Friday, July 13, 2007

Who's the best?

Well, as long as I'm in the mood to write controversial posts....

We often foster a cult of personality in Fundamentalism. While I haven’t studied the movement extensively, I suppose that the first prominent example of this was Billy Sunday. The man had charisma, he could draw a big crowd, and he got monstrous results. Sure, his doctrine was weak, his theology shaky, and his methodology questionable, but the end result was what mattered, so he got a pass. Fast forward into the late 60’s – 80’s and you find Jack Hyles. There’s no question as to how weak and shaky much of his theology was and his methodologies were outlandish. Hyles didn’t exactly get a free pass, but he was never really called “on the carpet” either. He was getting some results, so Fundamentalism at large just kind of turned a blind eye to the whole thing. Now, I’m not writing to simply beat up on dead men who can no longer defend themselves, but rather to call attention to a larger problem.

I spent two years working at this camp, one year at this camp, and a couple of years at this school. During that time, I heard some of the top evangelists in fundamentalism speak. I remember as a young man thinking that there was something wrong with many of these guys (at least in my mind). Many of them came across as arrogant and demanding, and their methodologies never seemed “right”. Yet, they got the results, so they were definitely in demand. The fact that the Lord seemed to be blessing their ministries caused me, as a young man, to assume that there must be something wrong with my mind rather than their methodologies.

Some of these guys were booked out as far as 3 – 5 years (a fact about which they were sure to let you know, whether you wanted to know or not). They were so numbers driven….some of them could quickly reproduce all of the “numbers” (decisions) of the last two years of evangelistic campaigns rather quickly. Now, I only saw them in camp settings and college, so the picture was incomplete. Later, as an adult, I was able to draw a more complete picture as I saw many of these same faces in the local church scene. Unfortunately, the picture grew a little darker. I would find that many of these guys would only travel to areas / churches where they were sure to get a large offering. They often made what was, at least in my mind, unreasonable demands on the churches at which they were speaking. Yet, they stay in high demand because we in fundamentalism tend to be so personality driven.

Now, I don’t want to categorically lump all fundy evangelists into the same boat, because this stereotype I’m drawing certainly is not descriptive of all of them. On the other hand, I also have no desire to start listing names, so bear with me as I make some sweeping generalizations.

I don’t think these evangelists are completely at fault in these things. Do you suppose that a typical fundamentalist church, college, camp, etc., is going to book the evangelist who is a great expositor but doesn’t necessarily get the results, or the guy who will get 300 decisions at a week of camp that has only 200 campers? In the past, we haven’t tended to question methodology, or poor exegesis. We were willing to overlook some faulty doctrine, so long as the end result was lots and lots of decisions. Fortunately, I think that day is passing, but I doubt that we’ll ever truly break free.

When I look back at the thousands of sermons I’ve sat through under these guys, I’m struck with the fact that they seemed to be relishing in being “the man” – the hero. They were the star athlete, the millionaire (or could have been one) who gave it all up to preach to young people…always the hero in the story…Some of the stories – even when I was a teenager attending camp – seemed to be a bit unbelievable to me. I’m not saying that there was outright lying, but sometimes I walked away thinking that the truth had been “polished up” a bit.

To tell you the truth, I’m not all that impressed with numbers these days. We often forget that Christ was remarkably unimpressed with numbers. As a matter of fact, with only one exception in the Gospels, we see Christ running away from accolades. Christ never held a huge evangelistic campaign with lots of results. Men like Jonah and Peter were given that privilege – and they managed to do it without a great story about themselves (they both had one to tell if they'd wanted to), and as far as I can tell they gave one invitation call and then shut their mouths!

No, I’m far more interested that the evangelist preaches the Word faithfully, honestly, carefully, expositionally, and with a focus on Christ rather than on themselves. I care that they follow the Lord’s leading (a term I'm always leary of for reasons that are explained quite well here) to determine where they’ll go and when…not the potential size of the love offering. I care that these men exemplify Christian charity and the humility to which Paul so often calls us in Philippians (“Let this mind be in you….”). I care that they take a back seat to Christ and that they allow the Word to be the point of offense rather than their own abrasiveness. I care that they teach the truth in love and, as a personal preference, I would rather they do it without all that incessant yelling.

Some years ago I heard a young evangelist who has since established a good name for himself. When he got up to preach, his face turned red and he started yelling. I’ll be honest, I thought to myself, “I’m going to hate this. What’s this dude so ticked off about anyway?” But as I listened to what he had to say, the Lord really used it in my life. It was one of the most doctrinally rich and expositional sermons I’d ever heard from an evangelist. I’m still not sure why he felt compelled to yell the entire time, but it was good to hear a young man that was stepping outside of (a portion of) the mold that had so typified the IFB evangelist of the last several decades.

So what’s the point of this article, anyway? Treat this as a call to the church to do their part in shaping the IFB evangelists. Demand an expositional, doctrinally sound, methodologically proper, humble, honest, approach to the preaching. Demand a guy who doesn’t feel compelled to give a 20 minute invitation every time he speaks. He should show a willingness to close the invitation even if there are still some people who haven’t responded. I've even heard that there are some great evangelists out there who don't always give invitations....

To be fair, not all the evangelists I heard while in the places I mentioned in my opening paragraphs were like what I’ve described here. There were – and are – some truly great teachers and preachers out there in evangelism. Some of them have been around for 30 years; some of them haven’t even been around for 3 years. Some of them are “big names” that just tend to do it right.

I would love to see IFB-dom move away from the personality-driven mentality that has so typified the movement through the years. I would love to see us gravitate towards solid preaching over the hysterics that have been at the forefront of the movement for so long. Maybe we’re closer than I think.


Frank Sansone said...


I appreciate these thoughts. I have also seen some of the "I am the hero" type of preaching and it sickens me. When I was a Youth Pastor, I took my teens to a youth rally at a church where the speaker kept on giving examples where teens had rejected his counsel and were now in bad situations and his response came across as a prideful "they should have listened to me." My wife and I were both appalled (although, like you indicated, a number of teens - including a couple from our youth group - made "decisions" after the sermon).

One evangelist that I have found that I really like is Mark Kittrell. I have always appreciated his humility from knowing him on a personal level, but I also greatly appreciated the detail he gave to the TEXT of Scripture when he spoke at our church in 2005.

(Which leads me to a question about the value of an evangelist having served time as a Pastor or at least in a pastoral role at a church before going into evangelism, but that is a little off-topic.)

In Christ,

Pastor Frank Sansone

Ellis Murphree said...

Thanks for the comments, Frank. My pastor knows Mark Kittrell quite well. He was saved under the ministry of Mark’s dad (the late Charlie Kittrell). Growing up, I heard Mark preach several times and I share your sentiments. Having said that, I’m not all that interested in naming any more names on either side of the aisle.

Regarding your “off topic” comment, I think that it’s one worth discussing. Off the top of my head, I can think of several practical benefits from an evangelist getting 5 years of pastoral ministry under his belt prior to entering evangelism:

1)PEOPLE SKILLS: A more thorough grounding in learning how to deal with and relate to people.
2)SERMON PREP SKILLS: Years of pastoral ministry necessitates that a man learns how to prepare more than 20 or 30 sermons…(I won’t elaborate on this one any more)
3)PREACHING SKILLS: Years in pastoral ministry will likely necessitate that a man become skilled in expositional preaching.
4)COUNSELING SKILLS: Evangelists spend some of their time offering counsel to pastors. Time spent in pastoral ministry enables the man to counsel and empathize on a more practical level.

I’m sure there are many more benefits to this approach. Wonderful thought!