by Cecil W. Stalnaker
Missionaries must grasp both intellectually and
emotionally that God is the silver bullet in world evangelism. If not, they may respond in at least eight unhealthy ways.
At a conference in the Netherlands, a missionary speaker presented the silver bullet for world evangelism—“If you are not doing signs and wonders, you are not doing evangelism.”
According to him, this was the solution to evangelism. But is it? Some of the silver bullets over the last twenty-five years have misfired, while others have totally missed the target. Approaches such as power evangelism, apostolic leadership, seeker-driven church ministries, identificational repentance, contextualization, the prosperity gospel, the conquering of territorial spirits, and the CAMEL method have been touted as the key ammunition for the evangelization of the world.
Have we become too fascinated with finding the silver bullet? Do we really think there is a single approach that is the determining factor in missionary outreach? Well, there is a “silver bullet,” but it may not be what we think it is.
The Absolute and Penetrating Power of God
The one and only source of church growth, whether in quantity or quality, originates in God. The Church of God “grows with a growth that is from God” (Col. 2:19). The silver bullet in world evangelism is God himself, for he exercises absolute power and rule in redemptive history. Being all powerful, he is able to accomplish his redemptive purposes.
We know that the plan for redemption is “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). The builder of the Church, both qualitatively and quantitatively, is Jesus. According to Matthew 16:18, Jesus makes the divine promise that his community of people will grow. Any church built on creative missionary methodology will be inferior to what Jesus builds.
Acts emphasizes the work of God in the evangelistic process. Acts 2:47 reminds us that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” The significant title ho kyrios (“the Lord”) appears first in the sentence not only for grammatical reasons, but also for emphasis (Longenecker 1981, 291), since it is the Lord who brings people into the Church.
On Paul’s second missionary journey, the Lord God “opened” the heart of Lydia (Acts 16:14). It is God who “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). Scripture never attributes a particular “method” as being the means to opening the heart of anyone; only God renders human responsiveness.
In reference to the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10,
…it is certainly true that this shows how God’s mission is not simply an enterprise of the Church. It is a work of the Spirit who goes ahead of the Church, touches the Roman soldier and his household, prepares them for the message, and teaches the Church a new lesson about the scope of God’s grace. (Newbigin 1989, 168)
Simply put, “God’s mission is that God sends, empowers, and produces the results” (Hong 2000, 192).
In the ministry of Paul and Apollos, it is evident that “God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). This is emphasized by the conjunction “but” (álla) in the phrase, contrasting the work of humans (Paul and Apollos) with the work of God. Using metaphors from agriculture, Paul declares that no farmer can cause growth. He or she can only plant and water. The same applies to missionaries and their methods. In this passage, the Greek verbs for “planted” and “watered” are in the aorist tense while “giving growth” is in the imperfect.
In other words, planting and watering in relation to evangelism is an end in itself; the growth is a continuous blessing and action by God (Rienecker and Rodgers 1980, 393). By his phrasing, Paul intended to lead the Corinthians to the conclusion that God is the only source of life when it comes to evangelistic results.
Planters only scatter the seed supplied to them by God (2 Cor. 9:10) and put it in contact with the soil created by God. Waterers only keep the soil moist for growth by using rainwater supplied by God….The point is that success does not depend on those who preach, but on God….Paul argues that every worker is equally insignificant before God….every worker is indispensible. (Garland 2003, 112)
Paul’s purpose is to lead the readers to God and his glory—not to praise the apostolic missionary work and efforts.
Letting God be God over his church, seeing him as its center and glory, its source and its life, is a truly liberating experience. It liberates us from thinking that we have to do, in ourselves, what we are entirely incapable of doing. That is, growing the church. We cannot do the work that only God can do. We can work in the church, preach and teach, spread the gospel, encourage and urge each other on, but we cannot impart new life. Nor can we ever sanctify the church. Indeed, we cannot even feed the church. It is God who supplies the food; we are simply called upon to serve it (1 Cor. 3:5). (Wells 2008, 242)
Although humans are very involved in the process, scripture is clear that results and growth emerge as a result of the “hand of the Lord” (Acts 11:21). Neglecting God’s work in our missionary efforts is a mistake.
Because of God, the potential for white harvest fields is always a possibility. He even uses social and political chaos, cultural mishaps, and natural disasters to create openness and responsiveness to the gospel. Numbers of current church-planting penetrations among the people of Islam have occurred as a result of natural calamity. Uncontrollable circumstances which lie in God’s control may be the very elements that begin to bring light to the blind, often producing readiness for spiritual change.
God often moves rapidly in inexplicable ways. According to one 2009 report, during a three-month period in a northern part of India, there were 1,730 baptisms, 125 new house churches established, and 142 individuals who emerged for leadership training. “This is nothing short of the sovereignty of God!” the report stated (Nations 2009, 8).
The Absolute Need for a Silver Bullet
Due to sinful corruption and the deceptiveness of Satan, it is impossible for human nature to be transformed through any evangelistic method. The Holy Spirit, however, responds to both barriers and enables those dead in their sin to respond to the truth of the saving death of Christ.
Because of this spiritual deadness, it is essential that all talk of openness and resistance should first consider God’s role “and secondarily . . . matters of worldview, sociology, contextualization, or strategy” (Van Engen 1998, 23). Another factor related to humanity’s resistance to the gospel is that of Satan, who has blinded the minds of the unbelieving “to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:3-4).
No matter what the obstacle, God’s work of grace is greater. “Only by the illumination of the Spirit can men understand the meaning of the cross; only by the Spirit can men therefore confess that Jesus who was executed is also the Lord (1 Cor. 12:3)” (Ladd 1974, 491). No matter the method, people will not open themselves up to the gospel unless God has worked in their hearts and minds.
Because the sinful nature is deep, penetrating, enslaving, and spiritually blinding, it appears that no missionary evangelistic method can naturally create responsiveness on the part of the people—even the so-called bullet of contextualization.
No amount of effectiveness in relation to contextualization can promise that humans will say yes to God. Quite the contrary. Even if—or precisely when—humans come to understand the gospel being offered to them—even if they understand it in very appropriate cultural, relational, and social forms—humans will still say no to God, apart from the working of the Holy Spirit. (Van Engen 1998, 52)
Yet, there is no human heart that God cannot touch.
Please do not misunderstand—this does not eliminate the relevance of human context and the labors of humans. The apostles thought of themselves as “God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:9) and instruments of the Holy
Spirit in the actual undertaking of the evangelism—nothing more, nothing less.
Of course, evangelistic results spring out of missionary methods and activities. Scripture never says that God’s work in the heart, mind, and soul of people is incompatible with humanity’s will or methodology. The methods of the missionary are included in God’s plan of redemption, but it is never honored, glorified, or seen as the key to producing fruit.
Where does all of this lead? It is extremely important that missionaries grasp both intellectually and emotionally that God is the silver bullet in world evangelism. If not, they may respond in any number of unhealthy ways.
1. “Shake the dust off their feet” and abandon their field of ministry. Some will move to riper harvest areas, but many will simply leave. Why? Because they may be too dependent upon their evangelistic skills, thinking it is useless to continue with few results. By knowing that God is the cause of growth, we can trust his timing in relation to his redemptive purposes. If evangelistic growth does not come, we may assume that we are in the phase of planting, sowing, and watering. Mission history testifies that this phase can endure for decades, yet it often leads to harvest.
2. Feel discouraged, disappointed, and hopeless. Let us not forget that the words of Jesus, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18), were “first and foremost, a promise meant to encourage the disciples” (MacArthur 1993, 176). Although there is no guarantee that a particular missionary will see fruit in an evangelistic thrust, he or she can feel a certain amount of confidence that his or her effort can succeed because God is capable of dramatic intervention and transformation.
Because of God’s supreme, powerful, and penetrating work in redemption, he can bypass any barrier to the gospel—theological, social, physical, or psychological—for he is the omnipotent barrier breaker.
History records hundreds of turning points regarding the harvest. Although missionaries are incapable of creating spiritual breakthrough, this is not the case with God. Can you imagine the hopelessness that missionaries felt when they were tossed out of China in 1949? Yet in God’s timetable, he intervened, drawing millions to himself. Roland Allen once said, “The great things of God are beyond our control” (Allen 1962, 12).
3. Feel “personally” responsible for the harvest. The fact that God is at work removes the burden of being personally responsible for the hearts and souls of people. Lesslie Newbigin provides us with some good advice: “Evangelism must be rescued from a Pelagian anxiety as though we were responsible for converting the world” (Newbigin 2008, 52). God never intended for humans to take on this responsibility. And “if we forget that only God can give faith, we shall start to think that the making of converts depends, in the last analysis, not on God but on us” (Packer 1961, 27).
4. Lack trust in the power of the gospel. A grasp of God’s powerful work in evangelism will significantly fortify the missionary’s confidence and trust in the power of the gospel. In fact, the very reason some missionaries cling tightly to their methodologies is that they may not have fully grasped God’s work in evangelism. When missionaries truly understand God’s powerful and penetrating ministry in spiritual darkness, they can be even more risk-oriented in proclaiming the good news. Why? Because entering the Kingdom of God is dependent upon the power of the gospel.
5. Be in danger of missiological reductionism. In light of God’s power and action in the world, the various human methods and approaches are mere tools of the living God—not keys to success. If missionaries do not internally grasp the understanding that God is the ultimate cause in producing fruit, they will allow a methodology to be a substitute for Christ’s work of building the Church. We will make our missionary methods evangelistic idols and reduce success to methods and strategies.
6. Believe they can predict who will and will not respond to the gospel. Evangelistic results cannot be predicted by human approaches. “No one can predict or control who will experience new birth. It is ultimately God’s doing” (Erickson 1985, 946). John 3:8 reads, “The wind blows where it wishes…you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit is completely unpredictable. We never know what the outcome will be since the Holy Spirit is free to act when, how, and where he desires. God often surprises us in who does or does not respond to the gospel.
7. Lack foresight in reference to discipleship. Since purely human approaches are not the source of God-given life itself, the fruit produced will not last. Anything other than God’s mighty work may produce curious people, but not true disciples. Missionaries can cause the church to grow using various marketing techniques, dynamic speakers, and through promises of health and prosperity—but these are nothing more than false foundations.
All church growth is not good. The worst malignant cancers grow most rapidly. Among the fastest-growing religious movements in the world, some are spiritually unhealthy and lack biblical truth as they posit themselves on the foundations of wood, hay, and stubble. If missionaries do not internally grasp the understanding that God is the ultimate cause in producing fruit, they might even become manipulative and/or forceful in their evangelistic approach as they press for evangelistic fruit.
8. Become increasingly anthropocentric rather than Spirit-centric. If we do not grasp God’s mighty work in world evangelism, we will view our methods and strategies as dispensers of God’s power, thinking that they give life to the dead. If so, we are in danger of forgetting that the gospel message is about the miracle of God’s grace. Although evangelism is spiritual work and calls for thought regarding methods and activity, we want to avoid any semblance of orchestrating evangelistic fruit.
We don’t want evangelism to become nothing more than a battle of our will against the unbeliever’s. Pressing people into decisions to follow Christ comes quite naturally to the missionary who is not convinced that God is the ultimate life-giver. Paul Hiebert wrote that there is a danger in missions, especially if there is
…shifting from God and his work to the emphasis of what we can do for God by our own knowledge and efforts. We become captive to a modern secular worldview in which human control and technique replace divine leading and human obedience as the basis of mission. (Hiebert 1993, 4)
The silver bullet of world evangelization is not pragmatic, but sacred. What is the logic behind the biblical truth that God brings the results? The glory of God. This is the focal point of missions. Just as the earth circles the sun, all missionary work should circle one point—God’s magnificent glory. It is through the missionary’s ministry that the awesome radiance of God must be revealed. This is the ascribed glory of God—the glory that is attributed to him because of what he has done and will do in the redemption of humans.
Allen, Roland. 1962. The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church. Grand Rapid, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Erickson, Millard J. 1985. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Garland, David A. 2003. I Corinthians. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
Hiebert, Paul. 1993. “De-theologizing Missiology: A Response.” Trinity World Forum Fall: 4.
Hong, Young-Gi. 2000. “Revisiting Church Growth in Korean Protestantism: A Theological Reflection.” International Review of Mission April:190-202.
Ladd, George E. 1974. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Longenecker, Richard N. 1981. The Acts of the Apostles. Vol. 9 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
MacArthur, Jr., John. 1993. Ashamed of the Gospel. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Nations, a publication of World Outreach International. 2009. Issue 3.
Newbigin, Lesslie. 1989. Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
______. 2008. “Evangelism in the Context of Secularization.” In The Study of Evangelism. Eds. Paul W. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner, 46-58. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Packer, J. I. 1961. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. London: InterVarsity Press.
Rienecker, Fritz and Cleon Rodgers. 1980. Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Van Engen, Charles. 1998. “Reflecting Theologically about the Resistant.” In Reaching the Resistant. Ed. J. Dudley Woodbury, 22-75. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Wells, David. 2008. The Courage to be Protestant. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Cecil Stalnaker, a professor of intercultural studies at Tyndale Theological Seminary near Amsterdam, has served for more than thirty years in Belgium and the Netherlands with Greater Europe Mission. His focus is on leadership and discipleship training, evangelism, and church planting.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 216-222. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.