Of Magic and Lamb Chops: Things We Do in the Name of Evangelism

Tim Brister —  February 26, 2008 — 22 Comments

For Southern Baptists this time of the year, various state conventions hold “State Evangelism Conferences” with keynote speakers and sometimes offer evangelism clinics. I have participated in a number of these since high school and found them to have been encouraging moments in my walk with Christ.The other day, I was reading one of the state papers which had a list of the evangelists (assuming to be SBC supported) in that particular state convention. Immediately I came away with a couple of observations.

First, of the 30+ individuals pictured, only one looked to be under the age of 40. I am wondering if the role of itinerant evangelist is not being embraced by the younger generation. Some of you may remember that there was a conference of evangelists comprised of around a dozen attendees who convened to bemoan the Reformed Resurgence in the SBC. One is led to believe that the move away from the revivalism of Finney and Graham coupled with the upsurge of church planting and church revitalization could be an indicator that younger Southern Baptists are not going the route of a traveling evangelist.

Second, I noticed something that, I must say, took me for a spin. When you think of an evangelist, what comes to your mind? A preacher going from church to church preaching the gospel and teaching the Word of God, right? Well, as I looked at the subtitles to the evangelists, I indeed found many preachers and singers, but that was not all. Interestingly enough, there were also ventriloquists and illusionists. Now, I suppose there is nothing inherently wrong about a Christian being a ventriloquist or illusionist, but as an evangelist?

I realize that the SBC ethos has welcomed everyone from stand up comedians to burly men who break bricks and rip apart telephone books, but I can’t help but think that something has gone awry when we have fake preachers (ventriloquists) and fake miracle workers (illusionists) functioning as evangelists in our churches. How is it that we can go from John the Baptist to Kermit the Frog? How did we go from the Apostle Paul to David Copperfield?

My only conclusion is that we no longer believe that the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.” We do not trust in the sufficiency and regenerative power of God’s Word. We are, simply put, ashamed of the gospel.

I am not slamming the work that ventriloquists and illusionists do in their own respect. For all I know, they could be very good at what they do. What I am deeply concerned about is its relationship to the the gospel and the kind of results this sort of evangelism produces. What are we doing here? The souls of men and women, boys and girls are in the balance, and we are propping up the gospel with puppets and magicians and neutering its message in the process.

We no longer have real, live preachers who say, “Thus saith the Lord,” calling sinners to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Sinners dead in their trespasses, fully engaged in their rebellious ways pronounced with darkened minds and hardened hearts have no other cure but the clear proclamation of the pure gospel. Like the Apostle Paul, we confess that “we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). To this end, that they may see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, we preach Christ and not ourselves for their sake.

So I must ask, then. How will such sinners see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ through high-pitched puppets and the slight-of-hand-practices of illusionists? What will they remember when the show is over?

The truth is, the sinners in Paul’s day were no more sinful than sinners in our day, and if we are going to experience the power of the gospel in our lives and ministries, we must preach Christ and Him crucified. The resurrection of Christ is no mere illusion, and we should not evangelize like it either.

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  • Oh boy, don’t get me started!

    When you don’t preach sin, righteousness, and judgment to come, and you don’t preach the offense of the cross, and you don’t believe that “salvation is of the Lord”, then you probably think that using puppets, and clowns, and ventriloquists, and freak shows is a good thing.

    What sorry substitutes for the Holy Spirit.

  • As one who ministers in music, I can’t imagine Christian music outside the context of worship and/or the presentation of the gospel. Likewise with any performing arts ministry.

    Good observation, Timmy!

  • Timmy,

    This post is thought-provoking. I think that, beyond the specific application of illusionists and ventriloquists, the underlying question is to what point is it valid to use means to win a hearing for the message we preach. What about, for instance, using humor in preaching? What about music as a vehicle for communicating a message? Or film, or drama, or art, etc.?

    For me, one question I like to ask about this type of thing is: Do the means we are using really help to communicate the message more clearly (both at a “head level” and a “heart level”) or do they obfuscate the truth? I think the answer to this must be given on a case by case basis. Creativity is not necessarily the enemy of clarity in communication.

    That being said, I definitely agree with you that there is much out there in the world of Christian consumerism that is an unworthy vessel of the Gospel.

  • David,

    You asked some good questions. One argument would be, if God could speak through the Balaam’s ass, then why couldn’t he speak through a puppet? I don’t mean to sound facetious, but there are lots of ways people look for justification for various methods.

    When I spoke of stand up comedians, there are some very popular SBC evangelists who boast of leading thousands to Christ each year and never open their Bible when they preach. In my mind, I do not care how many decisions an evangelist can whip up with pushing buttons of bruised reeds, if they don’t preach Christ and proclaim the gospel, their ministry is chaff and will be evidenced as thus in that great day.

    With that said, God can and sometimes does used a crooked stick to draw a straight line. God is sovereign, yet we cannot use God’s sovereignty as an excuse or escape for giving account for our evangelism. The right use of means has always been emphasized in Reformational and evangelical thought, but in this case, I would argue that such instances aforementioned (in my post) are not the right use of means.

    There are certain things I think that disqualify some methods or practices regarding God-honoring evangelism. For instance,

    1. Any evangelist who does not preach the gospel and explain it clearly is not an evangelist.

    2. Any evangelist who does not honor the primacy of the Word in their messages does not honor God. God is honored when you prize and preach His Word. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17).

    3. Any evangelist who nullifies the power of the cross by therapeutic, self-help messages are enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil. 3:17).

    4. Any response of an evangelist that leaves a person thinking more about the evangelist more than the Evangel is bringing glory to their name and not the name of Christ or the advance of the gospel.

    5. Any approach that circumvents doctrinal or biblical truth or supplants it with emotional appeals and man-centered manipulation are ashamed of the gospel.

    These are just a few that come to my mind, but given some time, I could add a dozen more.

    I think it goes back to our understanding of what constitutes true biblical evangelism as well as the doctrine of conversion. At its core, the errors I mentioned above are the result of an eroding soteriological foundation of evidenced in the loss of the gospel in our churches.

    I am all about being creative, but I am also all about the glory of Christ. In the end, I want those who are being evangelized to treasure Christ and esteem Him of infinite worth, not us and certainly not themselves.

    The point that you brought up regarding the head and heart is an interesting one. Dr. York, my preaching prof this semester, believes that you win people through the heart first, then the head. I disagree and believe that it goes from the head to the heart. Perhaps the order in which you place them affects your approach. I tend to believe that, when the truths are powerfully proclaimed and explained to a sinner, the Spirit of God enlivens that truth and illuminates their minds to appreciate that truth in such a way that they long for more of it. That tasting of the truth translates to an affectionate embrace of those truths.

  • 4. Any response of an evangelist that leaves a person thinking more about the evangelist more than the Evangel is bringing glory to their name and not the name of Christ or the advance of the gospel.

    This is a Catch-22 for many “popular” teachers in our circles. It goes back to the “rock star” approach many Christians tend to take towards their favorite teachers. I’m sure folks like Piper, Dever, Mahaney, et al. do not seek for their “students” to take such an attitude towards them. In their seeking to make Christ the main thing, many of us have gone a step further and made these teachers the main thing instead.

    While I’d love to hear from such teachers how they deal with this phenomenon, I’d like to take your point a little further in the interest of generating discussion and ask: How can we as ministers point people away from us and towards the main thing, Christ? That is, how can we, in seeking to keep the main thing the main thing, prevent and/or correct the “rock star” mentality some of our sheep may take towards us?

  • Stephen,

    Regarding Piper, I’d encourage you to listen to Piper’s message from today at the Text and Context Conference. He spoke specifically about the centrality and primacy of the Word in the pulpit and what happens when you don’t.

    I also think that the bulk of culpability lies in the followers more than the leaders. I mean, when God used Paul in the early church, many were seeking to claim him as a god (which he clearly rebuked). But I think the response we should be looking for is the same response Peter had after preaching Christ at Pentecost: “What must we do?”

    But yeah, I would be interested too in how leaders deal with this phenomenon. A recent example I have seen is in Paul Washer. Here is a really humble brother that has to deal with his fans who hold him in a rock-star mentality. Everywhere he went at the TCC, he had a line of people following him.

    As you know, and as I have stated earlier, the reformed celebrity culture is a big concern for me as I am afraid that this resurgence will evolve the same way the Fundamentalist movement did in the 1920’s-30’s with sectarianism and splits based on personality and kingdom-building.

  • Timmy,

    Twice this year i have recieved invitations to attend a State convention sponsored or supported gathering of believers and leaders where the keynote speaker was both female and an entertainer by trade.

    Earlier this year i was invited to an education ministers and worship leaders conference to be encouraged by “Alabama’s Funniest Lady”. I would give you more details but i unknowingly tossed the invitation in the trash receptacle under my desk. My first instinct was to take offense at such a planned gathering. Here i am, a minister of the gospel who struggles daily with the call to preach the Word and the best that our state convention can or will offer to my weary soul is “Alabamas Funniest Lady.”

    Just last week i recieved an invitation that was funnelled to me by my DOM with similar billing. The first priority campus ministry group in alabama is hosting a student event in huntsville and the keynote speaker, life coach, author, motivational speaker and founder of change your life daily, is Becky Tirabassi. I know little of Mrs. Tirabassi from the invitation, but i did pick up on the fact that she has spend some time with Joyce Meyers. This group is going to rent our the VBC, a very large arena, and hopefully fill it with high school and college students so that they can hear Mrs. Tirabassi discuss how ‘we’can change our lives, obviously to make them better.

    I am certain that within a certain context these women have something of value to offer conference goers, that is so long as they are sure to carry the Word of God with them and open it up when their mouths begin to move. However, I can’t help but agree with your comments above and think that we are no longer seeing the true enemy of souls. If we saw depravity as that enemy and we threw humor at it, that would be like throwing a water balloon at Rambo.

    I wonder how much of Obama’s political talk has truly affected professing evangelical Christian leaders, who have begun to believe that you don’t need substance so long as you are saying something that excites the flesh.

    I don’t disagree with the comments above, but i must assert that the real issue that needs to be addressed by those who stand to address this world in the name of Christ is the lost and hopeless condition of the souls of men. If we looked into a crowd and saw what Ephesians 2:1-4 tells us we are apart from Christ, ‘Dead Men’ then we would not be holding up puppets, performing rediculous slight of hand tricks, coaching people to become a better you, or telling knock-knock jokes.

    I would be curious to know how much CP money is going to send and support these men and women whose calling seems to fall somewhere celebrity and charleton.

  • I quoted this text above, but I want to post it here.

    “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).

    Now, I would be interested in hearing what you consider “disgraceful, underhanded ways” or “practice cunning” or “tamper with God’s word”.

    Anyone care to elaborate on this?

    Or what about this text:

    “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:3-5).

    Does the kind of evangelism we see today evidence by the demonstration of the Spirit and power or the wisdom and ways of men? Where is the fear and trembling? Who is sufficient for these things (2 Cor. 2:16)?

  • Justin,

    So I understanding you to say that dead men don’t need puppets; dead men need prophets.”

    If that is the case, preach on brother, preach on!

  • Timmy,

    Yes you are understanding me rightly. If the God-called Prophets of this world don’t stand and proclaim the Word of the Lord then how can these dead bones live?

    This situation is deplorable one two fronts:
    #1 – on the part of these men and women who are demonstrating the so-called wisdom of the world in the ways of men. You are hard pressed to find humility in them, much less Godly fear. their God is their bellies and they speak in the name of Christ with a mind to tickle the ears of the wicked, so their calendars stay full.

    #2 – the lack of spiritual discernment on the part of professing Christian leaders is unforgiveable. the men and women who utilize money given in faith for the support of true evangelism and missions, to pad the pockets of entertainers; all the while calling them evangelists is again unforgiveable.

    This passage from Jeremiah has come to my mind and i truly want to share it as a glimpse at the type of day in which we live…

    Jeremiah 5:26-31 For wicked men are found among my people; they lurk like fowlers lying in wait. They set a trap; they catch men. Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; therefore they have become great and rich; they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the LORD, and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?” An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?

    Would love to hear thoughts on this.

  • Well, while I would presume that the mantle of the Prophet would not be an easy one to bear, especially in light of the levity and triviality today. Can you imagine Jeremiah today in the Southern Baptist Convention? Do you think he would be asked to speak at some of these conferences?! One thing is for sure: a God-called prophet is a dangerous man, and perhaps too dangerous for most places today. Like Paul, everywhere he goes there will either be a riot or revival; today it is either a laugh or a yawn. The church sleeps, the ministers laugh, and sinners perish.

    I pray that God would indeed avenge His own name by calling out servants and shepherds who are after his own heart, who have been arrested by a glimpse of His glory, who cling to the old rugged cross and stay they until nothing of them remains, and to get up and preach as a dying man to dying men, as one who will give an account to “him who will judge the living and the dead” (2 Tim. 4:1). May such a cross-centered ministry rise up from the ash heap of burned over chaff.

  • Timmy,

    I think your 5 qualifications (or disqualifications) are on target. I also think that both you and Dr. York are partially right. I would say that the Holy Spirit speaks to us both through the right side and the left side of our brain. I don’t see one or the other as necessarily first in a chronological sense. We are whole beings, and God speaks to every part of our being. I think that Western, rational. Enlightenment-driven culture has probably made us over-emphasize one part over the other, in many cases, though. A lot of what goes on in Christian consumerism is probably an pendulum swing over-reaction towards the other side, though.

  • That’s true, David. In Deaf ministry, often you have to get to a person’s heart before they will try to wrap their head around it. Many want to be “inspired” before they will try to “understand.” And in many ways, that’s a reaction to hearing culture, which seems to think we’re not that smart and need to be edumacated first. So many of us would rather “see” and “feel” before we “think.”

  • I think it would be interesting to see how many church folks could articulate the true biblical gospel. I’m not talking about knowing the theological words like propitiation, justification, or regeneration but do they have any idea of why Jesus died on the cross? I often witness to college students on the downtown streets as they head to the bars on Friday night. The majority claim they are Christians but have little more to say than “Jesus died for my sins.” They seem to have so little understanding.

    Maybe Barna should do a survey…hummmmmmmmmm

  • David and Stephen,

    If you are interested in reading more about the head and heart relationship, you ought to check out Mark Dever’s work on Richard Sibbes. He has a nice section which deals with where Sibbes stood on this issue (in “an affectionate theologian”). Of course, then there is Edwards and Religious Affections. Both of these men would say that religion (i.e. true Christianity) is fundamentally of the heart and affections, but there are very few if any other figures in church history who placed a higher commitment to teaching and explaining the truth than these guys. So I would agree that it is both.

    However, I do think there is a point to make that truth understood inflames the affections. In other words, truth affects your affections. Turn that around, though, can it be said that your affections influence the truth? I would argue that it doesn’t. The truth is truth whether you like it or not. So then, I think it would be fair to say that communicating the truth of the gospel to deceived sinners is of first importance, and in an age where propositional truth has fallen in disrepute in our postmodern generation, we need to stand for the truth and veracity of Scripture, and in a deeper sense, the correspondence theory of truth, viz., that it corresponds to reality.

  • HI Timmy,
    I know you were at the Q&A time at the TCC. Remember Brother Paul teasing me about my joke telling skills? The truth is, I used to do stand-up comic routines and often included them in my preaching. When God began to convict me of the need to honor Him, He let me see that, many people would come to me even years later, talking about the jokes I had told and none could remember what I preached about at those services. I think that, when I renounced using such tactics to “get a hearing”, my gift in preaching grew and my talent for joke-telling diminished.
    Soli Deo Gloria
    Paul Walker

  • Turn that around, though, can it be said that your affections influence the truth? I would argue that it doesn’t. The truth is truth whether you like it or not.

    Agreed. The problem is how to present the truth in such a way that the heart is “cut,” to use the word from Acts. In fact, as I reflect on the gospels a bit, I think Jesus had a great idea with parables in this respect — it was something people could relate to on a heart level, since they likely hit close to home. The disciples, on the other hand, wanted the head knowledge and were frustrated that they weren’t getting it. Jesus, of course, related to them head-first, but it seems his practice was to speak to the heart first publicly, then in private with the disciples he spoke head-first.

    Of course, this leads to a further problem we’ve all groused about; namely being contextual in a way that is faithful and honorable to the truth instead of something like “clown ministry.” So I think we can safely say we’re not worrying about that in this discussion; rather the question for us is how do we do justice to the truth when preaching or witnessing “heart-first?”

  • As an aside, when I think of “clown ministry,” I get shivers. I’ve seen Stephen King’s “It” one time too many. 😉

  • Paul,

    I remember you saying that. Yeah, I remember when I first sensed God’s call on my life, he began developing a passion to study and apply myself to the doctrines of God’s Word. Before that, I never read a book but was a committed jock. I still love playing sports, but my time and attention has been channeled into the work that God has called me, and that has made all the difference.

  • TImmy,

    I agree totally. I have seen turn outs on colleges for Christian illusionists and the like and when I talk to people afterwards all they can say about the evening was that the magic tricks were “way awesome!”. The person up their may have shared a small devotional at the end of his show but all in all it was just a magic show. I have seen virtually the same group of people sit under the teacher of a man like Paul Washer, and no one talks about the man unless it is to tell of his power full message, or the conviction in which he spoke. When men get up and simply preach the Gospel and are forward in doing so, the Spirit honors that. The Spirit will work in the hearts of men through the Gospel and change them from stone to flesh. I just hope that we can have more traveling preachers and less of the entertainers that we have seen lately.

    In Christ
    Joe Hussung

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  • Karin Barry

    If you listen to Pilgrim Radio http://www.pilgrimradio.com today, Tullian Tchividjia is on the Extra Credit program (will be on again at 5:00 pm and 10:00 pm PST) today.

    Although his topic is on encouragement, it relates very well to this thread. How we need to move away from man-cenetered encouragement to God-centered encouragement. We need to see the Creator behind the creature.

    If you haven’t checked out Pilgrim Radio, it is great. Although they broadcast on radio waves in some markets, you can catch their programming streamed live on the internet.