What I’m Reading: The Cross and Christian Ministry, with Thoughts on Circus Evangelism

Cross and Christian MinistryThe attempt to win people to us so that we can win them to Christ isn’t new. However, it’s as obnoxious and unbiblical today as ever. Whether the bait-and-switch is individual (friendship evangelism), pastoral (clever pulpiteering), or corporate (like this nonsense), our efforts to make the gospel acceptable to the lost by wowing them with our personal charm or pyrotechnics is riddled with problems.

  • It’s theologically misguided, growing out of the belief that the sinner’s problem can be overcome with winsomeness or anything less than a miraculous work in his heart (2 Cor. 4:4-6). Sinners aren’t just cool or skeptical. They’re dead. They need something you can’t give.
  • It’s arrogant, acting as though we can be attractive to the lost even when the gospel is not (John 15:18-20).
  • It’s blasphemous, treating our Lord like a “crazy uncle” to whom we can only introduce people once we’ve convinced them that we’re normal. Mercy.
  • It’s often merely an excuse for cowardice; we’re ashamed of the gospel (2 Timothy 1:8).
  • It betrays a shocking lack of confidence in the gospel, as though it needs to be peddled with P. T. Barnum-like tactics to make a difference (2 Cor. 2:17).

(And no, fundamentalists aren’t immune to this. We spend less than the big boys, but you know full well that the same ideas and strategies are promoted “in here” as “out there.”)

D. A. Carson’s little book The Cross and Christian Ministry provides a helpful antidote to this sort of folly. Chapter 1’s treatment of 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5 is especially germane. Here are a few samples:

“Modern Western evangelicalism is deeply infected with the virus of triumphalism, and the resulting illness destroys humility, minimizes grace, and offers far too much homage to the money and influence and ‘wisdom’ of our day.” (p. 29)

“Paul’s own example should have told the Corinthians Christians [and us!] that they were pursuing a dangerous path, for in his preaching he had self-consciously distanced himself from the rhetorical pomp of his day.” (p. 33)

“[Paul] clearly…thinks the gospel is jeopardized by any kind of eloquence or rhetoric that does not reinforce the message of a crucified Messiah. Clever, witty, amusing, glittering discourse may be warmly applauded by the literati, but it does not easily square with the odium of the cross. So Paul will have none of it.” (p. 35)

“[Paul] avoids persuasion that is manipulative; he eschews preaching that cajoles or moves people by its eloquence but does not faithfully present the gospel. It is the truth and power of the gospel that must change people’s lives, not the glamor of our oratory or the emotional power of our stories.” (p. 39)

If you haven’t read The Cross and Christian Ministry, remedy that mistake soon. Let me add to Carson’s book three other great resources countering the wrongheadedness of many evangelistic efforts in our day: Iain Murray’s classic Revival and Revivalism and Dave Doran’s missions book For the Sake of His Name are well worth the read. If you don’t buy the books, at least listen to Doran’s sermons on 2 Corinthians 4 (available here).

Striving to win converts to Christ with anything less than the “foolish” message of the cross is to be condemned, not commended. Oh, that we might forsake crass manipulation and see a legitimate demonstration of God’s power bringing the lost to Christ! Oh, that we might once again put our confidence in the unadorned and clearly proclaimed gospel, which alone is “the power of God for salvation.” (Romans 1:16)


12 Responses

  1. Chris,

    Thank you for the heads up on the book. I had not heard of it before. I look forward to getting all three.

    A quick question: what is your definition of “friendship evangelism?” What would it look like in real life?

  2. Hey, Andrew.

    A quick answer:

    I’m obviously not opposed to making friends and evangelizing friends. What concerns me is the idea that we need to get people to like us before we mention Christ to them. I know there’s a balance here, and I’m not suggesting boorishness. But my own flesh allows me to work to convince my neighbors that I’m a normal guy and say nothing to them about Christ, all the while rationalizing that I need to establish a friendship first. That’s just my own cowardice. They need gospel told to them, not just shown.

    Make sense?

  3. Absolutely. Thanks.

  4. Chris,
    When I was in Jr. High we went to Willaimburg, VA. Very cool. To this day I love being able to ‘step back in time’. Sooooo . . . what part of recreating Bethlehem would be nonsense? I 100% agree with your article in spirit. I had several run-in’s with airport cheering summer evangelists that just turned me off to ‘salesmanship.’ But if we can present the gospel through various media, why not? I know it may be hard to determine when to stop, per se. I did not read the entire article you linked to, but what I read made me sorry I missed Bethlehem.
    I suppose if the pastor’s purpose was just to get people in his church, I would say he was wrong. But what if he reinforced the visual gospel with a verbal message? That seems okay. On the flip side, I see how it could come across as one of those time share seminars. But in reality, how many people would go to a live version of Bethlehem and be surprised to hear the Gospel?

  5. Chris,

    Excellent thoughts. Thanks for the heads up on this book.

    Your five bullet points at the beginning hit hard, and you are absolutely right. Thanks for the challenge.

  6. Michael asked, “what part of recreating Bethlehem would be nonsense?”

    For starters, the million-plus dollar budgets. Next, the Broadway producers. Next, the pyrotechnics. Next, the stated purpose to compete with Hollywood. Consider this from Willow Creek:

    “‘In today’s world, the church must compete with movies and even restaurants for audiences. Everybody wants to be entertained,’ said Susan DeLay, who handles public relations for Willow Creek.”

    Well, that’s honest, anyway. But it’s exactly the opposite spirit Paul displays in 1 Corinthians, or throughout the NT for that matter.

  7. Quote Michael: “I 100% agree with your article in spirit…But if…”

    It’s interesting that you don’t agree when you say that you do. Very interesting, indeed. With love and respect to you, I suggest you don’t know with what you actually agree, and that, my friend, is dangerous when it comes to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  8. Dale,
    I appreciate the concern and will take into consideration that you did not read my post carefully. I did not read the entire article that was linked and the lesson has been learned. I have read it now and understand the concern. I suppose if I had read the entire article, I would not have phrased my statements the way I did. Maybe I wouldn’t even have posted. I was really just trying to create thought and conversation. I misunderstood the purpose of a blog. I apologize.
    And based on former generous posts, I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply that I don’t know with what I actually agree. I agree 100% with the spirit of Chris’ statements. I don’t think the gospel should be ‘marketed’. There is a lot of marketing of the gospel.
    But as one of my life Proverbs says, ‘the way of the fool is right in his own eyes,’ and perhaps what I think I see clearly others see as foolishness. For this reason I am grateful for you concern regarding my apparent double-mindedness. Again, I apologize for not reading the entire article.

    Ditto the above. But If we take into consideration that I was only informed (due to my own lack of reading) about the Bethlehem re-creation I still would ask the same thing. I guess your concern would be with the amount of money spent. My understanding is that most of what was done was volunteer. No doubt money had to be spent to pull off a huge thing as this. I guess I was just wondering why there would be opposition to spending a lot of money on a live representation of the Christmas Story. And as far as possible non-Christian professionals being involved, why would that be wrong? I suppose you could argue from the point that the gospel could be tainted by having unbelievers participate in it’s proclamation. But I dare say that such things occur often in churches everywhere. The truth is, due to their value system, the unsaved are often better at production related tasks than Christians. So if we wish to produce quality in a large venue, it would often take great resources and even talent beyond our Christian community. I don’t see this as wrong. Of course the Newsboys concert I went to had a light show run by a secular company, so we obviously disagree on the application of the principles that we do agree on even if our agree is misinterpreted as a disagreement. Agreed! :) As far as 1 Corinthians goes, I see where you are coming from and that will demand further study. I suppose we would have to define the world’s wisdom. I suggest the wisdom of the world is much more deceptive than a simple ‘we need to entertain people.’ That is a bit naive. But to say that having fireworks, or plays, or music, or secular aid to further a ministry is the wisdom of the world, than you have condemn our alma mater. $1 million is a lot of money. But how much do they spend elsewhere? How much is a soul worth? Obviously not any amount of money, but that is often the means we use to help us reach people. Don’t condemn someone for using what they have been given by God to do what they feel God has called them to do. What is interesting is that you do not hear people with a lot of money complaining about a lot of money being spent on a ministry. I don’t have a lot of money, but a board member from BJ once told me that God had given him a lot of money so that he could use it to minister to His Kingdom.
    Did you notice that the article came out of the Chicago Tribune? I know there were a lot of quotes, but the entire slant of the article was produced by the paper. I’m sure the write up would have been different if it were in a Christian periodical. So a secular paper makes several churches out to be small church stomping, big money wasting, media machines and we fall for it? I know the churches make some statements that are off, but go back and read just what the churches said. It puts a little different slant to it.
    Anyway, sorry about taking up everyone’s time. I sensed that I am trying your patience and I have no desire to do that.
    Why do we always have to start tearing into believers? What motivates us to call an outreach names? Why is it that as soon as someone does something slightly different that what we think the Scriptures say is okay, we start slinging mud? Because we can back up our opinion with our interpretation of a passage? No. We do it for the same reason I have spent way to much time on this post . . . pride. Yeah, this touches a nerve for me. Sorry about the cyber vomit.
    For the furtherance of His Kingdom through means that points all to Him.

  9. Michael, no apology necessary, my brother. I read all of your response, and the one most recent. I attended BJU some 31 years ago, growing up in what many would say is a church that is synonymous with the foundation of fundamentalism, and pastored by one of the greatest men of God to be heard in its history (no offense, Chris). I love my history in the OBF. God protect it.

    I also have left the OBF churches for a liturgical-worship/confessional church (LCMS) that takes a slightly different approach to what are referred to as “adiaphoral issues” than does the OBF. That said, while I sympathize with what you say, and to some degree understand it, we must take caution that we do nothing to compromise the purity of the Gospel. Remember, even Christ himself silenced those who were demon possessed when they attested to his being the Messiah, the Son of God. They spoke the truth, but Jesus did not need their witness.

    I, also, do not need to “feel good” about Jesus. I need to worship him. If I am an unrepentant sinner, I need to really fear him. If I am a defiant in-your-face sinner, I deserve his swift damnation. If I am a christian saved by his grace and mercy, I need to praise him, falling on my knees and worship him for his mercy endures forever. No, I don’t need to “feel good” about Jesus. He’s not my “buddy”, he is the King of all creation who shed his blood for my sin. I love him. He doesn’t “make me feel good”, he saves me, and that certainly isn’t to be cheapened.

    Do I hear you when you mention the Newsboys? I find myself agreeing with you here, to a certain level. I like contemporary christian music, but only when it does not become so hard and muddled in its lyrics that it detracts from the message of the Cross. Much of it is junk, pure and simple. There is enough good stuff (Rich Mullins’s “Credo” comes to mind) that, yes, even I would take issue that listening to it does nothing to lessen my christianity. Hey, it puts me somewhat at odds with my brothers in Christ in the OBF, and brothers within my own family. But, hey, that’s “adiaphora” for you.

    I am not ashamed of the Gospel as it is the power of God for the salvation of souls to those who believe, and the message of reconciliation with the God of the universe. It is never to be cheapened, and his message needs no other frills for its power to save. Fear him who has the power to send both body and soul into everlasting judgement. Praise God for his mercy and grace, and may he continue to merciful to me, a poor sinner. May he increase my faith.

  10. Michael, may the love and grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ lead us to the wisdom and peace that only he can provide. May we continue to seek him and not that which makes us “feel good” when testifying of his grace. May the Gospel of Christ remain its own testimony to the wonderful gift of God in his Son. May we fall on our knees and ask him to daily forgive us, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. May we remain Christ’s witnesses to his mercy and faith.

    “I need no other argument. I need no other plea. It is enough that Jesus died, and that he died for me.”

  11. Thank you, Pastor Chris for your recommendations! The sources/information/spiritual truths that are found on your site have been very helpful.

  12. Dale,
    I appreciate your words. And like most often is the case, we are probably much more in agreement than not. Good point on Christ silencing the demons. The Gospel is the primary thing and it must be clearly presented in every way.
    Thanks for the edification and encouragement.

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