Threshold Evangelism

Threshold Evangelism February 11, 2013

Below is the outline I used, or most of the outline, in my opening session at the Mars Hill Youth Workers Collaborative, hosted at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids and facilitated professionally by Steve Argue. This session develops ideas into a new area that are found in my King Jesus Gospel.

Where are you seeing “threshold” evangelism? How do you think about it? Many today think “threshold” evangelism, whether they call it that or not, is problematic, and wonder how we can move forward, be more biblical, and yet not abandon the very important need for personal response (repentance, faith, baptism, etc). How do you think we can move forward?

Threshold evangelism vs. Centered gospeling

1.0          Threshold evangelism

1.1          Aim is to get people near the threshold to cross the threshold: Identify the “target” and create liminality and strive for decisions.

1.2          Behaviors are shaped to make that happen: greeters, sales-like friendliness, pleasantness, handsomeness, mercy ministries, sunny dispositions, pleasant music, evocative music.

1.3          The gospel message, or evangelistic attempts, are shaped to encourage crossing the threshold:

salvation is examined so most ideas are sound, biblical, true
themes are isolated,
themes are packaged into bite-sized units,
themes are put into words that are “relevant” or “catchy,”
themes are ordered to provoke or precipitate decisions.

Celebrities, heroes, stories make it desirable

1.4          Messages Illustrated:

Requirements: Simple, 5 minutes or less, transportable and transferrable

4SL: God loves and has a wonderful plan for your life, You have sinned, Jesus died for you, Respond to God’s offer in Jesus and you will find eternal life.

Bridge Illustration: God, Humans, Gap, Wrath/separation, cross, Jesus, walk across

1.5          Threshold evangelism is effective in acquiring decisions.

90% of children in evangelical homes

Some 70% of American teenagers

1.6          Threshold evangelism is problematic for full conversions.

  1. Message says nothing about what happens beyond threshold.
  2. Emphasis is “decision” (accepting, believing) not the fullness of the NT: repentance, belief, baptism, confession.
  3. Gravity is on “in vs. out” and threshold is “in” line.
  4. Theology is almost exclusively salvation, with little theology, Christology, Story, Bible, church.
  5. Process has been Two-Stages: decision then discipleship.
  6. Core is information (self and salvation) and affirmation.
  7. Church has become a “salvation” culture instead of a “gospel” or “kingdom” or “Jesus” culture.
  8. Effect is low: 20-25% of those who “respond” become serious followers of Jesus. Which both cheapens the message about Jesus and waters down the commitment level of Christians in the church.


This is often called “bounded set” and I want to contend (later today) that Jesus’ evangelism and the apostles’ evangelism were not bounded set but centered set.

Bounded sets are about essential, or minimal, characteristics that create a boundary between one set vs. another set. “Computers” vs. “Cars”

Centered sets are about defining a center but not the boundary; those who are moving toward the center are “in” and those who are moving away are “out”. So there is an “in vs. out” but the focus is on the center and not the boundary; the boundary is ill-defined so there is more diversity.

Bounded set evangelism asks: Have you accepted Jesus into your heart, been baptized?

Centered set gospeling asks: Who do you think Jesus is?

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  • RJS

    Threshold evangelism leaves many feeling “suckered” in later life.

    This is a pattern that shows up in many of those in academia who had a “Christian phase” as a teen or in college. Sometimes the feeling of being suckered shows up quickly, sometimes there is a longer gestation period. But without a center there is often nothing but wisps. This leads to a rather disrespectful view of Christians (who after all are still among the suckered).

    This quote is also quite pertinent.

    Behaviors are shaped to make that happen: greeters, sales-like friendliness, pleasantness, handsomeness, mercy ministries, sunny dispositions, pleasant music, evocative music.

    I am not disillusioned about Christianity these days, but I am rather disillusioned about church. In an abrupt change over 20 years ago, I now tend to walk into a church with the same defensive posture and distrust I take into a new or used car lot. Is there really anything of substance beneath the show? (Often the answer is yes, but not always.) It is an attitude I am fighting against with sometimes greater, sometimes lesser, success.

  • phil_style

    In my (now historical) evangelical setting this was, I would propose, the ONLY type of evangelism that was practiced. I would even suggest that it occupied 50-75% of the church’s effort both within and without the setting of the Sunday service.

    I would add, however, that this church grew very quickly in 5 years from ~100 people to now over ~1000, in three cities. Numerically the church experienced rapid growth.

    I have my criticisms of the above, though. I saw too many people left adrift, who were not able to keep fueling this relentless and (in my opinion) myopic drive for “increase”.

  • Christian

    When it comes to evangelism, I tend to believe the old adage, “what you woo them with is what you win them to.”

    Think of the woman at the well. How did she evangelize? “Hear about this man who told me everything I’ve done. Could he be the messiah?”

    I think westerners tend to fall back on black and white, rigid structure, and feel fearful with more fluid approaches. It appears that is the case with this threshold evangelism. It seems to be more focused on the church/evangelizer (and their need for control) than on the “target” (control language).

  • T

    I’m trying to move beyond threshold theology and practice and one of the things that comes up again and again is what we are (en)trusting to Christ, or, to ask it another way, what all needs saving?

    I’ve seen friends with whom I’ve discussed all of this still talk about “salvation” as something we take care of in a threshold way, which is “eternally secure” because we trusted that Jesus died for our sins, but then say that we’ve got to move on to discipleship, kingdom, etc. in order to have the good, fruitful destiny God has for us. So, we trust Jesus (first and in a pretty isolated way) with our afterlife, with God’s legal case against us, with our justification. Then, hopefully later and with gusto, we trust him with our present lives, so he can make us fruitful and useful in his kingdom.

    But I see the proper call to simply trust ourselves (past, present and future; life and death) to Jesus. That’s what becoming a disciple is, that’s what it is to enter the kingdom with faith like a child. That’s losing our life for his sake.

    I think it’s very telling that we have two things that have come into their own in our modern times: The threshold gospel and the 12 steps. Via the threshold gospel, one trusts Jesus with one’s afterlife, and via the 12 steps, one makes a decision to turn over one’s (present, daily) will and life over to God. The threshold gospel makes promises about the afterlife, and the 12 steps make promises about this life (google the 12 promises). One reality that the Church must face is that the 12 steps caught fire around the world among addicts precisely because the Church’s gospel had slowly been emptied of its “salvation” for life. It increasingly only had a gospel and a salvation for death.

    We need to get back to preaching a gospel that invites people to trust Jesus, as God’s Messiah, with life and death, with everything, because everything needs saving. We need him to shepherd us through it all. We need salvation for today as well as tomorrow, in this life and the next. We need his way of life and love now, and in the age to come.

  • I like your thought on centered-set, Scot. But the church must deal with some difficult issues. For example, if the church says same sex intercourse is a sin, can it baptize someone who is living with another of the same sex, faithful to them, but sincerely seeking to move toward the center, Christ? Each church would have to answer that for themselves, but I’m not sure this is clear cut. Although I still like the distinction you make, and definitely would subscribe at least more, to the centered set.

  • Steve Sherwood

    I’ve been thinking quite a bit over the last year or two about the issues Dave Kinnaman brings up in his book “You Lost Me,” regarding why so many 20somethings that were formerly very involved in their faith walk away. So much of the book rings true to my experience working with young people. One issue that doesn’t get mentioned much in the book is this issue that Scot accurately names. There may well be some fundamental inadequacies in the “Gospel” young people respond to. Listening to Scot on Saturday, I kept thinking of my own 25 years of youth ministry experience in a large organization that is great is getting kids to the “wedding,” but (like most evangelical churches/ministries) not very good at helping them live into a marriage with God for the rest of their lives. On a break, Scot made a very insightful comment regarding Kara Powell’s excellent “Sticky Faith” book. To paraphrase, “It’s great to help a church develop ‘sticky practices’ in working with youth, but if the faith we’re helping them ‘stick’ to won’t hold up, there’s nothing really gained.”

    Fundamentally addressing the way we frame/think of/talk about the Gospel message is going to be a harder conversation in youth ministry than getting folks to make more room for questions, leaning into cross-generational mentorship, and being less moralistic and judmental. This goes more to the core of what we believe ourselves to be. To use Newbign’s term, we will need new “plausibility structures.”

  • Matt

    How refreshing! The late Dr Paul Hiebert did a wonderful job of introducing Bounded and Centered set thinking into missions in the 1990s and its so refreshing to see you include that approach here, Scot. Thank you.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    RJS: Thank you for your openness about entering churches with your defenses up. I have been doing so, at lease most of the time, for the past 20 or so years. I have often worried that I am too cynical to listen to sermons. I am encouraged to hear you explain that you too have had those experiences.


    Randy Gabrielse

  • Rick

    “Behaviors are shaped to make that happen”

    I was listening to a podcast yesterday by a well-known pastor in which he talked about those who respond actively during the service. He contrasted those with those who approach things intellectually, and downplay the responsive aspects of worship. Unfortunately, I am initially skeptical of the responsive elements, since I wonder how much has been manufactured by the church for an emotional response.

    Am I too critical (almost cynical)? Am I downplaying the work of the Holy Spirit, or am I being realistic? Likewise, does the Holy Spirit work through such manufactured methods?

  • love this Scot. just read a book by Carl Medaeris that illustrated the same boundary vs centered set evangelism. point people to Jesus, the center, rather than stand inside the circle calling for people to come and find him with us.

  • Dr. McKnight, it was a pleasure to have you at Mars Hill this weekend. In one of the breakout sessions, you spoke about God (and love) being with, for, and unto. Have you written more about this dynamic? I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about it.

  • bobson

    RJS (1)
    My wife keeps scolding for having my defenses up when we go to church or church things. Your definitely not alone.

    You described what I have been so umcomfortable with lately. I have been calling it ‘affirmation theology’ (this seems to make discussion easier than previously calling it ‘fluffy theology’ – everyone likes things that are fluffy), but reading your post lets me see a bigger picture with an even better name. I keep asking people if saying a prayer and raising your hand is what this is all about; unfortunately that does seem to be what it is about for many.

  • Scot – seeing your notes from this past weekend regarding evangelism is very helpful. Perhaps you’ve shared other speaking outlines before but I found this particularly helpful.

  • scotmcknight

    Julie, it is from a book I am writing on the apostle Paul …

  • TJJ

    So was Paul ‘s sermon on Mars Hill threshold evangelism? Or Peter’s on Pentecost, was that threshold evangelism?

    Are there partial conversions as opposed to full conversions (partial birth conversions)?

    How many people (what %) baptized as babies are “full conversions” today? Children put on church membership rolls, youth confirmed in confirmation classes?

  • Steve Sherwood

    TJJ, I don’t think either one of those were by Scot’s definition. Both rooted evangelism in the life and person of Jesus (not solely, but including his death and resurrection) and in the biblical story of all creation, Israel and the Kingdom work of Jesus. In decrying “threshold evangelism,” I don’t believe Scot is saying people should not be invited, in specific ways at specific times, to respond. The issue is more a truncating the message to: You have a sin problem, Jesus came to solve it. To my understanding a “threshold gospel” is reductionist in content (leaving out the context of Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s story and His call for us to find our purpose as subjects of himself as King) and telos (seeing intellectual assent to propositional statements as the end line rather than taking up our proper place in the work of the Kingdom under Jesus’ lordship). Your other questions seemed more snarky than serious, so I’ll not venture any response. Scot could certainly clarify his thinking in response to your comments better than my attempt here.

  • Bjorn Anderson

    I like these thoughts from Scot on centered v. bounded set. This type of thinking has been very helpful to me as I think through leading high school students to the center rather than just getting them to accept an invitation, stand up at a camp, etc. I echo Steve’s thoughts on evangelistic organizations being good at getting people to the wedding, but not good at getting people to live in the marriage.
    Scot-you say that centered set evangelism asks the question: Who do you think Jesus is? However, we also need to be ready with our answer.
    I see the key as examining and being sure of the center to which we are calling people and being called ourselves. If the center is God’s Kingdom, the most tangible expression of that and fulfillment of that is Jesus. Simply put the center is Jesus. We are being called to Jesus and are to call others to him (Matthew 28:18-20.) If we rightly proclaim Jesus as Prophet/life-giver, Priest/Rescuer, and Lord/King, our Gospel will not be reductionist because we are calling people to the full life of the Kingdom expressed most tangibly in Jesus.
    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Scot. Good stuff.

  • I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on centered-set evangelism. I was thinking of just this dynamic as I having been dreaming about the future of our campus ministry.