Contrasting two approaches to religion: truth vs crutch

I went to church today and we got a sermon from a guest speaker who espouses the standard felt needs / mysticism / Bible-verses-as-incantation-with-magical-powers view of evangelism.

I just thought that I would write it down while it was fresh in my mind. So below I’ll contrast my view of evangelism with what I will call the felt needs view of evangelism.

1) Who is to be evangelized?

My view: anyone, with an emphasis on people who are willing to listen to your evidence and change their mind on that basis

Felt needs view: People who are poor, ignorant, sick or who are grieving a recent death in the family, people who do not make decisions based on truth and evidence, but on emotions and superstition

2) What is the central issue in evangelism?

My view: the truth of the propositions, e.g. – does God exist, did Jesus rise from the dead

Felt needs view: making people feel good by telling them pleasing things that they have no basis for believing

3) How is the gospel preached?

My view: you explain the truth claims of the Christian faith then appeal to objective evidence, especially from science and history

Felt needs view: you knock on stranger’s doors and tell them how you used to be bad and unhappy and now you’re good and happy and you achieved this by reading the Bible, singing songs, attending church and believing things that you are not able to give an answer for

4) Why should we adopt your view of evangelism?

My view: Because this is the same view of decision-making that is used in the business world, the scientific world, or any other human endeavor where we must make careful decisions about things that matter. And what’s more, this method is Biblical – preparing a defense and presenting evidence IS the Biblical method of evangelism.

Felt needs view: once upon a time some Muslims had a death in their family and I baked them a cake and then they were all in my church 2 weeks later – all 13 of them! That really happened! Oh oh, and there was an old woman on a bus and she converted the bus driver when he annoyed at a red light by telling him that Jesus would turn the light green if he believed in Jesus, and then the whole busload of people converted, too! That really happened! You just have to “share” your faith with people who have an emotional need and tell children Bible stories when they are 6 and 7!

I work with a lot of people that I meet through my blog on their skills and evangelism. One of them had a message waiting for me in my inbox when I got home talking about how she had had a discussion with an annoying atheist who disapproved of her spiritual life. She used the following arguments on him: kalam, fine-tuning, moral, intelligent design, resurrection. He responded with no arguments. She was very excited about it and very comfortable in her faith, and he went away without an excuse. Whether he has a need or not, he knows that ought to adopt Christianity because it is true. She presented it as true and his emotional state was irrelevant to the discussion.

In contrast, consider where the felt needs approach to evangelism leads:

Schuller: Tell me, what do you think is the future of Christianity?

Graham: Well, Christianity and being a true believer–you know, I think there’s the Body of Christ. This comes from all the Christian groups around the world, outside the Christian groups. I think everybody that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the Body of Christ. And I don’t think that we’re going to see a great sweeping revival, that will turn the whole world to Christ at any time. I think James answered that, the Apostle James in the first council in Jerusalem, when he said that God’s purpose for this age is to call out a people for His name.

And that’s what God is doing today, He’s calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.

Schuller: What, what I hear you saying that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into human hearts and soul and life, even if they’ve been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you’re saying?

Graham: Yes, it is, because I believe that. I’ve met people in various parts of the world in tribal situations, that they have never seen a Bible or heard about a Bible, and never heard of Jesus, but they’ve believed in their hearts that there was a God, and they’ve tried to live a life that was quite apart from the surrounding community in which they lived.

Schuller: I’m so thrilled to hear you say this. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.

Graham: There is. There definitely is.

If you don’t think that the gospel is about sin, and a man dying on a cross for those sins and then rising from the dead, then you think it’s about people’s feelings, and all that’s needed is for them to “believe” things that they have no reasons to believe, so that they will feel better about their need. Or, maybe they just have an emotional experience without believing anything about Christianity and that emotional experience helps their need. Being saved means having your needs met through belief in things you haven’t investigated. This is the approach of evangelism used by many today – even by some guest speakers in my church. Read comforting words, tell comforting stories, believe in things you can’t test or prove. Feel better. Avoid discussions and debates with people who have no needs and sufferings for you to exploit. If someone doesn’t have a need to believe things that are true, then you have nothing to say to them. Do you know where atheists get the idea that Christians believe nonsense because they need a crutch in order to feel better about their weaknesses? They get it from us. We tell them that. We do.

One thing this annoying sermon did do was to cause me to pray about legitimate obstacles to evangelism. For example, I prayed that the laws that encourage people to silence and coerced Christians would be repealed. I prayed that people would be less insular about their own religions and be willing to listen to others from outside their faith. I prayed that people would choose their religion on the basis of truth and evidence, and not because of where they are born and what their families and communities require. I prayed that people stopped identifying religion with nationalism, race and culture. I prayed that people would dedicate more of their time to investigating what is really true using logic, science and history. I prayed that people would investigate whether anyone made the universe for a purpose, what happens when they die, and what Jesus claimed about such things when he was here among us. I prayed that the schools and the culture would not spread lies about behaviors and speculative theories that encourage people to get into sinful lifestyles before they have had the opportunity to investigate religion on the merits. And I prayed that the New Atheist caricature of faith as blind belief in order to address felt needs would not be adopted by Christians, and even by charismatic visiting Christian speakers speaking in my church.

7 thoughts on “Contrasting two approaches to religion: truth vs crutch”

  1. WK, I usually agree with you, but I must admit that I think you are being unfair. There is nothing wrong in appealing to emotion!!! Emotion is unstable, and alone, not a firm foundation for faith, but some people don’t need arguments for the existence of God. A lot of people are open to His existence, yet do not believe because of their emotional barriers, because of stubbornness, or because they perceive weakness or hypocrisy in the ‘Christians’ around them.

    In parts of this post, I agree with you fully. I love arguing with people about God’s existence, using evidence for the very real fact of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the moral and teleological arguments etc. BUT, at its root, there are people who could not see the truth of these arguments if it smacked them in the face, and there are those who have heard it all before, and are wondering how this God relates to them. I think the greatest paradox in your post is that the most emotionally affecting approach to preaching IS the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, not these cheap distortions that don’t make truth claims.

    I realise your post is a response to this felt needs kind of evangelism, but your own type of evangelism doesn’t allow for people to be changed by the powerful message that is the Gospel, even if they don’t know how it is soundly established as truth at the time. Truth be told, if a person has no previous bias against Christianity, and they see a profound change in you, one that you tell them is the result of Christ’s sacrifice for you, they might take it at face value. And if people are sincere in their coming to Christ, I think it is extremely appropriate, essential even, that they learn the strong foundations of what they believe. I feel you are dismissing unhealthy emotional quick-fixes, promised earthly satisfaction, without addressing the true power of out message to heal, cleanse and thoroughly transform lives. WK, you know you are a brother to me, and your posts are encouraging to me each day, but I strongly disagree that emotional appeal has no place in proper evangelism.

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  2. I’ve heard William Lane Craig say that apologetics doesn’t always work — some people need Christ, not apologetics.

    Even Pascal talked about the God-shaped vacuum in the human heart.

    In short, we need both approaches to evangelism, not one or the other.

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  3. Do you know where atheists get the idea that Christians believe nonsense because they need a crutch in order to feel better about their weaknesses? They get it from us. We tell them that. We do.

    DUDE. You’re so, so, so correct. Mainstream christianity or what I call the “public face of Christianity” is the main enemy of Christianity because it looks, sounds, and feels like all, some, or one of the following: eastern mysticism, superstition, self-help stuff, and therapeutic moralism.

    some say you’re evangelistic approach doesn’t touch the emotional part of human beings, but I disagree. Discovering truth is delightful, enjoyable, and warms the soul. It’s not dry, gritty, and purely intellectual like the caricature drawn by popular media; in fact, it’s gushy, smooth, and touches the mind and the heart making a bridge between the two. There is no natural split between facts and values. That was a split made by man taken in with enthusiasm by emotion-driven Christians who didn’t want to study their beliefs and instead focus on the mystical stuff (1 Corinthians anyone?).

    I don’t want is to be done exactly, but I think it’s fair to say Christian apologetics ministries like Reasonable Faith, STR, Ligonier, White Horse Inn and others have made a difference and I hope they continue to do so. My generation isn’t buying this I-HOP, mystical, rainwater, herbal crap that has taken over Christianity like a fat man sitting on a little kid.

    Sorry for the rant, haha. :)

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    1. “Do you know where atheists get the idea that Christians believe nonsense because they need a crutch in order to feel better about their weaknesses? They get it from us. We tell them that. We do.”

      Do you know how Greg Koukl responds when this crutch thing comes up? Sometimes we need crutches.

      Too often we’re trying to appeal to those who do not want to believe. Jesus had a lot to say about that, didn’t He? Pearls among the swine?

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      1. Four questions.

        Where in my rant did I write we don’t need crutches? Where in my rant did I write we need to continue throwing pearls before swine? (continuing throwing the gospel at those who trash it and misuse your evangelism)

        Do crutches have to be solely emotional crutches?

        Do Christians never try to persuade those who do not want to believe?

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        1. Christians should try to persuade non-Christians, yes; but not fall over themselves doing so either. Notice how you conveniently ignore what Jesus said? Telling, I think.

          You quoted the excerpt and I responded in kind. Be clearer next time, friend.

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          1. WK and I never wrote anything like “exhaust yourself over those who constantly refuse your evidence” thus we’re taking Jesus’ advice. I didn’t ignore what Jesus said because I never advocated throwing pearls before swine. Do you care to point that out to me if we did violate what Jesus said? It could be that I am ignorant of it. I don’t know how you were given that idea that we encouraged continual evangelism to those who persistently refuse it, mock it, and “trample” it. If you had asked me about my evangelism method you would understand that my method is quite different from mainstream pastors and methods. My method is building friendships and not the street style consisting of impersonal, radical, get-busy, hyper stuff that, in my young opinion, doesn’t give an accurate image of the gospel.

            I asked the questions in the last post to try and get you and others to think about how you’re responding. Yes, crutch was in the quote, but you automatically thought of “crutch” as “emotional crutch;” the crutch that WK was talking about. However, a crutch does not have to be a feeling-based non-intellectual crutch. It can be a crutch soaked in reason. Let me explain. I’ve built a nice foundation for my Christianity. It’s very nice I must say. When I’m tired and doubtful, that foundation is a nice “crutch” for me to lean on. Make sense? If that crutch was solely emotional then it would be weak. It wouldn’t hold me up and it would eventually break (like most do – I’ve seen it plenty of times). Crutches don’t have to be solely emotional and they don’t have to be foundation-less like many charismatic/pentecostal/ihop/etc. crutches are.

            I think this still goes back to what I was saying earlier anyway that there isn’t a divide like some Christian scholars make between the mind and the heart (reason and emotion). Maybe I’m wrong, I can admit that – no big deal, but the “road of truth” touches the mind and the heart. I delight in truth. It warms the soul. It’s emotional, but in the correct way. It’s not irrational emotion like flopping around on the floor like a piece of bacon in a frying pan, you know? It’s an awe of what you’ve just learned. Having a strong foundation of philosophy and theology does the following: broadens your knowledge for your own self and for the benefit of others; enriches your soul; motivates worship to God ; provides a stable, strong, and reliable crutch. I’m sure there are other benefits that others can think of that I can’t think of at the moment.

            I’ve heard Craig say that before about apologetics. Look, apologetics is evangelism and apologetics points to Christ. Plus, Craig would probably hate that his quote is being used for irrational emotional evangelism like “well if you would just accept Christ then all your worries will be gone,” “if you accepted Christ then your life will change and you’ll be like me and you can start the easter egg hunt for God’s will for your life” and other therapeutic, self-awakening stuff that isn’t helpful. That method is actually quite wrong I think (I could be mistaken) because this type of evangelism preys on people who are weak from struggling with some kind of serious addiction (drug, alcohol, sex) and/or marriage/family struggle. People in these situations aren’t thinking clearly, they’re a mess, and they take you up on the “offer” of salvation to change their life and get out of the problems. If and when the problem is solved by the “salvation” then they usually fall out of Christianity because they don’t need it anymore or if it didn’t solve the problem and things get worse then they’re emotionally worse and sometimes give up on life. Or depending on the church they’re in, they go broke from sowing all of the $$$$seeds$$$$ that never fixed the problem. It’s a mess.

            Real evangelism that focuses on the gospel (man’s fallen condition and God’s rescue plan) backed by reason is the best route because it’s intellectually and emotionally satisfying for every individual. Plus, it’s honest and helpful.

            /end rant

            WK: sorry for ranting :D

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