The Methods May Change But the Problem Remains

John ArmstrongEvangelism

A commitment to sharing the gospel with others is at the very core of what it means to be an evangelical Christian. I have tried to share the good news with others since I was seven years old. I also teach evangelism formally at the Wheaton College Graduate School, as an adjunct professor of evangelism. I believe we are commanded to declare the gospel to all creation, to every nation, and to seek for culturally appropriate ways to do this work with effectiveness.

In my lifetime I have seen lots of techniques used in evangelism. Some bother me. Very often they just don’t feel quite right, especially given the nature of the gospel message itself and the God that we represent. Some are just outright wrong, so it seems to me, shamefully so and often even unethical. Such seems to be the case, at least to me, with the way some Southern Baptists are doing evangelism in North and South Dakota this summer.

For the second year in a row Baptists are giving away a new Harley-Davidson at the Sturgis, S.D., biker rally in August. In my day we gave away bicycles to children to get them to revival meetings. Now we give away Harley’s to adults. I wonder what next? In some ways the question is not about giving away a valuable prize to attract a crowd, but rather with how the method is actually being used. If you want the bike then you have to register for it and if you register you are required to listen to a three-minute gospel sermon and then fill our the card you are given to enter the drawing.

Jim Hamilton, executive director of the Dakota Baptist Convention, admits that just asking people to come to services, even under a big tent with give aways, no longer works. He adds, "When you have people seeing that bike coming to you, there’s a higher receptivity rate. They’re more receptive to what you have to say." The numbers support Hamilton in this point. Close to half million people come to this year’s biker event in Sturgis. Over 4,500 listened to the Baptist sermon this year and 870 made professions of faith! The year before 744 made decisions out of 2,500 who listened. (The percentage is declining, which makes me wonder what they will do when this method fails in a few more years.)

The Sturgis give-away idea was inspired by Ronnie Hill, a Southern Baptist minister from Fort Worth, Texas, who over the last several years has given away a Harley and $10,000 in cash at NASCAR races in Bristol, Tennessee. Hill also uses a mechanical bull in other settings. Folks can ride it if they will first listen to a three-minute gospel presentation. They can even get a photo made of them riding the bull and go to a Web site to find it.

Hill insists that he tells people that their making a profession of faith will not help them win a drawing. Given the level of religious superstition and foolishness that exists in the minds of a majority of Americans I seriously doubt that most can make this kind of religious distinction. Listen to a little sermon, fill out a card, ask God to bless you, and what have you got to lose?

Hamilton used to go to Sturgis, in years past, to hand out bottled water and take people’s blood pressure for free. He says that this new method was called for since fewer and fewer people were stopping by to talk to the Baptists. One woman, who made a profession last year and defends the methods, added, "I don’t think it matters what you use, as long as you touch people’s heart with God. Whatever tool you can use. . . . if you’re sincere about touching people hearts with God, that is the important thing." Based on passages like 2 Corinthians 4:2  I think you have a hard time supporting this type of argument, as common and popular as it is.

This quote from a person who was brought to a profession through this method sums up the response of a multitude of evangelicals these days. We do not disciple our own children, we do not discipline our own congregations, we do not preach the cross as a call to sacrifice, service and suffering, so what have we got left? Get people’s attention in very dramatic ways that seem to work and then give them three-minutes of the gospel and go for a response of some kind. For the life of me I cannot see Paul or Jesus using anything like this in the New Testament. It sounds a lot more like Tetzel, selling indulgences in the 16th century, than Jesus engaging sinners in human ways that touched their lives and allowed him to speak the good news into their hearts with deep human and divine impact.