Now, don't get me wrong on this, I love seeing people get saved. There's really nothing better than seeing a dead person get a new lease on life. Yet, I can't help thinking that we as Baptists suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of how people get saved. Because of this, we are reaching out in ways that are not producing the sort of kingdom fruit that God desires.
The teaching of the scriptures about what we are to do as Christians does not focus on people being saved. Consider one of the scriptures that is a favorite among those of us who are mission-minded Baptists, the Great Commission:
Therefore, as you go, disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.
We are given a single task here, broken into two elements. The single task is to make disciples. We accomplish that by doing two things. We baptize disciples, and we teach them. Nowhere here is there a mention of saving them, or even of leading them to salvation. Yet we understand, of course, that people cannot be baptized and taught as disciples unless they are saved.
Jesus made it clear that he alone offers salvation.
I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
We cannot baptize or teach those who do not claim the name of Jesus. No amount of teaching them how to behave in Church will save them. Merely “Christianizing” people is not enough. The most we can accomplish is changing their behavior, which has no bearing on their eternal relationship with the living God.
Jesus made it clear that he alone does the saving:
On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not withstand it.
He will build his Church. He didn't ask us to build it, nor should we. Any Church I build is destined to be as screwed up as its founder, or worse.
We must leave salvation to the work of the Holy Spirit, because we are unworthy to save. It should not be manipulated, coerced, or otherwise “helped”. The very idea that we can arrange matters so that more or fewer people are saved is arrogant, and an attempt on our part to play God.
Charles Finney is to blame for the modern invitation system, and much of the poor theology that goes along with it. In addition to being a Pelagian heretic, he pioneered the use of altar calls, high-pressure preaching, and emotional appeals. The idea of scoring a large number of converts with slick packaging at an event is a recent concept with no roots in historical Christianity. It's a marketing technique rooted in modern thinking, and its legacy drives missionary efforts worldwide. When we do see large numbers of people converted, as happened at Pentecost, it is with a simple preaching of the Word during a move of the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel of Finney would equip missionaries with the following instructions:
Go out and organize large evangelistic gatherings, draw as many people as you possibly can to the event. Preach an emotionally charged message, and deliver it with great fervor. Use dramas, music, or anything you can to appeal to people's emotions -guilt, anxiety, fear.
If people aren't responding, turn up the volume. Preach harder, sing one more verse of the invitation song and make an especially strong emotional appeal. Plead, cry, beg, threaten -do whatever it takes to get them to come forward and make a decision. Plant a few people in the audience who will pretend to respond, to serve as a catalyst.
When Jesus sent out his first missionary team, he gave them these instructions:
As you go, proclaim, 'The kingdom of heaven is near! Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without payment you have received; without payment you are to give. Don't take any gold, silver, or copper in your moneybags, or a traveling bag for the trip, or an extra shirt, or sandals, or a walking stick. For a worker deserves his food.
Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is receptive, let your blessing of peace come on it. But if it isn't receptive, let your blessing of peace return to you. If no one welcomes you or listens to your words, as you leave that house or town, shake its dust off your feet.
More to the point, Jesus told us:
In the same way, let your light shine before people in such a way that they will see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."
If we want to know what missions and ministry should look like, we need look no further than the words of our Lord and Savior:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels are with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be assembled in front of him, and he will separate them from each other as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right but the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who have been blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me.'
This is nothing like the one-shot evangelism practiced by so many today. Churches and ministries move in for a short term effort, and look for ways to manipulate people to maximize the results of their work -a work which is not theirs in the first place.
We live in an industrial age, and view everything in the lens of mass production. We look for a more efficient process to produce greater results. Applying this to ministry and evangelism may produce more decisions, but does it produce more disciples? More to the point, does it follow in obedience to God?