Popular Evangelism

M. S. Staveley, Bradford on Avon

Category: Exposition

THERE IS EVIDENCE of increasing interest, in this country, of what might be called 'popular' evangelism. A recent example is the 'March for Jesus', which also formed the subject of a television programme. The appointment of a new archbishop of Canterbury who has been described as 'an evangelical of liberal views' may well give further impetus to this trend, some features of which give cause for concern to anyone seeking to adhere to Scriptural truths and principles.
It should first be said, however, that there is much to be thankful for in these recent developments, for instance when they spring from a conviction that the established churches and denominations have failed to address themselves adequately to people's spiritual needs; and especially where there is a genuine concern for the salvation of souls. There is also evidence of lives being changed for the better through popular evangelism, and again this can only be regarded as a blessing. God is sovereign, and Scripture shows (Balaam's history in Numbers 22 to 24 is an outstanding example) that He can and does use methods which are not altogether of Himself, or to achieve other of His objectives; and believers can only welcome such results however they are obtained. Anyone saved by being brought to repentance and Christ represents a positive gain.
Having said this, however, it seems timely to draw attention to some characteristics of much current evangelical activity which are questionable in the light of the New Testament. First perhaps, in importance is conduct which suggests a lack of reverence in those taking part, one indication of which is the increasing tendency to address the Lord in prayer and in song simply as 'Jesus'; and this is not only a matter of verbal correctness, but one that is essentially related to the individual believer's apprehension and appreciation of our Lord Jesus Christ. On this important matter, W.E. Vine points out, 'It is not recorded that in the days of His flesh any of His disciples either addressed the Lord, or spoke of Him, by His personal Name' (see the entry under 'Lord' in his Expository Dictionary of N.T Words). In line with this comment, it seems that the apostles' and other disciples' mode of address to the Saviour was invariably as 'Lord' or 'Master'. This is confirmed by His own statement in John 13. 13; and Philip's in John 14.8; while those of Stephen in Acts 7. 59, Ananias in Acts 9.10 and 13 and Paul in Acts 22.19 show that the title 'Lord' was used by the disciples after the Lord's resurrection, as well as by the apostles collectively in Luke 22. 38 and Acts 1. 6.
lt must be admitted that the Spirit of God appears, over many years, to have sanctioned the use of the Name 'Jesus' in many much-used and acceptable hymns: but it can not safely be argued that this gives licence to address Him thus in our own individual responses, or even in assembly prayer, in the light of the Scriptural evidence cited above. We are always safe - and it may be suggested, only safe - where address or reference to Divine Persons is concerned, in adhering to the precise terms of Scripture.
Another feature of recent popular evangelism is the use of collective singing accompanied by swaying movements, or even a form of dancing. Our reactions to this may vary with natural temperament, but the important question is whether there is any support for it in Scripture; and it has to be said that neither Paul's references to singing, in Colossians 3. 16 and Ephesians 5. 19, nor James's in James. 5. 13. appear to lend any such support. The impression obtained from Paul's epistles is one of sobriety in the assembly setting. Activity such as that mentioned raises the question whether the influences at work in those participating are entirely spiritual, or whether there is not some involvement of the flesh. This is particularly applicable to so-called 'charismatic' gatherings. In this regard, the instructions in the Old Testament as to the priests (the sons of Aaron's) garments of linen, to be worn in their approach to God, suggests a state of soul from which fleshly excitement is to be excluded, see Ex. 28. 40 to 43; 29. 8 and 9; and Lev. 8. and 13. The
prohibition of natural sentiment, represented by honey in the instructions as to the meal offering in Lev. 2.11. is a somewhat similar thought. As with other features, like that of the use of the name 'Jesus', it is not only the activity itself, but the state of mind and soul which underlines it, which is a cause for concern. some recent evangelical events have had as their declared aim (or one of their aims) the improvement of the world, or at least of Britain. While it is unquestionable that Christianity has been responsible, directly or indirectly, for a great deal of the social improvements that have taken place over the centuries, and especially during the last 150 years in Britain, the New Testament gives no support for the idea that world improvements is an objective of the gospel of God. It is to be feared that a failure to appreciate the true character of the world, and the essential fact that, as Paul says in Galatians 1. 4, Christ died to deliver us out of it, may underline the emphasis in popular evangelism - and, indeed, in much professed Christian thought and speech today - on social improvement. In Acts 15. 14, James, speaking in the power of the Holy Spirit, said, 'God ... did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his Name'; and John's writings abound, more than any other, with statements about the world as a system that is totally opposed to God: see 1 John 5.19, 'the whole world lies in the wicked one'; John 17. 14. 'I' (that is, Jesus) 'have given them' (His disciples) 'thy (God's) word, and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, as I am not of the world'; and Jas. 4. 4, 'know ye not that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore is minded to be the friend of the world is constituted enemy of God' (JND). The world is viewed in these and many other passages as a system of evil incapable of improvement or of appreciating Christ. It is true that the same word (cosmos, Gk) is used to refer to the world as that which God created, including the human beings in it, as in 1 John 3. 16, which speaks of His 'so loving' the world, and these different uses have to be distinguished according to the context: but nowhere in the New Testarnent is there any suggestion that the world as a whole is capable of inprovement. This is not at all inconsistent with the injunction in Titus 3. 8 and other passages, that Christian believers are to be careful to 'maintain (or, 'pay diligent attention to') good works'. Other Scriptures, such as the Lord's words in Matt 5.16, present the object of good works as being to glorify God, and not merely to benefit man. Another matter for concern in regard to popular evangelism is the emotional atmosphere that is often present, which raises a question as to the depth of individual exercises in those who take part. It is all too easy to be swept along on a tide of emotion without having experienced the exercise of soul which is essential if a person's salvation is to be soundly based; and concern on this point is heightened by the often apparent lack of follow-up work with individuals, which is usually left (as with some of the well-known national campaigns) to the various denominations, with no assurance as to the nature of the help or teaching that a new convert will receive. From the earliest days of the dispensation, as recorded in the Book of Acts, salvation has been connected with the assembly, in the sense of Acts 2. 40,47: 'Be saved from this perverse (untoward, AV) generation ... And the Lord added to the church (assembly) such as should be ('those that were to be', JND) saved'. This passage shows clearly that in the mind of God, the assembly is a spiritual place, or sphere, where salvation is to be enjoyed, in the full sense not merely of deliverance and preservation from a world at enmity with God. One may question how much this aspect of salvation and the gospel is present in the thinking, or even the understanding, of many of those engaged in popular evangelism.
The background of conditions in Christendom today also has to be borne in mind. While error as to the truth has permeated the church for many centuries since the day of the apostles, in recent times there has been an increasing rejection or denial of fundamental Christian truths such as the incarnation and resurrection of our Lord, and the toleration of ideas and practices which are both immoral and un-scriptural. Against this background, the recognition of the authority of the Bible and of the Lord Jesus Christ becomes all the more essential and in need of emphasis, and this is by no means apparent in many well-intentioned evangelical activities. In fact, the absence of reference to the Scriptures in most public discussions of moral and spiritual matters today is most marked. The spread of charismatic teaching and practices is another modern development which can only be viewed with great concern by those seeking to maintain 'the faith once delivered to the saints', Jude 3.
Unfortunately these trends seem to be affecting some of those assemblies of the Lord's people which have previously sought to maintain separation from iniquity, along with the truth as understood for many years since its recovery in the last century, with the result that increased 'liberalism' (or, more plainly, looseness) and a weakened recognition of the authority of Scripture, and especially of the Lord Himself as conveyed through Paul (see 1 Cor. 14.37), has led to some or all of the following consequences:-

(1) a lack of separation both from the world and from religious associations not in accordance with the truth;
(2) the questioning of scriptural practices, such as the covering of sisters' heads and their abstaining from public prayer or speaking;
(3) support for ecumenicism, i.e. the merging of Christians and non-Christians, with less emphasis on, or even disregard of, divine principles;
(4) the introduction of worldly methods or accompaniments to gospel endeavour;
(5) a defective presentation of the gospel, with a weakening of, or failure to present, some vital aspects, and undue emphasis on others; and these matters surely call for the sort of exercise and prayerful supplication before the Lord that we find in the histories of Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel, as recorded in the ninth chapter of each of their books, Ezra 9. 5 to 15; Neh. 9. 32 to 38; and Daniel 9. 3 to 19.