I have been becoming more and more alarmed with much of the methods and attitudes prevalent in modern day evangelism. I greatly appreciate those who labor at evangelism and have a zeal to share the gospel. It is my prayer that God would increase such a zeal in the heart of believers and raise up more evangelists at home and abroad. As a pastor, one of my duties is evangelism (2 Timothy 4:5) and I long to share the gospel with every opportunity that the Lord provides. However, I cannot excuse or utilize some of the current popular tactics espoused in evangelistic meetings and sermons. The following are some problems in much evangelistic presentations today. My hope is that this may aid in helping people to get the gospel right in their presentation of the salvation message as laid out in the Bible.
Always An Altar Call
I think that it was Charles Finney who came up with the idea of the "altar call" or at least he can be said to be the one who popularized it. Today, some would claim that it has not been a revival service or an evangelistic meeting unless the pastor or evangelist gave an "altar call" at the end. I have been asked why I seldom give "altar calls." In fact, the only times that I have was in the earliest of my preaching days when I had not thought the idea through or when asked by the congregation in which I served. I believe that there are several problems with the altar call and therefore normally avoid it.
If one is not careful, by giving an altar call they make it sound as if someone cannot be saved unless they get out of the pew and come forward to kneel at the altar. They would imply a "work" added for one's salvation. It would not be that you are saved by "grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone" but by "grace through faith AND COMING FORWARD TO THE ALTAR." Also, many people can be emotionally manipulated to come forward without any genuine work of God occurring in their heart. Music can move us. Play "Just As I Am" a dozen times and it may move you to tears and convince you that you are experiencing something and must go forward as the preacher said that you should. Finney was a master at this. He would have the lights turned down and do all that he could to convince someone to "come forward" and give their life to Christ. The problem with this method is that it forgets that salvation is a work of God and not man. The preacher cannot "move" someone to be saved. Only God's Spirit can change someone's heart, desires, and attitude. Those who can be described as children of God are those who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:13). Altar calls and a lot of the manipulation that goes along with them are not needed as the power of conversion never lies with man-made tactics but with the Holy Spirit working alongside the Word of God. On the day of Pentecost, Peter did not end with an "altar call." He did not ask anyone in the crowd to come forward. Instead, he concluded his message with the point he was aiming to get at; the Jesus whom they crucified is the Lord (Yahweh based on the reference of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:17-21) and Christ (Messiah) the Old Testament spoke of (Acts 2:36). There were no special hymns sung ten times. The result of this was the Lord at work. The people were cut to the heart (v. 37). In the Greek, the verb for cut or pierce is in what is known as the passive voice. This indicates that the subject of the verb received the action and did not perform the action itself. This means that this piercing of the people's heart was not of their own doing but happened to them. God's Spirit used Peter's message to pierce their heart and call them to repentance. It led them to realize what they had done and cry out, Brothers, what shall we do? Peter doesn't tell them that they need to "come forward and take their place at the altar" but instead Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (v. 38). He did call them to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, as we always should when giving the gospel, but not to "come forward."
In evangelism, we should just proclaim the gospel, pray, and let God take care of the rest. There is a reason why Paul declared that he was not ashamed of the gospel. Because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). Let's be careful not to add a work in what one might communicate with an altar call. Contrary to popular belief, revival and the saving of lost souls can still occur without one. Just look at the revival meetings held by the great evangelists such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley. They never gave altar calls and God used their presentation of the gospel to draw many lost souls to His Son the Savior.
Praying "The Prayer"
Another common method in modern evangelism is to have listeners repeat the "sinner's prayer" after the preacher. Then, usually, the preacher will say something to the effect of: "Now if you prayed that prayer, you can be assured that you are saved and have eternal life. You can mark down today as the day that you received salvation." Many of these preachers don't realize what they are communicating. Look closely at such a statement. "If you prayed this prayer THEN you can be assured that you are saved." According to the statement itself, the assurance of salvation rests, not on the shed blood of Jesus Christ and the sinner's faith in Him, but instead on "the prayer" itself. To be fair, most preachers who use the method of "the prayer" do not intend to communicate this. However, it is easily misunderstood if examined closely. I have talked to people and asked them if they are saved to only have the reply that "yes, I came forward to the altar and prayed 'the prayer.' " Do you see what happened in this case and similar ones? They have based their salvation not on Christ and the cross but on their action of physically responding to the "altar call" and praying "the prayer." This prayer means nothing if God does not change someone's heart. It is merely words. Again, we have to be careful with what we are communicating. I fear that we have too many people who think that they are saved due to "coming forward to the altar" and "saying 'the prayer' " that really are not because they have not been born again in the heart by the Spirit of God. These then become the hardest to witness to because they wrote in their Bible the day that they said "the prayer" and the evangelist promised them eternal life because of it (at least that is the way it was presented, even if unintentionally).
Now am I saying that we should not lead someone in how to pray concerning their salvation? No. I think that there is a big difference instructing someone to "call out to the Lord" for Him to save them (biblical terminology unlike asking Jesus to "come into one's heart" which is never found anywhere in the Bible) and asking them to mimic certain words and phrases verbatim after you. For instance, Paul never asked unbelievers to say a certain prayer for their salvation. Instead, he would say something like the following: The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:30-31). It is not "the prayer" that saves but God Himself by His grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Let's make sure that we are communicating this and not leading one to believe anything else.
Jesus is Knocking . . . But At the Wrong Door!
This is probably one of my favorite of the erroneous methods of evangelism today. I shake my head every time that I hear it. It bothers me the most because it is a complete misapplication of what the Scripture quoted even refers. The passage I am talking about is Revelation 3:20. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me. In many evangelistic sermons or presentations, the evangelist inevitably mentions this passage and then appeals to the listeners to "open up the door of your heart and let Jesus in." The problem here is that Jesus is NOT knocking on the door of an unbeliever's heart waiting for them to let Him in according to this verse in Revelation. He is certainly knocking but He is knocking on a different door. Look closely at the context of the passage. The door in which the Savior knocks is the door of a church! This is part of the letter to the church of Laodicea as indicated by v. 14. Unless this church is nothing but unbelievers, Jesus is knocking on the door to saints who are lukewarm (vv. 15-16). This "knocking" is His plea to them to be zealous and repent (v. 19). It is not an invitation to accept salvation but a call to repentance before judgment may come. Preachers who use this verse in their evangelistic presentations, whether they realize it or not, do great discredit to the Scripture. It ignores the context and completely misses the author's intended meaning.
Furthermore, the idea of "inviting a waiting Jesus into one's heart" is unbiblical. I have yet to find in Scripture such a phrase of someone "inviting Jesus into their heart." Scripture calls for one to repent and believe in Christ but never to "ask Him into their heart." God opened up Lyda's heart to receive the things spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14). She didn't "ask Jesus into her heart" but the Lord opened her heart. I really think that we underestimate the Bible's description of man's depravity and what it means when it describes us as "slaves to sin." The issue is that we are under sin's power willingly until God changes our will with the new heart that He promises to give (Ezekiel 36:26-27). We cannot "let Him into to our heart" because we do not desire to. God must change that desire before we are able to come to Him (John 6:44). (I have written more on the biblical doctrine of "Total Depravity" here: http://energeticexegete.blogspot.com/2010/09/disappearance-of-depravity.html ) I would prefer to use biblical terminology and biblical methods in evangelism.
My desire is to see evangelism done right and for God to sovereignly bring more sinners into His Kingdom. I realize that God has been doing this, even in spite of some of these errors in evangelism. I also will admit that I have been guilty of each of these erroneous evangelistic tactics at some point and time. But as I have studied God's Word more and grown in my faith, I have begun to see where I was wrong in these tactics and began to instead go with how the Bible describes and models proper evangelism. I intend to put together a gospel track to hand out to folks that I encounter along my way or who may be in my congregation and dealing with questions of whether they are saved soon. Perhaps I will share that in this blog when it is completed. Let's work to do evangelism God's way according to His Word for His glory.
Soli Deo Gloria!!!