Mass Evangelism Gone Awry

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

We’ve just finished the Christmas evangelism season here in Thailand and praise God for the many people who heard the Gospel because of their curiosity about this thing called “Christmas”. In most Thai churches, Christmas is not a season of reflection upon the wonder of the Savior’s birth as much as it is a season of taking advantage of the opportunity to evangelize. Lots of Thai have heard something of Christmas through Western movies, advertising, and the general commercialism and materialism surrounding the season that come with globalization. Personally, I miss the “in-house” reflection and taking time out to ponder Christ’s birth that tends to be characteristic of American and European churches. Yet, I also appreciate the evangelistic zeal of Thai churches at Christmas and the natural opportunities that comes with the Christmas season here. Many U.S. churches could learn from the evangelistic zeal of Thai churches at Christmas time.

However, having attended lots of Christmas outreaches at churches, at schools, and at people’s homes, I have noticed a particular philosophy of mass evangelism among some churches and it bothers me. Initially, I couldn’t figure out why it bothered me and I was hesitant to say anything because I don’t want to oppose something just because I don’t like it. We all have our personal preferences and it would be plain wrong to try to impose my personal preferences on someone else. But the more I thought about it, I realized that it bothered me because this particular way of going about mass evangelism at Christmas time is unbiblical.

I have noticed that some churches use lots of free give-aways and raffle prizes in order to both draw people in, and to keep them at their Christmas outreaches. I don’t have a problem with some gifts or prizes given out in conjunction with an evangelistic outreach, per se. However, when I questioned the necessity of having lots of prizes for a Christmas outreach, some church leaders told me that unless we have prizes, the people won’t come. And, they explained, if we don’t keep the really big prizes until the end, people won’t stay for the evangelistic message. So, as I understand it, the philosophy here is that we need to use whatever means possible to keep people in their seats until the Gospel presentation is finished because people in general are not interested enough to stay without the prospect of a prize at the end. And if they have at least heard, regardless of their motivation for sitting through it, then perhaps they will have a chance to understand and be saved. On the surface, this approach makes sense. People are not generally interested in the Gospel so you use something that does interest them to draw them to your event and then make sure they don’t leave until they have heard the Gospel. Although it is true that people need to first hear the Gospel before they can understand it (Rom 10:17), there are three problems with this approach to mass evangelism: 1) It is manipulative, 2) It depends upon human cleverness to get people interested in the Gospel instead of depending upon God to save people, and 3) It is the exact opposite of Jesus’ approach to mass evangelism. Let’s address these three problems in the order that I’ve presented them.

  1. It is manipulative. People come expecting to get some food, some prizes, and they perhaps know that there is some religious component to Christmas. And all of those are part of the Christmas celebration but I do wonder if some people feel like the whole thing is a bait-and-switch. The raffle prizes are held to the end specifically to force people to sit through the religious message that they may or may not be interested in. Is it possible that some people resent the fact that they have to stay for the “believe in Jesus” sales pitch in order to get their prize. Is this method appealing to people’s materialistic nature in an effort to get them to hear a message which condemns materialism? Manipulating people to sit through something they are not interested in does not speak well of the God or of Christians.
  2. It depends on human cleverness instead of the power of God to save people. This philosophy of using prizes in mass evangelism seems to make the assumption that God is not active in making people interested in the Gospel and giving them enough curiosity to want to know more without a carrot dangling out in front of them. In his conversation with Nicodemus about how people become Christians, (John 3:1-8) Jesus said the Holy Spirit is like the wind that blows here and there yet no one is sure where exactly it came from or where it is going. That is to say, we don’t know whose heart God is changing to repent and believe, and many times it is not who we think it might be. It is God who changes hearts to believe, not any clever strategy or design of men. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (John 6:44) and a few verse later repeats again that “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:65). It is God who has chosen people for salvation before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4) and it is God who will make them interested enough to listen to the Gospel message. When it became apparent that the rich young man was not ready to turn from his greed, Jesus did not manipulate him to stay until Jesus had finished a Gospel presentation (Mark 10:17-27). Jesus allowed him to sulk off with the realization that he didn’t want eternal life badly enough to forsake his wealth. Jesus could let him go with the confidence that if God had chosen him for eternal life, then in due time the Holy Spirt would convict him of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8) and lead him to someone who could pick up where Jesus left off and tell him of God’s grace and forgiveness towards repentant sinners. God is author of salvation from beginning to end (Rom. 8:30), and we can be confident that He will create sufficient interest in the Gospel among those whom he has chosen without holding out material prizes as a reward for listening to the Gospel.
  3. It is the exact opposite of Jesus’ method of mass evangelism. Instead of keeping the maximum number of listeners for the longest time possible, Jesus continually weeded out the people who were not interested so that he could focus on those who were interested. In John 6, we see that Jesus feeds the 5000 and then, when they wanted to take him by force to become king (John 6:15), he went off by himself. The next day, when Jesus is on the other side of the lake and the people come looking for him, he rebukes them because they were only interested in another free meal, not in the implication that the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 pointed to Christ’s divinity (John 6:26). Jesus then goes on to give a really difficult teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Lots of people didn’t want to accept this teaching (John 6:60) and “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” (John 6:66). And then, in chapter 8:31 forward, Jesus lays into the “new believers” who are still remaining, testing them to see if they are truly repentant, trusting in Christ for freedom and forgiveness or if they are presuming that they are accepted by God because they are descendants of Abraham. Jesus’ really wants to help people who have a false assurance of salvation to see the true state of their souls. From the pattern that we see here in the Gospel of John, Jesus used mass evangelism to find people who were interested and then talked with them, and taught them, in such a way as to sound out true spiritual interest and correct misunderstandings about the nature of saving faith.

From the model of Jesus, this should be THE GOAL OF MASS EVANGELISM: Sow the seed of the Gospel broadly in order to find the people who want to know more and then follow-up with them in a way commensurate with their interest and understanding.

Given the above considerations, I am reminded of a good example of appropriate and Biblical mass evangelism that I came across in the autobiography of Daniel McGilvary, 19th century pioneer missionary to Northern Thailand and Laos. I find that history is often instructive in balancing out excesses and oversights of the modern era. Mr. Dodd, of the American Presbyterian mission, writes the following account:

“On Friday June 3d [1887], Rev. D. McGilvary of the Lao mission left Chieng Mai by boat for a tour southward, taking attendants and all necessary equipments, accompanied by a raw recruit, and three efficient native helpers. We arrived at our first station about the middle of the afternoon, and before bed-time held religious conversation with as many enquirers as time would permit. Our audience chamber was the house of one of our newly-received members. Our ‘outward and ordinary means’ of attracting an audience was a watch, two mariner’s compasses, a magnifying glass, a stereoscope with an assortment of views, and a violin. The raw recruit played the violin, and thus called the audience together. We used both the other attractions to hold them and to gain their confidence and interest; and afterwards Dr. McGilvary easily and naturally drew them into religious conversation. Soon the conversation became a monologue in the religion of the Great God. The violin was no longer needed to arouse or sustain an interest. Every day, and late into the evening, the Doctor and the three assistants conversed; sometimes to quite an audience, sometimes to individual enquirers.” (McGilvary, Daniel, “A Half Century Among the Siamese and the Lao”, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, 1912, p.285)

It seems that McGilvary and company used items of general interest and attraction to gather people only as a bridge to talking about God. The mariner’s compasses, stereoscope, violin, and so forth were not held out as carrots that would only be given at the end for those who stayed for the religious talk. Rather, they were used as a bridge to build relationships so that spiritual conversation could be had. This way seems much closer to what we see Jesus doing in the Scriptures and would seem to be more effective in discovering those people whom the Father is leading to repent and believe in Jesus.


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