by Tom Steffen
To what extent does the Holy Spirit compensate for our faulty evangelism-church planting?
Cross-cultural Christian workers have long understood that effective ministry requires both faithful obedience to the Word and the power and blessing of the Holy Spirit. Should either be absent, the audience’s understanding of the message can suffer considerably.
Human activity on behalf of the kingdom of God has sometimes shown incredible naivete. Sensing God’s call, evangelists and church planters have spread to all points of the globe, filled with enthusiasm and sometimes armed with ministry strategies honed and perfected in their homelands but often untried in other cultures. Some of these ministry attempts have been seriously flawed. The question I address in this article is: To what extent does the Holy Spirit compensate for our faulty evangelism-church planting?
On a flight back to Los Angeles I reminisced about a comment made by a former student and something I had read in EMQ regarding Campus Crusade’s ubiquitous evangelism tool, the "Four Spiritual Laws."
"These Four Laws did not relate to many of the problems that they (Russians) were going through with government, family, society, and the political, and economic unrest," my former student said. "Also, the Four Laws assumed that they already believed in God. This was not the case, since many of them had been taught all of their life that God did not exist."
Tom Houston of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, meanwhile, stated in EMQ:
In Russia, people were used to the Communist Party telling them how great and wonderful the worker’s republic is. They were used to glowing, optimistic lies. So when an evangelist goes in with stories about how great and wonderful the kingdom of God is, and tells them glowing, optimistic testimonies, do you know what they say? "We thought Christians were different."1
Those chilling comments raised some questions. Is this flawed evangelism? What does the Holy Spirit do with this type of evangelism? What will the church in this context look like in five years?
While I was in Seoul several summers ago, a Korean asked me why some missionaries take so long to present the gospel. She was referring to a missionary using the Chronological Teaching model, After six months he was only halfway through the Old Testament. "What if someone dies before the church planter presents the gospel?" she asked. These are legitimate questions. Is this flawed evangelism? How will the Holy Spirit respond in this situation?
What I consider flawed evangelism-church planting strategies combine flawed theology and methodology. This includes the Tylenol or therapy gospel that claims to address felt needs or life enhancement concerns — joy, peace, money, spiritual protection, and so forth. This message replaces the need for a substitutional Savior who can restore broken relationships with God.
It includes a message that addresses only the spiritual nature of people. It includes a middle-of-the book approach to communicating the gospel with no foundation and a lack of follow-up. It also includes a strong focus on the facts (to the exclusion of emotions), Western apologetics, Western decision-making rituals (e.g. raising hands, walking down the aisle, saying a prayer), law taking precedence over grace, and Christian workers who minimize the necessity of language and cultural learning, which results in a skewed gospel.
How far does the Holy Spirit go to dissipate the fog that is stirred up by evangelism that fails to make a universal message unique for specific contexts? After all of the slides, videos, songs, testimonies, short- and long-term trips, curricula, radio, TV, and yes, passionate, faithful service, will the Cleanup Hitter step up to the batter’s box? If he does, will he strike out? Walk? Hit a double? Triple? Home run? Grand slam? Was he there before the team arrived? After the team left?
While the Holy Spirit ushers people into the kingdom of God in spite of our flawed evangelism-church planting, those on the receiving end may live with the consequences for years to come. To demonstrate this, I will explore the role of the Holy Spirit in evangelism, looking at Scripture and several key missions texts. From there I will analyze two case stories, concluding with some possible applications for cross-cultural workers and those who train them.
ACTS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
The apostle John associates two names with the Holy Spirit — "Spirit of truth" and "Counselor." John and others flesh out the function of these two roles, which are responsible for expanding Christ’s kingdom and maturing those who comprise it (John 14:17,26; 15:26; 16:8-11, 13; Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8; Eph. 1:13; 3:4-5; 1 Thess. 1:5).
The Spirit of truth is not without opposition. Nor are those he indwells. Satan provides both unbelievers and believers with other options, lies, and half-truths (John 8:44; 1 John 4:6).
Despite this opposition, the "Go-Between Spirit" initiates, creates, enlightens, judges, persuades, enlivens, redeems, indwells, seals, energizes, empowers, disturbs, directs, comforts, teaches, transforms, informs, guides, preserves, leads, and reveals. He was present before creation, participated in it, and will play a continued role after its destruction.
In relation to evangelism, for the Christian worker, the Holy Spirit stands behind, initiates, and empowers witness at home and abroad. For the recipients of the message, he makes the Word come alive, bringing conviction that can result in change. His goal for both groups is to use the Word to glorify Christ.
But he does not stop there. No bifurcation exists between evangelism and follow-up. His other roles, such as sealer, comforter, guide, or disturber, kick in immediately.
The Holy Spirit’s activities are generational, which indicates that he continues to work in the lives of unbelievers in spite of flawed evangelism. He can accomplish this through preparation, clarifying the Word through personal reading, or through the assistance of others. Take, for example, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:29) or Priscilla and Aquila with Apollos (18:26).
A LOOK AT THE BOOKS
Several texts deal with the Holy Spirit and missions. We can thank Roland Allen for helping us see the Holy Spirit’s predominate role in missions.2 Searching for New Testament mission patterns, Allen found them centered in the Holy Spirit. Unleash the Holy Spirit and you unleash the church.
Harry Boar reminds us of the Holy Spirit’s role in initiating and sustaining the spiritual life of the church. John Taylor in The Go-Between God writes, "The chief actor in the historic mission of the Christian church is the Holy Spirit."4
These authors recognize that the extension of God’s kingdom is centered in the Holy Spirit yet played out through human agents (co-laborers). I concur with Stott: "… if the title ‘the Acts of the Apostles’ over-emphasizes the human element, ‘the Acts of the Holy Spirit’ over-emphasizes the divine, since it overlooks the apostles as the chief characters through whom the Spirit worked."5
The actions of human agents should be investigated with the same scrutiny as the actions of the Holy Spirit if we are to improve our flawed evangelism-church planting. Let’s look at two case stories of acts of the apostles.
ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
Philippines: A case story after World War II. Long the subjects of terror, extortion, and murder from the Japanese, Filipino lowlanders, and Muslim Moros, the 30,000 Palawanos of the Philippines developed a low self-image. Many tried to live in remote jungle areas of southern Palawan. The mere rumor of coming visitors would send them scurrying into the jungle to seek safety.
Palawano mythology taught them that someday someone would come carrying a large black book that contained God’s message. They were to obey whatever this person told them. In 1955, the Sigfried Sandstrom family arrived, carrying a large black book and a message from God. The Palawanos soon fell in love with this family, who, unlike so many predecessors, respected and loved them and helped them in numerous ways. While the Sandstroms’ hospitality and generosity won the love of the Palawanos, it cost the health of Mrs. Sandstrom. They returned to the States a year later.
Before leaving, Sigfried preached the gospel, mostly in English. When people responded, he baptized them. Certain vices (alcohol and betel nut) were condemned. A people movement ignited. Palawano converts fanned out across their area teaching their understanding of the message, and baptizing the willing.
Enter Trevor and Fran McIIwain in the mid-1960s. Their job was to travel and train the new believers and start churches. As Trevor taught new believers the fundamentals in a topical format from the New Testament, he drew blank looks. So he turned to Genesis and the beginning of the sacred Storybook–which became the foundation for the now celebrated Chronological Teaching model. This time he addressed them as unbelievers. With foundational teaching from the Old Testament, the fog surrounding the gospel began to dispel. For many Palawanos, justification by law (abstinence from alcohol and betel nut) now took a back seat to grace.
Over 40-plus years of ministry, a number of other missionaries (nationals and expatriates) were involved. Today the 10,000 northern Palawanos have around 2,000 believers in an association of 50 churches, seven of which have no elders. The gospel seems relatively clear, yet Christianity is often not seen as a way of life. Many of the believers lack depth. Legalism remains strong for some. Translators completed a very literal New Testament in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, half of the copies were lost when the ship carrying them sank.
The 10,000 southern Palawanos have around 400 believers. Five churches have no elders. Few of the believers meet consistently. Strong, consistent Bible teaching is lacking. The translator has completed 37 percent of the New Testament with the goal of completing it in the next term. Genesis and Exodus, along with other Old Testament sections, are completed.
The 10,000 central Palawanos (Brookspoint area) are not targeted by this agency, but have half of the New Testament.
No one can doubt the sincerity, faithfulness, or servanthood of the missionaries. Their walk and talk helped change the Palawanos’ view of some outsiders. Mythology influenced the Palawanos’ perception of the message. Would language and culture study have alerted the missionaries to this Palawano myth? Would a gospel based on grace rather than law have been the result?
For some reason, the Holy Spirit did not thwart the confused message. Some of the twisted results remain after more than four decades. When little time is given to laying a firm foundation for the gospel, much more time is required to tear down the faulty foundation to construct a sturdy one.
Tuggy and Toliver’s analysis concluded that more follow-up would have remedied the foundation.6 I doubt if McIIwain would agree. To the missionaries’ credit, they did not leave the orphan "believers"; rather they remained (and returned over the years) to clarify foundational issues of the gospel, and build upon them.
Interestingly, while this work has required years of missionary service with minimal results (from a human perspective), from this setting the Holy Spirit began an evangelism-follow-up teaching model that would revolutionize missions around the world–the Chronological Teaching Approach. This model emphasizes a firm foundation for the gospel, a grace-based message, a strong connection between evangelism and follow-up, and the use of stories.7 Hesselgrave’s chapter on "Trevor Mcllwain: Confirming Believers in the Christian Faith" identifies this model as one of the major contributions made in missions in the past decade.8
Albania: A case story from the 1990s. A young Albanian woman training at the Los Angeles Intercultural Urban Internship told me that Albanians see religion, including Christianity, as political and manipulative. She recounted the time when Islam entered Albania forcibly. "We became Muslims on the outside so we could remain Albanians on the inside," she said. "We did whatever was required by the Islamic government so that we could maintain our culture. And we were basically successful!"
Today, as Islam pours much-needed money into this destitute country, Albanians again recognize political manipulation in spite of their desperate need for outside finances. They wonder again, "Are we being duped?"
This Albanian woman noted the success that church planters were having among young people in the cities–so much success that some mission agencies have decided not to send additional personnel.
But her parents were not impressed with this "so-called" successful church planting. They saw these newly planted churches as cults. Her parents told her they could never attend such churches. "They’re not Albanian!" they said. And her parents are not alone.
She then told why her parents felt so adamant about the new churches. The church planters are young, single missionaries, providing young people with fun things to do. The adults find it hard to take the young missionaries seriously. They go from house to house like the cults. There’s no church building. They pray and sing in English. They teach a new religion with no historical tradition. Unlike the rich heritage and long religious traditions of the Greek Orthodox in the south, the Roman Catholics in the north, or the courting Muslims, this cult begins with the more recent Jesus.
Her face betrayed her concerns about the church-planting process. The church planters should have begun by presenting the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This would have demonstrated to the Albanians that Christianity’s rich and ancient religious heritage takes a back seat to none of the other religions that surround them. Why did they begin their teaching with Jesus? This approach made Christianity come across as a foreign religion, a cult.
This case provides us with an intergenerational view of church planting. The parents rejected the messengers not just because of the age factor, but also because of methodology. The church planters targeted youth, used translators rather than learning the language and culture, and went house to house imitating the cults. They also began evangelism in the middle of the book, deemphasizing the rich history of the major religions that surround them, as well as that of the Bible, thereby discrediting Christianity. The parents saw methodology as synonymous with theology. Where is the Holy Spirit for this generation?
Should older church planters be sent to reach this missed generation? Sounds good, if they will take these criticisms seriously.
But what about the younger generation church? Will there be a reaction against Christianity? Will its members soon ask, "Have we been duped by Christianity?" When they’re challenged to serve, will there be a sufficient Bible foundation to help them overcome the communist understanding of volunteerism that required Saturdays be spent cleaning up the town? With such a weak foundation, will another generation of laborers, as among the Palawanos, be required to rectify the situation?
What can the young evangelists and church planters learn from the critique of the parents? Will the Holy Spirit take immediate action? Will he use this case story to teach a new generation of church planters how to improve flawed evangelism, as he did among the Palawanos with the Chronological Teaching model? I have many more questions than answers.
SOME MINISTRY IMPLICATIONS AND APPLICATIONS
1. All evangelism-church planting is flawed. As human agents of the gospel, we present a flawed message. We tend to redefine the gospel, wrap it in cultural attire recognizable mostly to us, take shortcuts, lay little foundation, assume that our hearers understand much more than they probably do, forget our message’s connection to the physical world or follow-up, and communicate it in ways that require mental gymnastics from the listeners. Fortunately, some understand the gospel. To paraphrase Jonathan Edwards, all evangelism is a disfigured work of God. It amazes me that anyone ever becomes a believer.
2. Both cases illustrate that a divine call to ministry, faithfulness to the Great Commission, courage, prayer, reliance on the Holy Spirit and the Word, spiritual warfare, or servanthood does not guarantee successful evangelism-church planting. While I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek these qualities, they provide no guarantees.
Nor should we be overly enamored by the latest missiological idea that promises success. Nor is prayer the ultimate solution. While not wishing to minimize the importance of prayer, I find the following quote too narrow:
The world is going to be evangelized only through prayer. This is the ultimate weapon, the master strategy for overthrowing every plan, argument, power structure, bondage and even the gates of hades that are in opposition to the King of kings and Lord of lords.9
Prayer without messengers to proclaim the powerful gospel in word and wonder can short-circuit the evangelism-church planting process.
Christianity is much too complex for singular solutions, no matter how good they may sound or how famous the personality that promotes them. We must learn to add (when not contradicting Scripture) new and lost tools to our ministry toolbox without using them to institutionalize the convicting power of the Holy Spirit.
3. The Holy Spirit is always at work. The Holy Spirit was there prior to the arrival of the church planters, he is there during their stay, and he will remain after their departure. To paraphrase Shakespeare, life is a stage and we are but players. We play our short role on the evangelism-church planting stage, and then phase-out. But the play goes on.
Unlike most of us, the Holy Spirit thinks of evangelism-church planting from a generational perspective. He is not intimidated by our goal-setting or deadlines. It should not surprise us if the Holy Spirit plans to extend his work (and ours) long beyond 2000. It is not up to us and our goals.
4. The Holy Spirit does not always correct our flawed evangelism-church planting. We must learn to spend the time necessary to earn the right to be heard by the right people. We must learn their questions before we answer ours. We must learn to ask the right questions before we give the "right" answers. We must learn about the delivery process as well as the product. We must learn how to give concrete meaning to cold facts and systematic categories.10 We must learn to set aside our canned evangelistic programs, whether it’s four spiritual laws or 68 (Chronological Teaching), and begin where the audience is.
We must learn to think long term as well as short term. We must take time to reflect and rectify what we’re doing, or plan to spend significant time later doing the same. We must learn to define the gospel, guard it, and strip it of cultural clothes. We need to ask ourselves what components of the message are nonnegotiable, and how we can eliminate cultural biases from the message.
To accomplish all this, we must experience a number of cultural conversions, as did Peter (Acts 10; Gal. 2). This process is like peeling away layers of an onion; it can be a very tearful experience.
I close with several questions and concerns. What new case stories will missiologists analyze in relation to flawed evangelism-church planting in the next five years? Will they be case stories surrounding the middle-of-the-book approach found in the "Jesus" film?11 I recently viewed a new video on Central Asia in which a missionary who showed the "Jesus" film commented, "While no decisions were made, the people enjoyed the dancing images on the screen."
Will they analyze case stories surrounding short-term evangelism-church planting? Case stories surrounding the amateurization of missions? Case stories surrounding Internet technology that allows for the speedy delivery of programs to multitudes around the world? Case stories surrounding Two-Thirds World Christian workers who fail to contextualize the message and the church model?
The Holy Spirit will do his part when he sees fit. May we learn to walk and work more closely with the Spirit so that Christ is glorified and his kingdom expanded; so that generational syncretism and legalism are avoided; and so that the audience will not ask, Have we been duped again?
This article is adapted from a paper presented at the Evangelical Missiological Society meetings in Orlando, September 20-23, 1996.–Eds.
1. Tom Houston, "Dangerous Days for Evangelism," Evangelical Missions Quarterly, July, 1993, p. 258.
2. Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962). The Ministry of the Spirit (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Col, 1970).
3. Harry R. Boer, Pentecost and Missions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Col, 1961).
4. John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1990).
5. John Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church and the World (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1990).
6. Arthur L. Tuggy and Ralph E. Toliver, Seeing the Church in the Philippines (Manila: OMF, 1972).
7. Tom A Steffen, Passing the Baton: Church Planting that Empowers (La Habra, Calif.: Center for Organization and Ministry Development, 1997).
8. David J. Hesselgrave, Scripture and Strategy: The Use of the Bible in Postmodern Church and Mission (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1994).
9. Edward Rommen, ed., Spiritual Power and Missions: Raising the Issues (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1995).
10. Tom A Steffen, Reconnecting God’s Story to Ministry: Cross-cultural Storytelling at Home and Abroad (La Habra, Calif.: Center for Organization and Ministry Development, 1996).
11. Tom A. Steffen, "Don’t Show the ‘Jesus’ Film.." Evangelical Missions Quarterly, July, 1993, p. 272-275.
Tom Steffen is professor of intercultural studies at Biola University, La Habra, Calif., and director of the Center for Organization and Ministry Development, La Habra, Calif.
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