“Where hustle’s the name of the game…” 1
I don’t remember his name, but he represented a well-known Adventist evangelistic ministry, and had some amazing facts to share with our church in Wyoming.
He was also surprisingly candid. When I questioned the purpose of his frequent use of altar calls, he told me, “I use altar calls to show the congregation that I am in control. It forces them to decide. It builds my confidence, and it gives them confidence in my ministry.” His breathtaking honesty was both refreshing and disturbing. It wasn’t clear to me that he appreciated all that he had revealed.
In another small town where we lived for several years, Adventism had a rather mixed reputation. There were fewer than ten members in the church, and most of them were known as kind, generous, and hard-working farmers, and ranchers. One member, however, had taken on the self-appointed burden of community evangelist and watchman. Almost every Sabbath afternoon, he could be found going door-to-door, handing out literature, to ensure that the blood of his neighbors would not be required at his hand (Ezekiel 33:8).
His approach was rather unconventional. He would move toward each door with caution to avoid detection, and once it was opened, he would insert his foot to make sure it couldn’t be closed. If the literature was refused, he would attempt to toss it through the door frame before he left. One more “wicked” family had been warned! He may also have been the inspiration for Neighborhood Watch, for as soon as he was spotted in a neighborhood, the phone lines would come alive with warnings of a different kind.
The world of evangelism has had its fair share of obnoxious folks. In 1926, Sinclair Lewis’s satirical novel, Elmer Gantry, chronicled the exploits of one fictional evangelist, based on real-life examples. It was so critical of American evangelism that it was banned in several cities and denounced from pulpits across the country. It became a best-seller. In the mid-twentieth century, Marjoe Gortner and his family ran a well-documented evangelistic con game. Marjoe began preaching on the sawdust circuit at the age of four, and he estimated that his family had taken in more than three million dollars by the time he was sixteen. Watching some of today’s televangelists, especially those espousing the prosperity gospel, one sees similarities to Elmer Gantry and Marjoe Gortner. Creflo Dollar, a well-known televangelist, asked his followers to each donate $300 so he could raise $65 million to buy a Gulfstream G650 twin-engine jet airplane, not necessarily for his benefit, but so that they would receive a blessing by giving. He got his jet.
This “in-your-face” quality is not rare among evangelists. To make a “sale,” some feel they must apply pressure and exhibit a high degree of confidence in themselves and their product. The faster they talk, the louder their conversation, and apparently, the more outrageous their claims, the more likely it is that they will be successful.
One son and nephew of Adventist evangelists referenced this characteristic when he said that he and his brother also tried to become an evangelistic team. They gave it up, however, when they realized that, to be successful, they would have to become the kind of persons most people don’t want to be around. Oswald Chambers described this characteristic as pseudo-evangelism, and said it requires “that you must be on the watch all the time and lose no opportunity of speaking to people…. It does not produce a disciple of Jesus, but too often, it produces the kind of person who smells of gunpowder and people are afraid of meeting….”
I have found in conversations with classmates and others of my generation that many of us have a rather negative view of evangelism. We feel we were manipulated in our youth by professional evangelists playing on our emotions. I cannot remember how many times, usually after a rousing sermon on the Judgment or Last-day Events, with the heat turned up, the lights turned low, and the piano playing softly in the background, a silky-voiced week of prayer speaker, or itinerant evangelist, challenged us with, “While every head is bowed, and every eye is closed, is there just one more who would like to give their heart to Jesus? Thank you, Jesus! Just one more?”
Every eye was not closed, and over the coming weeks, we would closely watch our colleagues who had yielded, to see how sincere the conversion had been. Such manipulative methods are a type of spiritual and psychological force, based on fear and emotionalism, and “while force may secure outward submission, the result with many…is a more determined rebellion of the heart.” 2 This we frequently observed.
But didn’t Christ call on all His followers to be evangelists? Yes, yes, He did. He was very clear on that point, and I know that many of our professional evangelists have the best of intentions in their actions and methods. They have a sincere desire to save the lost, and many of them approach their work in a very Christlike manner.
So, what did Christ ask of us, and what were His methods that we might imitate?
Here, in my modern paraphrase, is what He asked His disciples to do: “Before the end comes, this good news will be preached in all the world, so go everywhere and teach everyone to obey the command I’ve given you: love one another.” (Matthew 24:14; Matthew 28:19, 20; John 13:34)
Some Adventist evangelists seem to have adopted the methods of commercial salesmen and other evangelical denominations because [those methods] seem to be so successful. But Christ’s method of approaching people with the truth was much less elaborate and aggressive than many we see today. He did not apologetically chase after the aggrieved rich young ruler, but sadly, because He “loved him,” watched him walk away from salvation. After a special request, He secretively met late at night with Nicodemus, who was too embarrassed to be seen with God in public and was too proud to make his decision for Christ until after His crucifixion. He did not try to evangelize the two thieves on the cross, but waited for one to show interest. He then responded with loving acceptance.
He seemed to have more respect for the freedom of choice of His creatures, and more trust in the working of the Holy Spirit, than we apparently have today.
The closest example of an altar call that I can find in His ministry was His call to, “Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, GNT). There was no fearful or emotional appeal. No heated room with low-lit lights. No soft piano or choir in the background, and no pressure to make an immediate decision.
By definition, evangelism must be good news, and by Christ’s command, it must result in love for one another. Fear is not good news. Love cannot be forced, controlled by another, or manipulated. Neither can the Holy Spirit.
Mark Johnson is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at [email protected]
1 Weiss, Larry, Rhinestone Cowboy.
2 White, Ellen G., Child Guidance, p. 210.