SACRED SOULS OR CASH COWS?
Modern evangelism certainly has its trivial and self-serving elements. From the fictional Elmer Gantry to the wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-he-were-fictional Jim Bakker, the very term “evangelist” conjures up images of conmen, whoremongers, and snake oil salesmen. What is it about this holy calling that draws so many unholy servants? For — make no mistake about it — evangelism is a holy calling, the Great Commission being the last orders Jesus gave the apostles in the Gospel of Matthew. As one thoughtful evangelical, Sherwood Wirt, has noted,
Evangelism has had an extremely low priority in society as a whole; the number of jokes about soul-winning evangelistic preachers must run into the hundreds. Yet the fact remains that each new generation must be won to Christ, or Christianity will become extinct; God has no grandchildren. The winning is the work of the Holy Spirit, but the task of announcing the good news of new life, and persuading people to hear and respond, is ours. It is a clumsy business . . . but we are commissioned to the task and, jokes or no jokes, we must be about our Father’s business. Without evangelism, the church is nothing but a private club, and not the best club in town, either.
This is a vision of evangelism as it was ordained to be — “the announcing of the good news of new life.” Would that it were the only vision. There is some truth in the stereotype of the evangelist as huckster, as someone who employs a patina of theology to justify what is in effect a business enterprise, if only because more people reached means more contributors, which means more money for more stuff — and “more stuff” can run the gamut from medicine for babies and shelter for the homeless to an air-conditioned doghouse at Heritage, U.S.A.
How much can those who proclaim the free gift of the Gospel legitimately charge for it? How much is the ox that grinds the grain entitled to eat of it? At what income level does an honest evangelist slip into hucksterism? I wish I knew. Motive is the key, but motive is sometimes hard to discern. I always thought Jimmy Swaggart a jerk; but once upon a time, I thought him an honest jerk. When it comes to evangelism, I feel a lot more comfortable describing the poles than I do the axis. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s meditation on the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee helps define those poles:
The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are made of the same water. It flows down, clear and cool, from the heights of Hermon and the roots of the cedars of Lebanon. The Sea of Galilee makes beauty of it, for the Sea of Galilee has an outlet. It gets to give. It gathers in its riches that it may pour them out again to fertilize the Jordan plain. But the Dead Sea with the same water makes horror. For the Dead Sea has no outlet. It gets to keep.
At our evangelical Sea of Galilee, pilgrims are freely given the Good News that saves because those who dwell here have never forgotten the One who first gave it to them. Here there is a continual recrudescence of faith: It is given, it is nurtured, it is passed on. Mother Teresa dwells by this Sea’s shore; Billy Graham lives but a bit downstream. C.S. Lewis once dwelt here, as did Pope John XXIII and John Wesley and William Booth of the Salvation Army; each is remembered with love. Every pilgrim who comes to drink from this Sea’s life-giving waters is treated as a sacred soul.
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