Is there any answer to the dilemma of "conversions" that do not last?
Case Studies in Easy-Believism
The Bible does not teach that a person gets saved by asking Jesus Christ to come into his heart or into his life.
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The most prominent evangelist of the mid-19th Century was Charles G. Finney, a Presbyterian who developed the altar call as a device to get decisions in his meetings. Ian Murray, in Revivals and Revivalism, says that Finney "believed that all that was needed for conversion was a resolution signified by standing, kneeling, or coming forward, and because the Holy Spirit always acts when a sinner acts, the public resolution could be treated as `identical with the miraculous inward change of sudden conversion'."
Finney believed that conversions could be obtained by the "use of means" to get people to walk the aisle, and he seemed to get results. But many of his converts fell away soon after making their "decision." One of his ministry associates, in a letter to Finney, stated: "Let us look over the fields where you and I have labored as ministers and what is now their normal state? What was their state within 3 months after we left them? I have visited and revisited many of these fields and groaned in spirit to see the sad, frigid, carnal, and contentious state into which the churches have fallen and fallen very soon after we first departed from among them."
Something was wrong - people were making "decisions," but they were not demonstrating the fruits of salvation. More recently, Roger Schultz, faculty member at Liberty University, reported on a revival meeting he attended: "I recently heard an evangelistic message that raised the bar for gimmickry. The evangelist had a thrilling testimony, one that left me brushing away tears. (But he never used the Bible, which is always a bad sign.) For the invitation, the evangelist insisted that he did not want people to come forward. Rather, he wanted them to make a decision in the ‘quietness of their hearts.' Later, he asked all who had made decisions to ‘simply stand up.' A little while later, he directed all those who had stood up ‘just to come forward.' Had he been consulted about his deceitful methodology, the evangelist would probably argue that he was simply breaking down personal barriers and eliminating silly internal resistance to the gospel. To me, it seemed like a sneaky way of building up to an altar call. The Holy Spirit doesn't need gimmicks."
Observers over the years have noted that Billy Graham, who is considered to be America's premier evangelist, gets a lot of people coming forward in his meetings, but few lasting conversions. Herman Otten, editor of Christian News, stated that "The editor's home congregation participated in the 1957 New York Billy Graham crusade. . . . The editor's home congregation received about 28 [referral cards]. All were visited but none were interested in joining the church. Surveys have shown that Graham's mass crusades have resulted in few ever joining a church."
Christopher Cagan and John Waldrip, after attending Billy Graham's San Diego crusade in 2003, presented a report which determined that "Graham's sermons are an outgrowth of the theology and methods of Charles G. Finney, the 19th Century evangelist who changed the meaning of salvation from Biblical ‘conversion' to the empty ‘decisionism,' which stopped historical revivals and ultimately helped to empty the churches... . The sad truth is that Graham's message converts an almost infinitesimally small percentage of people who did not already consider themselves Christians before they ever heard him preach. The third awful result of Graham's meetings is that almost no one is added to the churches.... Dr. Robert Ketcham of the GARBC (Regular Baptists) showed from hard-core statistics that only 13 previously unchurched people were added to the churches of San Francisco from a lengthy Billy Graham crusade."
Is there any answer to the dilemma of "conversions" that do not last? One possibility is to examine the techniques of those who have been successful in their soul-winning ministry. One example of success is the Congregational evangelist Asahel Nettleton, who won 30,000 converts during the years 1812-1822. It was estimated that 90% of his converts were still faithful Christians and active church members, 10 or 20 years after their conversion.
What was Nettleton's secret? According to Sam Horn of Northland Baptist Bible College, "His meek and quiet spirit, his utter dependence on God for results, and his rejection of man-induced means were in stark contrast to the ministry of other evangelists such as Finney who were gaining a reputation and a following by introducing new methods for bringing revival to a church or community....
"His belief that revival was a God-centered sovereign intervention of the Holy Spirit apart from the methods and machinations of men was diametrically opposed to the new thinking represented by Finney."
Asahel Nettleton was a Calvinist who never gave invitations or conducted altar calls in his meetings. (This is not to say that we must adopt these convictions in full, only that such convictions did not in any way hinder Nettleton's soul-winning ministry. If the power of God is working, it doesn't really matter whether or not an altar call is used).
Of course, any man holding Nettleton's convictions today would be denounced as an infidel and run off from most Baptist associations and churches in America nowadays. (After all, it is a lot easier to go hunting for "heretics" in our midst than to win sinners to the Lord).
We prefer to depend, not on the power and sovereignty of God, but on massive multi-million-dollar "festivals" and media events, our worldly entertainment extravaganzas and minstrel shows, and our psychological manipulation methods to get people to walk the aisle, shake the preacher's hand, mumble a prayer, "say these words after me or just follow along while I pray for you," or "just ask Jesus into your heart," and then we wonder why most of our converts never join the church, and most of those who do join a church turn out to be as mean as the Devil and are interested only in tearing our churches apart.
If anybody today has a better solution to the dilemma of false professions of faith than Asahel Nettleton had, and can get better results than Nettleton did, we need to hear from them today.
What the Preachers Say About "Easy-Believism"
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"I doubt that more than two percent of professing Christians in
the United States are truly born again."