Evangelism plane wrecks

Maybe it’s because my childhood was still during the time when the most popular tactic for evangelism was to scare the Hell out of people.  I tend to shy away from messages of doom. Yes, eternal damnation is a reality that Christians must do their best to help keep others from, but whenever I see God’s people attempting to lure sinners into joining their spiritual clubs in this way I have to wonder what they are thinking. For one, it simply doesn’t work well in the current culture. The people who take that route only feed into the feelings of judgmentalism that repels those we’re supposed to be reaching.

There’s another possibly more obvious error. Many will recall the recent attempt by Dr. Harold Camping to scare people into following God by his prediction of Christ’s return that he claimed would happen last fall. By the way . . . it didn’t. Even worse, it wasn’t his first failed prediction. It wasn’t even his second.

I remember a friend from my days working in finance who was worried about a day in September in the mid 90s when Christ would return – a result of the first of Camping’s prophetic boo-boos. I was far from a biblical scholar, but I told her not to worry because Jesus said that even he didn’t know the times and dates. So this Camping guy must think he’s better than Jesus, I suggested. That doesn’t make for a great prophet of God. Besides, I continued, the punishment for claiming to know the future as God’s prophet and it not coming true was heavy in the Old Testament – the kind that makes you dead. While that may not have the same punishment today, it still shows that God takes it seriously. And, practically speaking, why in the world would anybody listen to a guy who speaks with such authority but gets it wrong by so much (see Far Side cartoon above)? He’s not only making himself a laughing-stock, but God takes a hit in the eyes of the world too.

What steers me from overemphasizing this aspect of evangelism is the ministry of Jesus himself. The Messiah certainly does speak of end times and the punishment of Hell, but he is so much more about the blessings of following him. Freedom from sin, life to the fullest extent, the hope of heaven, peace that passes understanding, the Truth that sets us free . . . so much more is about the great life he is calling us to. And this alternative isn’t just for the next life. We can experience it now, as Jesus says in John 10:10:

The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life. (NLT)

Instead of risking the embarrassment of confusing the fuel light from the intercom light and losing the trust of those we’re trying to lead in the right direction, let’s make people want to be Christians because of our love for each other and for them. It worked pretty well for the Apostles, and it will work for us.


9 thoughts on “Evangelism plane wrecks

  1. I think a good rule of thumb when teaching the scripture is to simply work systematically through it. That way, we really don’t have to worry about whether we’re overemphasizing one truth or downplaying another. If we approach the scriptures in a systematic, line by line method, we come across *both* the blessings of following and obeying Christ and the consequences of failing to do so. Yes, Jesus spoke of hell often (more often than heaven), but no, he did not use it as a draw card for his ministry as many mistakenly do today. And, yes, Jesus spoke of blessings following obedience for those who would take his words to heart. We ought to do the same and be careful not to dwell on one truth at the expense of another. Doing so only proves our lack of faith in God’s Word and prideful trust within our own abilities.

    A pastor I knew used to say, “When a person starts preaching, often, all his messages are on the same subject regardless of what passage he chooses.” That’s often true because before we learn how to handle the text in context and expound upon what the writer actually meant, we often just make everything say whatever point it is we think most important…and for many, that point is avoiding hell. Thanks for the post! =)

    • Here’s my theory (a working theory, certainly). Jesus spoke more about hell than about heaven with respect to the afterlife. Most of what he taught was indirectly about heaven. When he talked about the Kingdom of Heaven, for instance, it was about our responsibility to make heaven a reality now as much as possible. My guess is that it’s easier to describe hell in terms people can understand, but the awesomeness of heaven is difficult to translate. So, I believe a healthy Christian community is the best way to tell people about heaven, and that’s what Jesus was doing in everthing he taught.

      The pastor you refer to is a wise man. Expository preaching is the best approach so that we don’t end up preaching the same thing over and over. You nailed it; we need to trust that God knew what he was doing putting the Bible together and that he knows what we need to focus on. A systematic approach is best. Thanks Lori.

  2. This reminds me of my disdain for the pre-Millennial Dispensationalists. As far as I can tell the whole idea that Christians get a Get Out of Jail Free card is both self-serving and not especially biblical– more like wishful thinking. It’s like the movies: people trying to bring on the end of the world are pretty recognizable as the bad guys, and pMD-thinking puts more Christians (especially the Neocons) on that side.

    • Kirk, as always, you speak with far more intelligence than I do. Are you saying that your problem with premillenial dispensationlism is the belief that Christians will be raptured before Satan’s reign of terror, like in the Jerry Jenkins/Tim Lahaye books?

      I’d like to clarify that Jesus’ return isn’t a bad thing by any means. Maybe it’s because the only recognition that end-times spokespeople get is if they have a message of doom. The end will certainly come, but I choose to see it as a good thing. That doesn’t take away from the urgency to let people in on the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

      Thanks for commenting Kirk.

      • Yes, I can’t say I’m any kind of Biblical scholar but my take is that Believers being swept up and away before the excrement hits the air conditioning isn’t a particularly obvious reading of scripture, and it has also led to some scary lacks of global stewardship and wisdom on a national political level.

        In general I find literal readings of the Bible problematic, and fundamentalism in all its forms (christian, moslem, atheist, political, whatever) to be toxic and dangerous, not to mention full of hubris.

        Anyway, I’ll wrap this up before I start blasphemin’ for reals.

      • Actually, one final link.. there’s a Christian blogger I like a lot called “The Slacktivist”. He’s been doing a close reading of Left Behind and its sequels (and the movies) — I think this is an amazing study of the folly of certain kinds of readings of Biblical prophecy:
        It ends on a really interesting note:
        Pick up a reggae album at random. *Any* reggae album. Listen to it and you will find a far more accurate, reliable and theologically sound exegesis of the meaning of Babylon than you will ever get from Tim LaHaye or any other so-called “prophecy expert.”

  3. Very true, good friend. Jesus seemed to brush by the topic of His return with almost casualness. After all, it was a guarantee! But the time He spends on being prepared for His return is much. He seems to be much more concerned with telling us what to do while we wait than ever being concerned with dating. Truthfully, some of His parables indicate a very lengthy wait… so we need to be busy, making the most of the resources He has given us to proclaim His gospel with. Good words, friend… thanks and God bless.

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