One misconception about Calvinism that seems to be prevalent is the idea that Calvinism somehow ruins missions and evangelism. My answer to this, however, isn’t necessarily a negation, but it’s also not an affirmation. In a way, Calvinism does ruin the modern understanding of evangelism and missions. At the same time, it upholds the call to go into the entire world and proclaim the Gospel.
Calvinism does defeat the modern understanding of evangelism and missions[i]
At some point in American history Evangelicals became pragmatic in their approach to missions and the Gospel. This has led to a “bag ‘em and tag ‘em” mentality in both the missions and the presentation of the Gospel. Some current and past trends:
· Using a methodological approach to witnessing – there are multiple methods that people use that treats the Gospel as something that has no need to be personalized. I remember a friend going through a method that went so far as to teach that if someone began to ask questions that were not relevant to the material presented (e.g. “Why does God allow evil?”) the presenter was to side step the question and get back on track with the approach. When I was in sales people at the church would sometimes ask me if I had picked up any methods that would help in the presentation of the Gospel. The problem with this way of thinking is that it treats the Gospel as something that has to be “sold” rather than allow the Gospel to actually interact with the person. We are not just presenting a concept to a person – we are presenting a real living person to the person. How many of us would use these methodological approaches if we were introducing a girl to an amazing guy? How much more absurd is it that we do the same with Jesus?
Calvinism, generally speaking, tends to avoid this type of an approach. Most Calvinists realize there are presuppositions that people have before hearing the Gospel (such as Van Til states). Some Calvinists – those that have not bought into presuppositional apologetics (for an explanation of this, please view my “Apologetics” explanation) – believe that these barriers must be broken down before the Gospel can be presented (Schaeffer is a master at this). Such an approach requires two things
1) That the person presenting the Gospel knows what barriers prevent a person from even listening to the Gospel. This means that the presenter must take the time to understand the person’s background with the Gospel, understanding of the world, personal beliefs, etc.
2) The presenter cannot rely on a method, but instead must rely on the power of the Gospel alone. Knowing what the person struggles with and the background of the person, the presenter must present the full Gospel in a manner that the listener will understand. A pre-packaged method simply doesn’t work in this instance as individuals are different and learn in different ways. The way one explains the Gospel to the typical American (through presentation of factual statements) is different from the way one presents the Gospel to a typical tribal African (through story telling).
· Focusing on conversion rates and church growth – the modern church is really famous for bragging about its numbers. If a church hasn’t used the baptistery in two months then, according to the popular view, something is wrong with that church. I once heard a pastor say that if someone wasn’t walking down the isle every single week, then the church was dying. Churches that believe high numbers of conversions show success are more likely to do what it takes to get people to come to church. They often play music that has watered down lyrics but is appealing to the ear. The message is either a play on emotions, putting people in the “hot-seat” and demanding a conversion, or alternatively it presents a feel-good seeker friendly message. In both instances, the church attempts to appeal to the lost in the belief that this glorifies God.
While it is true that a low conversion rate can often be the sign of an inactive congregation, it does not follow that this is the case every time. Likewise, God is obviously not impressed with big numbers or anything we accomplish on our own. In fact, God violated much of the church growth principles of the modern age when He ordered Gideon to cut his army from tens of thousands down to three hundred. What was God’s intention in this? He lowered the numbers so that Israel wouldn’t boast against Him or in their own power (Judges 7:2). It seems that God did not listen to the modern practitioners of Christianity because when He was later given a chance to have a big following, He taught a message that caused people to walk away from Him…so many so that only the disciples were left (John 6:66 [ii]). In other words, it seems that when it comes to evangelism and missions God is not so much concerned about the quantity, but is more concerned about His glory being displayed in the process and His Truth being taught.
Those who truly adhere to a Calvinistic understanding of evangelism and missions will seek to put God’s glory first. This means that the glory of God will be the centerpiece of evangelism, that the truth will be at the forefront, and all methods that abandon the aforementioned principles will be abandoned. Under the Calvinist understanding, it is better to preach the truth and lose a potential convert than abandon the truth in the hope that someone will take on the title “Christian.” What this means is that under a Calvinist view, if a church is actively engaged in missions and evangelism yet is still having a low conversion rate, it is completely acceptable – God calls people to Himself, not man, so it doesn’t matter. In fact, it shouldn’t surprise us that many aren’t coming to Christ, considering we are fallen.
· Pragmatic missions is the best approach to the mission field – too many missionaries are going over seas in an attempt to bring people to Christ through any means necessary. This is merely an extension of the previous two methods, only in some ways worse. I have heard stories of people in Asia not being allowed to receive aid until watching the infamous Jesus Film.[iii] The missionaries are often guilty of attempting to assimilate Christianity with the other beliefs in the culture, in an attempt to create a hybrid.
This is all wrong because it presents the idea that God cannot transcend cultures, likewise it fails to acknowledge that these people have real physical problems. Though we must always present the Gospel, what sense does it make to not address a person’s physical need along with his spiritual need? Furthermore, since God can transcend cultures, what sense does it make to attempt to bring pagan beliefs into Christianity when it is not necessary?
Calvinism acts as a response to such attitudes by, once again, realizing that God’s glory and truth are to hold the center of all Christian thought and practice. In going along with this way of thinking, Calvinists often hold to the traditionally Reformed (and I belief Biblical) view of life as holistic; the physical and spiritual needs are equally important. The Bible often talks about how we are to feed the poor, take care of the widowed, and share the Gospel. Though we are called to share the Gospel, we are also called to take care of the entirety of the person, from spiritual to physical needs.
Calvinism doesn’t prohibit evangelism or missions.
In the above ways, Calvinism acts as a response to what has, unfortunately, become all too common within the evangelical community. If someone says “Calvinism is an affront to evangelism and missions” and has the previous ideas in mind, then yes, Calvinism is an affront to these types of ministry. However, this does not mean Calvinism is opposed to proper evangelism and missions. As seen above in the explanations of Calvinism, it should be seen how Calvinists evangelize. The question most often asked, however, is why? If Calvinists believe that God chooses who will go to Heaven, why waste our time evangelizing or going overseas? I offer the following answers:
1) Evangelism isn’t about conversion, but instead about a declaration of God’s glory and what He has done – under this view, the purpose of evangelism isn’t necessarily to “save” people, but instead to proclaim and display God’s glory and love. From this proclamation, those that have been called will come forward while those who have not been called will remain in their hardened state. We do not evangelize in order to get people converted, but instead to proclaim what God has done.
2) We don’t know who is called and who is not – Jesus says that His sheep know Him and He knows His sheep (John 10:14-27), but never once says that we know who the sheep are. Since we do not know who the sheep are and we are called to proclaim what God has done in this world, our prayer during this proclamation is that one of His sheep hears His voice and follows. Calvinism still believes that one must hear the proclamation of the Gospel and respond to it before coming to Christ (this is, after all, what Paul says in Romans repeatedly) – but we also believe that God will guide this verbal proclamation to the person in His due time.
3) We are to bring a taste of the kingdom to come – Jesus told us to do the acts that He did, to help the poor, the blind, the lame, the mute, the widows, and those dejected by society. It is no coincidence that that Paul continues this message in his “pastoral epistles,” telling Timothy to watch out after the widows and orphans and to take care of them.[iv] This is a taste of the Kingdom to come and our job is to make sure people get a taste of this. This means going overseas (and into our own communities) and helping those who are in need while proclaiming the One who makes such good deeds possible.
It is my hope that people can see why Calvinists believe in evangelism and missions. It is no coincidence or stroke of luck that some of the first missionaries to the Americas were all Calvinists. It is no accident that the First Great Awakening (America’s only true revival) propagated and was supported by Calvinism. It should not baffle the believer to discover that a truly Reformed and Calvinistic church puts a heavy emphasis on missions and evangelism.
[i] I am not lumping all “non-Calvinists” into this explanation. There are many non-Calvinists that disavow the method and beliefs I describe.
[ii] Interesting side note – verse 65 says that the “hard teaching” people were unwilling to accept is that no one could come unto the Father unless the Father drew them.
[iii] Not only is this ethically wrong, but it shows a problem in their way of thinking. At a future date I will attempt to write a paper on a term called “misplaced metaphysical dualism.” Essentially, it values ‘spiritual’ things over ‘physical’ things when the Bible doesn’t make such a distinction.
[iv] What does it say of the modern American church that we let the widows be taken care of by society security or welfare – or have to work as a greeter at a big box store – and our orphans have to be placed in state run foster systems? It is a shame that we put so much of an emphasis on 1 Timothy 2:12 (and I am a complimentarian, not an egalitarian, and I believe gender roles is a watershed mark for Christianity), but politely ignore discussing 1 Timothy 5:3-10 and James 1:27.