I am surrounded by people who are not afraid to ask tough questions. So it is not particularly weird for me to spend days thinking about a question I have been asked.
This past weekend, at church, we were discussing the nature of salvation and the need for something deeper. In particular, we were conversing about the fact that the majority of the people who pray the “sinner’s prayer” then go on to continue living a sinful life, completely unrepentant. And during the course of this intense, and important, conversation, one of the people present asked, “Well, if salvation is more than a prayer, should we stop doing things like street evangelism and crusades?”
Let’s consider this text:
[“]You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
Matthew 7:16-23 (ESV)
As a culture, we seem to be convinced that our relationship with God is something that is so secure in a momentary prayer that we can completely take him for granted from that moment forward. And yes, I know what the word says. Salvation comes by faith. But Jesus seems pretty clear here. Real relationship with him is more than a prayer. How could he not be saying that?! He literally tells us in this passage that prophesy, deliverance and miraculous works are not necessarily good fruit!
Is it even possible to perform miracles and cast out devils without having first had a “salvation experience”?!
Clearly, he is looking for something a little deeper!
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Matthew 16:24-25 (ESV)
It seems clear to me that relationship with God is not found in a moment of prayer, but in the actual reality of surrender. Where we fully abandon the life we were living and embrace the person of Jesus. More than suppressing our sinful behaviors and embracing a career in ministry, relationship with Jesus means having an actual relationship with Jesus.
Which would explain the sad reality that, although crusades, revival meetings and teen camps cultivate large numbers of converts, the number of people who go on to demonstrate a stable life of faith is not quite as impressive. Why? Because:
There is no discipleship.
There is no community.
There is no direction.
Though the experience is paradigm shifting, no one is actually attached to the body of Jesus, and what began as a life-changing experience, never actually becomes more than just that: an experience.
I know, I know, it sounds like I have already made up my mind. But not so! Because, on the other side of the argument, these events present opportunities for thousands---sometimes tens of thousands---to be introduced to a revelation of Jesus. People who would have never been confronted with the truth are suddenly hungry for God!
I can’t fathom asking anyone to consider that a bad thing.
Here is what I will say though… the experience cannot be the end of it.
Jesus was very clear that following him means coming to the death of what, and who, we are. It means dying to ourselves and then coming to life in him. Relationship with Jesus means more than a prayer. It means actual surrender. Which isn’t something that happens within the context of an experience that will be forgotten in a few weeks.
There has to be more.
I would not ask the church to abandon stadium evangelism… but I would challenge everyone to stop trying to replicating it in the local church.
So long as the local church is behaving as if the assembly of the saints is just another experience, mass evangelism is wasted. People cannot truly develop beyond an experience if an experience is all they are ever offered! The assembly was always meant to be more than that. If, however, the local church becomes what it was designed to be, and God’s people are ushered into genuine community, intimacy and collaborative pursuit of God, then there is somewhere for the multitudes of hungry “converts” to be introduced to real life.
Let me clarify that with two thoughts:
1. Relationship with God is more than an experience
As I said above, we cannot expect people to ever move past the experience of salvation if we never offer them an example of something deeper. Which is largely why, in my opinion, the majority of the seeds planted during evangelism events, crusades and revival nights do not bear fruit. Because the local church has become an extension of the show. There is no room for intimacy and community for the masses.
Don’t get me wrong, the church offers opportunities for those who would like to embrace a deeper experience. They offer small groups, cell groups, potlucks, and the works. But community is not a fundamental part of the actual gathering of God’s people. That part of the church (the part we consider non-negotiable) is an experience.
Eventually, the show gets old. Or, worse, it doesn’t, and no one ever matures beyond it.
2. Our current structure can’t sustain “multitudes”
What would happen if an evangelist came to your town and ten thousand people gave their lives to Jesus? Is your church prepared to disciple ten thousand people? Are the combined churches of your entire city prepared to disciple ten thousand people?
No. No is the answer.
In our current structure, the majority of the church is not contributing to the actual assembly of the saints. I am not saying we don’t serve, or that we don’t do what is asked of us. Maybe you run the bookstore. Maybe you watch the kids. Maybe you pass out smoothies in the church’s café. I don’t know. But the majority of us, even in our serving, do not contribute to the actual Assembly of God’s people. Which means that ten thousand people being added to your church would not result in ten thousand people being discipled. It would result in the same leaders your church already has struggling to multiply their work load without breaking under the pressure.
Why? Because the average Christian doesn’t actually know how to minister.
Now let’s consider what would happen if the same number of people were saved in a city where the church was centralizing community over an experience, and making room for every single believer to contribute.
Want to know what I think would happen? The same thing that would already be happening…
Look at the biblical standard for assembly:
What then, brothers? When you come together, each on has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
1 Corinthians 14:26 (ESV)
If the church was behaving the way Paul describes here, adding huge numbers to the church doesn’t complicate anything, because everyone is already pouring into the church! It is just a matter of people building relationships with people and the entire body continuing to pour into one another. (And of course the issue of finding room for them all to meet. But that is a fight for another day.)
So yeah… I don’t think we should ask the evangelists to knock it off. I think we, the church, just need to change.
I would love to hear what you think in the comment section below!