The Problem of Impersonal Evangelism

There is nothing more delightful to me than sharing the good news of Jesus with someone. It is rewarding to watch as they discover the love the Father has toward them and to see how it changes their lives.

However, in my earlier years I practiced a popular ritualized version of personal evangelism based on a shallow understanding of our relationship with to Father.

Evangelism Statistics

The Personal Evangelism Method

This system consisted of a series of proof-texts from the Bible to demonstrate a narrow view of reconciliation with God. The presentation was to show that:

  • We are all sinners and cannot save ourselves
  • Sin leads us to eternal torment in hell
  • Jesus came to save us from our sins and hell

The objective was for the hearer to then pray the sinner’s prayer and be saved.

In our church, faithful personal evangelists gathered at the church, separated into teams, and went out to witness to people in their homes. Then we regathered, counted the results, and rejoiced!

Next time we did it all over again.

There is nothing wrong with sharing the good news of Jesus; in fact it is very important. But after fifteen years I began to realize that this system had enormous relationship problems.

Problem #1: Mistaken View of Relationship with the Father

The first problem is a misunderstanding of our relationship with the Father.

This model assumes we are estranged from God because of our sin (original sin plus our committed sins). We are, therefore, unacceptable to God and will be punished in hell forever. Jesus, however, came to live a sinless life and die in our place as a sacrifice for our sins. In this way, we can be ‘saved’ and avoid hell by accepting Jesus.

This concept is mistaken on many levels.

1. It misses Jesus’ major message that the Father loves us all and seeks to alleviate our feelings of alienation. He is not angry with us, nor will he punish us in hell.

2. The emphasis on being ‘saved’ as an instantaneous event doesn’t recognize the development of our relationship with the Father as a process. This is why, no matter where people are in their journey with the Father, program evangelists think they must get the person ‘lost’ before they can get them ‘saved.’; some seekers already have a sense of sin and failure, but others have some sense of relationship with the Father and this must be destroyed before they can pray the sinner’s prayer.

3. This system also paves the way for legalism, as the view of salvation itself is legalistic.

Problem #2: Mistaken View of Our Relationship to Seekers

The emphasis of many programs is on saving as many people as possible. So some personal evangelists do limited follow-up with those they ‘win’; they may call them to encourage them to come to church, or they might turn them over to a separate ‘follow-up’ team.

But the mere sharing of the good news has an enormous element of personal relationship between the one who shares and the one who hears. Once that relationship is established, it is natural to continue as a mentor to the one who has received the good news. If we try to pass that person to someone else our relationship is stunted, and a relationship with the second person might not develop.

This is not personal evangelism; it is impersonal evangelism—it’s about numbers.

I’ve heard people say, ‘I look forward to being greeted in heaven by so many people thanking me for winning them to Christ and saving them from hell—some that I didn’t even know were saved because of something I said.’

I had a different dream. I could imagine all the people I had won meeting me in heaven and saying:

‘Where did you go? Why did you abandon me? I had questions and I needed support. You shared the good news of Jesus with me and then disappeared. Did our relationship mean nothing to you? My growth would have been so much easier had you been there for me.’

Who gives birth to a baby and leaves them to survive on their own? Sharing the good news involves relationships—it is not about numbers, fear, and manipulation

A Better Perspective on Sharing the Good News

There is a better way to share the good news than randomly confronting people with their ‘sins’.

1 Peter chapter 3 says:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

As we develop relationships with neighbors, those in our organizations, and other acquaintances, questions will come up. If we are known as someone who follows Jesus, people will ask about it at some point. But even then there is no need to hit them all at once with some presentation. In addition, it doesn’t hurt for us to watch for opportunities to work it naturally into conversation as our relationships develop.

Just be ready to give good answers. Let people grow at their own pace. There is no urgency; we are all on a journey and the Father loves us at whatever stage we are.

This is the purpose of my blog: not to persuade others or defend my beliefs, but to answer those who ask about the good news of Jesus. But what is this good news?

We will talk about that next time.

Photo Credit: Franck_Michel via Compfight cc
I invite your comments and observations below.
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Have a great day! ~Tim
This entry was posted in God, hell, sinners, The Father, the Good News, witnessing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The Problem of Impersonal Evangelism

  1. sheila0405 says:

    You hit the nail on the head. I remember the training, the teams, the numbers. It was all so impersonal. It was almost like being some kind of salesperson for God, with quotas.

    Your verse from I Peter is the one I claim as well: Live a life that shows the love of Jesus and the Father, and be ready for the questions. They will come. If people see that you really are in tune with the Father, they’ll want what you have. Even if not, keep on loving. It’s what Jesus did. I love this series!

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  2. sheila0405 says:

    Reblogged this on temporary and commented:
    This is exactly what we Christians need to remember in our lives. It’s about the person, not the program.

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    • Thanks Sheila! Actually I saw the reblog before I saw your comment here. I recently started following Temporary; I didn’t realize it existed until then.

      And you are right: “It’s about the person, not the program.”

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  3. Pingback: Why I Quit the Soul-saving Business | Jesus Without Baggage

  4. Jeff Perry says:

    Great topic! One thing that gets under my skin when it comes to evangelism, is the person full of zeal but short on knowledge. Theology can play an important role in evangelism. I feel there are three key areas of the gospel. 1. Promise 2. Purpose 3. Plan. God promises spiritual transformation (Regeneration) here, now and forever in Christ. The purpose is relationship (progressive sanctification) for God’s glory. The plan (Redemption) been provided by Jesus through the agent of the Holy Spirit. Relationships are important. Mature Christians should train up new believers. It is important to study and be aware of legalism, license, work based grace, and self righteousness.

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  5. lotharson says:

    This is an awesome and terrific post, Tim!

    I am going to write a post entitled “The Demise of Conservative Evangelicalism” and will quote you at length 🙂

    I certainly believe that God wants everyone to be saved and that there will be many, many conversions beyond the grave.

    I do not believe, however, that anyone not sincerely desiring God will inherit immortal life. Instead they will be no more.
    It is worth noting that Jesus never threatened a homosexual, whore or tax collectors but only religious bigots and those refusing to apply charity .

    This is very far from the Conservative Evangelical picture of salvation by faith and grace alone.

    Otherwise do you regularly consult your emails?

    I just called your attention to a new post of mine about misogyny and religion since I greatly appreciate your profound and loving insights.
    They are greatly encouraging for many of my readers and complement my own thoughts.

    Cheers.

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  6. Lynn says:

    This is a well put together post, Tim. Every time I read one of your posts in this series I find myself a bit wide-eyed. There’s so much I never knew about various faith groups.

    You said: “There is nothing wrong with sharing the good news of Jesus; in fact it is very important.”

    Does “nothing wrong with” include sharing the good news by going to door to door etc.? Even those receptive to a discussion of faith can be turned off completely if a stranger turns up uninvited at their front door. Personally, I am highly uncomfortable opening the door to someone I do not know well who has not made an appointment.

    Slightly off topic: You mentioned that groups would organize at a church before going out. Do you think the Jehovah’s Witnesses do the same? How does one make them stop coming? I’ve asked the people in person, but then new ones just show up. They keep trying to hone in on my very geriatric and frail mother when I’m not there to intervene. I have concerns since JWs did this to an elderly widowed aunt of mine, who subsequently gave them every dollar she had. Sorry if this is off topic, but I was made curious wondering if there might be some way you know to make them stop.

    When you noted they “try to get the person lost” before saving them, is this what is happening when they hit the “savee” with rapid fire questions?

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    • These are good questions Lynn. It is an interesting thing to hear things about organizations one has not experienced from the inside.

      What I mean by getting people lost is that most fundamentalists and evangelicals believe everyone is born in sin and will go to hell if they aren’t ‘saved’. Being ‘lost’ means that a person is not ‘saved’ and will go to hell. Some people respond to the personal evangelist by saying that they are good people; they believe in God, and have never intentionally hurt anyone.

      To prove the person is lost, the evangelist uses a string of biblical passages to convince the person that they are not good enough and still need to be saved. This is what I meant by ‘getting them lost.’ I did not mean that they try to disorient them by manipulating the conversation, though this often happens as well.

      By saying there is nothing wrong with sharing the good news, I am not advocating door-to-door or accosting people in other ways. Sharing the good news should be a natural development that involves a degree of relationship.

      Going door-to-door used to be common and acceptable; salesmen did it as well as religious advocates. It is much less common now, but JWs and Adventists still come to my door. I just tell them through the door that I am not interested.

      I don’t know whether they organize at church before going out, and I don’t know of any way to get your home ‘off the list’ of those they visit because essentially they hit every home on a street or in a neighborhood when they are out.

      I would also add that these groups, especially the JWs, do not share the theological framework of being saved used in fundamentalist/evangelical circles.

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      • sheila0405 says:

        “…JWs and Adventists still come to my door. I just tell them through the door that I am not interested.”

        I don’t even answer the door at all. They can knock away, if they wish, but they get no reply from me. A few times of that ends the visits for a time. I bet this summer they will again be out in force.

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      • Chas says:

        My Dad, only ever went to church for Christenings, weddings and funerals in his adult life, because he had been put off church by being made to go 4 times a day as a child. (Once each to church and chapel on Sunday morning and the same again on Sunday evening). Nevertheless, he had an effective way of dealing with the JWs: he just pointed out that it said in Revelation that there were only 144,000 chosen, and asked them how they could be certain that they were among those chosen. For some reason, they seemed unwilling to try to answer (maybe they claimed that there were more than that number of JWs).

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  7. Lynn says:

    Thanks, Tim. What you described re: getting them lost and saving is what I was thinking. I’m sorry if I posed my question in an unclear way. Thank you for your thoughts on the JWs as well. Although JWs don’t share the same theological frame work, to those who are on the receiving end of a stranger showing up to force religious ideas there’s little reason to look for a difference, if you know what I mean.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts, but I’m finding that getting into deeper behind the scenes issues like this is bringing up unpleasant memories of other behind the scenes discoveries I’ve had in my own life. I need to take some time and mentally separate the actions of man, things done supposedly in the name of religion, from the reality of God. Thanks for letting me be a guest here.

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    • Sorry to bring up unpleasant memories, Lynn. This series is almost over and we will go on to something else.

      By the way, you are a welcome guest, but you are not just a quest–you are a contributor to the conversation! I hope you return soon.

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  8. Pingback: What is the Good News? | Jesus Without Baggage

  9. Chas says:

    Tim, am with you all the way on this. There is an almost legalistic requirement in many churches to ‘go out and bring them in,’ with the emphasis on numbers: ‘A church of a thousand’ etc. Ever since I was given the Good News and was able to receive it with joy, I felt that what I had been given was so precious that I have strongly desired to share it with others. However, God has not required me to give the message to many others; instead He has required me to pass on to other believers the understanding that He has given to me. This has been to help them either to come closer to God, or to want to come closer to Him. Wanting to come into a closer relationship with Him might be the catalyst that causes them to step out in faith to overcome an inner fear.

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