Is the Age of Mass Evangelism Over?
Revd Canon J John spoke in a stadium evangelism event, Just One, on 8 July 2017 at The Emirates Stadium in London. We republish an article from his blog (canonjjohn.com), where in preparation for that event, he shared his thoughts on the place of mass evangelism today.
I was recently asked: ‘J John, isn’t the age of mass evangelism over? Hasn’t Elvis left the stadium!’
I have lost count of how often over the last few years I have heard words like this about the forthcoming JustOne event at the Emirates Stadium. On 8 July 2017 I’m going to step out on what will be the biggest venture in three-and-a-half decades as an evangelist. With a seating capacity of around 50,000, the Emirates Stadium is an awfully big place and I really hope I’m not going to be alone. Yet ever since I had the vision of a big stadium evangelistic event five years ago, I have faced the constant challenge from some people that this project is inappropriate or irrelevant today.
There are many objections to stadium evangelism. Let me comment on some of them.
Some people mention the expense of mass evangelism events. Applying cost benefit analysis to evangelism is a dubious practice. For information, the budget for the Emirates Stadium event is around £1,000,000 and we are anticipating a full stadium. In Mark 5:1–20 we read the story of a demon-possessed man freed and healed by Jesus. In the process of doing so Jesus cast the demons into 2,000 pigs, which then drowned. The cost of 2,000 pigs today could be in the region of £500,000. Jesus sacrificed 2,000 pigs in order to help just one man. In other words, one man is worth more than the value of 2,000 pigs.
Another objection involves the assertion that preaching to crowds just creates temporary emotional responses. Well no doubt some of the responses are indeed inadequate and short lived. Yet we have it on the very highest authority – in the Parable of the Sower – that, sadly, this is true for all preaching. Nevertheless, mass evangelistic events do produce enduring fruit: there are many Christian leaders in the UK who either came to faith or were challenged to take their faith seriously as a result of Billy Graham or Luis Palau events.
I thank God for every method of evangelism! But are we evangelising enough? Of course not.
There are others who point out that we now do evangelism in other ways. Of course we do and I thank God for every method of evangelism! But are we evangelising enough? Of course not. JustOne is considered ‘mass evangelism’ but the truth is mass evangelism is a platform for personal evangelism. One big event will not compensate for a lack of regular witnessing by the church. Neither will it transform a local church that has not given priority to evangelism anymore than a week’s exercise can restore to full health a body which has ignored physical exercise for years.
Actually the biggest objection seems to be quite simply that mass evangelism hasn’t been done in the UK for a very long time. In fact the last large-scale events were by Billy Graham and Luis Palau in the 1980s. That isn’t a valid objection: it could simply be that now is the right season to refocus on it simply because God has led us to.
Some people have pointed out some of the mistakes made in mass evangelistic events in the past. It’s not hard to find examples where the motives, means or message have been flawed. But anything worth doing can be done badly and it’s foolish to let a bad example stop you from trying to do a good thing. All I will say is that one reason why this JustOne event has taken five years to create is precisely because the team involved (which includes Matt Redman, Hillsong London, Noel Robinson, Noël Tredinnick and a lot of other godly and wise people) have been anxious to do this well. So, for example, a big effort has been made to try to ensure that there will be adequate and appropriate follow-up for those who make any sort of commitment.
Yet, putting those objections to the side, the challenge lingers. Can mass evangelism of any sort be justified in multicultural, digitally connected, postmodern, 21st-century Britain? Let me assemble a case for the defence.
First, mass evangelism has biblical authority. There are over a hundred references to a crowd or crowds in the Gospels, mostly in connection with vast numbers of people coming to hear Jesus. Some of these crowds were undoubtedly large. After all, in the most celebrated case, the feeding of the five thousand, the Gospels only give us the number of men; if we include women and children we can safely assume that there would have been at least three or four times that number present. This pattern continues in Acts where from the day of Pentecost onwards the apostles frequently preached to large numbers of people.
Mass evangelism also has fascinating and encouraging historical precedents. There is a long, varied and frequently unauthorised tradition in church history of preaching in public spaces. In Britain the open-air evangelistic preaching of George Whitfield and John Wesley in the 18th century was enormously effective. Wesley commonly preached to thousands and there are credible accounts that Whitfield’s audiences sometimes numbered 20,000 or more. That tradition of open-air preaching continued into the 19th century with C.H. Spurgeon and William Booth and his Salvation Army. Similar open-air "revival preaching" in the States was associated with Jonathan Edwards in the 18th century, D.L. Moody and Charles Finney in the 19th century, and continued into the 1930s with Billy Sunday. Interestingly, when in the late 1940s Billy Graham started his long and remarkable ministry as a stadium preacher, he was told that the time for mass evangelism had passed. I find it significant that outside the increasingly secular West mass evangelism has continued, particularly in the majority world with some spectacular rallies in places like Africa. Reinhard Bonnke has had the privilege of preaching to some of the largest gatherings in Africa in history.
Two things strike me about the historical record. The first is that these events clearly did produce lasting fruit. To give just one example, Wesley and Whitfield’s preaching created not just converts but churches, and those revivals have a lasting impact on the nature of British and American society. The second and very striking feature is that mass evangelism has not been restricted to any particular denomination or theological trend. Indeed it is hard to find a branch of evangelical Christianity in which mass evangelism has not played a part.
So there is biblical authority and historical precedent for mass evangelism. But is it really appropriate today? Let me suggest seven features of mass or stadium evangelism that I think are profoundly helpful in terms of bringing people either to faith or back to a living faith.
- A stadium setting provides neutrality. In case you hadn’t noticed, non-Christians don’t tend to drift into Sunday church services these days. I’m afraid that increasingly such people find the whole ‘church thing’ somewhat intimidating. They don’t know what to wear, what to expect or what to do. Consider, too, that in a church setting it’s always possible for people to imagine that they are being invited to commit to a denomination. In a stadium it’s much easier to point out that any commitment is to Christ and him alone.
- A stadium setting provides anonymity. Part of the discomfort that many people have about being invited to church for evangelistic events is they realise that they are ‘targets’ and, as a result, end up feeling like a lion in the den of Daniels. Considering a life-changing decision is a lot easier when you don’t have everybody staring at you. And should you choose to respond at a stadium, it will be with many other thousands.
- A stadium setting provides legitimacy. In a suspicious age – with a lot to be suspicious about – many people are wary when they are invited into some gloomy building about which they know little to hear about some religious teaching about which they know even less. Because football stadiums are, along with shopping centres, today’s cathedrals, there is something about their vast public space that encourages trust and eases suspicion.
- A stadium setting encourages expectancy. It is universally held that a stadium is where exciting things happen. To be in a stadium is surely to be expectant, and expectation – the offspring of faith and hope – is a vital ingredient when the gospel is proclaimed. One of the problems with evangelism in a church context, particular in a regular Sunday service, is that there can be a very low level of expectation. Unfortunately if those attending a meeting don’t expect God to work that’s normally exactly what happens. As the mock beatitude goes: ‘Blessed are those who expect little for they will receive exactly that.’
- A stadium setting offers a sense of community. Psychologists, or at least those with an anti-Christian bias, are often negative about mass evangelism. Such events, they claim, allow for ‘crowd psychology’ and distort any sense of normality. There are very real questions to be asked as to whether today’s ‘normal’ is indeed normal. Courtesy of the Internet and the smartphone, most individuals now exist in only one of two states: digitally connected or asleep. Many traditionally communal activities such as conversation, game-playing and even dating now involve solitary individuals interacting with a screen. It’s hardly surprising that those used to a virtual world, hunger for a reality which brings them into contact with real flesh-and-blood people, rather than pixels. It’s no wonder that something like Glastonbury sells out instantly. Being together in a crowd makes people feel good and that’s an appropriate mood in which to hear good news.
- A stadium setting encourages commitment. No aspect of mass evangelism has been more seriously criticised than the summoning of people to come forward to signify that they have made a commitment to Christ: the much disparaged ‘altar call’. I understand the criticism. Yet one of the strongest temptations faced by anyone who has made any sort of commitment to Christ is that of going back on it the moment they meet opposition. It’s much easier to renege on a decision if all you did was utter some mental prayer. A faith-step in a stadium can be quite memorable and not easy to forget.
- A stadium setting encourages prayer. All evangelism worthy of the name is ultimately a supernatural intervention into people’s lives. Prayer is needed for that to happen. One of the advantages of high publicity events is that people do pray for them. And prayer works. My prayer request is the same as the apostle Paul’s in Colossians 4:4: ‘Pray that I will proclaim this message as clearly as I should.’
So I have faith in God and in stadium evangelism as a means of reaching out to men and women. Yet I want to say that I think it’s importance and impact goes beyond that. Mass evangelism events
speak also to the church and to our culture. Large-scale outreach events remind both individual Christians and churches that evangelism is not an optional extra. History tells us that when churches cease to evangelise they soon become churches only in name; the same principle applies to individuals. A stadium evangelistic event should jab you in the ribs and pose the uncomfortable question: ‘So you don’t like this? Well what are you doing instead?’ Stadium evangelism should help put the world on the agenda of the church.
Mass evangelism reminds the world that the church is not dead
Mass evangelism also speaks to our culture. Many ancient Christian buildings had a cloister, a secluded quiet space in which monks or nuns could stroll in reflection and prayer away from ordinary people: they were cloistered away. Half a millennium ago the church came out of the cloisters – sometimes uncomfortably – and into the home and the workplace. Yet we now live in a culture that is anxious that Christianity return to the cloister. It doesn’t mind that we Christians exist just as long as we stay cloistered away, out of sight and out of mind. Tempting as that may be, the cloister is not where we ought to be. Mass evangelism reminds the world that the church is not dead. It’s easy to ignore a few little fellowships hidden away in anonymous buildings in a dozen suburbs. It’s much less easy if there are tens of thousands of people in your city’s main stadium.
My hope and prayer is not just that the JustOne event is a success and gets a lot of people excited about Jesus, but that this is the spark that lights the fire of desperately needed revival in our land. And I believe it’s possible.
Elvis may have left the stadium but Jesus hasn’t.