by Mike Wakely
The world of evangelists and missionaries is beset by golden keys of various shapes and sizes. They offer short cuts to success. This article attempts to put some of these keys into perspective.
Missionaries and church planters are a breed of Christian worker uniquely destined to face frustration and disappointment. We don’t always cope with it well, but as it is part of our profession we all need to work hard to live with it. It comes from the fact that we are idealists. If we weren’t, we probably would have chosen (or been led to) a less ambitious task.
Just think of it for a moment—what is our goal in life? A spiritual breakthrough among the hardest, most gospel-resistant people in the world? Churches of victorious and effective new believers, swimming triumphantly against the prevailing cultural tide? New life springing out of the desert sands? Perhaps you don’t count yourself quite in that league of spiritual giants—all you dream about is a little group of enquirers asking the right questions and one by one coming to faith.
But, ambition high or low, we are dreaming of the impossible—or at least the highly unlikely. Which is why we need to hold on to vision and cling to faith in a God of the impossible and the unlikely.
There is another temptation—to wonder whether there doesn’t exist a golden key that can miraculously unlock the stubborn tightly closed door.
For many years my wife and I worked in Pakistan, a country that is amazingly open and stubbornly indifferent to the gospel. We dreamed, as people do, of the day when suddenly Muslims would begin to ask the right questions, become disillusioned with their own ingrained belief system and start entering the kingdom of God. We prayed and looked earnestly for the trickle that might predict a stream or herald a flood. To be honest, it never came. The wide open door seemed to lead only to a solid brick wall. Of course there was a trickle of people coming to Christ in agonising tandem with the ones who revealed false motives, fell away and grew cold.
Across the South Asian subcontinent lies Pakistan’s old other half, Bangladesh. In the 1980s (the decade in which we lived in Pakistan) suddenly the Bangladeshi trickle turned into a stream—that looked as though it could become a flood. It all began (so the missiological experts told us) when someone shared the gospel in the language and lifestyle of the Bangladeshi Muslims. A translation of the New Testament was published in Mussulmani Bangla. Some missionaries and some nationals began to cast aside their cultural traditions and attempt to clothe their methods as well as their language in Muslim terms. It appeared to work; the rest is history.
No one knows how many Bangla-deshi Muslims turned to Christ in the 1980s. The popular statistics that sadly got into print at the time were outrageously inaccurate and imaginative. Nevertheless, there were probably several thousand new converts and local gatherings of new believers that began to appear in many places. By any standards of evangelism among Muslims it was a breakthrough.
How do you think we felt in Pakistan when visitors came across from Bangladesh and asked, “How many Muslims are turning to Christ here?”
One thing for sure—we thought— “There is a golden key in this, that appears to turn in the rusty lock.” Phil Parshall, missionary theologian from the heart of the Bangladeshi movement, had written a book, New Paths in Muslim Evangelism, and we devoured it in search of the key. Parshall visited Pakistan and challenged us to take to heart the secrets that had proved so successful in Bangladesh. We thought and prayed, consulted with national workers and did some experimentation. But the reality is that the key did not fit the Pakistani lock.
At the same time, we learned some important and valuable lessons from the experience.
The world of evangelists and missionaries is beset by golden keys of various shapes and sizes, and they all glint and gleam attractively. They offer short cuts to success for idealists who are frustrated and discouraged by the old methods and desperate for a breakthrough. In this short article I attempt to put some of these keys into perspective, to help see the dangers and the benefits of trying to grasp them in attempts to fit the locks we stubbornly wrestle to open.
SOME PRELIMINARY TESTS
Before we examine a few popular keys, however, let us think through a few preliminary tests to be applied to every new key that adorns the evangelical world.
1. Is this key true? Does it at least conform to and, preferably, arise from Holy Scripture?
For evangelicals this should be the first question we ask, but all too often it isn’t. As evangelists and missionaries are often so desperate for breakthroughs and successes that the more common and appealing question is: Does it work? What results does it give? Beware that temptation; it can lead into all sorts of strange diversions and extremes.
Do you remember the so-called Toronto Blessing? Wherever it went, Christians were excited because of the results they saw—inexplicable phenomena and some good results (some bad results too). People received a “refreshing from the Holy Spirit,” an “awesome sense of the presence of God,” and a “new love for Jesus and the Word of God.” All of that sounds pretty good, and I am not going to be the one who now proclaims that the movement was spurious. But it is essential to ask the primary question again: Was it true? Did it arise from, or at least conform to, revealed truth? That is the acid test. It is a test that much of the Toronto phenomena sadly failed.
Another temptation is to argue from silence. Advocates of strategic-level spiritual warfare admit that there is little direct biblical evidence for their practices.1 Wagner defends his position in this way:
Evangelical Christianity has not established as a principle that we do nothing that is not explicitly directed by Scripture. There is however consensus that we do nothing that is contrary to Scripture. (1996, 74)
Wagner is obviously very sensitive to the accusation that his theories do not have scriptural support. This, he claims, is his creed: “I accept the Bible as the written Word of God, and the final authority for testing the validity of any of our conclusions relating to Christian faith and practice… “ (1996, 74). It is an interesting variant of traditional creeds, an attempt to bypass biblical precedent. Wagner claims that strategic-level spiritual warfare may not be found in the Bible—any more than the doctrine of the Trinity, the emancipation of slaves, the sixty-six-book canon of Scripture, and so on. However, Wagner is not introducing new Christian terminology or new evangelistic methods, but a whole dualistic worldview. That is a larger question and the need for biblical warrant is that much more essential.
Perhaps Wagner lets us in on his personal secret when he writes: “I am a theoretician, but I am one of those who has a bias towards theories that work. My principal laboratory…has been Argentina” (1996, 76).
Has Wagner found a key that seemed to fit in Argentina and formulated a theory without testing it adequately against biblical truth and precedent?
2. Does the end justify the means? I am not going to prejudge your answer to this question, but I do at least suggest that we should ask it. It is a question that arises out of what we have just said—that everything should be considered against the plumb-line of God’s Truth.
Now there is a temptation (Wagner is clearly open to it) for missionaries to become pragmatic theologians in our search for successful methods. In other words, if the end is good, appears to have biblical warrant, has the ring of truth, the means to that end need not be examined too closely. If the end result is that lives are committed to Christ, enthusiastic and filled with the Holy Spirit, and fellowships of worshipping believers are developing and growing—does it matter that the evangelistic or church-growth method was a bit deceitful, distorted and extra, if not unbiblical?
Wagner says he has “a bias towards theories that work.” Does that bias bypass the tests of biblical truth, or even the tests of common integrity and honesty?
In this light you might like to examine the Toronto phenomena, with their extraordinary display of barking noises and general confusion. The result was often lives transformed with new love for God and spiritual enthusiasm. Was it worth it? We should at least ask the question.
3. There are keys that appear to have fit certain rusty locks. They may not fit every lock, but what is there that we can learn from them for our situation?
God has something to teach us from every strategic advance of the gospel. We have something to learn even from our opponents. Who has not learned something valuable from the zeal of the Jehovahs Witness evangelists as they plod from door to door, face abuse and rejection and keep going on? And they are successful. The Mormons too. Their neatly dressed, clean-cut missionaries have invaded the world and planted their beliefs in many lands. No wonder they are growing fast. They may not have a golden key we are envious of, but they certainly have something to teach us.
From Pakistan we watched the Bangladeshi success story. We thought and prayed and tried to get the keys to fit the Pakistani lock, but they wouldn’t. Our situation was too different—the Pakistani church, language, culture and history presented a totally different set of needs that were not met by the Bangladeshi model. Conditions were not right for the key to turn.
But there were plenty of lessons we could learn from what God was doing in Bangladesh. We learned some of them, we rejected others; we haven’t learned as much as we should have.
What then are some of the golden keys that have proven so effective and so appealing? My list is far from complete.
THE CONTEXTUALIZATION KEY
I start with this because I have already introduced it and covered much of the material. Of course contextuali-zation is not something invented in Bangladesh or discovered by Phil Parshall. It has its roots much further back.
“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one…under the law…, so as to win those under the law…” (Whittacker 1984, 168). At its most basic level this is common sense. It is the reason the New Testament was written in common Greek, the language of everyday, the language that ordinary people spoke and understood. It is the reason Hudson Taylor adopted native dress and learned Chinese.
The Bangladeshi model is a bit more complex because it involves a certain rejection of an established and successful model in favor of another. It involves speaking a Muslim language, observing Muslim customs in favor of accepted Christian patterns. It involves turning one’s back on a Christian community in order to open the door to another community, hence its controversy. Is it any different from Paul’s turning to the Gentiles, a controversy that upset many fervent Jewish believers?
In Bangladesh the results have been phenomenal, with no compromise of biblical principle. It was clearly God’s moment and method for the Bangladeshi people, and thousands have become followers of Christ as a result. There is much to learn from the model.
But it is not necessarily a golden key that will produce the same results in any other situation. Similar methods are being tried among high-caste Hindus in India and in other groups around the world. The ambition to remove the artificial cultural barriers to gospel understanding have been beneficial. But the results have been far from spectacular, and disappointing to those who had hoped for a similar breakthrough as had been seen in Bangladesh.
But there is much that any serious missionary can learn:
• A huge element in the Bangla-deshi success story was the key role of national Bangladeshis—more than that, they were Bangladeshis from a Muslim background with full sympathy for their own people.
• A crucial lesson to grasp is where to draw the line between cultural identification (contextualization) and religious identification (syncretism). Where that line is drawn makes all the difference.
THE RENEWAL KEY
This is one of the oldest keys in Christendom, and surely any student of church history has longed to get a hold of it. Dr. J. Edwin Orr, great historian of revivals, wrote: “I am convinced that more work for God could be done in six months of revival than in sixty years of any other kind of effort.” Now that is a golden key to warm the heart of any serious evangelist! There are probably many missionaries and church planters who feel that this is the answer—the key to all their frustrations in a sovereign divine movement of God bringing men and women to tears of repentance and faith in Christ. Maybe the longing for dreams and visions to draw people to Christ is in the same league.
As a young Christian I also fed on the stories of early revivals—George Whitefield’s visit to Eastern Pennsylvania in 1739 when “the people thronged his door from seven o’clock in the morning in tears, seeking God,” Evan Roberts and the Welsh Revival of 1904 which filled the churches, emptied out the drinking houses and swept 100,000 into the Kingdom of God. I devoured the life story of Praying Hyde, who prayed down heaven in the midst of the great movement of God that gave birth to the church in Punjab. And such unique sovereign movements of the Spirit are not only phenomena of previous centuries. In the last fifty years extraordinary manifestations have taken place in Indonesia, the Scottish Hebrides—even Pensacola—and elsewhere.
Many books have been written and research conducted to enumerate the steps to be taken to bring down a revival. Charles Finney had it all worked out. “A revival is as naturally a result of the use of the appropriate means as a crop is of the use of its appropriate means” (Whittaker 1984, 168). Sow the seed, reap the crop. Would that God could be manipulated so easily. Edwin Orr wisely wrote: “Finney’s theories have not always worked in times of spiritual decline, when there was lacking any spirit of revival” (Ibid).
Revival on the scale and measure of the great past awakenings is not the golden key that will unlock every door and it should not be looked on as such. But foolish is the person who does not learn some of the lessons of history’s great spiritual turning points.
An essential prerequisite of revival, quoted by those who have experienced such times of refreshing, is a heart humbled under the mighty hand of God. Willingness to repent of even the smallest sin and keeping short accounts with God open the way for God to move if he will.
Expectant, urgent, faithful prayer is an essential ingredient of every historical revival. In anticipation of God doing something unusual among us, we need to be willing to wait for, and to be open to, whatever unexpected thing he might do.
No amount of technique and methodology can guarantee that God will do what we expect or want him to do.
THE POWER EVANGELISM KEY
John Wimber’s book Power Evangelism was a milestone, and it swept many people off their feet when it appeared. Here at last, many people thought, was the answer to people’s indifference. We have too long depended on simple preaching—the Word without signs following. That is why few have responded.
Wimber went so far in his book as to contrast what he called power evangelism with program evangelism. By program evangelism he implied the old traditional method preaching, as practiced by Billy Graham and Campus Crusade. Wimber names them as examples of the method, and he goes on to reinforce the failure of the preaching method by the number of converts who fall away.
The answer to the problem, as promoted by him, is the manifestation of power—miracles, signs, wonders. Wimber’s meetings demonstrated the reality of his words, and people flocked to listen to him because the unexpected was almost guaranteed to happen—some healings, words of prophecy and knowledge, laughter— ripples of evidence that the Holy Spirit was present. It opened the door for some church growth and a lot of excitement.
Similar in emphasis was the Indonesian revival, which began “in the Soe church on the night of September 26, 1965, when the New Testament phenomena of the Day of Pentecost were repeated—a tornado—like wind, visible fire… and numerous conversions…” This too was evidently a movement of God characterized by the miraculous—providing the golden key that opened the Indonesian door.
Healing meetings with signs and wonders are not a new phenomenon, nor are they on the decline. Each year in Pakistan (a country with which I am somewhat familiar) more evangelists arrive and advertise themselves as miracle workers and healers. Many thousands, both Christian and Muslim, flock to their meetings. Of course they do—the sensational has always drawn large crowds and everyone who is remotely sick would like to be healed in an instant. It looks like revival—which is exactly how the evangelists report it to their followers when they return home. It looks as though power evangelism should be one of the golden keys to unlock the stubborn door. But it is no guarantee.
Wimber and the healing evangelists fail to mention adequately the people who grab the miracles and then reject the gospel or the huge number who experience no miracles. In those popular meetings follow-up is usually woefully inadequate, and there is almost nothing to be seen once the healing circus has left town.
Nevertheless, many people believe that demonstrations of power are the key which will unlock the door and draw resistant people to Christ. Nor should we deny that there are important things to learn from the power evangelism method. Jesus himself drew large crowds by his miracles, and then he taught them. The gospel indeed came “not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction”
(1 Thess. 1:5).
There are important lessons to learn from all this, especially for those of us who have downplayed the element of the miraculous and the supernatural in our ministry:
• The preaching of the Word of God should indeed be accompanied by the power of God—the New Testament church is full of signs and wonders to authenticate the apostolic message.
• We should look for, pray for, expect more demonstration of God in our ministry if God is truly a God of miracles as the Bible implies.
• True faith is accompanied by heightened expectancy—and dogged perseverance.
THE PRAYER MOUNTAIN KEY
Some years ago, Eileen Vincent wrote a little book entitled God Can Do it Here in which she reveled in her Korea experience of massive church growth, early morning prayer meetings and the taste of revival. Eileen’s thesis was that God could do the same miracles in any place and among any people who followed the same principles and practices. She even noted “Yonggi Cho says that he could go to any city in the world and have a church of 10,000” (Vincent, 162). I thought to myself when I read those words, “This man should move to Jeddah!”
I have been to Korea once and was suitably impressed with what was going on there, as many have been. But we then moved across the water to Taiwan, and the contrast could not be greater. No signs of church growth there, no mass movement, only hard cultural resistance to the gospel. Whatever is the real message of the Korean church?
The fact is that what has resulted in such extraordinary church growth in South Korea—the early morning prayers of the church, the Prayer Mountain experiences, and so on—has been a uniquely Korean blessing from God. There are of course a host of other reasons why the church has grown in Korea, not least the historical background of Japanese aggression, Communist threat and Confucian discipline, all of which has provided specially fertile ground for this unique movement of church growth.
Those circumstances are not present in Taiwan—nor in Japan or Saudi Arabia. This was Korea’s hour and the Spirit of God has moved there in unique ways.
Having said that, there is no doubt that there is a multitude of lessons to be learned by the worldwide church concerning the principles of church growth—lessons that are biblical and true. One of those lessons is obviously that of prayer.
Prayer—fervent, frequent, persistent prayer is clearly taught and urged in Scripture. The Korean church sets an example and a precedent from which we are wise to learn. God evidently does answer costly sacrificial prayer. God also responds to determined and disciplined and well organized faith. The lessons of the Korean church merit close examination—as well as cultural adaptation.
THE STRATEGIC-LEVEL SPIRITUAL WARFARE KEY
We come now to one of the more recent golden keys to be promoted as the answer to the stubborness of the world to the gospel. It is actually more of a theological worldview than a key, but its advocates undoubtedly promote their teaching as the answer to the most stubborn problem for evangelists and missionaries—what hinders people from responding to the gospel, and what the church should be doing to overcome that problem.
This is not the place for a full review of all that is being taught and practiced under this heading. Much has already been written both in favor of and against it. Suffice it to say here that it presents a view of the world as held in captivity to demonic powers, well organized both territorially and hierarchically. Any Christian serious about seeing men and women delivered from these evil powers—or any area transformed by the gospel—must take this demonic array seriously, research its centers of power (which may be geographical, political or social), and attack them systematically through prayer warfare with fasting and worship, binding the evil spirits and claiming the territory for Christ.
It is suggested that, without this methodology, people will remain bound and blind, and evidence is presented that illustrates its effectiveness. Much of the evidence is taken from Argentina and other places where significant church growth has taken place in recent years. George Otis’ popular video, Transformations, is based on the same worldview and provides evidence of social transformation as a result of concerted and united prayer.
It has also to be said that a growing range of supplementary teaching has become attached to this core theology, which includes complex methods of spiritual mapping in preparation for prayer warfare, identifying and naming the evil spirits prior to attacking them, recognizing the enemy’s strongholds and “remitting the sins of the nations” prayer journeys for binding the spirits and preparing the ground for evangelism, and so on. Inevitably it has given way to some fringe activities of quite bizarre extremism, as a result of its specific focus on a dualistic worldview, its militant warfare imagery and its invitation to the church to discover new demonic strongholds and “take authority” over them (see Otis and Wagner).
“Operation Ice Castle” in 1997 is one such example of the more extreme variety. Two teams of intercessors climbed to Base Camp on Mount Everest in order to locate and destroy the seat of the Queen of Heaven (the goddess Diana). In the course of their journey they experienced “an incredible climbing anointing,”crossed the Everest Ice Fall without guides, escaped from a devastating avalanche, and claimed (among other things) the death of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa as a result of their intercessions.
What do we have to learn from this supposed key to world evangelization? We need to beware of its appeal to easy solutions. If it is true, it is surely of universal application (those territorial spirits did not take up their rule in the last twenty years) and of enormous significance. If it is not true and draws more from creative imagination than spiritual reality, then we should be careful to expose and avoid its conclusions. We need to examine its theology in the light of scriptural teaching and example, question its simplistic worldview and sensationalism, examine carefully its evidences and case histories.
However, whatever our conclusions about the range of warfare prayer teaching, there is also much to stimulate and challenge the church in its evangelistic task.
• Serious prayer may not be rightly equated with knocking out the devil’s defenses, but nevertheless is surely pleasing to God and powerful in its effects.
• The emphasis on serious strategies for evangelization and church planting is infinitely preferable to evangelical hit-or-miss planning.
• The movement has given a healthy focus to reaching the most needy and the most evil areas of the world, notably in the so-called 10/40 window.
• It has also harnessed the imagination to stimulate intercession and make prayer attractive and purposeful.
• It has stirred enthusiasm for mission in the church—even if it has pushed it over the top at times.
• There are some other valuable and important lessons to be learned, albeit by default.
• The devil and his demonic forces are real enemies to the work of Christ, and we are well advised to take them seriously and to equip ourselves with the full armour of God (Eph. 6: 10-18).
• The devil is a defeated enemy and not to be feared. His defeat was accomplished by Christ at Calvary, where, “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” That achievement is our security and the platform for victory in our task.
IN CONCLUSION…USE ALL THE KEYS YOU CAN
This list is endless, but I hope the point is made. The world of missions and evangelism is full of creative and serious people—idealists with a noble and impossible task. We could profitably take a look at the following:
• the Church Growth movement which has provided fruitful blueprints for mission in many lands.
• the DAWN (Discipling a Whole Nation) strategy which has taken off with such marked success in the Philippines and elsewhere.
• the Rwanda revival of the 1930s with its emphasis on confession and the Blood of Jesus.
the Calvary Road message that brought new life and growth to the Anglican church in Rwanda and Uganda
• the remarkable growth and the distinct principles of church order of the Assemblies under the leadership of Bakht Singh in India in the 1950s and onwards
• The indigenous grass-roots church growth in China which appeared to boast no one method except lack of outside help and severe internal repression
Thank God that he works with such variety and unpredictability. Let us learn all we can from what he is doing in other parts of the globe, assured that what he does in our patch will be absolutely unique and distinctive.
1. See Vernon Strek in Territorial Spirits (ed. Wagner, Sovereign World 1991 p. 153). See also Peter Wagner’s discussion on arguing from silence in twenty-one questions, in Behind Enemy Lines (Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan 1994 p.133).
Otis, George Jr. 1991. The Last of the Giants. New York: Chosen Books.
Vincent, Eileen. 1982. God Can Do It Here! London: Marshall Morgan & Scott.
Wagner, Peter C. 1992. Warfare Prayer. Tunbridge Wells: Monarch.
_____. 1996. Confronting the Powers. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books.
Whittaker, Colin. 1984. Great Revivals. Basingstoke: Marshalls.
Wimber, John and Kevin Springer. 1986. Power Evangelism. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Mike Wakely trusted Christ as a student in 1967 and joined OM to serve for twenty-one years in India, Nepal and Pakistan. He now serves as assistant area director for OM South Asia. He lives in London and is married with two adult children.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 12-22. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.