Friday, June 23, 2006

Stuck In The 1950's

In some ways, the evangelical church is stuck in the 1950’s when it comes to evangelism.

The late 1940’s and early 1950’s saw the establishment of a number of significant evangelical Christian ministries. It was at that time that Billy Graham began to see people coming to faith in unprecedented numbers. It was then that Bill Bright founded Campus Crusade for Christ which has now become the largest sending Protestant missionary organization in the world. Bible camps, radio ministries, and a host of other very prominent organizations began at that time and experienced tremendous growth and success in their outreach efforts.

Why were the efforts of these ministries so successful when they began? And, why has that success not continued to today?

They were successful, in part, because society in the 1950’s was well prepared for hearing the clear, Biblical messages that these ministries presented. America had just come out of World War II. Most Americans had experienced a relative or close friend who had died in the war and were mindful of the fact that life on this earth is short and fragile. People were very much aware of their mortality and knew their need for God.

People of that generation had also generally attended church, so they were familiar with the terms of Christianity. When someone said God loved them and had a wonderful plan for their lives, they understood that God was good in His nature, and His plan would be something desirable.

Today, people are all wrapped up in the moment, and think that life is composed of “things.” Death comes to “old people,” and usually occurs behind closed doors in a hospital or nursing home. They tend to think that they are immortal, and don’t see their need for God.

They are also unfamiliar with the terms of Christianity. Allah is “God,” and he commands command his followers to blow themselves up in suicide bombings, along with as many innocent civilians as possible. For many, God is really “The Force,” with a dark side as well as a light side. We need to be careful not to get caught up with the “Dark side of The Force.”

In order to effectively engage and impact the culture of today, we need to understand that people are in a different place from where they were five decades ago. Before we tell them that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives, we have to convince them of their mortality, and show them who God really is.


Bryce said...

Mr. Sarris,

I somehow found your blog and immediately recognized you from the San Antonio Film Festival. We had talked while walking back to the convention center from lunch. We also met briefly backstage on the last night.

I have enjoyed reading your posts, and will be back to visit.


Nomad said...

This is always a question I had about missionaries to other cultures. How much of Evangelism is teaching (i.e. bringing people to understand basic concepts of Christianity, before bringing them to Christ) and how much is meeting them where they are (i.e. salvation first, education second). Both models seem to be on display in scripture. You have Paul who taught in the synagogues and generally seems to have educated first. And you have Peter and Apollos who appear to have preached to large gatherings which produced new converts, who received education later on.

And then, of course, you have Christ who met people where they were AND taught, and seemed to seamlessly flow from one to the other, not always looking to save. Sometimes merely looking to educate or condemn.

Which is the proper model for a Post-Modern world?

Will (and Amy) said...

Probably the Christ centered model! He talked to those who were receptive about salvation first. To those who weren't, he was pretty harsh, and was more about education.

Post modernly, we have people that have no basis for even believing in absolutes, so we have to get to a certain level of education before they will accept the presuppositions underlying the Christian faith.

However, one of the biggest witnesses to the post modern world is the change in lives that comes, so that certainly isn't something that should be forgotten.

So I guess I would say it depends on the audience, and on the opportunities presented. Do you have the position to speak, or can you only live your life as Christ would and hope the person notices? Sometimes, you have both, sometimes only the latter.

Nomad said...

Of course, I would wonder whether even a belief in absolutes is required. Christ worked on some philosophically (Nicodemus) and many others relationally (the woman at the well).

Still, one must identify where one is bending to meet someone halfway, and where one is bending the Gospel. The latter is bad, the former can be good.

Will (and Amy) said...

Well, that's the point. You have to guage where the person is and what they need to hear. The goal is the important thing. The goal is to save, but to TRULY save. You never bend the message. But you do need to tailor it in a way that the person will listen.

Nomad said...

George e-mailed me a response:

In response to your note, I would say that the key principle in any truly effective communication is: Know Your Audience! - who are you speaking to? I think Jesus, John the Baptist and the Apostles were masters of this as they ministered.

When John spoke to the crowds who came to him for baptism, he spoke in such a way that the common people were touched to the point that they confessed their sins and were baptised.

Interestingly, several years ago, I had an opportunity to speak with a Hasidic Jew about his faith. I asked him to tell me what I would need to do in order to become a Hasidic Jew if that were something I wanted to pursue. He explained that I would need to live with a Hasidic family for some time so they could observe my life to make sure I was sincere and serious. Then, if they concluded that I was a worthy candidate, I would need to be baptised. I was shocked to hear that. In order for a "pagan" to become a Jew, he would have to be baptised! And, then, I began to realize the significance of John's baptism. He was basically saying to the people, "You have been living your lives in such an ungodly way that you need to be treated like pagans! Therefore, turn from your sins, and be baptised just like the pagans need to do to become Jews!"

When John saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptising, he spoke to them very straightforwardly, calling them a brood of vipers, and telling them to produce fruit in keeping with repentance - ie. don't just say you repent and be baptised, make sure you really do change your hypocritical lives!

Jesus, too, understood his audience. When speaking to the woman at the well, He is pointed, but very compassionate. When speaking to the Pharisees, He is pointed and almost harsh - "Woe to you, hypocrites . . . blind guides, etc."

When Jesus or the Apostles spoke to Jews, they knew that their audience had been prepared to understand the message. They knew the Scriptural teaching about the nature of sin, the nature of God and the nature of salvation. They understood the need for an innocent life to be given in order for the sins of a guilty life to be covered over. Thus, when John says, "Behold, the Lamb of God," his audience understood that he was not saying, "Hey, here comes a fuzzy, dumb, fearful wimp!" Rather, they understood that Jesus was the innocent One who had come to be the substitute offering for their sins. As the Apostles spread their message to Jews, they were building on the knowledge that they already had from being part of the Jewish culture.

When Paul speaks to the Gentile philosophers on Mars Hill, he takes a totally different approach. He doesn't quote Scripture, because they didn't see Scripture as authoritative for them. He actually quotes from their writers and culture as he addresses them, and relates his message to his audience.

The US was in a place similar to the Jews of Jesus' and the Apostles' time in the 1950's - people had an understanding of the terms of Christianity, and simply needed the dots to be put together. Today, we are more like the Gentiles that Paul spoke to on Mars Hill. In order for us to be effective in our witness, we need to understand what our audience knows and doesn't know, and tailor our messages to them.

I'm always amazed when I hear preachers giving salvation messages week after week to their congregations when 99% of their audiences are Christians or have heard the same basic message many, many times. Then, they go out into the marketplace for an outreach to non-believers and, basically, hold a church service with hymns and preaching, and communicate in such a way that often is totally unaware of who they are really speaking to.

If we are to be effective communicators, we need to know our audience, and adapt our messages accordingly.

Nomad said...

FYI, we linked to you from Mod-Blog today.

shadowmom1 said...

I came over from Mod-Blog