While few would disagree that evangelism is central to God’s purpose, most would acknowledge that not all forms of evangelism are equally effective. One recent study, for example, reported on a crusade that produced 600 decisions for Christ. But when a follow-up was done just three months later, the results weren’t nearly as encouraging. How many had continued in the faith? Had any of them begun attending a local church? Had any of them taken any action whatsoever as a result of their conversion? Not one of them had.
An event in Fort Worth recorded a whopping 30,000 decisions for Christ. Of that 30,000, how many continued in the faith? Only 30. In other words, one in 1,000 acknowledged having taken some step beyond their initial conversion experience. In Omaha, Nebraska, an event brought 1,300 decisions for Christ. Three months later, none had continued in the faith. Church Growth Magazine recently boasted of 18,000 decisions for Christ, but even they had to acknowledge that only 6% of those were ever incorporated into a local body of believers.
For those who might suspect that I am merely picking and choosing extreme examples in an effort to make a point, these numbers are actually entirely consistent with evangelism as a whole. The fall away rate reported by evangelicals is between 85% and 97% after the point of conversion.
What happened to these people once they “converted”? We can only be left to assume that they became reabsorbed back into the culture they came from. They may now wear the label of “Christian,” but that label has simply been loosely attached to all of the same old perspectives, values, mindsets and manner of living.
What about the few who do continue in the faith? What of those who are incorporated into a church? There was a recent poll of professed Christians who attend mainline evangelical churches. In this poll, they were asked whether they believed that pornography was morally acceptable: 72% answered affirmatively. If that isn’t bad enough, I’ll share one more with you. Of 6,000 active pastors of mainline Christian churches, how many of them admitted to viewing internet pornography in the last 30 days? 30%. That is 1,800 pastors!
What happened to the gospel? R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently wrote that, “The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a postmodern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture.” He said of this “post-Christian narrative” that “it is animating large portions of the society.” This narrative is “radically different” from anything seen in previous generations: “it offers spirituality, however defined, without binding authority.” He saw the times we are living in “as an important transitional step” towards a world that has turned away from the God of the Bible.
When did this transition take place? What were the conditions that led to this cultural tsunami? When most people hear the word “counterculture,” they think of the counterculture of the 1960’s. It was a time when there were unprecedented shifts from longstanding values and social norms. In fact, the hippie movement and drug culture of the 60’s is often viewed as a rejection of the more traditional values of the prior generation.
But why the 1960s? Children have been rebelling against their parents since the beginning of human history. What was so unique about that particular generation that resulted in such a cataclysmic cultural upheaval? A lot has been written recently by historians and sociologists who claim that what finally erupted in the 1960’s was something that had been boiling and rolling underneath the surface for at least a decade prior, if not longer.
The United States found itself in a unique situation after World War II. Many European countries had been completely decimated along with a number of others who had previously been competitors in the global market. American economists saw an opportunity, through mass production, to become the undisputed market leader. The only problem was that, prior to World War II, excessive spending on oneself was considered morally wrong. The mindset of an entire culture would somehow have to be shifted towards a consumer mindset, and that shift would be the responsibility of a new brand of psychologist.
Pivotal to this shift was an Austrian-born, Freudian-trained psychoanalyst by the name of Ernest Dichter. He and his counterparts were charged by the corporations they represented “to employ a conscious and concerted effort to overcome repressed desires and encourage enjoyment in consumption on a mass scale.” In other words, something that had for generations been seen as a moral virtue was now being defined as “repression.” According to this new way of thinking, puritanical resistance to enjoyment and indulgence threatened the health of the free enterprise system. Dichter’s goal was to somehow demonstrate that the hedonistic life is moral and not immoral. Hardworking, decently paid workers should be taught that it is good and not bad to go into debt to buy consumer goods. So he became the mastermind of what has been referred to as a “corporate philosophy of hedonism,” instilling this hedonistic tendency and perspective in an entire culture of people.
One of Ernest Dichter’s biggest influences was another man who was born in Austria. The double nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, is considered the father of modern advertising. You can hardly encounter an advertisement even today that wasn’t influenced by Bernays and the methods that he developed. He started off in political propaganda as part of a committee that, during the time of World War I, was charged with drumming up American public support for intervention in the war. So it was through various advertising campaigns and sloganeering that this committee he was a part of came up with the slogan: “Make the world safe for democracy.” Almost overnight, as if by magic, large segments of the American population were in favor of U.S. intervention in the war.
Once the war was over, Bernays shifted to a different type of advertising. He begins his book Propaganda (1928) with a quote that will make your spine tingle: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” In other words, in a society that appears to be a democracy, it becomes of utmost importance to find a way to manipulate the opinions and perspectives of those that comprise that democracy. He goes on to make clear that “those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power in this country [i.e., not the ruling power that is elected, but the one that is forming the opinions of those that are doing the electing]….we are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested largely by men we’ve never heard of. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
It was through this form of manipulation that he and those he influenced went on to shape the perspectives of not just the American public but the entire world, bringing to birth a new kind of consumer mindset. A few examples should help to illustrate how effective this was.
Lucky Strike cigarettes had a problem in the 1920’s. They were only tapping in to about 50% of their potential customer base, this was because it was taboo, at that time, for women to smoke cigarettes. This was no problem for Edward Bernays. He merely assembled a group a high society women and positioned them at various points along the 1929 New York City Easter Parade, prompting them simultaneously and on cue to each pull out a cigarette and light it. Of course, he made sure that the press had been alerted beforehand so they would be prepared for this historic moment. The headlines the following day read “Torches of Freedom.” Just like that, half of the American population, feeling suddenly liberated from the repression of not smoking cigarettes, were collectively duped into fulfilling the sales quota of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Indeed, within a very period of short time, there were just as many women as men addicted to cigarettes.
But there was one more small problem. Lucky Strikes were packaged in green paper, and women didn’t seem to care for the color green. Rather than let all of their efforts go to waste by allowing their competitors to benefit from their newly acquired clientele, they again looked to Bernays for a solution. His first question was the most logical, “Why not pick a different color?” But they already had too much invested in the color green. Bernays was up to the challenge. Once again, he turned to his network of high society women, fashion designers and Fifth Avenue clothing retailers. He told them that green was the new rage and that, if they wanted to remain at the forefront of fashion, they had better start featuring more green clothing. Soon, a debutante ball was scheduled called the “Green Ball,” and within a very short time, the streets of New York were filled with green…and, once again, Lucky Strike cigarettes were flying off the shelf.
With the help of men like Ernest Dichter and Edward Bernays, what was once viewed as selfish gluttony was transformed overnight into “economic success,” “innovation” and “prosperity.” This soon became a new form of religion—one that relied upon familiar terminology but was becoming increasingly difficult to conceal behind the crumbling veneer of a once vibrant Christianity. By the 1960’s, the children of this generation came to recognize that, while still clinging loosely to some form of Judeo-Christian morality, their parents had become seduced and were now being moved upon by a strange spiritual force that was altogether different from the one being preached about on Sundays. And so it was that the pursuit of the American dream and the gradual removal of longstanding moral restraints in the form of a hedonistic consumerism ultimately gave birth to a culture of total release in the 1960’s.
Where did the church find itself situated in the midst of all of this? For many, it became merely another commodity competing on the open market. Suddenly there were pastors billing their sermons after common advertising slogans for products such as cigarettes and soft drinks.
“God, the real thing.”
I saw one recently that was simply a photograph of what was supposed to be Jesus from the waist down, was wearing a pair of designer sneakers. At the very bottom was the name and the address of a church, and in large print across the middle it said, “The original hipster.” What kind of message does that send? “If you think you’re too hip for church, we’ve got good news for you! We’ve completely refashioned not just the gospel but our Lord and Savior into the image of modern culture!” If people were in the mood for a bargain, then a bargain they would get.
Soon, even the messages preached had to be catered towards this new hedonistic mindset. I’m reminded of Paul’s admonition to Timothy when he said that “the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires, and they will turn their ears away from the truth” (2 Tim. 4:2-3). But he goes on to encourage Timothy to preach the Word of God with “endurance” and “restraint,” which he identifies as “the work of an evangelist,” the fulfillment of his ministry.
Mass marketing, by definition, is all about the quick sell. But, as the Apostle Paul made clear, in the end, it will be the quality of a man’s work that God will test, not the quantity (1 Cor. 3:13). While marketing-style evangelism does tend to produce conversions that spring up quickly, Jesus said that when the soil is too shallow, the sun will soon scorch and wither the plant because it wasn’t able to sufficiently take root (Matt. 13:6). While there were some who recognized the potential perils of this approach and made a point to distance themselves from it, others felt like the church hadn’t gone far enough in that direction.
George Barna, head of a leading research organization, claims that “the major problem plaguing the church today is its failure to embrace a marketing orientation and what has become a marketing-driven environment.” But how are we to reconcile that with Peter’s warning that there is a day coming when men “with feigned words” will “make merchandise” of God’s people (2 Pet. 2:3)? Are these mass marketing techniques reaching people with the selfless message of the cross? Or are they simply appealing to the very selfishness that stands in direct opposition to the cross? When John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of the kingdom, did he come with enticing words? His message was one of repentance and death to the flesh.
It is doubtful that the pastors and churches who utilize these methods would endorse some of the harmful products that their advertising slogans are based upon. But what about the methods, themselves? Jesus said in Matthew 7 that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Given some of the quotes that I’ve read from the pioneers of mass marketing, could the tree possibly be any more rotten? I was reminded this week of a quote by Marshall McLuhan: “The medium is the message.” In other words, the way something is communicated conveys as much, if not more, than the message itself.
Jesus said in Matthew 28, starting in verse 18, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” While nearly everyone can acknowledge that the preaching of the gospel is central to this commission, as one commentator pointed out, the center of a circle is not the circumference of that circle. The circumference, or boundary, of a circle is what provides the form that situates and provides context to the center of that circle. As Jesus makes clear in that same passage, the context must be one of discipleship. Disciples cannot be made outside of deep and enduring relationships. Without that investment on the part of both the disciple and the one providing that discipleship, it is easy for the lost to simply become an abstraction.
No evangelist in American history has been more influential than Billy Sunday. Known for preaching fiery sermons and energizing huge crowds of tens of thousands, he preached to over a hundred million people in his lifetime, with over a million having made decisions for Christ. He preached approximately 20,000 sermons, with up to 42 sermons a month in his heyday. But even his most sympathetic biographers are forced to acknowledge that, at most, only five percent of those who made decisions for Christ as a result of his ministry actually continued in the faith.
I want to share an excerpt of something that Brother Dan wrote after having done some research on Billy Sunday:
“The long-term fruit in Billy Sunday’s natural family reveals remarkable parallels to the spiritual fruit of his evangelistic techniques. His four children were mostly raised by a hired nanny so that his wife could accompany him on the evangelistic trail and organize his campaigns. His own sons became known for committing the very sins that he preached against practically every night. George, who contracted a venereal disease from his dissolute lifestyle, had to be bailed out of financial ruin by his wealthy father after losing everything in wildly speculative real estate endeavors; Billy Jr. was drinking, dancing, committing adultery, and sometimes landing in jail, all the while playing piano on his father’s evangelistic team.
In his heyday, Billy Sunday would often collect as much money in one day as the average American made in a year. But by the end of his life, almost all of his fortune had been spent paying off the lawyers who sued his sons, helping to support his destitute grandchildren, and paying blackmail to several women to keep his sons’ escapades quiet.
His only daughter died at 43. All three of his sons died violent deaths: George committed suicide by jumping from an apartment window. Billy Jr. was killed in a car crash after a night of partying. Paul died in an airplane crash.
Sunday’s four children contracted nine marriages altogether, but produced only three grandchildren. The three grandchildren, in turn, had five marriages, but produced only one great-grandchild, Marquis Ashley Sunday. Marquis died childless, murdered by his lover in 1982. So it was that by fifty years after his death, Billy Sunday had no living descendants. Again, paralleling the results of his spiritual descendants, it was hardly indicative of the ‘fruit that remains’ that Jesus said His chosen disciples were appointed to bear (John 15:16).”
It is not my intention in sharing that to disparage anyone or to pass judgment. But might God be trying to show us a picture? Think of all the people who attended those crusades and how many hungry hearts there must have been. How many must have come desperately hoping to find answers. Perhaps they had an exhilarating experience, even felt a genuine move of God, and yet the enduring change they were looking for continued to elude them. How many of them must have been disappointed, finally coming to the conclusion that if God wasn’t the answer then they’d just have to look someplace else? That is the real tragedy in all of this. But it may be instructive to contrast the example of Billy Sunday with that of the Apostle Paul. He sought only those effective doors that the Spirit of God opened to him. It is hard to find a single prayer of Paul’s for the lost, and yet he asked the Colossians to “pray for us that God may open a door for our message, that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ” (Col. 4:3).
In Acts 16, the Holy Spirit kept Paul and his companions from preaching in the province of Asia, and then right after that, we see the Lord supernaturally directing Paul through a vision to go to Macedonia. He walked only through those specific doors that God opened for him. He took note when Jesus began His Great Commission by saying, “All authority has been given to me, and so, therefore, go,” and so he subjected his evangelistic call to the leading of God’s Spirit.
We see that also in Luke 4 where Jesus had just proclaimed His evangelistic purpose of preaching the gospel. He immediately turned to those listening and said something that, if heard in a more modern context, could be quite offensive. “Surely, you’ll quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did at Capernaum’” (Luke 4:2-3) Jesus explained that He could only perform the works that the Spirit had sent Him to perform. He said, “I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time. And yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elijah, the prophet, and yet not one of them was cleansed except for Naaman, the Syrian.”
The question He was really asking was, “Is the soil pliable? Is it soft enough? Is it deep enough? Has God opened a door?” Elijah didn’t go knocking on doors and handing out tracts. He didn’t hold a series of revivals for widows in the region, but he went in God’s power to the one that He sent him to. Elijah didn’t post a sign for a miracle healing revival for all the lepers in Israel; rather he healed the one that God sent to him. God looks on every human heart, and only He knows the precise time for the planting, for the watering, and for the harvesting of the seed of His Word.
It isn’t just the planting of the seed that brings God glory. Jesus says, “this is to My Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be My disciples” (John 15:8). So the fulfilling of the Great Commission cannot bring glory to God if we’re not first shown to be His disciples, which only comes through a consistent and ongoing bearing of fruit.
A major denomination performed a study on the results of various methods of evangelistic outreach and showed that “churches who approached evangelism not as a witness of a whole life, which is a witness that treats the other person as a person and not as an object to be manipulated, but rather only rely on an evangelism of selling or marketing or merely passing on verbal information to the lost, had by far the lowest rate of conversions among all ways that were studied.” Even more revealing is that the study showed that three-quarters of all “dropouts,” people who seemed to have been converted but did not continue on in the faith, came from these same methods of marketing style of evangelism. It finally revealed that it is only when the witness of a whole church involves a whole life that sustained growth occurs—not just in quantity, but in quality.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that God would never prompt someone to preach to the masses. It isn’t about the numbers. But as Jesus made explicit in His commission, all authority has been given to Him. So we must ask the question, “Has God opened a door here? Has God made an effective way? Is this where God has sent me to proclaim His message?” Most importantly, “What is the message that He wants me to proclaim?” We see accounts throughout the gospels of Jesus ministering to large numbers of people. We see it in the book of Acts where 3,000 souls were added. But what was the gospel that Peter was preaching when those 3,000 souls were added to the church?
This was a man who just a short time earlier was cowering in fear of the religious leaders who were crucifying Jesus, and yet when he obeyed Jesus’ command to go and tarry in Jerusalem until the power came from on high, that power indeed came. It was so transforming that this same man who shrank back in fear as Jesus was being crucified, turned around under the anointing of God’s Spirit and brought a stinging rebuke to those same leaders, proclaiming that the God of the universe had manifested Himself, had come to this earth and “you crucified Him!” That’s not the kind of message that the flesh wants to hear, and yet the conviction was so strong that 3,000 souls were added to the church. But almost every instance throughout the book of Acts where a great number were added follows right on the heels of a demonstration and expression of the unity of God’s people along with some reference to the need for continuing in the faith.
In His prayer in John 17, Jesus said that people would know He was sent by God, not by the fiery charisma of the preacher or the superior marketing techniques of the evangelist, but by the love and unity that His people had for one another. That was what would ultimately bring them to that place of repentance: when they see not just the center but the entire circle, a body of believers who have been fitly framed together, growing up into the full stature of the measure of Christ through what every joint, every connection between members of that Body supplies. It is then that God’s people will become like that mountain spoken of by Isaiah that all will flock to in the end, that city set upon a hill, the true fulfillment of the Great Commission.