The title says it. I don’t involve myself in evangelistic events anymore. Years ago I did… and I will go into that. I have a number of reasons to, perhaps not oppose them but, choose not to support them. I will give two.
#1. Historical. I come from Western New York. This area had the term “Burned Out District” associated with it. This term was inspired by a quote from the 19th century revivalist, Charles Finney.
“I found that region of country what, in the western phrase, would be called, a ‘burnt district.’ There had been, a few years previously, a wild excitement passing through that region, which they called a revival of religion, but which turned out to be spurious.” … “It was reported as having been a very extravagant excitement; and resulted in a reaction so extensive and profound, as to leave the impression on many minds that religion was a mere delusion. A great many men seemed to be settled in that conviction. Taking what they had seen as a specimen of a revival of religion, they felt justified in opposing anything looking toward the promoting of a revival.”I am quoting from the Wikipedia article “Burned Out District” that quotes “The Autobiography of Charles G. Finney.”
Western New York transitioned from a place of great Evangelical revival to one of lukewarm faith, and a hotbed of cultic groups. Hardly surprising. When religion is expressed in terms of revivalist fervor… the fervor can eventually die down and people begin to wonder, “Is that all there is?” Because of this, I cringe when a group talks about saturation strategies for evangelism’ or churchplanting. I have grown worried of bigger and bigger evangelistic events. I have known people (including friends) who would attend them over and over to get their spiritual ‘BUZZ.’ Maybe that is okay for some… but I think it may well drive more away than it attracts. I have attended funerals where the preacher turned it into a hard-sell evangelistic message. I feel that the result most commonly was the opposite of what was anticipated.
#2. Personal. For years I was involved in evangelistic events. From 2005 to 2009 I was involved with doing evangelistic medical mission events. These were trips to an area where we would have doctors and nurses provide medical, dental, and surgical care, sometimes other care such as eye glasses, or training seminars, and medicines to the people there. We would also do evangelism as a required part of the care. As an organizer and sponsor of the medical group DPDM for those five years, we treated about 30,000 patients. Additionally, we had around 10,000 people who stated that they prayed to receive Christ during that activity. This sounds pretty awesome. And I don’t really want to denigrate the activity. I like holistic ministries, where one genuinely attempts to integrate care— spiritual care with other types like medical, social, educational, etc. Still I gradually found reasons why I did not want to stay involved in this.
- The Philippines is a country of Reciprocity. Utang ng Loob (debt of gratitude) is important. This is common, frankly, in much of the world. There is a tendency of many to think that since we are providing free care, their payment back is to go along with the group and respond to the prayer invitation. In fact, the response rate is about 33%. However, if one doesn’t count members of the host church or partnering churches (who already probably have done the Sinner’s Prayer before), children who are too young to respond, and members of minority faiths where responding in prayer to any outside group is anathema, the response percentage is MUCH higher… well over 50%. Sometimes, this activity seems more of an exercise of gratitude than an exercise of evangelism. Gratitude is fine… but perhaps it would be better simply to say, “We are Christians committed to love God and our neighbors, and provide this service free of all charge or obligation.” When there seems to be a payment involved (explicit or implicit) we start to look like Gehazi pulling a gift from Naaman after his healing.
- Most places we went, changes were not measurable. There were exceptions, however. Over time, we began to learn what churches we could partner with effectively. Some took the partnership seriously, working with those who had come to the medical mission. Most, however, did not. Six months after a medical mission we would often (but not always) call up the host church and ask how things are going. The answer commonly was “Fine.” Then we would ask about any changes after the medical mission (such as growth of church membership, greater involvement in Bible studies, and so forth). Some would be able to describe positive changes. The more common response was something like, “Everything is about the same. When can you come back to do another medical mission?” Generally, those churches that thought that the event would just organically lead to people showing up at their church on Sunday morning would find that nothing changed. (Actually, I know of one exception. We had done a medical mission at a relocation center for those who had been connected with Communist rebels, but had surrendered to the Philippine government. As a show of “gratitude” for their putting down arms, the Philippine government shoved them into a very inadequate living situation. Anyway, we did a medical mission event on Saturday, and on the next day, the church was bursting with people showing up. Of course my suspicion was that their unique response was due to people showing them God’s love and probably not due to the evangelism. They had not been shown much love.) The goals of local churches should be to disciple followers of Christ, and express God’s love to their neighbor. While proclamation of the Gospel is vital in these,doing so should become a substitute for the two goals.
- Unfortunately, these evangelistic missions can perpetuate the weird theology associated with the Sinner’s Prayer. In the Philippines over 90% consider themselves to be Christian (as in sincere followers of Christ). While there is a high level of nominalism in the Philippines, it is clearly messed up to presume that those who have not prayed the Sinner’s Prayer are not followers of Christ, and that those who have prayed it are. Eventually, as I was keeping track of metrics from the medical mission events. I stopped pretty early describing the number who became saved, and switched it to those who had “prayed to receive Christ.” 10,000 people “prayed to receive Christ,” but we have no idea how many have been saved through our activity. I found that a better metric was to track how many people had said that they were interested in being involved with, or even host, a Bible study.
The following numbers I found to be pretty typical for a medical mission.
Number of total patients: 400
Prayed to receive Christ: 150
Interested in a Bible Study 70
Actually become part of a Bible Study 30 (assuming the church does its job)
If good things happen, it would be out of the 30.
Now, if you read this and you find my reasons unconvincing…. actually that is fine— even Good. I am not trying to talk anyone out of doing evangelistic events. I think they can be good. But I would recommend some reflection and careful planning. A badly planned evangelistic event is not better than not having one. In many cases there are better ideas out there that express God’s love in a way that one’s neighbors can recognize and respond to, and then help them to grow as followers of Christ.