Too Earthly Minded to be any Heavenly Good – Part 4a (some popular theologies informing evangelism)

This section in the ongoing study series is extremely long, and will be broken into three or four parts. The topic of evangelism is fundamental to the understanding of Evangelicalism, and this multi-part topic is evidence of this fact.

In this part of the series, I look at the history of evangelism theology and praxis within the American Evangelical movement. My focus is upon practices in the 20th century, but the study stretches into previous centuries as they set the stage for 20th century behavior in popular culture and politics. As before, my definition of Evangelicalism does not follow narrow Reformed and/or Baptist traditions. Instead, the broader definition includes the Holiness and Pentecostal/Charismatic expressions of Christianity. I am using the broader description, because this is the sense attributed to the word “Evangelical” by the press, and the non-Evangelical public when describing White American Evangelical politics.

The heart of Evangelicalism in all its wild varieties is evangelism. It’s in the name, and in the DNA of the movement. Evangelicalism without evangelism is not Evangelical at all. It would stand to reason that this is true for the Evangelical believer as well. It is not out of character to the history of the movement to say that an Evangelical believer without a concern for evangelism is Evangelical in name only. It would only be natural then, to assume that this category of theology and praxis would have a profound effect on the whole of the believer’s life, including political choice. Though this study does not assume this as a fact from the outset, the research is directed toward the discovery of critical questions framed by this presumption. The basic historical research will be followed up with critical analysis based on the philosophies and social trends contemporary with the evangelistic practices as they occurred to determine whether they are helpful toward discovering vital connections between politics and faith. 

The fundamental questions in front of me in this section are these: What and who are/were the most influential theologies, practices, and personalities of American Evangelical evangelism? How have they been influential? 

I looked for a list of the most popular and influential evangelists, evangelistic movements, and soul-winning techniques over the 20th century. I talked to a few scholars of Evangelical history about such a list, and if it exists in any form as I am presenting it here, it alluded my capture. There are some short lists of influential evangelists, and some lists of gospel presentation methods,[1] but not in any framework conducive to this study. Consequently, this has been a rather long process putting this together. I’ve had to create it from the resources of individuals who have done the historical work on individual aspects of this set of historical vignettes. David Malcolm Bennett has been most helpful with his work on the Altar Call, the Sinner’s Prayer, and Charles Grandison Finney. Jim Henderson’s provocative thoughts as it relates to the term “Great Commission”, and the activities of Friendship Evangelism were as deep as every conversation I have with Jim always is. Michael Cooper continues to be a fabulous resource, and a deeply committed Evangelical resource at that. Matthew Sutton’s work on Aimee Semple McPherson is simply brilliant. John W. Morehead continues to be a great friend and fellow troublemaker as it relates to evangelism. His expertise in counter-cult ministries and apologetics is priceless. Steve Pate shared his thoughts on evangelism and its tendency toward colonialist activity. This may well prove to even more valuable in follow up sections of this research.

Initially, all I was looking for was a list of the most influential evangelistic techniques and movements in the 20th century. Instead, I ended up spending months doing the gritty groundwork of pulling together this brief history of an extremely eclectic movement. I’m sure this is going to be terribly dry reading for many people, and certainly will be grossly incomplete, but I figured that I had to start somewhere. I’m just hoping I have not simply reinvented the wheel. If I find that someone already did this work, and I could have simply read it in a short sitting––well, I just might need a few friends to sit down for a pint and commiseration session. All in all, I hope this provides some groundwork for others to consider questions that proceed from this further than I am able.

As a note to my personal experience and direct knowledge of these evangelical practices, I should admit to the fact that this will likely lean in two, sometimes competing, directions on the evangelism spectrum. My personal experiences, practices, and study have been far more complete in three of the categories below: New Religious Movement apologetics, Charismatic expressions of outreach, and the Church Growth Movement. If the list appears to shortchange expressions of evangelism and outreach you are more familiar with, please excuse my ignorance.

Well, now for the show…

20th Century Doctrine and Praxis Informing Evangelism:

Similar to the previous parts of this series, where I focused upon eschatology and the ecstatic, Evangelical evangelistic practices are eclectic, and they are influenced by multiple sources.

Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), biblical anthropology, harmartiology (the doctrine of sin), and Christology are all major influences upon evangelism beliefs and techniques, but, if the devil is in the details, so is God, and in some sense, we are searching for both of them in this topic as it relates to theological influences upon Evangelical politics. Consequently, I will not focus primarily on large theological subjects. Instead, I will focus more directly upon specific details that frame the church’s popular conceptualization of evangelism within today’s Evangelical world. These may from differ from Evangelical tradition to Evangelical tradition and are not typically universal. In fact, this category of evangelism is more eclectic than most other categories of the Evangelical religious experience, but there are a few practices that are nearly universal, and they are clearly informed by the development, and as you will see, the slow change of Evangelical theology over a few hundred years.

A Doctrine of Sin:

Early Evangelicalism calls us back to the 16th century with figures like Luther and Calvin. The Reformed traditions of the Evangelical church framed human sinfulness in the tradition of Augustine’s theory of “original sin”. People are born into sin, and they are generally believed to be responsible for the sin passed down from Adam as well as their own sins. Some believed that sin was transferred genetically from generation to generation, and others saw the connection as a type of legal matter––Adam is the “federal head” of the human race, and therefore represents us before God. In either case, we are born with the penalties of sin already imputed to us, and simultaneously we are predisposed toward committing sin.[2]

To John Calvin, humanity is in a state of total depravity, and people were powerless to please God in any respect whatsoever. Even the ability to turn to God in repentance and faith is something that must be granted by a gracious act of God to the individual. Both the predisposition toward sin and the turning away from sin to serve God are predetermined affairs. It is God who does all the determining, and we have no actual choice in the grand matters of life and death. To others, like John Wesley, people are free to both reject and/or accept the grace and salvation of God through an act of will.

According to Evangelical theology, sin carries a penalty, and that penalty is death. This is orthodox Christian theology dating back to the Pauline epistles and the early church fathers. Evangelicals did not create this belief out of stretched interpretations of scripture, but perhaps they have focused upon it as strictly as any group in church history, and they have taken a stricter reading than most. Consequently, humanity is viewed as being, “under the power of the evil one”, but those of us who have become Christians are “children of God.” (1 John 5:19) This emphasis is seen by some as being responsible for an us vs. them approach to the world––we are saved, they are damned)––whereas others see the doctrine of sin as a radically egalitarian equalizer, placing everyone in the same lowly and humble position.

The Great Commission:

In a conversation with fellow provocateur Jim Henderson, the founder of Off-the-Map,[3] he discussed his attempt to discover the popularization of the term, “The Great Commission”. Those exact words are not found in the pages of scripture, but they have come to describe the primary mission of Evangelicalism. The answer to his search is still up for grabs to those who would do the gritty historical groundwork.

“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15 NKJV) These words, and similar matching passages in the Gospels and the Book of Acts give us a picture of the emphasis of Evangelicalism. These verses reiterate the command to take the gospel to the world, and call for preaching, baptizing converts, and making disciples. Each of these activities is generally viewed as critical ministry actions of Christianity. The emphases are a combination of proclamation, ritual inclusion to the faith, and spiritual mentoring.

Of note here is that evangelism and eschatology meet each other in the Great Commission, and Evangelicals make a point of highlighting this. Matthew 24:14 is used as a prooftext for this intimate connection between preaching the gospel and the Second Coming of Christ, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”

The use of this phrase, “Great Commission”, which is not found in the Bible, appears to date back to the 18th century. Baron Justinian Von Welz is often cited as the individual to coin the phrase.[4] He taught that every Christian was responsible for the evangelization of the world. It is not a duty relegated to the professionals. Rather, we were all commissioned to do this work. 

At the end of the 18th century, the ‘cobbler’ turned missionary, William Carey, appears to have set the stage for this term by his 1792 publication, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. He outlines the scope of the obligation for all Christians, and proceeds to comprehensively document the nations of the world: their population, and the primary religion in each country. By outlining these early and simple demographics of nations, William Carey becomes known as the father of modern missions. Though Carey never uses the term “Great Commission” in his enquiry, he regularly refers to the call to evangelize the world as a “commission”.

In the early 1840s, a missionary group connected with the “Scottish Establishment” held a contest for the “best Essay on THE DUTY, PRIVILEGE, AND ENCOURAGEMENT OF CHRISTIANS TO SEND THE GOSPEL OF SALVATION TO THE UNENLIGHTENED NATIONS OF THE EARTH.”[5] The winner of this essay contest was Rev. John Harris. His winning tome was entitled, The Great Commission, or the Christian Church constituted and charged to convey the gospel to the world. This was first printed in 1842, and would go on to have multiple printings over the course of the next 100 years. We see a significant peak in the use of the words “Great Commission” in publications from 1841-1843, consequently this appears to be the first popularization of the term.[6] The dates correspond to Harris’ influence, although factors such as a rise in apocalypticism may be linked as well.[7]  

Critics of Evangelicalism’s approach to world missions note the resemblance it has to colonization of native peoples, primarily by European countries from the 15th through the 20th centuries. The apparent death of the young missionary John Chau on Sentinel’s Island in 2018 reignited this concern.[8]

The initial use of the term was as a call for all Christians to participate in the evangelization of the globe. Jim Henderson critiques its recent usage. It appears to make worldwide evangelism look like something only a few talented leaders are capable of performing, instead of emphasizing it as a simple act for the common man. He believes this recent emphasis has had a net negative effect on evangelism, and that it has been used mostly for fund raising purposes. This concern appears to echo public opinion about the practices of Christian Evangelists.

Interestingly, according to a Barna survey in 2019, only 17% of the Christians surveyed were familiar with this term and knew what it meant. A whopping 51% said they had never heard of the Great Commission.[9]

The Altar Call:

The Altar Call has become such a standard practice within so many Evangelical denominations and non-denominational expressions that it can almost be thought of as a sacrament of the Church. Thus, it warrants placement among the theological influences. 

As a young pastor in the Foursquare Gospel Church in 1985, I was expected to turn in a monthly report with details of responses from the Altar Calls supposedly given each week. It was not a written rule of the church, but weekly invitations to receive Jesus and/or the Baptism with the Holy Spirit was certainly an unspoken rule loaded with high expectations. These Altar Call statistics were passed on to the denomination as success markers through numbers on the monthly reports with headcounts of salvations, recommitments,[10] and Baptisms with the Holy Spirit. 

The second reason for including this practice under theological influences, is that the act of the Altar Call appears to represent a developing theological transition from the 18th to 20th century. In the early days of pre-revolutionary America, American revivals were emotional events with sinners seeking God’s mercy in the face of sermons on the subjects of sin, repentance, and judgment. Rather than being called forward to recite a prayer of forgiveness, anxious sinners were exhorted to call out to God for mercy upon their souls. They were urged to seek God’s acceptance, and forgiveness for their multitude of sins. Today, “with every head bowed and every eye closed”,[11] seekers are asked to lift their hands to acknowledge their interest in receiving Jesus into their hearts, and then they are called forward to the platform (or altar) to recite a prayer and receive counseling on how to begin living like a Christian. Often, they will be assured of their salvation by the counselor. They are told that if they have given an honest prayer, their forgiveness is certain, and their names are now written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

This thing we have named the “Altar Call” has been alternately attributed to John Wesley and Charles Finney, but these attributions appear to be based upon spurious information. There is no evidence in the writings of Wesley that he included an invitation to come forward to receive salvation, or even counseling for salvation. The first clear and regular appearances I have found from those who have studied the historical data of this particular phenomenon as a means of identifying penitent sinners is found among the Methodist circuit riders, and revivalist camp meetings in the waning days of the 18th century. There are random events of people being called out in a moment of their penitent conviction, but until this point, it does not appear to have been popularized into a common and standardized act. 

In a small Methodist church called, “Paup’s meeting-house”, in Maryland on October 31, 1798, Jesse Lee made a personal journal entry about a service in which Bishop Francis Asbury preached, Jesse Lee “exhorted”, and an unnamed “preacher then requested all that were under conviction to come together.”[12]

Over the course of the next few years, references to calling the mourning sinner forward in meetings appear in the journals of other Methodist preachers. Early in the year in 1800, William P. Chandler used the term “mourner’s bench” and commented on the helpfulness of this technique:

It was a great advantage because, with the seekers scattered all through the congregation, it was difficult to give them suitable attention. By bringing them together they were accessible to those who desired to instruct and encourage them. In the early part of the revival I saw twelve men kneel at the mourner’s bench, and they were all quickly converted.[13]

 At this point in the development of what would eventually become what we now refer to as the “Altar Call”, Charles Finney was still a young child. So, while it is likely that he helped popularize the phenomenon, this technique was well on the way to becoming a common occurrence before he entered ministry.

John Williamson Nevin wrote a booklet in 1843 entitled The Anxious Seat. In it, he railed against the practice of calling people forward to salvation, and Nevin blamed Methodism, for developing this troubling practice. Nevin attributed it to John Wesley, but there appears to be no historical evidence to support his accusation. The mourner’s bench, or the anxious seat, along with camp meetings seem to be a unique American experience that grew into the regular practice that we know of today as the Altar Call. The name most likely developed from the altar rail at the front of a Methodist Church, and the practice of coming forward to partake of communion or kneel in prayer. As a means of passing from unrepentant sinner to saved saint, the Altar Call has become a sort of Evangelical sacrament as important as water baptism in many Evangelical traditions.

Despite the influence of Francis Asbury, circuit riders, and Methodist camp meetings, we cannot place the whole responsibility of its development on Arminian preachers.[14] As early as 1801, Barton Stone and a group of Presbyterian pastors hosted the Cane Ridge, Kentucky revival. They built mourner’s benches in front of the preaching platforms at the revival site for the convicted sinners to come forward and seek God’s forgiveness. The fact that these were built into the event seems to be evidence that it was not a brand-new practice. The Cane Ridge revival was hosted by the Presbyterians, but included Methodists and Baptists, and would become influential to the founding of the restorationist Church of Christ movement. The event went on for about a week in early August 1801, and it was attended by upwards of 25,000 people in what was still the remote wilderness of the American move westward. 

In light of the historical evidence, it would appear that the Altar Call as we know it today is descended from a combination of the Second Great Awakening, camp meetings, and practices of Methodist Circuit Riders. 

This traveling ministry of the Circuit Riders combined with the pioneering church work in the westward expansion of early America led to Methodism being the fastest growing denomination during this time. It is not unlikely that the quick growth of the Methodist Church was also a significant factor in the development of what we now refer to as the “Altar Call”. This perhaps accounts for the fact that the Altar Call has been nearly universal in Pentecostal circles.

During the development of this Evangelical practice, communication to seeking sinners slowly changed. Where once they were encouraged to personally seek God on their own and ask for his acceptance into his graces, over the course of a century and a half, they would then be asked to accept Christ in a public display of simple affirmation. Charles Finney’s passion in calling for an immediate response from the hearers appears to be an extremely influential factor in the development of this practice. 

Along with the next category (the Sinner’s Prayer), the Altar Call has been attributed to creating what some have critiqued as “decisional salvation”. This is to say that salvation is no longer seen as a moment in which Almighty God gives grace to, and accepts the penitent sinner, but the sinner chooses or accepts God, and thereby becomes part of a heavenly family. When we look at key historical figures in the development of evangelism efforts, we will see that this transition occurs slowly over time in developing evangelism theologies, but it can be traced through major Evangelical voices such as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Grandison Finney, and Dwight L. Moody.

So great was the power of this phenomenon in the period of America’s settlement westward, that it is worth asking whether social developments such as the political Bandwagon,[15] traveling drummers,[16] and Medicine Shows learned from watching the evangelists or vice versa. As the psychology of closing the deal, or gaining a devoted following was perfected in the business and politics of the American expansion westward, it may well have been simultaneously perfected in the religious setting in a symbiotic relationship. This is certainly worth academic consideration, but it exceeds this current simple study. Identifying the invariable hypocrisies that come with the melding of the secular and religious world are no new trope. Novels and movies like Elmer Gantry (1927, 1960), and the documentary Marjoe (1972) are examples of this critique, but it is an extreme position to accuse every proponent of the Altar Call of being a charlatan. Just as most salespeople are not hucksters, most evangelists are not charlatans, but the similarities between their worlds is worth noting.

The Sinner’s Prayer:

Like the Altar Call, the Sinner’s Prayer (also called the prayer of commitment, or the salvation prayer) is a tradition of the conversion process that is uniquely Evangelical. It is used during Altar Calls at the end of church services, in personal evangelism efforts, and it is placed on gospel tracts and websites. It is a pre-formed prayer, which is used as an example of asking for God’s forgiveness, and for his acceptance into the family of God. It is often used in exact repetition of the evangelist’s words. Its goal is to lead the praying sinner to an experience of salvation. David Malcolm Bennett describes the Sinner’s Prayer like this:

The Sinner’s Prayer is a very commonly used tool in modern day evangelism. It is usually the climax of a counselling session with an enquirer into Christianity. It is used at the end of church services, the close of evangelistic meetings and in personal evangelism. It is now used so widely that it could be considered an almost universal method of evangelism.[17]

Paul Chitwood tells a story highlighting the ubiquity of this practice in Evangelical churches in the introduction to his doctoral thesis on the origins and theological elements of the Sinner’s Prayer:

One of the most revealing parts of my research on the Sinner’s Prayer came very early in the process. While discussing the subject with an historian and archivist at one of the most prestigious evangelical seminaries in America, I asked the individual if he had given any thought to the origin of the prayer. “What do you mean?!” he replied. “The Sinner’s Prayer is in the Bible!” Laughing at my supposed ignorance, he quickly concluded the conversation.[18]

As has been noted by others before him, Chitwood points out that there is no example of the Sinner’s Prayer found in the scriptures. Bennett discusses scriptures that have been used to justify the practice of the Sinner’s Prayer: the thief on the cross, Cornelius––the Roman Centurion, and Paul’s prayer for Agrippa, but these lack the elements that set the Evangelical Sinner’s Prayer apart as unique. Bennett also points out the fact that in several places the sinner is exhorted to cry out to God in prayer. In setting today’s Sinner’s Prayer apart as unique to the biblical examples, he identifies three “essential elements” that characterize the Sinner’s Prayer: It must be an actual prayer, there must be a statement that an honest prayer by the one praying ensures salvation, and it must entail the sinner asking, inviting, or receiving Christ into their heart and/or life.[19]

What we have as examples of the Sinner’s Prayer today have been passed down to us from popular evangelists and pastors. Billy Graham’s Sinner’s Prayer is one of the most familiar examples of this form of Evangelical liturgy:

Dear God, I know I’m a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe Jesus Christ is Your Son. I believe that He died for my sin and that you raised Him to life. I want to trust Him as my Savior and follow Him as Lord, from this day forward. Guide my life and help me to do your will. I pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen.[20]

Paul Chitwood traveled to the headquarters of the American Tract Society, which is the world’s oldest and longest running printer and distributor of gospel tracts. It has been a non-denominational but Evangelical organization since it’s founding. Chitwood went through the archives of the tracts they have printed since their inception for evidence of the Sinner’s Prayer. Throughout nearly 200 years of gospel tract printing, there was no evidence of what we now call the Sinner’s Prayer until the 1950s. Although there were exhortations to turn to God, and as the 20th century came around examples of prayer began to appear, what we call the Sinner’s Prayer, with its encouragement to repeat the exact words of the prayer, was not found until the latter half of the century began. Chitwood notes the importance of this fact:

No occurrence of a suggested prayer, and certainly not the Sinner’s Prayer, appears in evangelistic tracts published by the American Tract Society before the 1950s. Why is it important that the Sinner’s Prayer does not occur in the early tracts of the American Tract Society? Because the American Tract Society CATS) can be seen-as representative of what was taking place in the evangelical world, especially in methods of personal evangelism. In short, if the Sinner’s Prayer was in existence, we should see it in the tracts.[21]

In the end of his observations into the history of the Sinner’s Prayer, Chitwood was unable to definitively discover if there was a single individual who is responsible for the creation of the practice, but he believes that Billy Graham and Bill Bright from Campus Crusade for Christ are the two most influential voices in popularizing and encouraging its nearly universal use in Evangelical circles.[22] Bennett’s research indicates that earlier influences leading up to the creation of the Sinner’s Prayer are likely to have been passed along from camp meetings, Charles Finney, William and Catherine Booth, D. L. Moody, and R.A. Torrey. In his final analysis, Bennett believes that the 19th century “Methodist preachers, such as James Caughey, and, especially, William “California” Taylor” were the most influential early voices to the development of the Sinner’s Prayer. 

One wonders if the coming of the Sinner’s Prayer, like the development of the Altar Call, represents a turn toward a practical approach in dealing with emotional respondents at large gatherings, and an almost salesman-like attempt at getting people to make decisions. The influence of the former salesman D.L. Moody, and the adoption of sales principles by Bill Bright make this theory more than plausible. It is not uncommon to hear preachers refer to both the Altar Call and the Sinner’s Prayer as “closing the deal.”

Despite its common usage in Evangelical circles, this practice of having someone repeat a prayer as part of the process of salvation is not without controversy. It has been blamed for promoting “cheap grace”, a term unrelatedly used by Bonhoeffer.[23] People have suggested that it creates a false indicator of the salvation experience. Pastor David Platt started a firestorm of controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention in 2012 after writing a two-part critique of the uses of the Sinner’s Prayer.[24] At a 2012 Southern Baptist Annual Convention, a vote occurred on whether to retain the Sinner’s Prayer as part of their tradition. It passed, and in fact, David Platt said that he voted in favor of its use, but his point had been made. Assuring people of salvation after a quick prayer was a bad practice––akin to false advertising. Another critique of the Sinner’s Prayer is its appearance as a transaction with God, as though we are making a deal with the Almighty.

In my personal observation on the use of the Sinner’s Prayer, which has been a mainstay of Evangelical traditions I have been connected with since I have been a Christian, it seems to have the potential for creating a dynamic in which the one leading the prayer appears to act as a mediator to the salvation process. Although this is unlikely to be the intent of the evangelist, it nonetheless looks like a mediated activity, in the same manner of the practice of confession in the Catholic Church.[25] This in itself is counter-intuitive to the very core of the movement. Evangelicalism prides itself in believing that there is only one mediator between man and God, and that is Christ himself, and tends to eschew anything that resembles a mediatorial role in the salvation process. Conversion is viewed as a direct interaction between God and the individual.

Bounded vs. Centered Set Thinking:

In 1978, Paul G. Heibert wrote a short article in The Gospel in Context Vol. 1, No. 4 entitled Conversion Culture and Cognitive Categories.[26] In it, he described our understanding of conversion through mathematical concepts utilized within the field of psychology.

With the example of an illiterate peasant from India who hears the gospel for the first time and chooses to follow Jesus, Hiebert asks if we should believe that he is truly converted despite his ignorance of theological concepts as simple as the nature of God and salvation. Here, Hiebert presented the ideas of bounded and centered sets.[27]

Bounded sets form a hard line around categories, and Christians look for the evidence of genuine belief by one’s alignment with certain behavioral and/or intellectual categories. Do they believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, is the only begotten son of God (and in fact God incarnate), died for our sins, and rose again on the third day? Did they say a Sinner’s Prayer, and confess their sins? Do they go to church? Did they stop drinking and smoking? Are they practicing the restrained monogamous sexuality espoused by the church? These hard category lines are often used by Christians to determine if another is a Christian, and consequently, it informs evangelism. A person fits inside the well-defined Christian box or does not.

Centered set thinking asks about the direction one travels. With Christ as the center of the Christian world, it is the direction one is moving in respect to the center that determines one’s position to Christ. It is possible to believe all the doctrines, live an externally “clean” life and yet be far from God. So, in our eyes someone can look close to God, but paradoxically remain outside the family of faith. Jesus refers to this possibility when he says that there are many who will say “Lord, Lord…”, on the day of judgment, and yet he will respond with the words, “I never knew you.”[28] On the other hand, an individual may not understand the doctrinal content of the Evangelical faith. They may have a host of addictions and bad habits, but be moving toward Christ and growing in love towards God. This centered set view does not allow for hard lines, and boxes of categorization. It leaves us with an inability to make hard, fast determinations on the condition of another’s soul. 

Hiebert presented these ideas at Fuller Seminary’s School of World Missions in 1978, and it was soon offered as innovative missions thinking to American pastors through the heyday of the Church Growth Movement in the 1980s through early 1990s. Notably, this is sometimes still touted as the latest radical thinking in missions in many circles today.

The question of whether centered set thinking has made it into the pulpits is not easy to track, but it may be that it can be most easily observed in the politics of the individual Christian. Politics has become increasingly polarized over the last 50 years. As early as 1994, the number of political centrists from both parties began to retire, and new congressional replacements drew politics in both directions of radicalization on the right-left spectrum.[29] There has recently been as similar radicalization of American Evangelical politics.

This observation on Christian politics and centered set vs. bounded set thinking begs the question: Do our theological constructs inform our politics, or is it the other way round? Is the strict form-based bounded set thinking still dominant, or has centered set thinking become standardized within significant portions of Evangelicalism?


[1] https://dudedisciple.com/methods-of-evangelism/ is a good example of a list of witnessing methods (5-17-2021)

[2] The Wikipedia page does a fair job of covering a variety of Christian beliefs about “sin.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_sin (accessed Mar. 30, 2021)

[3] https://www.offthemap.com

[4] https://theconversation.com/what-is-the-great-commission-and-why-is-it-so-controversial-111138 (accessed 4-30-2021)

[5] The Great Commission, Rev. John Harris D.D., from 1890 American Methodist printing, pg. xiv

[6] Visit Google Ngram Viewer for “Great Commission”: there are peaks in the use of this term in 1841-1843, slight rise around 1906-1909, dramatic rise from late 60’s, with a steep peak in 2010, and the precipitous drop in the usage of the word since then. (4-30-2021) https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=Great+Commission&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=0

[7] Google’s Ngram Viewer does not go any further back than 1800, so previous spikes in the usage of this term weren’t available to me. William Carey’s influence on this exact term may be more important than I can discover.

[8] https://www.redletterchristians.org/missions-is-it-love-or-colonization/ (accessed Mar. 30, 2021)

[9] https://www.barna.com/research/half-churchgoers-not-heard-great-commission/ (accessed 4-30-2021)

[10] At some point in the early 1990s (I think), the counting of recommitments was dropped from the monthly report forms, and we were required to give only the number of monthly salvations, baptisms, and Holy Spirit baptisms.

[11] This has been the typical Calvary Chapel model over the last 50 years.

[12] The Origin of the Altar Call In American Methodism: An Historical Study by Robert E. Coleman, 1958. (Article in the Asbury Seminarian, pg. 22) 

[13] ibid pg. 23

[14] John H. Armstrong initially alerted me to this possibility in a Facebook discussion on this topic on Friday, March 20, 2021

[15] The Bandwagon effect first appeared in American politics in 1848 with the famous circus clown Dan Rice gaining momentum for his political campaign by placing a band on a wagon leading a parade. The phrase “jump on the bandwagon” was born here.

[16] traveling salesmen

[17] David Malcolm Bennett. The Sinner’s Prayer: Its Origins and Dangers. Chapter 1, Kindle Edition.

[18] Sinner’s Prayer: An Historical and Theological Analysis, Paul Chitwood, pg.13

[19] Bennett, Kindle Edition, Chap. 1

[20] You can find this at https://lp.billygraham.org/find-peace-with-god/ (Accessed Mar. 27, 2021)

[21] ibid pg. 48

[22] ibid pg. 62

[23] See https://www.gotquestions.org/cheap-grace.html for one reference to Sinner’s Prayer in a discussion of cheap grace. (accessed Mar. 30, 2021)

[24] David Platt discusses his thoughts on the Sinner’s Prayer with Mark Dever. https://youtu.be/dAlaBulLq9s (accessed Mar. 30, 2021)

[25] https://thecatholicspirit.com/commentary/this-catholic-life/confess-sins-priest/ (accessed Apr.7, 2021)

[26] The pdf of this paper can be found at http://hiebertglobalcenter.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/153.-1978.-Conversion-Culture-and-Cognitive-Categories.pdf (accessed 2/27/2021)

[27] He left out the subcategories of fuzzy sets, because they did not fit the example he was presenting for Christian conversion theology.

[28] Matthew 7:22

[29] https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-disappearing-political-center-congress-and-the-incredible-shrinking-middle/ (accessed Mar. 19, 2021)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s