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In December 2009, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), together with major Thai church denominations, sponsored and promoted the "My Hope Thailand” evangelistic project. They produced an evangelistic TV program that aired several times on Thai national TV just before Christmas. The program featured testimonies and music videos from Thai pop stars who became Christians, as well as preaching from Billy Graham and Franklin Graham, dubbed in Thai.
As a result of the program and associated church based events, nearly 12,000 people made "decisions for Christ". Many in the Christian community (both in Thailand and abroad) were overjoyed by the number of “new Christians” produced by My Hope (such as here and here) but I have a more mixed review of the project. But before I get to the negatives, I want to say up front that there were some really good aspects about the My Hope project:
I couldn’t believe my ears. A founding member and leader of a large church in Bangkok was telling me about “The Salvation Room” (ห้องรอด) at his church. Each Sunday, visitors are encouraged to come to a special room on the side of the sanctuary during the service and over the course of a few weeks (assuming they come back), current church members explain the Gospel to them and try to get them to say the sinner’s prayer. I asked, “Is it effective? Not everyone who says the sinner’s prayer really becomes a Christian, you know.” His answer surprised me. “No, that’s not right. Eventually, they all become Christians. We know that not everyone who prays is converted yet, but if we can get them to say the prayer, then that is the foot in the door.” “But,” I replied, “how do you know that they will come to faith eventually?” With a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face, this respected church leader asserted confidently, “They just do. Saying the sinner’s prayer is what breaks Satan’s power and guarantees that they will eventually be saved.”
In my last post, we saw that the sinner’s prayer became popular because of its supposed success rate in producing Christian converts but that the claimed successes often amount to nothing. However, many evangelists persist on using the altar call and the sinner’s prayer, justifying their preferred methodology by claiming that, “Even if only one person became a Christian, it is all still worth it.” Is it really? The case has been made that even if many people fall away, it is still effective and worthwhile to use the altar call and the sinner’s prayer because “at least it works for some people.” But what if, as I have argued in a previous post, the sinner’s prayer doesn’t actually save anyone? And if it doesn’t actually save anyone, but does do a substantial amount of damage, then why keep using it? In the remainder of this post, I want to take a look at four negative side effects that come from using the altar call and sinner’s prayer in evangelism.
Everyone who becomes a Christian has a unique story. The ultimate cause of salvation is God convicting a person of sin and graciously turning their heart to himself so that they might exercise faith and repentance. However, the secondary reasons that people are initially attracted to the Gospel are much more varied. For some people, a crisis in their life leads them to reach out for help. For others, they are impressed by the love and welcome of the Christian community. And still others have burning questions about the origin and meaning of life. One of the most unique and peculiar accounts that I have encountered is the story of Nān Inta, the first convert in the ministry of Daniel McGilvary. Regarded widely as the Father of the Church in Northern Thailand, McGilvary gives the following account in his autobiography:
The title of this article may seem like an overstatement but it is not. Some may object, “But surely the sinner’s prayer has worked for some people. Even if many have fallen away after praying to receive Christ, not all have.” I happily concede the point that there are many Christians who continue to walk with the Lord and grow in their faith many years after having said the sinner’s prayer. But what I question is this, “Was it really the sinner’s prayer that converted them?” 19th century revival preacher Charles Finney, who is largely responsible for popularizing the use of the altar call and the sinner’s prayer, would probably have said yes.
No matter where you go in East Asia, you are bound to find instant noodles. The appeal of instant noodles is that they are quick. You are hungry. You don’t have time to get a real meal and you want to eat something NOW that will satisfy your hunger. Instant noodles really aren’t that tasty of a meal but in a bid to get people to buy their brand of instant noodles, the companies who produce them make the pictures on the package look as appealing as possible. Steaming golden noodles held between wooden chopsticks over a bowl of more steaming golden noodles, together with a multitude of lush green vegetables and savory prawns or slices of succulent pork (or some variation on that theme). If you go by the picture on the package, this bowl of noodles is going to be a really tasty and satisfying meal. In reality, instant noodles are somewhat rubbery and those nice looking vegetables and meat are not included. Your stomach gets filled for a little while but that promise of a tasty satisfying meal remains unfulfilled. But if you are desperate enough for something good to eat, it is possible convince yourself that these noodles will be like that fancy picture on the label.
While the sinner’s prayer is designed to help people become Christians, here in Thailand (as in other places) it many times has the opposite effect of confirming people in a fundamentally animistic worldview. At its core, animism is the using of religious rituals and ceremonies to manipulate the spirit world into doing what the animist wants it to do, whether that be warding off evil or inviting blessing. Thai Buddhism is a mix of pure Buddhism and local animistic beliefs in spirits, omens, relics, sacred objects, fortune telling, astrology, sorcery, and so on. This mix of spirit beliefs and Buddhism forms an important part of the worldview and belief system of Thai people, and it is this understanding of spiritual reality that Thai people bring to the table when they come to an evangelistic rally or hear a Gospel presentation.
A few months ago I was visiting some new believers with a Thai pastor and other church members when I heard something quite disturbing. In the course of his teaching, the pastor explained that some Christians don’t have changed lives because they don’t yield to the Holy Spirit. He went on to say that God has “good manners” and therefore doesn’t force himself on anyone. If a believer yields to the Holy Spirit, then his life will change in accord with God’s will. However, if he does not yield to the Holy Spirit, then his life will not change and he will exhibit little or no evidence of being a Christian other than his profession to be a Christian.Is this really the best way to explain why professing Christians fail to show any evidence of love for Christ or obedience to his commandments? I have another theory as to why some professing Christians don’t show any evidence of conversion. They were never truly converted to begin with!! Some may say that this sounds judgmental but I believe that there is sufficient Biblical support for such a conclusion.The Bible has absolutely no category for people who have trusted in Christ as Savior but have not repented (turned) from their sins and made a decision to obey Him as their Lord. In Matthew chapter 3, the Pharisees and Sadducees are coming out to receive baptism from John the Baptist but John rebukes them and tell them to "bear fruit in keeping with repentance." (Matt. 3:8). Profession of allegiance to God must always be
The is a lot of talk in modern evangelical churches about the Holy Spirit and not all of it is helpful. It is not uncommon for people to talk or sing things like, "Let the fire of Holy Spirit fall on us" or "Come Holy Spirit, revive us again" or other similar things. I was in a church meeting the other day, and the pastor had written (in Thai) on a handout, "This is the age of the Holy Spirit. We all are living in this age. The Spirit is ready to move in the lives of Christians if only we give the Spirit the opportunity to work in our lives."I want to ask, what exactly does it mean for the Holy Spirit to move in people's lives? What does it look like to have the fire of the Holy Spirit fall on someone? And isn't it our Sovereign God who takes the initiative in our sanctification, changing our hearts to respond and be transformed? Is the Holy Spirit really sitting around, wringing his hands, waiting for us to ask Him to fall on us? I am hard pressed to find any Biblical reference to needing to call the Holy Spirit to fall on us again and again or to light us (or the land) on fire, as it were. Sure, it happened at Pentecost but that was a rather unique event that was initiated by God, not the apostles. From that point in history, believers are henceforth indwelt with the Holy Spirit from conversion onwards (Eph. 1:13-14).
There is a trend in modern evangelism to replace the language of “repentance” with “opening your heart”, “receiving Christ”, and making a “decision for Christ”. I hear it when people share the Gospel with non-Christians and I read it in a lot of evangelistic literature that it being published. Far from an isolated phenomenon, I have noticed this in both the United States and in Thailand where I serve as a missionary. I am sure that the same is true in much of the rest of the world as well since the trends in Western evangelicalism, whether for good or for ill, have a way of making the rounds. In this case, the de-emphases upon the need to repent is a serious compromise of the Gospel and can create a wrong understanding of what it means to become a Christian.Let me give an example of what I mean and why it is so serious. Sitting in front me right now is an evangelistic tract called “The Gift of Love”. It is put out by one of the largest (if not THE largest) publisher of evangelistic Christian tracts in Thailand. They have a number of good tracts and I don’t want to detract from the quality thinking and writing that they have produced in a number of cases. However, the way that this little tract, “The Gift of Love”, ends rather troubles me when I compare it to evangelism in the Bible. Near the end of the tract, it says (in Thai), “The opportunity to be saved from sin is right before you... hurry and open your heart to receive this gift of love right now. Don’t miss this opportunity to receive this gift that God wants to give you. If you want to receive this gift of love, all you have to do is confess your sins and and ask for help from God like this...” and a sample prayer as to how to receive Christ follows.
What is true repentance? This morning I read Matthew 26 and as I reflected on it, I was struck by Matthew Henry's commentary on Peter's denial of Christ. Henry writes, "Peter wept bitterly. Sorrow for sin must not be slight, but great and deep. Peter, who wept so bitterly for denying Christ, never denied him again, but confessed him often in the face of danger. True repentance for any sin will be shown by the contrary grace and duty; that is a sign of our sorrowing not only bitterly, but sincerely."In Thailand, I have seen far too many professions of faith that bear no fruit. I have also heard too many Christians misdiagnose the problem of people who profess faith in Christ but don't follow through. One suggestion is that these backsliders need more encouragement. Another suggestion is that they need more follow-up and discipling. Both of these may be true to a degree depending upon how we understand the terms but neither seem to get at the heart of the matter that genuine repentance has likely not occurred. Repentance is not only stopping doing something bad but is also the beginning of doing something new. As Henry points out, Peter not only ceased denying Christ, but he also did the exact opposite - stood up and boldly proclaimed him from that point onward. Repentance does not consist of merely admitting to, or confessing ones sins either to God or to others. Repentance is a decisive turning from evil and self, and towards God. Granted, some new believers exhibit more obvious repentance earlier on because of the gross nature of their former life while others seem to grow or change more slowly as it is less obvious elements, like attitudes of the heart, which need the most change. But in either case,