An exemplary exploration of evangelism

Evangelicals today are rather embarrassed about doing evangelism. In part this is due to our wanting to distance ourselves from the reality of immoral approaches to evangelism practiced by the church, both present and past. But, as John Fletcher points out in the conclusion to his book, perhaps there is a more telling and current reason for our embarrassment about evangelism. Perhaps we have accommodated to the mindset of contemporary liberal pluralism, and thus are enamored with being “pleasingly tolerant” and “faithful-but-non-fanatic.” “Indeed, so great is the desire to ‘leave everybody else alone,’ so painful the self-inflicted wounds of awkward/offensive/presumptive evangelism, that most self-identified evangelicals rarely evangelize at all, at least not with any frequency.” And yet, as Fletcher reminds us, evangelicals should engage in outreach. That is part of what it means to be an evangelical, as he points out in an early chapter which provides a helpful analysis of what it means to be an evangelical. Indeed, Fletcher frequently expresses his admiration for evangelical evangelism, even though he is an outsider.

This raises the question as to why a professor of Theatre at Louisiana State University, and “a liberal, gay, ex-Southern Baptist, United Methodist,” would write a careful analysis of evangelical approaches to evangelism. Fletcher interprets evangelism as a kind of theatrical performance, an “activist performance,” or a “theater for social change.” I found the treatment of evangelism from this perspective to be not only refreshing but also illuminating, highlighting aspects of evangelism that are easily missed by those immersed in the evangelical mindset. 

Fletcher also dares to suggest that progressive left activists have something to learn from evangelicals and their approaches to evangelism. “Evangelicalism’s conversionist orientation – imperfectly realized as it may be – offers a reminder that democratically-minded activism must always include an element of attraction and empathy with the enemy.” Fletcher concludes Chapter 2 with this generous comment: “In a time of cynicism and diminished hopes, in a time of partisan polarization, in a time of desperation and apathy, I am envious of evangelicals’ faith in activism.” 

The bulk of Preaching to Convert is devoted to a careful analysis of various and ever-evolving approaches to evangelism as practiced by evangelicals. Chapter 3 examines personal evangelism as proclamation – the “soul-winning” tradition of door-to-door evangelism, the “Four Spiritual Laws” approach introduced by Bill Bright and the Campus Crusade for Christ, and dialogic evangelism promoted by Ray Comfort.  

In Chapter 4, Fletcher examines a number of evangelicals who have become critical of interpersonal evangelism that limits itself to proclamation. Indeed, multiple congregations across the United States have taken up the “Confessions of a Sinful Church” strategy, where they publicly apologize for “ugly evangelism.” Other evangelicals advocate approaches that involve friendship, careful listening, countering anti-Christian presuppositions and apologetics. 

In the third section of the book Fletcher studies two large-scale, more traditionally “theatrical” evangelical performance forms. Chapter 5 focuses on the community/church-based staging of “hell houses” and judgement houses,” as ways of reaching the unconverted. Chapter 6 examines the Creation Museum, a multi-million-dollar combination of science museum and discovery-fun-center based around a strictly young-earth creationist viewpoint. Often considered to be exemplars of evangelical backwardness and anti-intellectualism, Fletcher suggests they are best understood as community-based productions that serve to reinforce the beliefs of the producing communities, even as they try to reach the unconverted.
Chapter 7 examines the way in which mega-churches have used seeker-sensitive worship services to attract new members. The chapter begins with an intriguing question raised by a video produced by Richard Reising:  “What if Starbucks Marketed like the Church? A Parable.” Chapter 8 is somewhat of an odd fit for this book, a point that Fletcher concedes to some extent. The focus of this chapter is on organizations like Exodus International, which are dedicated to helping LGBT people find healing. Here the emphasis is not on changing someone else, but on individual conversion. In this chapter Fletcher analyzes the controversies surrounding the effectiveness of gay cures, and the resulting spectrum of positions on LGBT people within evangelicalism.

I found Fletcher’s survey of each of these evangelical performances to be thorough and often insightful. He uncovers the assumptions underlying each approach, and does some good comparative analysis. Indeed, his careful treatment belies his status as an outsider. This is in part due to his background as “a preacher’s kid in the Southern Baptist Church” and his knowing “from firsthand experience what it is to evangelize.” But this is clearly a work of scholarship, not an autobiography. Though he engages in criticism, I found his criticisms on the whole fair, and very much in keeping with his aim of “critical generosity.”  At times he even defends evangelicals and evangelistic methods against unfair criticisms.  
I would highly recommend this book for anyone wanting a good overview of evangelical practices of outreach. Though scholarly, the book is very readable.

  • Elmer Thiessen is a semi-retired philosopher who lives in Waterloo, Ont. His most recent book: The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion. Paternoster and IVP Academic, 2011.

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