Evangelistic progress in the West, and its downside
There’s little doubt that gains have been made in the Western church in terms of evangelism. While the work of evangelism has been roaring ahead in the Global South, we have been carefully seeking to engage our communities.
We are, I hope, doing so respectfully and with increasing fruit. We are creating a context in which objections can be raised and hopefully answered.
The appetite for apologetics in the church has increased. And enquirers are given time rather than exhorted to respond without much information. That’s good.
But, in the midst of our modest gains, there’s a downside. The trend towards apologetics has slowed the evangelistic process so comprehensively that some would be sceptical if a guest were to ask to become a Christian after a single sermon.
Alongside the tremendous success of multi-week evangelistic courses and seeker friendly sermon series in the Western church, we may doubt the possibility of God bringing saving power ‘right now’, as it were! We may also have become unnecessarily nervous of any ‘demonstrations of power’ in the evangelistic arena (cf. 1 Cor 2:4).
Do we still believe that someone’s heart can be ‘strangely warmed’ as they hear the gospel? Can we believe that during a single sermon ‘the Lord opens the heart to believe’? Would we, like Paul, baptise someone after such a short exposure to the Christian message? (see Acts 16:11-15)
We acknowledge that everyone goes through a process of discovery. Jesus Himself spoke about sowing and reaping. This is how the influence of the Kingdom of God expands (Matt 13:1-9, Mark 4:26-29).
But we must never forget that what’s being described is not a natural but a supernatural process.
When things were speeding up for John Wesley; when hundreds were hearing the gospel, experiencing the power of the Spirit and being converted, he was criticised for promoting it. Although he is responding primarily to concern about the power aspects of the meetings, his faith in the suddenness of genuine conversion is refreshing.
His defence, copied into his journal in May 1739, is helpful for us so that, while continuing to carefully instruct inquirers, we avoid the danger of lowering our expectation of God’s power in the gospel. (Rom 1:16)
John Wesley defends the work
Wesley writes, ‘The question between us turns chiefly, if not wholly, on matter of fact. You deny that God does now work these effects, at least that he works with them in this manner.
‘I affirm both, because I have heard these things with my own ears, and have seen them with my eyes.
‘I have seen (as far as a thing of this kind can be seen) very many persons changed in a moment from the spirit of fear, horror, despair, to the spirit of love, joy, and peace; and from sinful desire, till then reigning over them, to a pure desire of doing the will of God.
‘These are matters of fact, whereof I have been, and almost daily am, an eye or an ear witness.
‘…I know several persons in whom this great change was wrought in a dream, or during a strong representation to the eye of their mind, of Christ either on the cross, or in glory.
‘This is the fact,’ Wesley continued, ‘let any judge of it as they please. And that such a change was then wrought, appears (not from their shedding tears only, or falling into fits, or crying out: these are not the fruits, as you seem to suppose, whereby I judge, but) from the whole tenor of their life, till then, many ways wicked; from that time, holy, just and good.
‘I will show you him that was a lion till then, and is now a lamb; him that was a drunkard, and is now exemplarily sober; the whoremonger that was, who now abhors the very ‘garment spotted by the flesh’.
‘These are my living arguments for what I assert, viz. ‘That God does now, as [in the past], give remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost, even to us and to our children; yea, and that always suddenly, as far as I have known, and often in dreams or in the visions of God.’ (John Wesley Journals, Vol 1, Baker edition, p.195-6)
For more on the power of the Holy Spirit read here
© 2009 Lex Loizides