Suppose you are a single 20-something. Your friends tell you about a woman named Jesse, whom they think would be a great match for you. They go on and on about all her good points. They tell you that she’s smart, beautiful, conversational, honest, comes from a good family, is low maintenance yet seeks excellence in all she does.
After a solid 5 minutes or more of this, they finally ask the big question, “So, are you willing to marry her?”
Putting yourself in this situation, how would you answer these enthusiastic messengers?
If you are normal, there is no way in the world that you are going to agree to marry some woman based on a few minutes discussion with a couple of friends.
Why then do we have this expectation of non-Christians when we share a gospel presentation with them? If we would not even marry someone in such a short time, why do we imagine that after a few minutes someone would commit their entire life to Jesus as King with all the costs that come with giving allegiance to Christ?
Evangelizing in this way is almost like someone telling you in the first five minutes of meeting you that “God told me you should marry me.” Who wouldn’t think that was a little creepy?
Sure, Jesse sounds good on paper but what rational person decides to spend the rest of their life committed to someone about whom they have only heard a 5-minute verbal resume? Yet, we sometimes expect less of people when doing evangelism.
Don’t confuse wishing with faith.
At best, we’re naively wishful. Yet, wishing is not the same thing as faith. Faith takes seriously what Christ says, not reading past those words in Scripture that don’t suit our wishfulness.
For instance, consider Luke 14, where Jesus tells a parable that urges people to “count the cost” of following him (v. 28). He concludes by saying, “. . . any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (v. 33). This raises the question:
Do you present the gospel so that people can actually obey Jesus’ admonition to count the cost?
After a brief gospel presentation, few people will actually fully grasp the meaning of what we’re saying. They will need more context and clarification on our terms, etc. Not quite understanding what we mean, they can hardly grasp why its significant.
It is no wonder we do not generally see “full Gentiles” in Scripture embracing the gospel. It was the judaized Gentiles that took of Paul’s message. They could grasp the meaning and significance of the gospel in a way that “full Gentiles” could not. (I wrote more extensively on this topic in my article “The Influence of Culture on the Evolution of Missionary Methods“).
Practical Problems of Wishful EvangelismHere are just a few consequences of the problematic thinking above.
1. Judging Evangelistic Presentations
The problem I most commonly see is that people tend to judge the value of an evangelistic presentation or method based on whether its simple enough to share in 3-5 minutes. If we can’t pass it along efficiently in that span of time, then it’s judged to be deficient, too complex, too long, etc.
It’s as if people are allergic to having a conversation with someone rather than just spouting a monologue.
2. Compromise Theology
When evangelistic presentations are forced to stay within 3-5 minutes (because people largely think this is all that’s needed), then they invariably plant the seeds for very compromised theology. A person’s theology technically may be “correct” yet be so narrow or slanted that the listener or new believer is misled by the imbalanced emphasis or partial presentation given to them.
3. Neglected Strategies
The above wishful thinking causes us to overlook or neglect to use strategies that are longer term in nature and introduce the broader biblical Story to listener. After all, why spend a lengthy time helping “full Gentiles” become more familiar with the biblical story if one already expect people to believe after a ever so brief presentation?
Obviously, one can get quite discouraged when people don’t actually believe the gospel after a short summary presentation. Someone will wonder what they are doing wrong. Perhaps, they will think they are simply not cut our for doing ministry.
On the other hand, one will become very skeptical, if not cynical when those around you are reporting “high numbers” of new converts but these high numbers do not consistently translate into long-term, obedience disciples. That will inevitably happen when people assume that listeners become genuine disciples after only hearing a brief gospel summary. After all, the evangelist/missionary counts everyone who “prays a prayer of salvation” as though all those people had a genuine heart change.
When gospel presentations are abbreviated to a mere few minutes (and not spread out over a longer time period), we can effectively “inoculate” people to the gospel because they thing these short presentations or the “sinners prayer” is all there is to Christianity.
7. Misleading to Supporters
Finally, by assuming they someone will become a genuine Christian after only a few minutes of hearing the gospel, mission workers will likely mislead financial supporters by reporting exceedingly far more conversations that are genuine. While that’s always a possibly, the disparity between “decisions” and true disciples will be much larger when assuming such a low standard for saving faith.
I’m thankful that we don’t marry our spouse like we evangelize non-Christians.