Review: A History of Evangelism in North America

A History of Evangelism in North America, Thomas P. Johnston, editor. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2021.

Summary: An account of the history of evangelism in North America through a compilation of articles on key figures, movements, and organizations from the colonial period to the present.

If one is to give a full account of American church history, it is difficult to do so without discussing the various evangelistic movements and significant evangelists and revivalists who birthed church and parachurch organizations and contributed to their expansion across the country. This work offers an account of those evangelists, those movements and organizations that fueled successive waves of growth and renewal in American Christianity.

This is not a comprehensive history of evangelism in North America compiled by a single author as the title might suggest but rather an edited volume of twenty-two articles covering key figures and movements from the 1700’s to the present. The work begins with Jonathan Edwards offering a much more extensive study of Edward’s preaching than we often get in truncated versions of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Subsequent chapters discuss other early figures: Brainerd’s efforts among native peoples, John Wesley and his use of preaching conferences to multiply his efforts, George Whitefield’s method for effective evangelizing and Francis Asbury and his organization of circuit riders that led to the explosive growth of American Methodism. We also learn about the important role of Bible societies in the spread of the scriptures that accompanied the gradual spread of American literacy.

The revivalist movement of the early 1800’s is represented by Shubal Stearns and the Sandy Creek Association, Cane Ridge as representative of the camp meeting movement, and the revival of 1800 centered around the lawless region of Logan County, Kentucky. The mid-19th century is covered with discussions of the methodical approach to evangelism of J. Wilbur Chapman including prayer, intentional evangelistic effort, outreach strategies, and systematic efforts to render hospitality and contact prospects. By contrast, John Mason Peck’s efforts focused around education of workers, epitomized in his Shurtleff College and Rock Creek Seminary.

The book then jumps to the post World War 1 era covering Henrietta Mears Sunday School movement and her influence on a generation of evangelical leaders including Bill Bright and Billy Graham, who are also subjects of individual chapters. Other chapters include a wonderful summary of the work of Dawson Trotman of the Navigators and Shadrach Meshach Lockridge, one of the foremost black evangelists who ministered at Calvary Baptist Church in San Diego.

The latter part of the twentieth century was marked by a revival among counter-culture youth in the early seventies, with Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel serving as an epicenter of a movement that spontaneously sprang up around the country. There are also chapters on D. James Kennedy and Evangelism Explosion, Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner on church growth, John Piper and evangelism among the “Young-Restless-and-Reformed”. The book concludes with Southern Baptist methodologies and a concluding chapter on Twenty-first century developments.

It was striking to me that there were no chapters either on Charles Finney or D. L. Moody, both of whose methods shaped the “crusade evangelism” of the twentieth century. Billy Sunday is only mentioned as an antecedent of Billy Graham. No women, such as Aimee Semple McPherson or Kathryn Kuhlman are mentioned. While various movements in different church traditions are covered, the flavor is contemporary Southern Baptist, which may account for some of these lacuna.

While this text is framed as a history, the writing and effort to draw practical lessons from different evangelists and movements, which suggests that this text might be used as part of an adult forum on evangelism or as a seminary text as part of a course on evangelism. There are recurring themes of the importance of prayer, confidence in the scriptures and clarity in the message, going out to reach the lost in intentional outreach, the work of the Holy Spirit in conviction, conversion, and empowering of the preacher, and the necessity of making disciples and not just converts.

In an age that prefers presence to proclamation and is squeamish about any of the cognates of “evangel,” this book reminds us that this was not always so, and that many have found faith and passed from death to life through evangelism movements of the past. It reminds us of the transforming power of the gospel. We may need new wineskins, but this book reminds us that the wine is good.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Power of the 72

the power of the 72

The Power of the 72John Teter. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A description of the theology and practice of equipping ordinary people to join in the mission of calling people to follow Jesus.

John Teter is convinced that evangelism does not belong to the experts, but that Jesus plan is to work with and through ordinary people to call many to follow Jesus. That is “the power of the 72,” the unnamed group of people described in Luke 10 who Jesus sent out as his “advance team” to preach and heal in the towns Jesus would visit.

This book is divided into two parts. The first is centered around theology. Three key ideas are emphasized–first that witness comes out of relationship, second that Jesus sends his disciples to the poor, and third, that he prepares them for crushing pressure. Teter’s own ministry in the lowest income section of Long Beach illustrates the second of these points and it is inspiring to read how the church he has planted has loved its community, and how people have come to faith as a result.

The second part outlines Teter’s approach of process conversion. It may be memorably summarized under the rubric of 4-3-2-1.

Four benchmark events:

  1. Trusting a non-Christian (and presumably vice versa!)
  2. Experiencing God and the good news of the gospel.
  3. Hearing and understanding the good news.
  4. Receiving a clear call to follow Jesus.

Three conversations:

  1. Connection or initial investigation–discovering spiritual background and where they are on the conversion timeline (above).
  2. Secular to Sacred–inviting them to prayer, study of God’s Word, and fellowship to explore Jesus and the gospel.
  3. Curiosity to cross–as a person comes to understand who Jesus is and his message, they understand the decision they must make to take up the cross and follow.

Two mission tools:

  1. Food–sharing food together, often being received into a person’s home establishes trust and deep bonds.
  2. God’s Word–where people encounter Jesus for themselves in the gospels and hear his call and experience his healing in their lives.

One line we help friends cross as we call them to faith.

Undergirding all of this is a commitment to prayer. Chapter 5 on “Earnest and Powerful Prayers” is a pivotal part of the book, as Teter not only outlines the priority of prayer in scripture. The seven Habits of the 72 in prayer (p. 103) are ones I’ve copied for my journal.

There are several things I appreciated about this work. One is Teter’s enthusiasm. He not only writes about the joy of seeing people come to faith, but that joy also comes through on every page. Second is John’s honesty about relationships that didn’t lead to people coming to faith, things that didn’t work out the way he hoped. Many of the positive stories are those of others he works with. Third is the clarity of approach that arises out of his immersion in Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts, and his conviction of a ministry that is Word-centered, prayer-focused, and Spirit-empowered.

At one time, evangelical ministries neglected service and physical needs to focus on proclamation. Teter, I believe rightly, senses the pendulum has swung too far the other way, a swing he believes in part to be motivated by fear. He writes:

“A quotation attributed to St. Francis of Assisi says, ‘Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.’ When I hear that, I wonder if Francis’s larger ministry context emphasized speaking the word over service and acts of love. If that’s the case, it’s an entirely appropriate exhortation to strengthen a weak area of ministry. In our era, I believe many Christians have given themselves over to fear. We must heed the most heeded exhortation in the New Testament, ‘Do not be afraid,’ and open our mouths to proclaim the kingdom. We must choose obedience” (p. 132).

While a statement like this is challenging, what drives this and is evident throughout the book is Teter’s excitement about seeing people transformed as they come to faith in Christ. In this regard, he sounds a note much needed in the atmosphere of self-criticism, fear, and general up-tightness about the practice of evangelism. He reminds us that witness is about loving people, depending on God, experiencing the power of the Word and the Holy Spirit, and above all, knowing the great joy that pervades heaven when people come to faith and are reconciled to God through Christ. He reminds us that experiencing the reality of these things is not the preserve of a few specialists, but rather for ordinary, everyday believers. That is the power of the 72.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Beyond Awkward

Beyond AwkwardBeyond Awkward: When Talking About Jesus is Outside Your Comfort ZoneBeau Crosetto. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Talking about faith with others often feels awkward and is why most of us don’t do it. This book explores how to press through that awkwardness to important and life-changing conversations.

Beau Crosetto thinks it is worth it to press beyond the awkwardness of speaking about one’s Christian faith. To begin with, he contends that there are people who are waiting for us to show up. Taking risks is worth it when one experiences the awesome privilege of helping someone else believe. That said, there are differences between good awkward and just plain weird and the most important thing is waiting on God and looking for openness. We often think we need to know lots of information when what many are looking for is how can faith in Christ transform a life. What Crosetto shares here in the first part of his book is not necessarily a lot different from other books on Christian witness.

it is what comes next that sets the book apart. Crosetto contends that when we engage in witness, we may be called to engage in spiritual warfare–a word of discernment, a prayer of healing or the demonic confronted. He contends that God can speak to us in these situations and gives help for discerning God’s voice. Using Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, he argues that God’s role is to send us and set up situations, and our role simply to follow in obedience. That doesn’t mean we are passive but rather that we take risks to explore whether God is opening up opportunities with people without forcing unwanted conversations. He deals with how to discern between genuine care and pushiness and concludes with a lengthier chapter on turning conversations toward a discussion of Christ and inviting a response.

I suspect that some who read this will balk as they come across the supernatural material–if they are from Western countries. Others might still find Crosetto “pushy” but what struck me was his stories and how his risks came out of relationship, how he was willing to wait when others weren’t ready, and how his trust that the Spirit of God was in this venture was vindicated over and over by people appreciative that he had raised issues they were struggling with, with the offer of hope in Christ’s transforming work.

In the academic circles I work around, it is easy to get drawn into a world of subtlety, nuance, and indirectness about matters of ultimate importance. Furthermore, I think we often fail to account for the ways spiritual warfare works in darkening minds and obscuring truth. The forthrightness and spiritual discernment this author writes about is vital in this world, even if it may sometimes seem jarring. What won me over in this book is the winsomeness of a person who cares deeply to share with others the reality that can transform others for good and who is willing to be at God’s disposal.