The title expresses one of the two main questions concerning evangelism that are before us at this time in our history. The other question is, “What is the gospel?” That question has been discussed in relation to the Lordship controversy some years earlier, the current New Perspective issue, and the ongoing Calvinism/Arminianism debate. A lot hangs in the balance on these various viewpoints, and evangelistic practice is governed by which side you are on even if you are not aware that you have a position. In some senses, the above issues have proved to be valuable for believers, forcing us to wipe the fog off our doctrinal glasses. They move us forward in the same way that the earlier Councils pressed us toward definition, proper emphasis, and informed support.
The second question, the one found in the title, concerns getting the gospel to unbelievers: How should we draw a crowd for the gospel? This question has driven the church growth movement in its various forms, including the signs and wonders movement, the seeker-sensitive movement, and even the bus evangelism movement of the 70s, among others. It is a valid question. There can never be any fault in asking it. It is desirable that churches grow. Sadly, some resist these movements precisely because they have given up attempting to grow the kingdom in any earnest way. They fight as an excuse for their own lack of concern about evangelism. Those who ask this question—How do we get a crowd to hear the gospel?—are to be commended, even when they have not arrived at the best answers.
We know that growth of our churches by evangelism has to do with sowing the seed in every way possible, especially through preaching, or verbal means. This can mean preaching even to one person, as Phillip did to the eunuch. And it can mean writing. Special revelation, and indeed the actual knowing of Christ Himself, depends on this, for no one is known without communication. As one secular philosopher put it correctly, “Without language there is no world.”
Christ’s word to us, meaning the entire Bible, is His revelation of Himself. With the Spirit’s application, the word of Christ not only explains the truth, but also serves as the introduction to Christ for those whom God is drawing to salvation. All forms that are less verbal are only valuable for evangelism to the extent that they do say something in propositional form. Precisely because they are limited so severely in their ability to transfer information, we should not count on them for much real effect beyond some temporary emotional spasms.
But how should we get our audience? Are there legitimate and illegitmate means? Are there better and worse means?
Interestingly, as far as I can discern, there are no pat instructions in the Bible about the right and wrong way to gather a crowd to preach to. What we can glean must come from precedent. Precedent does not have the weight of command, as we all know. But it is not for that reason unimportant. For instance, we meet on Sundays because of precedent, and not command. But we don’t want to carry this further than we should. We have to ask, “Is the precedent there for a higher reason that was understood by those first practicing it—a reason which should also be assumed by us?” and “Does the situation today warrant the continuation of the precedent?” Many have little regard for precedent, believing instead that the Spirit has left the door wide open for any practice as long as it reaches the desired end. That one issue is at the essence of one of the most significant differences between us as evangelicals interested in evangelism.
Before we look at the precedent of Acts, we may well consider one biblical parameter that does add something to the discussion. It is the plain teaching of the Scripture not to “boast in men” and not to think of men “after the flesh.” When we invite a person to address our church who is advertised principally for some achievement other than his or her Christianity, are we doing this? We may be. Is this a means of boasting in the flesh? Is it deceptive? Aren’t we trying to trick people into coming in order to preach the gospel to them rather than for what the advertisement states? I don’t think it occurred to the apostles to think, “How can we catch these people off guard so that we can slip the gospel in somehow?” I have noticed that evangelicals will often settle for a very weak testimony from a notable person if he or she will attract people. I do believe that pride can enter in to this whole issue, and there are lines that we may cross if we are not more careful. On the other hand, I don’t want to say that a person notable for other achievements can never say anything about Christ. It is how we use this person before the church and the world that makes the difference.
The one thing you notice most glaringly in the book of Acts is that the apostles did not—to my knowledge not even one time—strategize about getting a crowd up to preach to. You do not find them saying to each other: “What can we do to get people to come out and hear us talk about Jesus?” This mindset is so alarmingly divergent from ours that it should arrest us immediately as we read the account.
I think the reason they did not do this was doctrinal. In other words, there was something that stood behind the precedent. They understood and had a huge appreciation for the doctrine of man’s depravity. This means, among other things, that any appeal to get people to come out for special meetings in order to be evangelized would demand devising ways to attract dead people (that is, to appeal to “the natural man” or “the flesh” on the level of the flesh). And they were unwilling to stoop to that level not only because it is out of character, but because they would not believe it could accomplish anything significant. They believed Jesus when He said, “The flesh profits nothing.”
When, as Jesus said, people are running from the light because of their nature, you have to do something spectacular to get them to hear the gospel. Perhaps blowing up water bottles and smashing concrete blocks would draw some unsuspecting souls—not to Christ, but to the event. They knew that. The Roman world was addicted to entertainment. So the church would have had to compete at a very high level, just as we must today, if we choose this means, and all for very little return except the getting up of the crowd itself.
Early believers also knew that God had ordained the means of preaching to save the lost. God has always made His elect able and willing to hear the propositions—that is, the words—of the gospel. As Jesus said, “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63, emphasis added). And as Peter later confessed to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68, emphasis mine). That is why Paul insisted that it is “through the foolishness of the message preached” that God is pleased to save those who believe (1 Corinthians 1:21).
Was it the prerogative of the first evangelists to choose any other means? Why would they even wish to dilute that God-ordained method? We are image driven in our day, and verbal communication including data and propositions, is out (according to those who follow the trends). But is that really so? Certainly not in any universal way. My experience with university people and other younger people is exactly the opposite of “image driven” when it comes to truth. Cutting through all that is stamped on our culture, there is an ever widening circle of serious listeners and readers and thinkers. And they do not like the superficial. In fact, they are tired of it. If they want entertainment, they can get it; but when it comes to truth, they want it sincerely and without cloudiness.
All of this leads to one critical question: Is anyone really saved apart from the gospel presented in verbal propositions—in words? What if those who have been given the ability and willingness to listen—to think seriously about the verbal propositions of the gospel in our image driven age—are the very ones God is intending to save? After all, not everyone is given that ability. Remember Jesus’ words to the unbelieving Pharisees:
Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. . . . But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. . . . He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God (John 8:43, 45, 47, emphasis added).
No doubt the association of the trivial with the serious, profound and weighty gospel was also a consideration. Why would they choose some silly way of drawing people that was not an appropriate fit with “the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:11)? I’m reading between the lines here, admittedly, but I think it can be fairly safely assumed that the stunning and sometimes stultifying doctrines that came from the apostles lips played a part in their decision to evangelize in a correspondingly serious manner.
There were options available. Sports heroes, circus clowns, political wonders, and ballad singers could be found in that society. With so many becoming believers, surely some like these could be found with a testimony. But there is an amazing absence of any use of these people to draw a crowd. Nor did they put on shows of any type, even with ordinary people. There was no living Christmas tree in the early church. In fact, there was even a downplaying of the ceremony that so marked the Old Covenant. The early church was unadulterated and primitive in their declaration of God and Christ.
Again, please don’t think I’m implying any wrong motives if you have done these things. But we have to discuss it. We’ve all done some of this, most likely, even if we only attempted to draw young people with the longest hot dog on a Saturday night. It’s not a new thing. It’s only the degree that has changed. We’re better at entertaining than we used to be; and we spend a lot more money. And, we do pull in bigger crowds the better we become at doing it.
In an informal survey of Acts, I’ve found the following eye-opening data. Instead of arranging meetings to bring people to, the apostles used the following for the gospel:
• Miracles or phenomena were used approximately eleven times to open the door for preaching.
• Persecution, disputes, mob scenes, etc., were used approximately thirteen times.
• Synagogue (or temple) visits were employed for preaching the gospel fourteen or fifteen times, depending on the way you count them.
It is the last use, preaching in the synagogues, that demonstrates an actual strategy. The miracles were “apostolic signs” for the most part. I will not go into depth as to the reason why I say this, even though we believe God can heal today. But we should not make this a strategy. Suffice it to say, at a minimum, that we cannot produce miracles on call; they were given to the apostles and the early church for some specific reasons (one of which was that they identified the apostles with Christ so that their message would be received (Hebrews 2:3-4).
As for the second use, nobody can plan on persecutions as a strategy—indeed, who would want to? We should be ready as this happens, of course, as has been demonstrated in the Bible and throughout history. But it is not a strategy; rather it is a response to a situation that develops apart from our planning. There can be no question, however, that the use of the synagogues comprised a definite plan.
So they found opportunities to speak to the crowds that were already there.
There is a genius to this method. For one thing, it could be done no matter how small the church or apostolic band. Second, it took no props or money or PR. Third, there was always a crowd available. Fourth, their visits almost always created curiosity. Fifth, it was possible to do all over the Roman world, for synagogues were everywhere. Philo says that over a million Jews lived in Egypt, for instance. Sixth, it almost always caused a disruption of the religious consensus in the group. And this had to take place in order for the gospel to take hold.
Paul and the others were only following Christ in this pattern. When the gospel was only being preached to the Jews, Jesus went consistently into the synagogues to preach. When the Gentiles were to be reached following Pentecost, the pattern continued. This time, Paul (the apostle to the Gentiles) would find his Gentiles in the synagogues as proselytes to Judiasm. I do not want to imply that this was Paul’s only method, but it is the most obvious strategy that can be found in Acts. As soon as he was sent out he began this pattern and he continued it up to the end.
Three times Paul wiped the dust off his feet and said that he was through with the Jews, but in the next town, he was right back in the synagogue. Even in Athens, after seeing the idols, his first response was to go to the synagogue. This eventually led to the Mars hill discourse, but it started in the synagogue. In other words, the synagogue was his default strategy, though he was available for anything God would bring about as a forum for preaching, even prison.
In these synagogues he reasoned with the people concerning Christ. A typical phrase is found in Acts 17:2-4:
And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them [in the synagogue in Thessalonica], and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.
That is a consistent description of what he did. His evangelism was apologetic, but with people who had already settled some of the big questions. They believed in one God and embraced the Old Testament. He did not start with the pagan or the atheist, though I’m sure he encountered many. He thought it best to get to people who were religious moralists, with some basis for discussion. Paul could use the very Scripture they believed to prove his point about Christ.
The illustrations are numerous, beginning in Acts 13 to the end of the book. Almost every account has the same ingredients: Coming into a synagogue, reasoning with Jews and Gentiles there, presenting Christ using their Scriptures, experiencing some conflict of beliefs often ending in outright persecution, and the gathering of those who identified with the presenter and the gospel.
We cannot doubt that this is what he did, but we can doubt if this is a valid strategy for today. I will leave that for you to decide.
As to the larger question, “How do we get a crowd for the gospel?” we are helped here with a sensible plan, in my view.
In the negative we learn this: Don’t try to compete with the secular world in drawing the natural man to be evangelized. We all realize that God is so gracious that some have been converted this way. We all can point to cases. And we’ve all done it.
In the positive: Do strategize about getting believers into the crowds that are already there, especially into the religious groups where there is some basis for dialogue.
Let me add something else about the impracticality of event orientation to evangelism. It is not possible for most churches to carry this out successfully. In our world it takes something more than a musical from a twenty person choir or a “bathrobe drama” to accomplish this. I know that we can drag out a few relatives and friends who will dutifully come to our performance on Easter or Christmas, but is much really accomplished? The larger churches with the bigger budgets and more personnel will put on a better show, but in my experience it does not do much there either. I talked with one friend who was having an actual lion on stage for a production and was hoping this would draw a huge crowd. He finally admitted that not much actually comes out of all the decision cards that are signed at such events. When it is boiled down, if we are honest, precious little happens in terms of genuine evangelism.
Of course, those churches can say, “I like the way we do evangelism much better than the way you don’t.” But that doesn’t prove much. In churches that have thousands on the rolls who do not come, many of whom made professions of faith through such events, their own statistics tell the truth. The converts reaped in churches with a more truth-oriented, relational approach are on the whole more promising than those decisioned in event-oriented churches. The numbers often demonstrate that the percentage of true converts is much higher per capita, even if the church is smaller and the evangelism less impressive (according to our culture’s way of thinking). I’ve tried to show this in other articles and will not labor it now (See my “Southern Baptists, An Unregenerate Denomination,” at www.ccwtoday.org). By saying this, I’m not excusing those churches where little or nothing is done in terms of evangelism. There is no justification for seeing biblical precedent regarding methods rightly while doing almost nothing in terms of actual evangelism.
In the end, it appears that Acts has this to teach us about evangelism. Don’t make the Sunday meeting an evangelistic day, but rather a believer’s meeting. When a lost person comes in, what he should find is not entertainment, but serious worship and biblical preaching (1 Corinthians 14:23-25). Use the main gatherings of your church to grow authentic and effective Christians.
But do evangelism vigorously outside by participating in groups that are already there. Life is simpler and evangelism is better this way, in my view. Small churches may do big things this way. If at all possible, go into the religious groups where the gospel is less prevalent and participate in their small groups. Be genuine and honest. Love them. Do what Christians always do when you are there: If you find other believers, strengthen them; if you find those without Christ, present the gospel to them. Ask questions, raise issues, build friendships, and prepare for some conflicts of belief. Even though religious moralists are steeped in toleration in our day, and are not like the opinionated Jews of Paul’s day, you will still find that presenting Christ as the exclusive way will raise opposition. Use it for the gospel. This is God’s plan to cause some people to side with the presenter.
Add to the above any other ways to enter in to groups, secular or religious, where serious discussions can result, even if it means joining the Harley club. Considerable effort should be made by leaders to help church members find a context where they can let the light of the gospel shine “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (Philippians 2:15). Such contact with the unbelieving world is something to strategize about!
Copyright © 2006 Jim Elliff. Christian Communicators Worldwide, Inc. Permission granted for not-for-sale reproduction in unedited form including author’s name, title, complete content, copyright and weblink. Other uses require written permission.