Manipulative & Mechanical Approaches to Evangelism
By Berry Kercheville
While I have always believed that most Christians would be willing to share the gospel, it is also true that most have a negative connotation about evangelism. There are a number of valid reasons for this. Sermons have been preached that are aimed at shaming us into being more evangelistic, but give us no training or clue as to how we are to reach that goal. Many have also been a part of a church that geared up a big evangelistic push for a few weeks, which generated brief excitement but little success, and even less long-term effect on the growth of the church. And then there were those uncomfortable door-knocking efforts that were terrifying and painful, but still rarely reached the goal of a Bible study with an unbeliever. To top it off, most Christians are very intimidated at the thought of actually teaching a friend or acquaintance. Let’s face it, churches have not typically put much effort toward Paul’s command to Timothy to commit the word to faithful men and women who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).
As a result many preachers have attempted to simplify the process of teaching the lost. In the 50’s and 60’s filmstrips were commonly used in teaching. I remember being told that it was not necessary to know the Bible very well; you just needed to learn how to run the projector. Other methods were devised that “led” the prospect through a number of questions and answers. If your prospect answered “yes” to a preplanned question then you were to follow up with another preplanned question; but if he answered “no,” you would go in different direction. It reminded me of the typical insurance or vacuum cleaner salesman. As technology advanced, some created slick presentations using computers and fancy charts that tell the gospel story, but these are still somewhat reminiscent of the filmstrip days. The message is the same: it’s easy; anyone can do it; you don’t have to know much; and it will produce baptisms!
Remembering Our Goal
Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him… Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:44). Our goal is not to baptize a person; our goal is to make a disciple of Jesus. Paul said, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17). While baptism is part of becoming a disciple, we want a person to be drawn to God, not to baptism. In other words, it is relatively easy to convince a person of the need to be baptized, but it is a far different matter to convince a person to give up everything to follow Christ. We want people to learn about God in such a way that they are drawn to him out of love and desire to live as he would have them live.
“But people became Christians in one lesson in Acts.”
That is true, but the occasions in which that happened were Jews who already had a good knowledge of God and were looking for the Messiah. Paul spent three years teaching in Ephesus and eighteen months in Corinth. I have baptized some after one lesson (3-4 hour lesson!) who remained faithful, but that was almost always people who were already diligent seekers and Bible students. For the most part, we are dealing with people today who either have almost no knowledge of the scriptures or who are filled with denominational error. It takes longer than an hour or two to help these people decide for themselves that they truly believe and are willing become a disciple of Jesus. The last thing we want to do is pressure or manipulate them into a decision to simply be baptized.
The Danger of Mechanical or Manipulative Teaching
What do we learn about sharing the gospel from Jesus and Paul? In both cases we see them reasoning with those they taught: “And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4). Reasoning is the idea of “exchanging thought with thought; to discuss.” In fact, though we see Paul and Peter persuading people to become disciples, there is no indication their method was to push people to make a decision about baptism. Instead, those they taught came to a decision on their own, having been persuaded by the power of the gospel: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37); “What hinders me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36); “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). While it is true that Ananias told Saul, “Why do you delay? Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins,” (Acts 22:16), the Lord had already appeared to Saul and he had been praying and fasting three days. The point is, the gospel will do the persuading. The gospel will strike the heart and cause a response without us pressuring or manipulating. It is counter-productive in the long run to press a person for a decision.
In 1979, Flavil Yeakley, a social scientist, wrote a book called, Why Churches Grow. Yeakley specifically studied churches of Christ and approaches used to share the gospel. He studied 720 “converts, drop-outs, and non-converts” and discovered three primary ways these people were taught and/or perceived the approach by which they were taught. He divided the approaches into three categories:
- Information Transmission: in this case, the Christian sees himself as a teacher imparting information to a student or teaching a lesson. This method reflects the filmstrip approach and similar styles.
- Manipulative Monologue: in this approach, the Christian sees himself as a salesman selling a product. Many brethren have followed this model and applied sales-type techniques to their efforts of conversion. This method is typical of a lesson that is designed to baptize a person in the first session.
- Non-Manipulative Dialogue: with this approach, a Christian sees himself as a friend discussing with a friend a matter of mutual interest. This more closely reflects the evangelism done in the New Testament – reasoning and exchanging thought with thought.
The results of Yeakley’s study are interesting and predictable. Of 249 people who perceived being taught by information transmission, 41 were baptized and 36 of those dropped out. That left 208 people who did not accept the gospel.
In the case of manipulative monologue, of the 290 who were taught, 268 were baptized! Sounds fantastic, right? But not so fast. Of these, 203 dropped out, a 76% dropout rate. Does this remind you of hearing of a church experiencing numerous baptisms, and yet the size of the church has not changed? In the world of salesmen, this is called “buyers regret.” They were convinced by the emotion of the moment, but these had certainly not become disciples.
Finally, in the case of non-manipulative dialogue, 181 people perceived the Christian as a friend discussing a matter of mutual interest. Of these 171 were baptized, one dropped out, and 10 were not baptized. While Yeakley certainly wasn’t suggesting that Christians using this approach will baptize 94% of the people they teach (after all, the responsiveness of one’s heart to the gospel is still the bottom line), there is clearly a dramatic difference in those who invested themselves with the person they were teaching as opposed to Christians who were just delivering a lesson or those who were trying to “make a sale.”
In my experience, it takes longer to teach a person using non-manipulative dialogue or the “reasoning” approach, but the result is more disciples. Further, as a church develops a culture of connecting and accepting outsiders, the rate of conversions grows significantly. Biblical evangelism requires a long-term cultural change in a local church. Flash-in-the-pan evangelistic “programs” are unsustainable, typically fail, and leave the church discouraged.