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.
- Heavy use of psychological manipulation
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The environment feels very controlled by a big personality, not by God’s Spirit.
- 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.
- Misleading uses of Scripture
- 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).
- 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.
- Lack of emphasis on the person of Jesus Christ
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- Change in emphasis on the cross to emphasis on judgment
- 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).
- Disconnectedness from actual, modern people
- 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.
- 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?