John Stott and the Evangelism Goalpost He Moved

John Stott and the Evangelism Goalpost He Moved July 26, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Long ago, evangelical Christians stopped caring about whether or not their antics actually persuade anybody to join their groups. I’ve always wondered why. Well, I found the Rosetta Stone that answered my question recently. Evangelical leader John Stott gave the flocks permission to move the evangelism goalpost so they could keep their strategies intact. Today, let me show you how that happened, and why it’s proven so important to evangelicals’ future plans.

john stott moved the goalpost of evangelism
(Utsman Media.) An Indonesian goalpost.

Everyone, Meet John Stott.

John Stott was a noted evangelical leader from England. Back in 2005, Time listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Before he died in 2011, he helped create the Lausanne Covenant, which promoted worldwide evangelism. This 1974 covenant became one of evangelicals’ big manifestos. In part, it proclaimed:

We are deeply stirred by what God is doing in our day, moved to penitence by our failures, and challenged by the unfinished task of evangelization. We believe the gospel is God’s good news for the whole world, and we are determined, by his grace, to obey Christ’s commission to proclaim it to all mankind and to make disciples of every nation.

So John Stott helped set the stage for evangelicals to become even more obnoxious in winning recruits for their declining religion. He weaponized the command to evangelize itself. This move made lack-of-evangelism an outright sin for the flocks.

But to mitigate the sinfulness of not trying hard enough to evangelize, he also moved an important goalpost for those flocks.

Offering a Moved Goalpost.

In John Stott’s address to the Lausanne Convention (headed by none other than Billy Graham), he talked about how important it was to use words in their absolutely correct way. In that vein, he offered this insight about the Apostle Paul:

There is no mention whether the word which was “evangelized” was believed, or whether the inhabitants of the towns and villages [Paul] “evangelized” were converted. To “evangelize” in biblical usage does not mean to win converts (as it usually does when we use the word) but simply to announce the good news, irrespective of the results.

That last sentence is the money quote for the day: the moved goalpost. Remember it, because we’re coming back to it in a moment here.

In fact, John Stott chided Christians who criticized evangelism efforts that failed to achieve their stated goals. Regarding an earlier evangelism campaign’s failure, he told the convention:

But John Mott rallied to the watchword’s defense. He maintained that “the evangelization of the world” meant neither its conversion nor its Christianization, that it did not encourage superficial preaching, and that it was not to be regarded as a prophecy.

Stott later drilled down on this idea in his commentary notes to the meeting:

[Paul’s] great ambition, he wrote, was not just to win converts but to “present every man mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28,29) [. . .]

But until evangelicals’ big decline, they didn’t care about this idea. Their winning team mentality demanded results, not effort. They hadn’t recognized that their goalpost needed moving. Not yet.

Adopting the Moved Goalpost.

In the wake of their decline, however, evangelicals have completely glommed onto this moved goalpost. Out of everything they could have chosen, they decided that this should totally be John Stott’s legacy: permission to fail harder using tactics that simply don’t work in the real world on real people.

In fairness, the quote under discussion today isn’t the only quote of his I found plastered online. Check this out and count how many of John Stott’s quotes count as permission slips for Christians to behave obnoxiously toward others and seek control of their lives. It’s amazing how far back toxic Christianity goes for modern evangelicals.

But today’s quote is one they’ve embraced extra-hard. Instead of landing on generic quotes sites, this one can be found on the ground in the sheepfold, so to speak. Christians usually condense it thusly:

To evangelize does not mean to win converts… but simply to announce the good news, irrespective of the results.

When I tried to find the source of this quote, I had enormous trouble. Evangelicals had plastered it everywhere — mostly with next-to-no attribution! I had to sift through quite a few blog posts and books to figure out exactly when and where John Stott had created his moved goalpost, and exactly what it’d said originally.

Deploying the Moved Goalpost.

I first found John Stott’s quote on a Calvinist site.

john stott quote about evangelism failure
The graphic in question.

By that time, it was five years old. I could hardly even believe my eyes when I read it. Had someone seriously moved the goalpost that far on evangelism?

But when I looked up the wording used in this quote, I found it errywhere.

It shows up on that cringey “Who’s Your One” creeptastic evangelism effort that J.D. Greear trotted out a while ago at his megachurch and sorta-kinda initiated for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) as a whole. He needed to move the goalpost. If he demanded success as well as effort, his flock would never obey their “shepherd’s” commands.

who's your one using john stott quote
Entry on the “Who’s Your One” Facebook page. Captured July 26, 2020. Click to embiggen.

On a blog belonging to someone proclaiming himself a “pastor, evangelist, apologist,” we find the quote embedded in a post about “testimony evangelism.” I can certainly understand why. Testimonies are extremely ineffective evangelism tools. However, this guy believes they are despite the evidence he himself has experienced and knows his followers have experienced as well. So he also provides Stott’s escape clause. (Don’t miss him referring to conversion as the moment “when Christ invaded your life.” Ouch.)

(Related posts about testimonies: here, here, and here.)

Another Christian specifically uses John Stott’s moved goalpost to excuse his own failure to recruit anybody to his tribe. He needs to divorce his tactics from his results, and John Stott gave him a handy-dandy way to do that. The topic of his blog post, Mark Dever’s 2007 apologetics book The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, draws upon that same idea. As he quotes it:

We don’t fail in our evangelism if we faithfully tell the gospel to someone who is not converted; we fail only if we don’t faithfully tell the gospel at all.

At the end of his blog post, the Christian replies to this quote:

Amen! So let’s get out there and share the gospel with others!

Sure, Jan.

The Love of the Moved Goalpost.

EvangelicalsIf you’re not on the winning team, you need switch sides!
Also evangelicals: OKAY, everyone, listen up. Here’s exactly how to rationalize your utter failure at fulfilling our most basic demand.

— an observation from Yr. Captain

And y’all, I’m not even counting all the Pinterest boards I saw this quote on, nor all the church-sermon blog posts reprinting John Stott’s quote with next to no commentary (this one might represent outright overkill).

I want to stress here that I never once heard this quote in all my years as an evangelical Christian. We didn’t have a lot of apologetics books or evangelism guides in my denomination then. For that matter, we’d have seen John Stott as not-quite-a-TRUE-CHRISTIAN™ so we wouldn’t have cared about his opinions anyway.

More than that, even, my tribe would likely have seen the quote for what it actually is: a permission slip for failure. It’s the mewling whine of “well, I’ll tryyyyy” of evangelism. But in our way, we already embraced it. The tribemates we idolized for evangelism success did not actually bag many converts. Biff had “won” very few himself in all the years he was a member of the United Pentecostal Church, International (UPCI). For that relative success, everyone considered him a superstar evangelist. Others who got similar consideration had “won” even fewer converts.

When we utterly failed, we consoled ourselves exactly the same way that Christians do today: we’d planted seeds that would sprout eventually.

So maybe all John Stott did was vocalize the permission slip Christians already used.

I know this, though: if evangelicals did not feel they needed such a permission slip, they wouldn’t be reaching for it now in such a clearly-stated, obvious way. If they felt secure in their dominance and still thought they indeed had joined the winning team, they wouldn’t need an explicit rationalization for failure.

When Nobody Cares About Actual Sales.

Eventually you gotta have results, but if nobody cares about results then nobody gets results. Funny how that works, eh? It’s like the people in a children’s story I read many, many years ago. (This subsection would work well on “Stump the Bookseller,” if it’s not already there. Unfortunately their search engine returns an error for me. If you know what the book might be, please comment below!)

In the story as I remember it now, a king decides he wants to hear the loudest sound ever made. To that end, he demands that his subjects all come into his castle courtyard and shout as loud and as long as they can at his cue. He thinks this’ll create the loudest sound anybody’s ever heard.

But gradually, the citizens of this kingdom start thinking they don’t wanna shout. Their voices would simply be lost in the cacophony, after all. And shouting the loudest they can would kinda hurt, too. After the first person realizes this and voices his concern, others decide that they, too, will not shout. The king and his court know nothing of these decisions.

On the fateful day of the Great Shouting, everyone assembles as commanded. But when the king gives the cue, we learn that all of his citizens have decided not to shout.

The result: an eerie silence in the courtyard.

Instead of the loudest sound ever, the king gets the quietest moment ever.

I don’t remember the king’s reaction or the ultimate ending of the story anymore. But when I consider evangelicals’ embracing of John Stott’s moved goalpost, I can’t help but think of the basics of this fairy tale.

Eventually, for a business to succeed someone’s gotta be makin’ sales. If evangelicals are all hyper-focused on the process of selling but not the goal, then they will not be making sales.

In particular, evangelicals’ product (membership in their groups) is tainted and superfluousWithout sustained, active, focused, and directed effort they will not make sales.

Drilling Down.

In summary, I think evangelicals know two things perfectly well, though I doubt they’d ever admit it:

Evangelicals could pursue different recruitment tactics — they could study what works and what doesn’t, and refine their techniques to achieve more sales. But they like the ones they have now.

At heart, they are authoritarians through and through. Consequently, their dwindling number of actual converts join them after hearing the authoritarian’s mating call, not the good news.”

The Cries of the Evangelical Heart.

Evangelicals just don’t want to be salespeople.

Heck, they don’t even want to be ambassadors.

They want to be lords.

Any recruitment tactics that they adopt must allow them to act out their frustrated fantasies of unlimited (and undeserved) power and perfect safety.

Their decline tells the truth about them: They would rather act out than successfully recruit anybody. A reversed Christian decline is not a Christianity they want to inhabit.

So in a very real way, John Stott gave them exactly what they wanted. Is anybody even surprised that out of every other thing this guy did for their flavor of Christianity, this quote is what they embraced the most out of everything he said? 

I’m not.

NEXT UP: A new study about virtue signaling has come out. Let’s check it out — and test its ideas against one of the worst bunch of virtue-signalers ever.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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