Heidelcast 20: Evangelism or Manipulation?

Many years ago a fellow I knew used to practice what he called “evangelism” by asking people, “Do you know the way to [the local amusement park]?” Nice, irrepressibly helpful Midwesterners they were, folk would always stop to give directions. Then, our erstwhile evangelist would ask, “But do you know the way to heaven?” and then it would begin. Now, our friend had an admirable desire to see the lost come to faith. What he lacked, however, was an equally regard for the truth. He wasn’t really interested in getting to the amusement park. The question was a set up, a ploy, a ruse, a lie. He was a manipulator. He wasn’t alone. He came from a long tradition of manipulators. Indeed, in some quarters of the evangelical world it is a given that evangelism entails manipulation. It doesn’t. Here’s the episode:

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  1. Once I found a gospel tract that was supposed to be a wallet on the ground full of money. Any ol’ usual pedestrian walking by see this picks this up and quickly discovers this is a trick (er..tract).
    On the side but directly pertinent to the issue, modern culture is impatient. Cultivation conceptually is almost an unacceptable thing. Catechesis? Bearing with tons of questions? Reasoning? These take tons of time and effort.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for this helpful heidelcast. I appreciated very much your emphasis on the need to develop genuine friendships with nonbelievers (and not merely to “befriend” them manipulatively for the purpose of evangelizing them). Spot on! In hindsight that is a lesson I wish I had learned when I was a young convert to Christ in high school (when I was going through what some have called the “cage stage” phase in my early Christian growth). I also appreciate your critique of the modern evangelical tradition of “every member evangelism” (EME).

    Speaking of EME: Regarding the Acts 8 passage, I would suggest that when Luke says “and they were all scattered” (v. 1), contextually I believe he has in mind “all the preachers.” The idea that the entire membership of the presbytery of Jerusalem was emptied out except for the apostles doesn’t seem to me to make sense or to be contextually justified, especially since Acts 9:26 speaks of Saul seeking to join the “disciples” (meaning the believers) in Jerusalem (meaning that there will still disciples besides the apostles in the Jerusalem church at that time); and, of course, the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 indicates that the membership of the Jerusalem church remained intact. I think Matthew Henry’s comments on Acts 8:1-3 are probably correct:

    “What was the effect of this persecution: They were all scattered abroad (v. 1), not all the believers, but all the preachers, who were principally struck at, and against whom warrants were issued out to take them up.” (p. 77, Vol. 6 in Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible)

    I was trained in the Evangelism Explosion program while in seminary. While I learned some valuable things from this program, its entire basis rests upon a highly questionable interpretation of Acts 8:4 (an interpretation which, as I recall, one was required to affirm in order to be certified in the program). (To give you an idea of just how “ecumenical” the EE program is, during a break in the training time I had a conversation with a female preacher who claimed to be a “prophet” and who proceeded to declare a “prophesy” to me about one of my family members.) EME (at least as popularly conceived and practice in evangelical culture today) is a mere human tradition that has, in my opinion, cheapened genuine biblical evangelism, filled the churches with faux converts, and greatly weakened the visible church.

    Geoff Willour

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