Redefined evangelism favors gentler approach of nonbelievers

Each year, evangelical Christians crash a huge Halloween party in Salem, Mass., a bash attended by thousands of self-proclaimed mediums, psychics and witches. The Christians carry signs with slogans like: “Repent, Spawn of Satan.”

The Christians are not popular. No one seeks them out.

Pastor Phil Wyman, on the other hand, always draws a crowd.

People wait in line for his “Psalm” readings. Instead of palm readings, he and church volunteers hand out verses from Psalms.

There’s no preaching. No guilt. No fire and brimstone. There is free hot chocolate.

Mr. Wyman, pastor of The Gathering, a Foursquare Gospel church in Salem is a former anti-cult crusader. He believes the only way to heaven is through Jesus. Pagans, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and all other nonbelievers in Jesus’ saving message are bound for hell, as far as he’s concerned. He would like to save each and every one of them.

Mr. Wyman, however, is one of a growing group of evangelicals who say that in many cases, the old methods of proselytizing aren’t working. These ministers are shaping a new model for evangelism, one that emphasizes dialogue over debate, intention over manipulation, and connection as the best way to conversion.

They say their kinder, gentler approach holds useful lessons for even the most conservative, Bible-thumping, hell-preaching Christians.

Stereotypical images

“The term evangelism conjures up images of sales pitches, manipulation, arguments – all the things we don’t want people to do to us,” said Jim Henderson, a former self-professed faith healer in Seattle who organizes conferences to train evangelicals. “When you answer the phone at 6 p.m., and it’s a telemarketer, the discomfort you feel is the same feeling most people get when they have to witness or when they’re witnessed to.”

Mr. Henderson is co-founder of Off the Map, a ministry established to help Christians connect with nonbelievers (or, as they’re described on Off the Map’s Web site, “the people formerly known as lost”). He advises evangelicals to focus not on closing the sale for God, but on the needs of the unconverted.

“There is something hopeful about knowing that God likes you, that God cares about you,” he said. “That’s the message we are called to preach. And we do it by having coffee with people, asking them how they’re doing, focusing our attention on them.”

On his Web site, Mr. Henderson posts video clips of interviews with non-Christians who have been approached by proselytizing born-again Christians. Hypocrisy, hubris and insensitivity are frequent themes as the “lost” people describe these encounters.

That reputation precedes many evangelicals, and thwarts their efforts to spread the Gospel, said Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 43,000 congregations spread over 51 denominations.

“For many people, the stereotypical image of an evangelical is a very serious old man with an expensive suit who is against whatever is happening that day,” said Mr. Haggard, founder of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“Evangelicals are in a period of transition,” he said. “We’re moving from being defined by what we’re against to being defined by what we’re for.”

He said he’s trying to gain respect for evangelicals nationwide by focusing on essentials like salvation, Jesus and the Bible instead of divisive side issues, and by trying to love people into heaven rather than scaring the hell out of them.

“We support civil liberties, personal freedom, women’s rights, the dignity of the individual, representative government and other ideas that came out of Christian theology 400 years ago. Now we have to articulate those values again.”

He cites Billy Graham as a role model.

“My dad was a liberal Presbyterian who served the church all his life but never heard the Gospel message until he heard Billy Graham on the television,” said Mr. Haggard.

“If Billy Graham had started by talking about the evils of liberalism in the Presbyterian church, my dad never would have heard the Gospel. But instead, Billy Graham explained how wonderful it is to be born again.”

Old-fashioned salvation

Not everybody is willing to give up a more direct approach. At Dallas’ First Baptist Church, teams of “soul-winners” go out every week to knock on doors and present their plan of salvation. They do it the old-fashioned way.

Ron Cresswell, who oversees evangelism efforts at First Baptist, said the church is not opposed to what might be considered softer methods, so long as the objective – winning souls – remains clear.

“Since Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, people have come up with new ways to preach the Gospel. The methods may change, but the message must remain the same,” he said.

“The fundamental truth is there is no other name by which men can be saved.”

Mr. Wyman agrees. He wants to attract, not alienate the Pagans at Salem, he said. Wiccans and others intrigued by witchcraft are exceptionally open to spirituality, Mr. Wyman said. “Much of what they do comes from the [notion of] … God within. A person who works in a witchcraft shop might be there because they have a strong desire to heal, not because they’re wicked sinners.”

Different approaches

Members of Vineyard Community Church in Lynnwood, Wash., cook Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for residents of low-income apartment complexes. Because the complexes get government funding, the evangelical church members can’t disclose their religious affiliation, or proselytize overtly.

That’s fine with the pastor, the Rev. Rose Swetman. “Feeding the poor is preaching the Gospel,” she said.

Pollster George Barna, founder and president of Barna Research Group of Ventura, Calif., said that his research has found that evangelism based on relationships is more effective than proclamation evangelism.

“We get to a position where we can ask them what they think, rather than telling them what they should think, and then asking why,” said Mr. Barna, author of Evangelism That Works. “We’re not telling them, ‘You’re wrong. That’s different than the Bible, therefore, you’re a loser.’ ”

Traditionalists worry that stressing relationships over content, works over words, distorts the call to preach the Gospel.

“There is a trend to downplay the statements of truth presented in the Bible – things like Christ is the only way and God is just and we are inherently unjust,” said Douglas Groothuis, a theologian at Denver Seminary, an evangelical school.

Without that doctrinal content, evangelism is meaningless, he said.

Mr. Cresswell of First Baptist in Dallas agreed. “I just have a hard time seeing how you can take Christ out of salvation,” he said.

The adult faith program that he oversees at First Baptist is almost a model of traditional evangelism. Participants attend classes and apply what they learn by going door-to-door. They begin conversations with those they seek to convert by asking: What does it take to go to heaven?

The program brings in as many as 12 new converts during each three-month session, Mr. Cresswell said.

But some traditional approaches meet with less success. Lisa Mason, a homemaker in Coupland, Texas, near Austin, said she’s turned down repeated invitations from an acquaintance who wants her to attend church functions.

“I told her that I experienced spirituality through nature or caring for animals,” she said. “But it was as though she had no framework to understand what I was saying to her.

“She just kept inviting me. I felt like she had no respect for my perspective.”

The responsibility of evangelizing successfully weighs heavy on Mr. Wyman. “I’m aware that should I fail, I fail for all Christianity, and the results could be very long-lasting,” he said.

To avoid alienating even one non-Christian, Mr. Henderson advocates what he calls “ordinary attempts,” or opportunities for Christians to share their faith without shouting it.

His Web site, for example, suggests that believers buy McDonald’s gift certificates, write “God bought your hamburger” on the back of each and have servers pass them out with lunch orders.

Defining success

Stanley Grenz, a Baptist theologian and professor at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, said even fundamentalists should embrace the new evangelism because it’s more in keeping with biblical teachings, not because it’s a new technique for success.

“It represents a deepening of the theological understanding of what it means to be an evangelical people,” he said. “It means people are so keen to follow Jesus that it permeates all their relationships and that God comes to be glorified in all their relationships.”

A measure of the method’s success, he and others said, is whether evangelism helps the believer and the nonbeliever become better human beings.

Mr. Wyman acknowledged that his church’s stabs at evangelism might seem odd to some.

“We do things that churches of thousands can’t get done,” he said. “And I see far more sensitivity to weird people, which, when you come to think about it, is really all of us.”

Donna M. Johnson is an Austin free-lance writer.
Staff Writer Berta Delgado and Religion News Service contributed to this report

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The Dallas Morning News
Sep. 13, 2003
Donna M. Johnson, Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday September 13, 2003.
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