Lord failed to grasp what seems intuitive to Hybels? Pragmatism forgets that it is God's prerogative to convert souls and make preaching fruitful. Once we start down the path of trying to "effect" results, that is, to preach the gospel not only faithfully but fruitfully, not only searchingly but successfully, then we have resorted to technique — and that's a bottomless pit. Technique displaces dependence upon God. Fruits of numbers displace fruits of faith.6
More narrowly focused, this pragmatism manifests itself in an infatuation with psychology, or what I prefer to call therapy. According to Pritchard, a therapeutic worldview dominates much of the Willow Creek program of ministry.7 A gospel of self-fulfillment is a common theme in Hybels' weekend (seeker) messages. Of course, self-fulfillment does not fit the categories of Scripture. But it does fit the categories of psychology.
MacArthur wonders how this pragmatism fits with the events in the early church surrounding Ananias and Sapphira.
After all, "God's judgment against Ananias and Sapphira had an effect beyond the fellowship of believers: 'Great fear came upon ... all who had heard of these things' (Acts 5:11)." Verse 13 says that no one else dared to join them! "This is precisely the opposite of the user-friendly philosophy..." and the pragmatism that motivates it. "Instead of luring people to church by making them feel comfortable and secure, God used fear to keep unbelievers away."8
Pragmatism is merciless though. It cannot accept what does not work. It must plunge ahead. It must get the job done. The end justifies the means — so whatever means are popular will do. But you cannot serve both God and mammon or in this case, God and pragmatism. We must either affirm the Scripture alone or no longer claim to be Protestants and evangelicals.
The second area of concern I have I call "the madness behind the method." No doubt user-friendly advocates would argue that there is a method to their madness. But what method? Can conversion be programmed? Can we orchestrate salvation? One wonders how Paul ever succeeded in his mission endeavors without George Bama's spate of books on marketing the church. MacArthur is blunt and to the point:
The simple reality is that one cannot follow a market-driven strategy and remain faithful to Scripture.
Bama and friends seem to be of the mind that marketing is a spiritually neutral enterprise, as if it simply collates data and offers insight, thus giving the church tools for doing ministry to outsiders. But in fact marketing distorts how Christians view nonbelievers and the gospel because it really stands theology on its head. Instead of allowing the Scriptures to define nonbelievers for us, what their needs are, what obstacles stand in the way of conversion, the marketing method offers a horizontalistic, merely humanistic analysis of people and suggests — indeed urges — that the church try to address itself to their "felt needs" first and foremost. In this way the church and the gospel become products to be consumed. "Unchurched Harry" is left to think, "Well, I've tried everything else, why not 'try God'?"
This is backwards. The consumer becomes sovereign instead of God; and as David Wells states, this "sanctions a bad habit," for it "encourages us to indulge in constant internal inventory..., to ask ourselves perpetually whether the 'products' we are being offered meet our present 'felt needs.'"9 The problem is that many "felt needs" are culturally created and driven, and thus illegitimate. Needs may be likened to children. Some are legitimate; others are illegitimate. Why should illegitimate children have sovereign rights over the legitimate children, that is, why should felt needs take precedence over the genuine needs of human beings as revealed in Scripture? When the church markets itself as offering the products to meet the felt needs of unbelievers, she in effect falls into worldliness, for the church is not a product, and doesn't market one. Rather, the church issues a proclamation. She declares the kingdom of God. She announces Christ's sovereignty over all of life — including the life of "unchurched Harry". She bids all to obediently surrender and submit to Him and to His Word. The church's business is truth, not profit — as Wells points out.
The claims of Christ are radical and uncompromising. Those who were attracted to Jesus because He satisfied their empty stomachs (meeting their felt needs) were soon set straight. Jesus was unafraid to speak the hard truth, which brought this consequence: "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him" (John 6:66). Jesus obviously didn't know how to sell Himself. He lacked marketing savvy. But then His theology affirmed that God was sovereign, not Harry; and Jesus knew that no one could come to Him, unless the Father draws him (v. 44). Indeed, those whom the Father had drawn did not turn back; instead they said to Jesus: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68).
The marketing approach to evangelism is madness. It forgets who God is. As Karl Barth once wrote:
The word of God is not for sale; and therefore it has no need of shrewd salesmen. The word of God is not seeking patrons; therefore it refuses price cutting and bargaining... It will ... not stoop to overcome resistance with bargain counter methods. Promoters' successes are sham victories; their crowded churches and the breathlessness of their audiences have nothing in common with the word of God."10
I trust we know why? For the Word of God is not interested in making God useful to us! The Christian faith isn't true because God can help us satisfy felt needs. Jesus Christ isn't a means to an end, whether that end be self-fulfillment or self-esteem or some other self-centered redemption. As Pritchard boldly states: "The bottom line why individuals should repent and worship God is because God deserves it."11
A marketed gospel is a truncated gospel at best! In trying to appeal to "unchurched Harry and Mary," where is there room for the message: "In this world you will have trouble," (John 16:33)? Or Peter's call to rejoice that we share in Christ's sufferings (1 Peter 4:13)? Or Jesus' beatitude about being persecuted for righteousness sake (Matthew 5:10)?
The Lord did not promise fulfillment, or even relief, in this world, but only the next." Even Jesus suffered. "The goal of a Christian's life is faithfulness, not fulfillment.12
A gospel that is marketed, however, can never be the gospel of Jesus Christ. By its very nature, it must mute the message in order to befriend an audience. This is the madness behind the method.
Closely related to that is the question of image, our third concern. The church, obviously, never should give undue offense. But we need to say in the face of the user-friendly movement: Image isn't everything! For Hybels, and for churches like his, image is a "real big deal" (his words). Indeed, when you drive onto the campus of Willow Creek, you are driving into the lap of luxury. It is big and it is the best. Why? Because "unchurched Harry" cares a lot about appearance.
As intimated before, the services at Willow Creek are staged and choreographed. Image is important, very important. My question is simply this: Whose image? The image of Christ? Or the image of upscale, fat-wallet, white-corporate America? In other words, when you talk about image, whose image are you trying to emulate and attract? Willow Creek and other megachurches all conform to the same image: white, affluent, suburban baby boomers. Hybels himself has no qualms about this. His retort is simple and angular: to suggest that there might be something suspect in this is to accuse pastors of being deceived (unthinkable) and to blame God for the way He is leading those peoples.13
But Pritchard argues that two temptations lie embedded in the managing of images. The first danger is manipulation; in other words, in attempting to identify with "unchurched Harry," isn't the entire show a kind of grand manipulation — from the pop rock music, to the drama, to the choreographed message? Isn't it all to produce a certain kind of effect on Harry to get him where you want him? Stated crassly, isn't it the old bait and switch — Harry is baited with images he likes in order that you can slip him a message he resists? What does any of that have to do with the Biblical model of evangelism?
The second danger is outright pretense, that is, to fake it, to perform. This is especially a temptation for highly skilled orators like Hybels. "In any setting of self-conscious image management," writes Pritchard, "there is a sociological pressure to perform." Thus, what seems more real because of highly skilled communicators and a professionally orchestrated production, may in fact be pretense.14 One may well ask, how does all this fit with what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 2:4: "We are not trying to please men but God"?
- The idolatry of God
My fourth concern with user-friendly evangelism is what I call the idolatry of God. The doctrine of God that functions in much of this movement is lopsided at best and idolatrous at worst. David Wells has called attention to this better than anyone else I have read. In his superb book God in the Wasteland, Wells explains that the wasteland is evangelical theology, or we might say, the evangelical church, especially the user-friendly church. An enfeebled doctrine of God touches all theology.
Writes Wells: "The fundamental problem ... is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common." God is marginalized. He has become weightless.15
No doubt user-friendly advocates would issue a disclaimer that they have not marginalized God. But God in His sovereignty and holiness hardly counts for any significant theme in its approach to "unchurched Harry" or in the preaching it offers to Harry. In Pritchard's analysis of Hybels' weekend seeker messages, he discovered, over the course of a year, "only four messages in which God's holiness was presented clearly ...."16 The moral law was never explicated or used! The sermons themselves were topical, not expositional. The messages were upbeat and positive, emphasizing God's love and immanence. What is rather strange about all this is that, according to surveys, "unchurched Harrys and Marys" generally believe that they are on good terms with God already. A full eight out of ten Americans believe that God loves them. 80 percent feel that God is close to them. George Gallup Jr. states that Americans believe in God, "but this God is often only an affirming one, not a demanding one."17
In that light, what "unchurched Harrys and Marys" need, even if it offends them, is to hear heart-searching messages on the strictness and severity of the law of God. The law's "function is to call the conscience into judgment and wound it with fear."18 The law sets us up for gospel. Fearing condemnation we desire justification. We must fall into the Savior's arms in repentance.
As Calvin said: "The law is like a mirror. In it we contemplate our weakness, then the iniquity arising from this, and finally the curse coming from both — just as a mirror shows us the spots on our face."
Or in J. I. Packer's words: "Nobody can see what sin is till he has learned what God is."19 The law must be preached to unbelievers.
The obvious rebut is that nonbelievers won't listen to such preaching. Perhaps! But God makes "believers" out of such preaching! And when that fails, then somewhere in our evangelistic efforts there needs to be a place for kicking the dust from our sandals in testimony against those who will not listen, and we move on. If that seems harsh to user-friendly ears, then we need to read the Gospels again (Matthew 10:14; Mark 6:11; and Acts 13:51). But then again, John the Baptist's preaching doesn't exactly fit the upbeat, user-friendly, model either — calling Pharisees a "brood of vipers" and all (Luke 3:7). Peter preached a sermon on Pentecost that fails the user-friendly test too, saying to his hearers about Jesus, "you, with wicked hands, slew him" (Acts 2:23, KJV).
Until God is recognized as Sovereign Creator and Lord who is holy, righteous and true, seekers will never seek him as sinners; God will remain a God of therapy, domesticated and harmless. And that God is an idol. It's the idolatry of God.
Finally, my last concern with the user-friendly method of evangelism zeros in on the role of theology in the life of the church, what Wells calls No place for Truth. The user-friendly movement is mostly, if not altogether, disinterested in theology. This goes back to its commitment to both pragmatism and the modem psychological worldview, so indicative of modernity. Pritchard found that Willow Creek staff are basically unable to "think critically with the categories and content of Christian theology."20 The end result is that Christian truth gets abridged. Theology's tail is bobbed, with only a pathetic stump showing. We cannot help but ask, "What fills the void? What is an abridged Christian gospel, anyway?"
I do not question Hybels' considerable talents as a communicator or an evangelist. In hearing him speak, he clearly evidences supreme gifts of oratory. He can communicate with nonbelievers. "Unchurched Harrys" obviously need the simple gospel, the milk of the Word. But even the milk of the Word must remain the Word, and as milk we must present the whole gospel. Gospels of therapy do not qualify. If we bait unbelievers with gospels of self-fulfillment, then we betray our lack of confidence in the Word of God itself — that is, we demonstrate that we do not really believe that it is a means of grace, that it is the power of God unto salvation, that it is a hammer that crushes stony hearts, that it is God's own living voice!21 When unchurched Homers and Hiliarys find the bait so appealing, why should they ever switch to a gospel that is "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:23)?
The irony about the Willow Creek strategy is that most of the people who attend the weekend services need edification, not evangelism. Pritchard points out that "the majority of Willow Creek weekend attendees (about 85% to 90%) are "churched Larrys" who have already made a commitment to Christ." Even if it is granted that most of these "churched Larrys" are only "superficially churched," still, how are they going to grow up to maturity on a diet of Willow Creek's weekend fare? And I might add, the situation is worse at other user-friendly, seeker-sensitive, churches. At least Willow Creek offers mid-week worship services of edification that have substance (though the attendance is only about one-third the weekend size). Most user-friendly churches try to be seeker-sensitive at their regular Sunday worship services. Consequently, they end up doing neither the ministry of edification nor the ministry of evangelism very well. "Churched Larrys" are doomed to remain spiritual babies.22 Without the meat of the Word, without theology, how can they mature, and why should they be anything but comfortable with their minimalist Christianity?23
In his book, Dining with the Devil, Os Guinness likewise bemoans the theological superficiality and lack of historical awareness in the user-friendly movement. Concerning the latter he writes,
This movement is particularly unaware of comparisons with earlier periods that could throw light on the possibilities and pitfalls we face today. Two periods, for example, would give fruitful parallels: the late eighteenth century and the story of European liberalism's engagement with the 'cultured despisers,' and the early nineteenth century and the story of American Evangelicalism's fateful sea-change ... (not only from Calvinism to Arminianism, but from) ... theology to experience, from truth to technique, from elites to populism, and from an emphasis on 'serving God' to an emphasis on 'servicing the self' in serving God.24
Anyone who has studied the revivalism of Charles Finney knows how true this is.
There is no place for truth (the full-jagged-edged truth of Scripture) in the user-friendly philosophy. Theology is disdained while "contextualization" becomes the be-all and end-all. As they say: Penny loafers for Penny loafers. Wingtips for Wingtips. Air Jordans for Air Jordans. But, notes Guinness, "the very reason why Penny Loafers speak better to other Penny Loafers than to Air Jordans and Wingtips is the reason why a Penny-Loafer gospel will never be the whole counsel of God."25 Contextualization thus becomes a recipe for compromise and capitulation when "joining people where they are" is not just a first step in the process of bringing the gospel but also the last one. When the seeker-sensitive movement is done using all the insights and tools of modernity, all with great effect and success, is God any longer necessary? What happens when these new gods of modernity fail to work the magic of success in successive generations, do we invent new ones again? Guinness believes that many superchurches are simply artificially inflating themselves through technique and personality, but not with a message that converts, that is, not with the truth of the gospel26
User-friendly evangelism is defective in its fundamental pretense, namely, its notion that lost sinners are actually seeking God, that unbelievers are seekers of the way, the truth and the life. What about Romans 3:11? With its flawed doctrine of humanity, user-friendly evangelism misrepresents the enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, and therefore minimizes the antithesis between church and world. This leads to the false idea that unbelievers can be coaxed, persuaded, wooed, or otherwise wheedled into the kingdom of God. I believe church leaders and pastors must look elsewhere for a "model" approach for evangelism today. Next time, the Lord willing, we will examine some strengths of the seeker-sensitive movement, and offer some observations for doing Reformed evangelism today.
Before His ascension into heaven, Jesus mandated His church to make disciples of all nations. In order to equip her for that task, He promised the Holy Spirit.
You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church — thus empowering the church to be church, that is, to go forth and fulfil the Great Commission.
Obviously, if the church is to fulfil the Great Commission she must do more than bring the gospel to members of God's covenant family (believers and their children). She must also bring the gospel to those who are "afar off."
Reformed churches of every stripe need to be reminded of their own theology — that the preaching of the gospel is one of the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/As 83 & 84). In fact, it constitutes God's current redemptive action in human history. Just before His ascension, Jesus Himself expressed this idea when He established the preaching of the gospel as the third phase (His death and resurrection being phases one and two) in His program of redemption:
This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Since confessionally Reformed churches have such a high theology of preaching, confessing its redemptive significance, they ought to be leading the charge to preach the gospel of peace to those in the family of faith and "to all who are afar off". There have been eras in church history where this has been the case. It is not the case today, particularly with respect to the evangelistic efforts of the local church.
Yet the user-friendly movement does have strengths. While it is necessary to distance ourselves from the aberrant aspects of this movement (and we have), it is also incumbent on us to recognize the commendable features it exhibits which might aid us in our own evangelistic efforts. Consequently, I want to point out three positive aspects of seeker-sensitive evangelism, and then make some observations for doing Reformed evangelism today.
Positive Features of User-Friendly Evangelism←⤒🔗
The first commendable feature of the seeker-sensitive movement is its genuine concern for lost people. Say what we want about its shortcomings, love for the lost drives many seeker-sensitive churches. This defines their mandate and certainly, to a significant degree, drives their efforts. The church spearheading the user-friendly movement is Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Its co-founder and senior pastor, Bill Hybels, has a passion for the lost. He notes that "lost, wayward, irreligious people, in spite of their sin, really matter to God." Consequently, "that which is missing matters enough to launch an all-out search." In each case, "retrieval brings rejoicing."27 It is out of a desire to reach unbelievers that Willow Creek and many other seeker-sensitive churches have geared their ministry the way they have.
I think we need to be aware of our tendency to become self-absorbed as churches. The Great Commission involves not only evangelism but also edification. We are not only to make disciples unto conversion, we are to make disciples by teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded. We should not be ashamed of our traditional emphasis on catechetical instruction and Bible study. But in all frankness we need to learn from the user-friendly movement what our own theology already teaches us, namely, that we love lost neighbors enough to actually seek them out. Many seeker-sensitive churches do! They let their unbelieving neighbors know that somebody cares.
How Unbelievers Think←↰⤒🔗
Another commendable feature of the seeker-sensitive movement is its effort to understand how unbelievers think. Lee Strobel's book, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, is an example of such an effort. In our labors to seek the lost, we need to know what makes Harry and Mary tick. It is valuable to know how unbelievers perceive the church and think about spiritual things. Strobel, a teaching elder at Willow Creek and a self-described, one time, anti-church Charlie, offers some useful insight on this score. A note of caution is in order, however. What is the goal or purpose of acquiring insight into Harry's mind? Is it to manipulate or otherwise wheedle them into the kingdom? Is it to convert them to us or is it to convert them to Christ? Let us be clear: Scripture requires that we learn how unchurched Harry and Mary think not so that we can reshape the gospel to make it appealing to them, but so that we can aim the gospel's darts at the vulnerabilities in their lives! We want to hit the bull's-eye. We must be schooled in what they think about God and the church, but our message must be shaped by what the gospel thinks about Harry and Mary! With that caution, we can commend many seeker-sensitive churches for their sensitivity to get inside the mind of unbelievers.28
A Clear Strategy←↰⤒🔗
The third commendable trait of the seeker-sensitive movement is that it has a clear strategy for ministry to lost people. That strategy consists of basically four ingredients:
- Befriend unchurched Harry and Mary,
- Invite them to a seeker service, that is, a service which is geared entirely for Harry and Mary,
- Upon commitment to Christ, assimilate Harry and Mary into a small group to help them grow spiritually, and
- Send now-churched Harry and Mary forth to use their gifts to build the church and to reach out to unchurched Larry.
It is evident that I do not agree with certain aspects of point two in this strategy (at least as it is conceived and practiced by many user-friendly churches). But again, following the example of Willow Creek, at least many seeker-sensitive churches have a strategy for reaching out to lost neighbors. If we dare to admit it, a surprising number of confessionally-Reformed churches have no strategy at all. They simply and honestly don't! Consequently, outreach to unbelievers simply and honestly does not take place. Seeker-sensitive churches are to be commended for setting goals for outreach, marking out a strategy to fulfil those goals, and then implementing it.
Observations for Doing Reformed Evangelism Today←⤒🔗
In light of our criticism and commendation of user-friendly evangelism, we wish to make some comments for doing Reformed evangelism today. I offer the following observations as a framework from which to pursue the task of evangelism. Obviously, given the limitations of space, I can only sketch out a few observations.
What Evangelism Is and Isn't←↰⤒🔗
As Reformed believers we first need to be clear about what evangelism is and isn't. One essential ingredient missing from the User-Friendly movement is a careful definition of evangelism. Biblically defined, evangelism is the preaching of the gospel. The Greek verb from which we derive our English word "to evangelize" (euangelizomai) means to bring or announce (the euangelion), the evangel, the good news or the good message. The regular use of the verb in the New Testament means to make known, verbally, the good message, the Christian gospel; and the spread of that gospel constitutes evangelism.29
In that light we must see what evangelism is not. In his book Christian Mission in the Modern World, John R. W. Stott explains that evangelism is not to be defined in terms of the recipients of the gospel. You do not evangelize people, you evangelize the Word. For example, in Acts 14:7 we read that "there they evangelized," meaning "there they preached the gospel" (see Romans 15:20). Similarly, Acts 8:4: they "went about evangelizing the Word," while Philip in Samaria, verse 12, "evangelized concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8:12). The word "evangelism" can also be connected to places where the gospel was preached. For example, the apostles "evangelized many villages of the Samaritans" and Philip "evangelized all the towns" along the Palestinian coast (Acts 8:25, 40) — meaning, the gospel was preached to the inhabitants of those towns and villages.30
Secondly, we must not define evangelism according to results.
As Stott perceptively observes, "There is no mention in these verses whether the word which was "evangelized" was believed, or whether the inhabitants of the towns and villages "evangelized" were converted. To "evangelize" in New Testament usage does not mean to win converts, as it usually does when we use the word. Evangelism is the announcement of the good news, irrespective of the results."31
The user-friendly movement and most of American evangelicalism need this corrective.
It is common, of course, for evangelicals to think of evangelism as "winning people to Christ" or "converting them to the gospel" or "leading them to the Lord." And that is certainly the goal of evangelism. But evangelism itself means to preach the gospel. And that is why evangelism should never be defined in terms of success. We are not to think of evangelism as preaching the gospel so as to achieve a desired result. That would be to define evangelism in terms of outcome. It is not our task to make the gospel "successful," or to manipulate a certain "result." Indeed, if that were the standard, much of the evangelism recorded in the New Testament would fail the test.
Thirty-six years ago, J. I. Packer wrote that "the way to tell whether in fact you are evangelizing is not to ask whether conversions are known to have resulted from your witness. It is to ask whether you are faithfully making known the gospel message."32
The essence of evangelism, then, is the faithful proclamation of the gospel.33 Yes, we want to see conversions. No, we are not indifferent to the effect the gospel is having on people. Indeed, we pray for conversion and join the rejoicing in heaven when it happens (see Luke 15:7). But if conversion does not happen, the unresponsive, unrepentant sinner was evangelized nonetheless, that is, he still heard the evangel, the good message.
Thirdly, evangelism comes along one lone avenue — and that is the preaching of the Word. By preaching I do not mean a topical talk, with some Bible verses added on at the end. I mean an exposition, explication, and application of the text. To be sure, the preacher preaching to unbelievers needs to be cognizant of their ignorance. He might even need to explain why he is preaching from the Bible. He certainly needs to be tactful. There is no reason to be abrasive. But we do not have to truncate the gospel or try to knock off its rough edges in order to make it attractive to unchurched Harrys and Marys — and for a very simple reason: the apostles didn't. Paul, for example, was unashamed to preach the "resurrection of Christ" even though the resurrection was a very rough edge, hard for unchurched Hezekiahs to accept. The resurrection, however, is at the heart of the gospel message. It is of the very essence of the good news, even though it doesn't have immediate therapeutic value.
Lastly, it is essential that we accent the "evangel" in evangelism. The user-friendly method of evangelism tries to "butter-up" both the gospel and the gospel-recipient. Thus, the accent shifts from the message to the means or method of presenting the message. Form usurps a position of authority over content. And once this happens, we cannot help but wonder whether converts are converts to content or to form only. I, for one, do not doubt that the "evangel" is preached and peeks through at Willow Creek's seeker-services. But I do wonder in what context it does so, that is, after how much pre-gospel and non-gospel stuff? Are converts, then, converts to the gospel of Jesus Christ, desperately fleeing from their sins, pleading the cross, surrendering to Christ's lordship? Or are they converts to Willow Creek's program, to Willow Creek's amenities, to Willow Creek's opulence, to Willow Creek's standing, to Willow Creek's talented staff? When we give Harry what he wants, might we be converting him merely to those "wants" instead of to Christ?34
Consequently, it is essential that we safeguard the God-centered nature of the "evangel" against its man-centered counterfeits. For example, is our point of contact with non-Christians the message: "God loves you"? Or is our point of contact the message: "God made you"? The issue is one of authority. Is God a friend who will help you? Or is God a king who will save you? To be sure, it is true that God can be both friend and king, just as it is true that God can love us and also be our creator. But the point is whether the gospel we bring to unchurched Harry is going to be the God-centered gospel of the Bible. In other words, does Harry need love, help, and friendship first and foremost, or does he need a new nature — a new mind, heart, and will — what Scripture calls rebirth? Again, Harry may very well need both human friendship and rebirth. The Bible doesn't talk about the fellowship of believers for nothing. But which of these, fellowship or rebirth, constitutes the essence of the gospel message? We know it isn't the former! Therefore, when we make our appeal to Harry, should we appeal to the desires or felt-needs of Harry, or should we drive the truths of the Scripture into Harry's conscience?35 To ask the question is to answer it.
The "evangel" must be evangelized, that is, the gospel must be "gospelized" (preached). It is what Harry needs. More specifically, he needs to hear three essentials of the gospel if he is to live and die in the joy of belonging to Jesus Christ and experience true conversion. First, Harry must be taught how great his sin and misery are; second, he must be taught how he can be delivered from his sin and misery; and finally, he must be taught how to express thankfulness for such deliverance. Parts one and three are perhaps lacking in much user-friendly fare. Let us be clear about what the gospel is and isn't so that we may likewise be clear about what evangelism is and isn't.
Be Passionate for Evangelism←↰⤒🔗
Let us also be passionate about evangelism. Is there any reason confessionally Reformed churches should not be as well-intentioned and committed to evangelism as user-friendly churches? Willow Creek, for example, has a genuine passion to reach lost souls for Christ. Can we always say the same for our churches? As intimated before, integral to the Willow Creek program is the lay-friendship evangelism of its members (what I prefer, for theological reasons, to call "witnessing"). User-friendly advocates are not afraid to befriend profane, self-absorbed pagan, unchurched Harrys in an effort to bring them to church. On this score we must commend Reverend Hybels and Willow Creek. We ought to learn from their example.
Perhaps in our efforts to reach unbelievers and to understand them, to, yes, get inside the mind of unchurched Harrys and Marys, we will have to sort out the cultural baggage our churches might be carrying. We may not needlessly hinder outreach to non-Christians because of an ecclesiastical culture that isn't mandated by the gospel itself. I'm certain there are a number of little things we could do to make a worship service less threatening and more welcoming to an unchurched Harry, without in any way compromising Reformed principles of worship.
Yes, discretion is in order. In seeking to understand nonbelievers, our goal may not be to cater to the whims and desires of Harry, to sanction his distorted theology, to let him off easy, to let him coast in the luxury of his agnosticism. Rather, our goal must be to wisely challenge him regarding his false theology by showing him the true doctrines of God, of humanity, of Christ, of salvation, and of the final outcomes. We may not beat around the bush with respect to these things. But first we must go! We must care! We must be passionate about evangelism!
The flames of passion can be fueled by God's promise in Acts 2:39, to which we alluded earlier.
The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.
As Reformed people who cherish the covenant, let us not fall into the ancient Jewish mistake of thinking the promise of the gospel is only for us folks born into the covenant by blood. There are also those who are afar off, whom God will call.
Just as there has been a tendency by some Reformed believers to use the doctrine of election as an occasion for spiritual pride, and smugness, so the doctrine of the covenant has been misused by some to foster spiritual elitism, with a consequent neglect of evangelistic outreach. In other words, believers come to imagine that they are believers by birth instead of by rebirth; they think that they have God's favor by bloodlines instead of by Christ's blood, or that they are God's children because of the flesh instead of the Spirit. But we need to see that we Gentiles according to the flesh are those who are afar off. And the compassion and mercy that has come to us, salvation by grace, is for all who are afar off, i.e., "as many as the Lord our God will call." God has chosen His church as the vessel through which that call comes to sinners. Indeed, how will they hear unless someone preaches to them?
In issuing the call of the gospel, in evangelism, may we keep before us the words of Colossians 4:2-6, for they outline a strategy regarding how we ought to conduct ourselves toward unbelievers.
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.36
Let us be sinner-sensitive churches.
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