A new evangelism, expressed in terms of contemporary experience, must begin with finding a new motive for mission. The imperatives of earlier centuries, particularly of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, are no longer valid or compelling.
Dr. Michael Green states (“Evangelism in the Early Church”, 1970) there was a three-fold motive for mission in the early church. First, there was a sense of gratitude for what Christ had done. Second, early Christians were conscious of their responsibility to God to communicate the message they had received. Third, there was a concern, a passion for people.
… Over the years since the first century, the motive for mission has varied. Let us look for a moment at the evangelism of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. … The driving motive of Christians in these years was a passion for souls. With the vivid belief in the reality of heaven and hell, Christians sought to rescue people from eternal punishment and to open the door to heaven for them before it was too late.
Perhaps the most vivid expression of this type of motive can be heard throbbing in the ministry of Dr. Jonathan Edwards. It is powerfully expressed in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Dr. Edwards apparently produced a tremendous impact on the eastern coast of America as he thundered: “God holds you over the pit of hell. You hang by a slender thread with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it. Now harken to the loud call of God’s word and providence. Therefore let everyone who is out of Christ now awake and fly from the wrath to come.”
Nineteenth century motives for mission are no longer viable or credible. Enticement of heaven or the dread of hell no longer possess the power they once did. There are several reasons for this decline. (Alan Walker, “The New Evangelism” (Abingdon Press, 1975), 8-11)
Alan Walker suggest a few reasons:
-Reduction of early morality rates makes death seem less real or pressing. While this feeling is essentially inaccurate (death is still inevitable), death and post-death experience doesn’t connect as viscerally as it may have in the past. I have heard a study that 3% of Americans are afraid of hell. Some perhaps lack fear because they are convinced that they are heaven-bound. Others lack fear because they don’t believe in hell. However, others may be uncertain about the future, and believe in hell… but they don’t feel the fear because there is a perception of “distance” between now and death. This would be pretty similar to a 20 year old eating junk food and being asked to think about its effect on his heart… possibly, eventually, a long time from now.
-Hope of Reward and Fear of Punishment seem like inadequate motives for salvation. Many are uncomfortable with using this methodology to inspire conversion. James Fowler’s faith development stages does point out that doing right because of fear of punishment is a much lower (and not wholly desirable) stage of faith growth. Those who use only fear of hell as their argument to convert can come off more as fire insurance salesmen… rather than bearer’s of good news and Christ’s kingdom.
-Focusing on hell does tend to portray God poorly. The God portrayed by Jonathan Edward seems to have made cultural sense in the time of Jonathan Edward, as well as John Tetzel, but today such a God does not appear to be worthy of worship. Frankly, the God of the Bible generally seems much more compassionate than many more recent evangelistic portrayals.
I would probably add at least one more. Modernism brought doubt about old answers, a faith in certain new answers, and a pluralism based on greater interaction of people of different cultural viewpoints. It also inspired Post-modernism which has doubts regarding modernism, as well as the new answers, but without necessarily embracing the older answers.
Of course, not believing in hell does not make it go away. But over reliance on it as an evangelism strategy seems out of sorts with many modern or post-modern cultures. I have mentioned before the controversy as to whether accepting the Lordship of Christ is necessary for salvation. We often say that we accept Jesus as Savior and Lord… but some suggest that only one is necessary. I am not competent necessarily to determine if both are necessary, but the bigger question, I believe, is on the other side. It seems pretty obvious from Scripture that calling on the name of the Lord implies a decision to follow Christ… as Lord. The bigger question is whether salvation necessitates recognizing Jesus as Savior. Can a person be saved who accepts Jesus as Lord… before understanding that He is also Savior? Or if a person accepts Jesus as Savior, must he be absolutely aware of what exactly he has been saved from?
I think the note in the quote about the three motivations of the early church for evangelizing is important. The three motivations:
- Gratitude for the work of Christ in their lives
- Responsibility before God to share the Good News.
- Concern or passion for people
These seem like appropriate motives. When I interviewed medical evangelistic ministry workers/organizers, I asked what are their motives for doing the ministry. The top three were:
- Love of God
- Love/concern for people
- Obedience to the Great Commission
These three are about the same. Unfortunately the motive, “a passion for souls,” has proven inadequate. One might surmise that passion for souls would necessitate love or concern for people. But that has not proven true. We find many who tirelessly share the word of God seeking conversion, who show little to no concern for the social, economic, psycho-emotional, plights of the people they share with. To ignore these other areas may be consistent with a passion for souls, but outrageously dissonant with genuine love or concern for people.