Making the Cross of Christ of None Effect

A few years ago I wrote down some thoughts after sitting through several hours of what I’ve chosen to call “Revivalist Evangelism.” It’s the kind of evangelism where you bring in an Evangelist and they parade around the pulpit, declaiming loudly, full of colorful stories and auctioneer diction. The more I sat in the services, the more it bothered me. So I wrote the following. I’ve let it sit a lot longer than you’re supposed to let something sit before the “cooling off period,” so I think it’s about time it saw the light of day.

There are some real problems with Revivalist Evangelism.

  1. Heavy use of psychological manipulation
    1. Loud, rapid-fire delivery makes for agitated people—people more willing to take action (i.e., come forward, make commitments, etc.). It’s very similar to the strategy used by auctioneers: agitate the crowd so they’ll be more emotionally pliable, unstable, etc. They’re more likely to do something unreasoned.
    2. This high-energy, rapid-fire delivery (especially of Bible verses) doesn’t encourage reflection on Truth. It comes across as an authority saying “I know what you are and I have your answer. Just believe me and don’t think about it.” Considered deliberation about the claims of Christ is discouraged in favor of an environment of emotional turmoil where there is very real, very persuasive pressure to submit to the evangelist’s blanket statements.
    3. Emotional bait and switch tactics snare people into doubting their salvation (stories of people burning in a chemical fire turning into frantic yells about you not wanting to go to hell, etc.). Any half-sensitive person would be disturbed, and the less-mature may take their unsettledness as evidence of being lost. There is a reason revivalists have most of their “conversions” among young people.
    4. Commitments—especially public ones—massively encourage consistency. So when an evangelist asks a person to do a small thing like raise his hand, he’s procuring a commitment (witnessed by the evangelist and the hand-raiser’s self image). Then he keeps upping the ante for consistency with the raised hand… now pray a prayer silently, now look at the preacher, now come forward… All are increasing stages of commitment, which even an unconverted person may feel a high level of obligation to perform. And, once the first one (raising the hand) is performed, the rest feel like requirements in order to be consistent. Couple these trip hammers of psychological pressure with the misuse of I John 1:9 (see point 2.2), and you have a recipe for loads of false conversions.
    5. The environment feels very controlled by a big personality, not by God’s Spirit.
    6. Paul indicated that there is a way to deliver the Gospel message that has the effect of emptying the cross of its power (I Cor. 1:17). He connects this emasculation of the Gospel with the rhetorical styles very popular in the Roman world. The revivalist emphasis on presentation and pressure often feels like a modern day equivalent of the Sophists bringing their rhetorical style to bear on converting people. But Paul states explicitly that there’s no point in that because the cross of Christ is, to the perishing, foolishness. Rhetorical tactics won’t change that. To those who are being saved (to the elect), the cross will be the power of God. A high-pressure salesman-like delivery clouds the clarity of the cross and may even nullify the saving effect it would have had. Paul renounced disgraceful and underhanded practices and so should we. At the very least, the rhetorical style of fundamentalism’s favorite evangelists is as potentially manipulative as the more modern forms of worship music which they decry so loudly.
  2. Misleading uses of Scripture
    1. Poor or non-existent use of expositional preaching. This is a big deal, because it’s God’s Word that brings change. The preacher is there to deliver God’s mail, not his own. He must not simply pick up God’s mail, read it, toss it aside and tell the audience what he wants or what he thinks God’s mail said. He must deliver God’s mail to the people. That is the method of preaching and preaching is the method of salvation (Romans 10:13-14).
    2. Proof-texting assurance. The preacher (or worker) quotes to those who’ve “believed” — I John 1:9 says if you call on Jesus to save you from your sin (and “you mean it”), He is obligated to save you. Did you pray? Are you calling God a liar? etc. The worker forces assurance on people when assurance is decidedly the work of the Spirit. It also encourages false assurance (easy believism) instead of telling people to persevere and work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.
  3. Lack of emphasis on the person of Jesus Christ
    1. Christianity is often boiled down to whether or not you’re moral. Your test of whether or not you’ve trusted Christ is whether or not you drink or smoke or skip church. The emphasis falls on the “ianity” rather than “Christ.”
    2. Assurance—if not tied to “if you prayed the prayer, then don’t call God a liar”—is tied to your personal level of morality. Although there is some precedent for this (James, I John), the counter-balancing test of a love for God and His glory is missing. In fact, the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Yet, for the revivalist, loving God is rarely a command listed as an indicator of salvation or even a first step in a new believer’s life. Loving the person, God, is just never the center or sense of the revivalist sermon. Escaping hell is always the emphasis. And it always feels like the evangelist is comparing two documents for errors. Find enough discrepancies between your document and his, and you’re on your way to hell. In the rush to make converts, they’re forgetting to tell potential converts what they’re converting to, only what they’d be escaping from. There’s no call to love God, to love his church, and love our neighbors. That cannot be salvation. Pray a prayer and you won’t go to hell? Who wouldn’t take that? But pray a prayer and you’ll get God himself and his righteousness for your sin, now that’s something that only the genuinely illumined will want.
    3. Christ as a person is often reduced to the sensational effects of His power (especially in the End Times—see 4.1), rather than His words.
  4. Change in emphasis on the cross to emphasis on judgment
    1. Messages usually center around a fiery hell, the Great White Throne Judgment, Armageddon, the Tribulation, etc. rather than centering around the power of the cross to redeem mankind to willingly glorify God. The assumption is that people will only respond to fear, not desire for the glory of God. This flows (probably) from a misunderstanding of the process of conversion being the work of man rather than the sovereign work of God. God is the one who calls. Scaring people half to death does not equal conviction by God. But both God’s conviction and scaring people half to death can have the same outward appearance, especially when combined with an invitation (see 1.4).
  5. Disconnectedness from actual, modern people
    1. The KJV is often the comfortable, traditional, yet—if we’re honest—inaccessible choice of most revivalists. The average church-goer finds the syntax confusing and preachers often have to preach around the text. So the unchurched shouldn’t be expected to have immediate understanding of it. Especially during the rapid-fire, don’t-think-just-be-blown-away delivery of most evangelists (see 1.2.) where every verse is quoted as a 3 second, high-power blast from an archaic language.
    2. The revivalist comes across as very cock-sure and unreasonable. In this culture, careless, un-nuanced dogmatism screams ARROGANCE. If we’re to give the answer for the hope that lies within us “with gentleness and respect” then the evangelist must help people understand that exclusivist comments are coming from someone who understands where they live; someone who knows that exclusivism sounds weird in our culture. If he’s calling the way his listeners live “stupid” or “foolish”, then he is in violation of I Peter 3:15 and any thinking listener will legitimately turn him off. The evangelist is not better than the unsaved people in his audience, and he shouldn’t come across as someone who is following Christianity because he’s a better person (better in a humble way, of course!). He should make it plain that he’s following Christ because Christ showed him mercy. The person in the audience may be more moral than the evangelist, but the only one in the room who has any goodness to point to is Christ. That’s going to have a different flavor than non-sequiturs, shouting, and finger-pointing from the pulpit.

Really, almost all of these points flow from a basic misunderstanding of the nature of salvation. If a preacher believes, like Finney, that it is his job to unsettle people, to manipulate, to even trick someone into praying a sincere prayer (and therefore God is “obligated” to save him), then the whole bag of psychological tricks is at his disposal. But a preacher’s job in the pulpit is to herald God’s truth. (And “herald” should not be confused with “yell”.) If a preacher believes it is his job to herald the truth of God as revealed in the Word of God—renouncing disgraceful and underhanded practices (2 Cor. 4:2)—and it is the Spirit’s job to give life, then his approach will be characterized by brokenness and a dependence on God to animate His Word. He will be there to deliver God’s mail, not his own estimation of what would produce the same effect as what he thinks God’s mail wants. It’s wildly different to preach an exegetical sermon than it is to steamroll psychological homilies.

Let me say in closing that I don’t want to attack these men personally. I myself came under intense conviction (which I do know was from the Holy Spirit) during a sermon one of these men gave. I have no doubt that God uses them. I have no idea of their hearts or their intentions or even how much they’ve thought through their own rhetorical style. But if the fundamentalist argument against Billy Graham was always that it didn’t matter if God was using him or if he was sincere, it was his unbiblical practices which had to be called out, then surely that’s the case here. If an evangelist’s sermons constantly keep thoughtful engagement with the words of God at arms length, substituting instead theatrics, psychological tricks, and sheer domination of personality, then ought we not to call that out? Does that not violate 1 Cor. 1:17 and 2 Cor. 4:2? Does it not make the cross of Christ of none effect?

8 Thoughts.

  1. I found your web-site researching for my sermon this coming weekend, and wanted to watch the video “the privileged planet – bonus features”. It allowed me to watch till it got to Einsteen and then it cut off. Is the link broke? I even went to youtube to find – and nothing on the “bonus feature”. Any ideas how to see the rest of the vidoe? Thx for posting!

  2. @Nolan,

    I just tested the video link and it’s working for me.

    @Dave,

    Ha! Agreed, just so long as it’s neighbors and not roommates again. 😉

  3. I wouldn’t phrase it so Calvinistically, but yeah, i share most of these concerns.

    Additionally i believe, these kind of revivalists, don’t tend to bring new people into the fold. It’s hard to imagine any unchurched visitors being anything but repelled.
    Instead these revivalists induce the “wheat” and the”tares” alike to question their salvation. Granted some people should question their salvation, but emotion and unbiblical soteriology shouldn’t be the tool.
    So the same people are “getting saved” over and over, when the big preacher blows into town, and then leaves with seldom any effort into follow-up, discipleship etc.

    Sure, God can and does use all kinds of faulty methods and imperfect people, but that’s no excuse to do things un-scripturally, or unwisely.

  4. @John

    Yeah, I’d thought about extracting the Calvinistic part of the argument I’d written earlier, but at the end of the day it’s what I believe and so I do think it’s a valid argument.

    Funny. This is like old times except that the dynamics have shifted a little. I remember having an argument with Dave in your car about how Calvinism couldn’t be true. You and I were arguing against Dave’s Calvinism. Now I’m Calvinist, too. 🙂

    You should go back to the post just before this (“Irresistible Grace?”) to get some of my rationale on why I subscribe to Calvinism. If you want. I do highly respect your opinion. I’ve been on the opposing end of your accurate assessments enough times to know not to tangle with you lightly. 😉

  5. Good work, Jeff. You didn’t just complain; you thought through what statements of Scripture applied to the various errors you spotted. To me, you didn’t sound bitter or disaffected, just concerned for the truth. I share your concern completely. And you weren’t quick to speak. You let this sit.

    Your Billy Graham point was also insightful.

    A question for you: given that Christian camps and youth rallies are likely to continue, how can a preacher who cares to avoid these errors and preach like Paul successfully extricate himself from the problems of the revivalistic tradition? What will a “good” camp sermon sound like?

    I exposited Romans 1:18-23 in my last evangelistic message to a youth rally (last Saturday), but naturally that exposition was a little less meaty than Pastor Minnick’s sermon on the same text in a church service. The text was displayed by a projector the whole time, and I explained it, but I didn’t dig super deep.

  6. It’s tough to analyze exactly how to preach to huge groups of church youth. Because I think you’re dealing with people who’ve been raised in strict fundamentalism all the way to people who would almost go to a church bong outing. Seriously. And anymore, I think Lloyd-Jones is right when he said “the devil’s in too deep.” Meaning that you have to lay in ground work with this generation before you can even bring up Scripture. Tim Keller’s picked up that theme and that’s how he handles his apologetics. He does a Francis Schaeffer where he takes his listeners’ worldview, goes inside it, and explodes it from the inside. Then he presents a more coherent worldview from the Scripture.

    That’s exactly the program that Paul followed on Mars Hill. He started with the Greek playwrights and Greek philosophy, showed how they both recognized truth and were on key points completely incompatible. And then he moved to the reconciliation of all their philosophies by introducing Jesus. What that would actually look like in a sermon, I’m not sure. And it may also depend on whether you’re preaching one sermon or whether you’ve got a week of sermons with the same kids. But I do think you have to begin by establishing that you understand the worldview around you. You understand the culture the kids breathe in every day. And DON’T show them you understand it by taking their raunchiest songs and declaiming about how wicked pop culture is. They know that. What they need to see is how pop culture IS trying to answer some of life’s basic questions and yet it’s coming up short. Honor truth where you find it, and always point to its Source.

    Given that I’ve never had to preach to a crowd of teens, I leave it to evangelists to rebuke my naiveté and suggest a better course of action. But from looking at Paul’s argument before people who shared few beliefs with him, that seems to be the tack he takes. Tim Keller’s work on showing how both hedonism and religion are forms of rejecting God (see The Prodigal God) is a good model. He’s basically taking a general societal mistrust of buttoned-up religion and showing how they’re on to something, but yet hedonism isn’t the answer, either. It might be over most teens’ heads, but there may be a good way to simplify it. I think that general approach, though… finding ways in which your audience is honing in on a truth (yet going the wrong direction with it) is a very effective opener for truth.

  7. Interestingly, I sort of did what you were describing in my most recent evangelistic sermon to West Greenville teens. I brought up the best-selling all hip-hop album ever (as best I could tell), Biggie Smalls’ “Life After Death.” I didn’t describe the B.I.G.’s life, just his death—and I noted that his first album was “Ready to Die.” I’m afraid my connection to the subject matter (Matthew 7’s two foundations) was a probably a bit facile… I just pointed out that the album titles were interesting and asked the kids if they believed there was life after death and if they were ready to die. I was really struggling to connect!

    I’m still working out my theories of how to reach them wisely and faithfully. Acts 17 is a key passage that I’ll need to give yet more attention to.

    Method matters, and it’s important to me, but in the case of these kids I hope I can say that my and my church’s love for them over the course of many years overrules some failures of method. I’ve known a lot of those kids for a long time, and many others at our church have, too.

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