Circus or Evangelism?


A recent article in Credo Magazine sparked my thinking about a troubling trend in American Evangelical churches, namely the culture of entertainment.  The article in reference, Church Gimmicks: Has the Church Sold it’s Soul to Consumerism was written by Brian Cosby and in it he highlights several of the concerns I share with the direction that the local church is taking her mission.  Cosby writes, “Following America’s lead, churches around the globe are spending through the roof trying to attract the greatest number of people into their worship gatherings.  Success is the name of the church-growth game.”  It’s significant here to note that his statement says that the Church is following America’s lead.  Not the other way around.  No doubt, America is an entertainment-driven society, and following the success of this and desire to meet people’s entertainment-thirst, the Church has acquiesced, bending to meet the carnal desires of carnal people.  Observe the following:

“An evil is in the professed camp of the Lord, so gross, so brazen in its impudence, that the most shortsighted of spiritual men can hardly fail to notice it. During the past few years it has developed at an abnormal rate, ever for evil. It has worked like leaven until now the whole lump ferments. Look which way you may, its presence makes itself manifest. There is little if anything to choose between Church, Chapel, or Mission Hall. However they may differ in some respects, they bear a striking likeness in the posters which disfigure their notice boards. Amusement for the people is the leading article advertised by each. If any of my readers doubt my statement, or think my utterance too sweeping, let them take a tour of inspection and study “the announcements for the week” at the doors of the sanctuaries of the neighborhood; or let them read the religious advertisements in their local papers. I have done this again and again, until the hideous fact has been proved up to the hilt, that “amusement” is ousting “the preaching of the Gospel” as the great attraction. “Concerts,” “Entertainments,” “Dramatic Performances,” are the words honoured with biggest type and most startling colors. The Concert is fast becoming as much a recognized part of church life as the Prayer Meeting, and is already, in most places, far better attended.”

The quotation above wasn’t from the aforementioned article by Cosby and it wasn’t penned by an anti-entertainment American pastor.  It was written in the late 19th century by Archibald Brown, protégé of Charles Spurgeon and eventual heir to his congregation at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London.  Brown goes on to address the issue in his own day which sounds remarkable similar to the entertainment blight on churches today, “’Providing recreation for the people’ will soon be looked upon as a necessary part of Christian work, and as binding upon the Church of God, as though it were a Divine command, unless some strong voice be raised which will make themselves heard.”

circus_churchThis is especially true as it relates to evangelism.  Far too often, churches neglect the God-ordained means of proclamation of His Word in evangelism, striving to be “seeker-friendly” by employing various methods of entertainment.  Cosby writes, “If God has already provided the ordinary means of growing in grace as we find in His Word, why do we think that we have the right or the greater wisdom to invent new ways through entertainment-driven, success-oriented worship and ministry?”

In evangelism, the anything-goes model for reaching people has ring masterbeen the go to strategy for some time.  Typically, this involves an outreach of sorts that provides free food and entertainment for the public with the intention (sometimes) of introducing the church to its local community and at least verbally stating an intention of sharing the Gospel.  Perhaps the motivation and intentions are pure.  Perhaps there is a genuine desire to engage people in their context and community and show them the love of Christ.  Why then do we resort to methods that the Bible no knows nothing of?  Were Christ and His disciples less compassionate to the people because they did not set up a carnival in Jerusalem’s center?  Surely not, as Christ is recorded as weeping over Jerusalem and her children.  Speaking to methods of entertainment, Archibald Brown engages the issue from a biblical perspective

“providing amusement for the people is nowhere spoken of in Holy Scripture as one of the functions of the church. What her duties are, will come under our notice later on. At present it is the negative side of the question that we are dealing with. Now, surely, if our Lord had intended His church to be the caterer of entertainment, and so counteract the god of this world—He would hardly have left so important a branch of service unmentioned. If it is Christian work, why did not Christ at least hint it? “Go into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature,” is clear enough. So would it have been, if He had added, “and provide amusement for those who do not relish the Gospel.” No such addendum, however, is to be found, nor even an equivalent for such, in any one of our Lords utterances. This style of work did not seem to occur to His mind. Then again, Christ, as an ascended Lord, gives to His Church specially qualified men for the carrying on of His work, but no mention of any gift for this branch of service occurs in the list. “He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers—for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,” Where do the “public entertainers” come in? The Holy Spirit is silent concerning them, and his silence is eloquence.

If “providing recreation” be a part of the Church’s work, surely we may look for some promise to encourage her in the toilsome task. Where is it? There is a promise that, “My Word shall not return unto Me void.” There is the heart-rejoicing declaration concerning the Gospel, “it is the power of God unto salvation.” There is the sweet assurance for the preacher of Christ that, whether he is successful or not as the world judges success—that he is “sweet savor unto God.” There is the glorious benediction for those whose testimony, so far from amusing the world, rouses its wrath: “Blessed are you when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad—for great is your reward in heaven! For so persecuted they the prophets who were before you.” Were the prophets persecuted because they amused the people—or because they refused to? The Gospel of amusement has no martyr roll. In vain does one look for a promise from God—for providing recreation for a godless world. That which has no authority from Christ, no provision made for it by the Spirit, no promise attached to it by God—can only be a lying deceit, when it lays claim to be “a branch of the work of the Lord”.

church-circusPractically, the methods of evangelism, even entertainment-driven worship services, seldom if ever produce the intended result, that is if numerical attendance is not the sole measure of success.  The question becomes how many attended rather than how were we faithful with the message of Christ’s gospel.  Cosby adds, “In fact, one of the most frequent questions a pastor receives is, “How many did you have in worship?” or “How big is your church?”  It seems like buildings, bodies, and budgets sideline Christ crucified, a stumbling block and offense.”  Jesse Johnson, writing at the Cripplegate, wrote recently that, “One of the biggest mistakes pastors make in the area of evangelism is trying to measure their church’s faithfulness to the great commission by the number of (or attendance at) outreach events. This makes evangelism a guilt-laden endeavor, and also unnecessarily weds it to programs which in all likelihood don’t produce converts anyway.”  Archibald Brown concurs that the results of such entertainment-driven methods seldom if ever produces fruit and even if the slightest fruit may be found it isn’t an endorsement for the methods:

“Lastly, the mission of amusement utterly falls to effect the desired end among the unsaved; but it works havoc among the young converts. Were it a success, it would be none the less wrong. Success belongs to God. Faithfulness to His instructions is my only responsibility

Nonetheless, providing amusements for the people is a contemptible failure. Let us see the converts who have been won by amusement. Let the harlots and the drunkards, to whom a dramatic entertainment has been God’s first link in the chain of their conversion stand forth. Let the careless and the scoffers who have cause to thank God that the Church has relaxed her spirit of separation and met them half-way in their worldliness, speak and testify. Let the husbands, wives, and children, who have been saved by church amusements, tell out their joy. Let the weary, heavy-laden souls who have found peace through a pleasing concert, no longer keep silence. Let the men and women who have found Christ through the reversal of apostolic methods declare the same, and show the greatness of Paul’s blunder when he said, “I determined not to know anything among you—but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” There is neither voice nor any to answer. The failure is on a par with the folly—and as huge as the sin! Out of thousands with whom I have personally conversed, the mission of amusement has claimed no convert!”

I can personally attest to the same conclusion that Brown draws.  In fact, not only have I not seen fruit from these methods employed, and not only have I seen the negative effects on young “converts” (which I use loosely),  but the typical entertainment, carnival-like atmosphere is wholly inadequate, dare I say inappropriate, for sharing the Gospel.  Souls are at stake, yet we are content to entertain them for two hours straight to hell and hope to cast a net under them at the last minute of the event.  They’ve been baited with entertainment, now it’s time to pull the switch and present the gospel.  Carnal frivolity never provides the seriousness necessary to present the dire consequences of someone’s impending future facing the holy wrath of God.  For some reason a break between messy games and refilling ones plate at the barbeque does not soften the sinner’s heart to understand their need for the Gospel.

What then is a church supposed to do in order to evangelize their surrounding communities?

  1. First, we must remember that biblical evangelism is never divorced from the proclamation of the Gospel.  Ever.
  2. God has ordained both the means (the Gospel) AND the methods (proclamation); anything else is shaky ground at best and sinful at worst.
  3. The Holy Spirit is the often missing ingredient in most church outreaches (which are not inherently sinful or wrong in their ideals).  Largely, dependence is on the extravagance of the event and not the power of the Spirit of God to empower and embolden the people to carry out the work of evangelism and His work to soften and prepare the hearts of those to whom the Gospel will reach.

evangelismEvangelism can be a “cold-call” and even function in an outreach environment, if properly focused on the Gospel.  However, more often than not, evangelism occurs through pre-existing relationships or contexts of believers.  If a church is living out the Great Commission, evangelism is not necessarily a ramped up event, it is the practical outworking of believers in their daily lives within the spheres of influence that God has placed them.  That may be evangelism of a stranger on the street.  It may be evangelism of a coworker or neighbor.  It may mean that God requires you to change contexts and become a missionary in a foreign land or your own city.  Regardless, evangelism cannot be bait and switch or the product of manipulation by methods of entertainment.  It must be proclamation of the Word of God such that it exposes the sinfulness of the sinner while magnifying the holiness of God and the necessity of Christ.

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.

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