20th Century Evangelism: When did this approach become popular

During my Bible College days I worked as a Youth Pastor. During my first year the senior pastor retired and I found myself on the committee appointed to call a new pastor. Part of the calling process meant the potential candidates were expected to preach in an evening service. One of those candidates stands out in my mind. After he was introduced he took off his coat, threw it on the floor and for the next 30 minutes thumped the pulpit, screamed at the top of his voice and dangled the congregation over the fires of hell before passionately trying to get someone (anyone) to put their hand in the air and say the sinner’s prayer.

It was one of the most amusing performances I had ever seen, but where did this approach come from? Much of what we think of as evangelism is really a modern invention, much of it flowing from the revivalism of the American frontier that began in the mid 1700s.  Those methods made perfect sense in their context.  People generally knew the gospel; they had been raised in a culture saturated by it.  Their refusal to follow and their indifference to Christian behaviour were the result of rebellion not ignorance.  It is no wonder the “evangelists” of those days would ride in on their horses and preach with high emotion and hot rhetoric! They were scolding recalcitrant children who knew better!

By the mid – 1900s, the situation had changed.  Then it was less the hell-fire-and-brimstone rhetoric that reached the masses, although a sizeable subculture of people had developed for whom this style of preaching became a kind of acquired taste, people who learned to enjoy the idea of flames and torture – as hard as that may be to believe – and who learned to savor this technique of performance – perhaps not unlike the way people today appreciate professional wrestlers. 

By the 1950s, rather than hot rhetoric, more and more of it was cool logic that seemed to win the day.  And again, for a world whose ethos most resembled that of engineers and whose lives had been formed by two world wars, it is no wonder that evangelism took shape in diagrams of bridges and engineer’s steps and laws (like those of physics), and the language of “campaigns” (like military campaigns and “crusades,”) so that apologetics was about amassing logical “ammunition” in the form of irrefutable arguments.  Somehow, this language does not strike me as the sound of good news.  In more recent years, we have moved from warfare imagery to more legal language, reflecting our litigious society, with the vocabulary of “cases” and “evidence” and “verdicts.”  (Brian Mclaren)

So in the process of making our message clear, simple, compelling, and well-packaged (we might even say “canned”), have we squeezed out the wonder or in some way squeezed out the gospel itself?  Perhaps the best way for us to rediscover the gospel, wonder and all, is through the kind of spiritual friendship we see in the church in the first 3 centuries.

For those who are wondering, I learned all that “evangelism stuff” – the steps, the laws, the diagrams, the verses, the arguments, the responses to objections, the “answers” to questions.    I don’t use that stuff anymore because it is and has always been quite intimidating to most people rather than motivating. It definitely fails to reach the heart of a person in the current era we live in.


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4 thoughts on “20th Century Evangelism: When did this approach become popular

  1. Great work Brother Col, in this world of fake news, broken relationships, social must-have media’ and the me-too mentality of the masses, we have lost the simplistic way of Christ messages to the lost and broken-hearted. We so-much need to get back to the early gospel messages, ‘Love God with all of our all – and Love each other as ourselves’ – what on earth has gone wrong?
    Great blog, love it!!!

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