Do Methods Matter? Lessons from History

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Whether we are conscious of it or not, every evangelist and every missiologist leans towards using certain methods. History has shown that these methods are anything but neutral, but are very much derived from one’s theology. Case in point, if I have a hard time believing that Jesus is powerful enough to care for the new believer right to the end of his life, then my methods will reflect that. If I have a hard time believing that the Gospel and the Word of God empowered by the Holy Spirit are powerful enough to save people, then my methods will reflect this. Often these are subtle things, as no evangelist worth his salt wants to admit openly that he has doubts about the Gospel.

A deeply insightful article by Rick Nelson(1) sheds light on the methods of two evangelists working at about the same time. Each evangelist based his methods on his theology, and at the end of the day they had vastly different results.

Finney and Nettleton worked primarily in upstate New York around the 1830’s. Both were known as revivalists and both saw large numbers of conversions in their ministries. In his article, derived from his thesis at the Southern Baptist Seminary, Nelson takes a close look at the “results” of these two men and makes the following observations:

1. Finney had perfected his “new methods” with the use of persuasion and the anxious bench or in today’s terms, altar call evangelism, and used all of his skill as a lawyer to convince people that they needed Jesus. James Boyle, a friend of Finney commented on the fruit of his methods in a letter written in 1834:

“Let us look over the fields where you and others and myself have laboured as revival ministers, and what is now their moral state? What was their state within three months after we left them? I have visited and revisited many of these fields, and groaned in spirit to see the sad, frigid, carnal, contentious state into which the churches had fallen–and fallen very soon after our first departure from among them.”

2. Nettleton, meanwhile preferred to present “God-centered” evangelistic messages and methods and historical documentation showed that after even as long as after twenty years, as many as 90% of those converted under his ministry were still faithful to the church and to the Gospel.

Summary:

Finney loved the lime-light and a great deal of press followed his initial results, and even to this day, this is the memory that people have of Finney. A whole lot less press followed the careful observations of even Finney’s friends like Boyle, who saw through all the hype and the fact that many of Finney’s so-called converts were “saved” not through the conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit, but by Finney’s persuasive means. Nettleton, meanwhile has faded into obscurity and is known as the forgotten evangelist, even though his methods were very much more Scripture-based and God-glorifying than Finney’s. Are we seeing the same in our day, when wild-eyed claims of up to 6,000,000 Bengalis being converted are put in the press? Yet a mature Bengali believer who was converted from the majority religion thinks that 75,000 to 90,000 is a safer estimate.

For reflection:

  1. Have you ever stopped to ask what kind of theology is driving your methodology?
  2. Would you prefer to be known as a Finney with many so-called results and have one of your friends describe the churches you planted as “sad, frigid, carnal and contentious”?
  3. Would you accept being called “the forgotten evangelist” even though you worked with all of your being to employ God-honoring methods?
  4. After twenty years, what will the fruit of your labors look like?

For further reading:

1. Art Azurdia, “Is Methology Neutral?” The Spurgeon Fellowship Journal, (Winter 2008).

2. [on the theological underpinnings of Finney’s methodology]Phillip R. Johnson, “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: How Charles Finney’s Theology Ravaged the Evangelical Movement.”

3. A collection of articles that closely examine Finney’s life and labors is here.

4. [a historical account of Nettleton’s life by one of his contemporaries, which details his theology and methodology]Bennet Tyler and Andrew A. Bonar. Nettleton and His Labours: The Memoir of Dr. Asahel Nettleton. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996.

 


Footnotes:

(1) How Does Doctrine Affect Evangelism? The Divergent Paths of Asahel Nettleton and Charles Finney Founders Journal no 33 (Summer 1998)

 

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About Author

John Span has worked with his family in West Africa among an unreached 'Fulani' people group for the last ten years. His mentors have challenged him to think theologically, especially in the area of missions to Muslims and he desires to inspire others to do the same. In the last year he has been a frequent contributor to the St. Francis Magazine.

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