Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Using the right terms

I’ve started reading Bob Robert’s book named Glocalization. I’ll be blogging about that in the near future. As I was reading the first few chapters, I couldn’t help feeling that we need to define terms when we use them. I’ll explain the reason why this book got me thinking about it at a later stage. I can still remember the feeling I had when the first person once said to me something like: Yes, I know that you are a Christian, but are you a reborn Christian? And I was thinking to myself: Hey, does this mean that you get reborn Christians and non-reborn Christians? I realised the person’s problem, but I’m not sure if the problem was being solved in the right way. He had a problem with people calling themselves Christians because they are sympathetic or possibly, for that matter, not antagonistic towards Christianity. What he meant was probably something like: Are you sold-out to Christ? My fear about this issue was confirmed when I heard someone saying to another person: Are you a truly reborn Christian?
Which reminds me of the story I once heard a church which was started in Canada and called itself The Church of God. But after time the church split due to some internal problems and the new group called themselves The True Church of God. When this church also split, the third group called themselves The Only True Church of God!
One of the difficult things when busy with evangelism, is to determine where a person is in his or her spiritual life. I have attended a number of crusades in my life and have obviously also been involved with evangelism for the most of my ministry. Most evangelists seem to have an understanding of being a Christian equal to: Have you said the sinner’s prayer? Or even more simplistically: Have you raised your hand at some point to indicate that you want to accept Jesus as Saviour? Or: Have you repented? About seven or eight years ago I was invited to do a training course on the use of the Jesus Film. This was extremely good as I then realised how many mistakes people make when using the Jesus Film as evangelism tool. However, on one point I disagreed with the presenters and told them so in private, but this led to an argument and eventually they refused to accredit me as a presenter of the Jesus Film! (That was quite humiliating, because “normal” church members were accredited and their pastor not! But I’ve learnt to accept it now. 😉
My argument was that the tradition of showing the film to a few hundred people, then asking them to indicate whether they wanted to accept Jesus as Saviour by raising their hands, praying a sinner’s prayer and then counting the hands to determine the “success” of the outreach was unbiblical and dishonest. At the very least I wanted them to ask all those who wanted to accept Jesus to remain behind and that personal conversations take place, preferably on another day, to discuss their decision with them. Their argument was that they didn’t have enough manpower and also, many people may not want to take this step if we give them a chance to opt out of that decision. Do we then count them as Christians or not? Is that the reason why we have to start using other terms to determine whether someone is a “real” Christian.
The two diagnostic questions used by Evangelism Explosion, namely:

  1. Have you come to the point in your spiritual life that you know for sure that, if you were to die today, you would go to heaven?
  2. Suppose you were to die today and you come to stand before God and He should ask you, “For what reason should I allow you into my heaven?”, how would you answer him?

have come under a lot of criticism and I think that much of this criticism is justified. I’m not saying that the two questions are bad. I just see that many people use it in a bad way, mainly because they don’t want to spend time with people, listening to them. The times that I do use those questions myself, I usually already know the answer that I will get, merely because I have listened to the person speaking about his or her experience with God. Often I don’t use the questions as I feel that the person to whom I’m speaking had told me enough to indicate the way forward in the conversation.
For myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that we are not saved through the sinner’s prayer, through the raising of a hand or even by going forward after a crusade. We are saved through Christ alone. Through what method He does it, seems to be irrelevant. For many people it may be as simple as praying a sinner’s prayer and accepting Jesus as Saviour. For some it may be merely by raising their hands. There are thousands of people who will say that they raised their hand at a crusade and that their lives changed irrevocably from that moment onwards. What is more important to know is whether a relationship exists between the person and Christ. And therefore I prefer nowadays, when speaking to an individual, to concentrate on using the term relationship. Or to ask a question such us: How do you experience Jesus in your daily life? often including a remark such as: It’s interesting to hear how you experienced God’s love for you at that time. Would you like to tell me more about it?
Many Christian terms have been used and abused. We Christians speak a language which I call Christianese, but because of misunderstanding we need to keep on redefining the words so that it makes sense to us. But couldn’t a lot of misunderstand be prevented if we were willing to spend time with people, not rushing or forcing them into making a decision for Christ, but listening to them to understand how they see a relationship with Christ, helping them to understand what the Bible says, so that, eventually, when they do confess that they are Christians, that both they and we all know exactly what they mean?


Saturday, November 3, 2007 - Posted by | Bob Roberts, Building relations, Dialogue, Evangelism, Evangelism Explosion, Mission


  1. I have often run across this problem when trying to witness to someone. When I ask them if they’ve ever accepted Jesus as their Savior, I often get “Oh, yes,” when it seems obvious that they have no relationship with Christ (even though I know it is God who judges the heart, not me, but you hopefully understand my meaning.) I live in the “Bible belt” of the US and it seems everyone really has heard about Jesus. But do they KNOW Him? It’s often hard to make the difference clear in conversation. You’ve given me some new ways to ask the question.

    Comment by Cindy | Saturday, November 3, 2007 | Reply

  2. The point I’m trying to make is that there is no quick way to determine another person’s ralationship with God. I’ve helped with the training of a large number of people in evangelism. How I did it when I started with this in 1994 and how I do it today is quite different from each other. By this I’m not compromising the gospel or salvation through Christ or faith at all. The biggest difference would be in the approach. We need to earn the right to ask someone about his of her spiritual life. This right usually cannot be obtained without a relationship. Do I, in other words, see the person I’m speaking to merely as an evangelism object which needs to be converted, or do I see the person as creation of God, someone whom God loves so much that He died for that person and someone in whose life I would like to invest in order for that person to come to full realisation of the meaning of living in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ?

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Monday, November 5, 2007 | Reply

  3. Arnau,

    Formerly I worked with an afterschool club here in the states that promotes the gospel. One day we had a clown come in from the orginization that sets these clubs up. He did his fun tricks, etc., and presented the gospel. Then he asked who would be interested in accepting Jesus. Many of the kids stood up.

    I purposely did not talk to them in front of the clown and I waited until the next week. We asked the kids who stood up the previous week to come and talk to us. Only one of them understood what they were standing up for…at least to some extent. She thought she was standing up because she had already “accepted Jesus.”

    Do you think that sometimes these events take place so that we can take a number back to the people that sent us? Or, cause our ministry to seem legit?

    Also, I had to analyze EE in one of my classes. I said that it would never work in Muslim contexts. I knew because I saw it fail in a Muslim country while I was there on a short-term mission trip. They were breaking out the green wood and the matches before I was done. 🙂

    Thanks for the post. I think you are on to something here.


    Comment by dwmiii | Monday, November 5, 2007 | Reply

  4. Hi Dougald, I’m glad you responded. It is said that, on average, people (including children) need tentouches” (that’s positive reactions) to the Christian faith and threepresentations” (where the gospel is explained) before they will make a real commitment to the Lord. This takes time and effort – something which we as Christians seem to be afraid off. But there is another side to the example you mentioned above: My wife is involved in a children’s group which meet every Wednesday. She has undergone a lot of training in different aspects of children’s ministry, including Kid’s EE (Evangelism Explosion for children) and others. She has a real heart for the children and puts in a lot of effort in preparing for the meeting every week. What I’m saying is that she really does everything according to the book and her attitude is also right. Some years ago she decided to do Kid’s EE with the children but she spread this out over a period of six months, taking a lot of time to make sure that they truly understand what the gospel is about. At the end of this time and after she had concluded her lessons with the kids, a number of people with evangelical hearts assisted her in speaking to the children on a personal base to find out whether they had or would like to personally accept Jesus as Saviour. She was shocked to see how many of the children, even after doing everything correctly, still did not understand many of the basic things about the gospel. So definitely I do agree that many people use numbers to give credibility to their ministry, but should the results be inspected, I’m afraid that they will be found lacking.
    About EE in the Muslim community: I know someone who does use it successfully, but once again it needs to be adapted. The reason why I like EE, is because it gives the Christian the ability not only to understand the gospel correctly but it also the ability to communicate the gospel in an understandable way. The problem comes in when you confront a Muslim, ask him the two questions, present the gospel and expect of them to make a commitment there and then. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but in general it may take years before a Muslim will make such a commitment. Had I rather spent these years in building a friendly and trusting relationship, with my knowledge of the gospel, I may have been able to explain to him what it is we believe (as the Muslims also have a lot of misunderstanding about Christianity). So, EE is never a short-cut. It is merely a tool to help us in evangelism.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Monday, November 5, 2007 | Reply

  5. Arnau,

    I agree that EE is a tool and it defintely takes some interaction on the part of those who are sharing the gospel in that context.

    I don’t know about where you are, but here in the states we love ‘canned’ approaches like EE. However, there is an adverse reaction coming around that is moving away from using ‘canned’ approaches. So that might be reflected a bit in my comments.

    Thanks for the response.

    Comment by dwmiii | Monday, November 5, 2007 | Reply

  6. I’m in Southern Africa (South Africa which is where I grew up and Swaziland where I am now working as missionary). In my experience a canned approach as you call it works with people who grew up in the church, who have a certain understanding of the Bible, who feel fairly comfortable speaking about the Bible but who still lack faith or, as I often find, just don’t understand what the faith issue is all about. To be able to sit down with such a person and have a logical way of explaining what Jesus did and why He did it, is really great and it works most of the time. But the canned approach does not work well with people who had been disillusioned or who are openly antagonistic to the church. I’m not saying that it is wrong to explain the gospel to them, but it will have to be done over a much longer time and much more effort will have to go into building a trusting relationship.

    How do you personally approach someone whom you suspect is not a Christian and who matters enough to you that you would like him/her to come to full saving faith?

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Monday, November 5, 2007 | Reply

  7. Arnau,

    It is actually very difficult for me. I live in the south of the US and most people have some faint idea of what the Bible has to say. So, by now they have heard EE or something similar hundreds of times.

    Whatever my approach is it always takes time. When I worked part-time for a security company my supervisor was a preacher’s kid. He wasn’t a Chritian, I don’t thik (I say this because he was a complete enigma. Once, I was about to share with one of the higher-ups in the company and my supervisor jumped in…he loved to argue and he was discussing the Da Vinci Code..moving on…) One day he asked me what I thought about him marrying a girl who was a Catholic (this is a big question for a Baptist). I honestly told him that that depended on how much he was going to place God at the center of his marriage. This was the first time he was confronted with the gospel affecting his everyday life.

    Maybe that is my main goal, I try to show how the gospel should affect our lives and that it was not just some prayer we prayed when younger.

    I use the same approach in Muslim contexts because they are more relational and bite off smaller chunks of the gospel at one sitting.

    Comment by dwmiii | Wednesday, November 7, 2007 | Reply

  8. I guess I should say I use a similar approach in Muslim contexts. I doubt they prayed a prayer when they were younger. 🙂

    Comment by dwmiii | Wednesday, November 7, 2007 | Reply

  9. I think it was the German theologian, Helmut Thielicke, who wrote in some place that our biggest problem are the people who had just received a glancing blow with the gospel. They experienced something but did not come to full commitment to the Lord, and it then seems as though they build up a resistance (immunity) towards the gospel.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Thursday, November 8, 2007 | Reply

  10. […] life. I’ve written fairly extensively about my feelings on this in a post which you can read here. At the same time I realise this person’s predicament. Her father is dying. Who of us would be […]

    Pingback by Praying the “Sinner’s prayer” « Mission Issues | Thursday, April 17, 2008 | Reply

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