by John D. Ellenberger
Much of missionary methodology has been subject to a type of faddish cycle. The cycle begins when missionaries are exposed to a new technique that has captured the fascination of the Western missiological world.
Much of missionary methodology has been subject to a type of faddish cycle. The cycle begins when missionaries are exposed to a new technique that has captured the fascination of the Western missiological world. The newly enlightened missionaries try out the new technique in a church context—one that is often unprepared and resistant to the innovation. Their focus remains on this new method for a period of time. The cycle is complete when the method becomes just another approach, and the mission community moves on to a more recent innovation. Two examples of this cycle in the history of missionary methodology are Evangelism-in-Depth and Theological Education by Extension.1
One methodology which seems to have escaped the cycle is Evangelism Explosion (EE). Less than 20 years after becoming an international ministry, EE has expanded the training of its technique into many new areas, including limited-access countries. In 1996, EE celebrated reaching all 211 nations of the world.
We must keep in mind, however, that “reached” could mean having as few as one EE-trained individual actively using EE’s method of disciple-making in certain limited-access countries. Nonetheless, in terms of its scope and penetration, we should all celebrate this very significant achievement of a visionary goal.
I believe that much of Evangelism Explosion’s growth has to do with the communicational factors inherent within the EE model. Four of these factors are examined below.
1. EE builds communicator confidence. Tom Mangham, a missionary with the Christian and Missionary Alliance who holds EE clinics all over Southeast Asia, writes, “People who have taken the training have said that for the first time in their lives, they know how to initiate a conversation, express interest in another person’s life, and gain the right to share the gospel.”2 This kind of confidence encourages participation and builds with every positive contact.
2. The EE model uses “transferable concepts.” EE’s relatively simple approach, when mastered by the student, can not only be used in evangelism, but can be taught to the next generation of witnesses. Tom Stebbins, executive vice president of EE, tells of winning a Chinese optometrist in Hong Kong to Christ, who in turn took EE training, brought 26 others to Jesus, and went on to become a trainer of other witnesses.3 It is the relative ease with which anyone can go from trainee to witness to trainer, using basically the same materials, that gives EE its transmittable strength.
3. EE has the potential for cultural flexibility, which carries it across cultural boundaries. The EE presentation may be personalized, and Western illustrations replaced with local ones that illustrate the same points, but carry greater emotive impact. For example, among the Chinese, for whom even the mention of death is bad luck and unacceptable, the two diagnostic questions in the EE materials must be carefully expressed to avoid using those terms.
4. EE is local church-and-community-centered. This means that EE retains all the dynamics of the group, including opinion leadership and the strength of face-to-face communication to relatives, neighbors, and peers. EE empowers lay people from the church to be the front line of evangelism in a context that is familiar and comfortable. Whatever fruit is realized from this endeavor in turn builds the local church.
It is my assessment that the communication dynamics inherent within the EE model, under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, will carry Evangelism Explosion into the next century as a front-line strategic tool, one which continually reproduces itself and is powerfully used by the Lord of the harvest to build the church.
I have some concerns, however. One is that the push for conversion will overshadow the spiritual decision process. Studies indicate that people who decide to follow Christ do so in specific steps moving from early knowledge about God through an awareness of the implications of thegospel to an intention to make a decision.4 Methodologies that focus on conversion can easily assume all people are at the final stage of a decision and only need one last thrust of persuasion to clinch it. The focus should, instead, be on the friendship evangelism goal of moving a person along the process toward an eventual decision.
The spiritual decision process is important to EE. This can be seen in Kennedy’s caution against “high pressure tactics”5 and Stebbin’s warning that failure to question the person’s background, spiritual condition, and felt needs are “the greatest errors made in witnessing.”6
But the intense focus on converts in EE’s practice sessions may hijack the importance of the spiritual journey. Should there be “diagnostic questions” developed for some kind of placement of the person on the decision process scale? Should all initial “converts” be considered “seekers” until there is some reaffirmation of the decision? These are valid questions for EE strategists.
Another concern is that the witnessing model will be maintained at the expense of cultural sensitivity and understanding. One Japanese delegation considered the EE model too American for Japan because the introduction of “heaven as a gift” came too abruptly in the presentation.7 Although cultural flexibility is a communicational strength of EE, if details of the presentation are maintained and cultural sensitivities subordinated, this strength could be eroded. The approach could be perceived as inflexible and Western.
Christianity Today recently reported that the issues of “relational skills and more flexibility in sharing the faith” are being addressed this year by EE in a significant revision of the methodology.8 This is heartening. New updating will be needed if Evangelism Explosion is to achieve its new, even more visionary goal, of reaching all the people groups of the world.
1. Hill, B. “The Fall and Rise of TEE in One African Church.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1988, pp. 42-47.
2. Tom Mangham, personal e-mail, 1997.
3. Stebbins, T. Evangelism by the Book. (Camp Hill: Christian Publications, 1991), p.126
4. Engel, J. Contemporary Christian Communication. (New York: Nelson, 1979), pp.182-183.
5. Kennedy, J. Evangelism Explosion. 5th Ed. (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1971), p.108.
6. Stebbins, p. 243.
7. Stebbins, pp. 222-226.
8. Lawton, Kim. “Evangelism Explosion Retools Its Approach.” Christianity Today, March 3, 1997, pp. 3:58.
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