What's Wrong with Modern Evangelism?
Learning from John Wesley and William Carey
"Wyn", he said, "if it's not winning souls I don't want to have anything to do with it."
That sounds so spiritual, and it is a common attitude amongst many people who are zealous for Jesus Christ. But it leaves me asking the question "What is evangelism?".
The statement on evangelism agreed upon at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism (1974) talked about the cross, forgiveness of sins and repentance, but it also included these words: "Our Christian presence in the world is indispensable to evangelism, and so is every kind of dialogue whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand".
Modern evangelism is dominated by individualism which portrays the Gospel as pertaining only to individual salvation. It is almost wholly concerned with getting people to "make a personal decision", to accept Jesus as Saviour. "Getting souls saved" is all-important.
There are two problems with this.
First, the decision to be made is not just about my personal salvation through Jesus, but about his kingship. The question is not just "What's in it for me?", but "What's in it for him?". We cannot accept him as saviour but continue to live as we please.
Secondly, the decision we have to make is to choose to become available to God in his plan for the collective redemption of the community and nation, and ultimately in the "restoration of all things".
The cross and individual salvation are the means to an end, they are not ends in themselves. The end is "the restoration of all things", not just the restoration of individual souls. We are saved individually to play our part in the preparation for "the great and wonderful day of the Lord". Individualism, the scourge of modern society, has hijacked evangelism, reducing it to the level of selling insurance policies.
"God so loved the world", says the Scripture. He loved all of it, not just individuals. In all God's dealings with Israel, the collective national relationship with God was paramount. Of course the nation was made up of individuals, but "all the world was to be blessed" as a result of Israel's national salvation.
The concept of New Zealand as a nation being an example to the world does not hold a place of high priority in modern evangelism. On the contrary, modern evangelism frequently embraces a call to accept Christ and get into the lifeboat - the life-boat being the church, which is equated with the Kingdom of God - because the rest of society is going to hell and will come under the wrath of God.
I read recently that John Wesley did not preach to the thousands expecting immediate decisions. Instead he preached to get their attention. Once he had it, he enlisted people into the small groups which he organised all over the country where they were instructed properly as to what the gospel was all about. Only when they had a sound understanding were they asked to make their decision.
It would be fair to say that most people would regard John Wesley and William Carey as two of the tallest giants amongst Christians of the last two centuries. Wesley was the key figure in Britain in the Great Awakening which revived the church of Jesus Christ during the nineteenth century.
One result of that revival was the inauguration of the modern missionary movement. Carey is credited with being the father of that movement. These two great men had much in common, not the least of which was what appears to be a superhuman drive to take evangelism beyond an individualistic concept of 'saving souls' and mere church building, to the collective reformation of society.
Wesley succeeded dramatically. Carey also succeeded, as we shall see.
This indefatigable man saw the nation as rightly belonging to God, but occupied by the Enemy. He believed that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the church, if the church attacked them with spiritual power.
That meant getting out of the four walls of the building and penetrating like salt into the fabric of society. The church cannot be 'light' until it is 'salt'. Whilst it is confined to the introverted activities inside church buildings and homes, it is a light "hid under a bushel". Wesley had to work outside the local church.
There were dozens of magnificent cathedrals in England in Wesley's time, but none of them spawned the Great Awakening. Wesley was part of that system and would have reformed it if he could, but he was expelled and took his message out to the people, where they lived and worked.
If you ever go to Bristol in England, don't fail to visit Wesley's headquarters in the centre of the town. You'll be impressed, not by their grandeur, but by their unpretentious, humble and diminutive nature. As a result of this movement Wilberforce, Shaftesbury and many others did likewise, performing a transformation of society which affects all of us today.
Wesley himself is known for his outdoor preaching, but that was not his only accomplishment. Hodder and Stoughton published a book in 1938 entitled England Before and After Wesley, which reveals that Wesley's brand of evangelism involved a great deal more than much of our modern evangelism does. We seek to get people to come to us and our meetings, rather than going out to where they are, in secular society.
The revival Wesley was instrumental in promoting was a moral/ethical revolution against corruption in the justice system, in royalty, in the church and in society in general, at a time when things were worse than they are today.
He spent much energy and time in studying temporal problems and writing about their remedies.
He expounded a doctrine concerning employment of wealth and the function of money more exacting and deeply revolutionary in its social implications than any ever advocated by the trade unions. He vehemently attacked the slave trade, and bombarded the liquor traffic.
He attacked the bribery and smuggling endemic at that time. He opposed legal, political and ecclesiastical corruption. He launched attacks against war and all its barbarities.
His caustic strictures on the fashionable and snobbish boarding schools of the day angered the upper class.
He studied electricity, then a modern innovation of science, and wrote a medical book for the poor on simple remedies that could be used when doctors refused treatment because they could not pay.
In other words, the redemption of a nation (buying it back from ownership by Satan), not only involved preaching for conversions and supernatural manifestations, but it also involved meeting the physical and psychological needs of society.
Wesley stimulated individuals to relate their personal redemption to the collective redemption of society. A 'common morality' resulted, one which profoundly affected the whole world.
In this age of pluralism and the autonomy of the individual we have to concede that that common morality now no longer exists, but nor did it exist before the Great Awakening in which Wesley was such a prominent figure. If this common morality was developed in those days, surely we can recover it again.
That will not happen, however, if we maintain the attitude that if we become involved in society around us we are not involved in saving souls.
Today we regard Carey as the father of the modern missionary movement, a role model for mission. Let us appreciate how his missionary evangelistic zeal motivated him to seek collective reformation. What follows is a quotation from a tribute to Carey to mark the bicentenary of his arrival in India, documented by Ruth and Vishal Mangalwadi from L'Abri.
Who Was William Carey?
He was the botanist who discovered 'Carey Herbacea', a variety of Himalayan eucalyptus, and was the founder of the Agri-Horticultural Society in the 1820s, 30 years before the Royal Agricultural Society was established in England.
He did a systematic survey of agriculture in India, championed agricultural reform in Asiatic Researches and exposed the evils of the indigo cultivation system two generations before it collapsed. He did this because he was horrified to see 60% of India had been allowed to become an uncultivated jungle.
Carey was the first to write essays on forestry in India, 50 years before the government made its first attempt towards forest conservation. Believing that God made man responsible for the earth, he both practised and vigorously advocated the cultivation of timber, advising how to plant trees for environmental, agricultural and commercial purposes.
He was the publisher of the first books on science and natural history in India, because he believed that "All thy works praise thee, O Lord". Nature was declared "good" by the creator. It is not "Maya" (Illusion), to be shunned. Carey frequently lectured in science and tried to inject a basic scientific presupposition into the Indian mind, teaching them that even lowly insects were not souls in bondage (as they believed), but creatures worthy of our attention.
Carey is the father of printing technology in India, building the nation's largest press. Most printers had to buy their fonts from his mission press at Serampore. He was the first to make indigenous paper for the publishing industry.
He established the first newspaper ever printed in any oriental language because he believed that above all forms of truth and faith, Christianity seeks free discussion. Carey's English language journal, Friend of India, was the force that gave birth to the Social Reform Movement in India in the first half of the 19th century.
He was the first man to translate and publish great Indian religious classics into English. He transformed Bengali (considered fit only for demons and women) into the foremost literary language of India.
Carey wrote Gospel ballads in Bengali to bring the Hindu love of musical recitations to the service of his Lord. He also wrote the first Sanskrit dictionary for scholars.
He began dozens of schools for Indian children of all castes, girls and boys, and launched the first college in Asia at Serampore, near Calcutta, in order to liberate the Indian mind from the darkness of superstition.
He was a British cobbler who became a Professor of Bengali, Sanskrit and Marathi at Fort William College in Calcutta where the civil servants were trained.
Carey introduced the study of astronomy into the sub-continent because he cared deeply about such destructive cultural ramifications of astrology as: fatalism, superstitious fears, and the Indian inability to organise and manage time. He did not believe that the heavenly bodies were deities that governed our lives, but that they were created to be signs or markers: dividing space into North, South, East and West, and time into days, months, years and seasons. They made it possible for us to devise calendars, to study geography and history, and to be free to rule, instead of being ruled by the stars.
Carey pioneered Lending Libraries in the sub-continent in order to empower the Indian people to embrace ideas that would generate freedom of mind. He wanted to encourage the creation of an indigenous literature in the vernacular. He believed Indians needed to receive knowledge and wisdom from around the world, to catch up with other cultures, and make worldwide information available through lending libraries.
Carey was the first Englishman to introduce the steam engine to India, and to encourage Indian blacksmiths to make indigenous copies of the engine. He introduced the Savings Bank to India, to fight the all-pervasive social evil of usury.
He was the first campaigner of humane treatment of leprosy patients who were often buried or burned alive because of the belief that a violent end purified the body and ensured transmigration into a healthy new existence.
Carey was the first to fight against many social evils such as polygamy, female infanticide, child marriage, widow burning (sati), euthanasia and enforced female illiteracy. While the British rulers accepted these social evils as irreversible and an intrinsic part of India's religious mores, Carey researched and published, and raised up a generation of civil servants who changed the laws.
Carey was the father of the Indian Renaissance of the 19th and 20th Centuries, challenging the grip of asceticism, untouchability, mysticism, the occult, superstition, idolatry, witchcraft. His movement culminated in the birth of Indian nationalism and of India's subsequent independence. His this-worldly spirituality with a strong emphasis on justice and love for fellow men, next to love for God, marked the turning point of Indian culture from a downward trend to an upward swing.
He also happened to be the pioneer of the modern missionary movement of the West, reaching out to all parts of the world. He was the founder of the Protestant church in India, and the translator and publisher of the Bible in forty different Indian languages.
Carey was an evangelist who used every available medium to illuminate every dark facet of Indian life with the light of truth. He is the central character in the story of the modernisation of India.
Some guy, this Carey!
The church in New Zealand is regarded as irrelevant by the majority of our citizens. It will remain so indefinitely in spite of church growth seminars, until like Wesley and Carey, church leaders can see beyond their own church walls, and inspire their members to discover how to be leaders, as believers, in our secular society. Thinking biblically, talking secularly.
For 50 years Wyn was thoroughly immersed in the activities of Baptist churches and other Christian organisations, whilst running a clothing manufacturing business. In 1980 he retired to work full-time for two years as an assistant pastor. No longer ¥tent-making', he was now doing the ¥real thing', as he and many others regarded full-time Christian ministry. But he discovered that the ¥real thing' was what he had left behind. He found that he had made the local church the centre of his spirituality instead of life where it is lived.