Nailing the evangelical fads

The upperclassman sat across the cafeteria table from freshman Joe Carter and, in a matter of minutes, asked The Big Question -- a question about eternal life and death. As any evangelical worth his or her salt knows, that question sounds like this: "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?" Super aggressive believers prefer: "Are you saved? If you died tonight, would go to heaven or hell?"

Carter remembers replying: "I'm, yeah, actually I have."

What happened next was strange. The young man was "visibly disappointed" and "wore a look of minor defeat" because he wouldn't get to save a soul during this lunch period. He ate quickly and departed and, this is the crucial detail for Carter, they never spoke again.

The evangelist wasn't looking for a friend or dialogue with a believer. He wanted to carve another notch on his Bible, using techniques learned during a soul-saving workshop. If his blunt approach offended strangers, or even strengthened their "Fundie-alert systems," that was their problem, not his.

Every decade or so there are new, improved techniques for making these spiritual sales pitches, each backed with snappy catch phrases and, these days, with hot websites, books and videos. Then everything changes again a generation later, noted Carter. What you get are stacks of leftover "Left Behind" video games, "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, "emerging church" study guides and copies of "The Prayer of Jabez."

It helps to know that Carter is himself an evangelical who is concerned about evangelism issues. As a journalist, the 39-year-old former U.S. Marine has worked for a number of conservative causes, including World Magazine, the Family Research Center and the presidential campaign of Mike Huckabee. He recently finished helping build, a right-of-center forum for evangelicals, Catholics and mainline Protestants interested in discussing how religion, culture and politics mix in daily life.

That website's future is uncertain, but before his recent departure Carter nailed a manifesto to that cyber-door -- dissecting 10 fads that he believes are hurting evangelical organizations and churches. While most conservatives have been arguing about their political future, in the Barack Obama era, Carter decided to focus on faith issues.

It's a list that will be puzzling to outsiders not fluent in evangelical lingo. The "Sinner's Prayer, which reduces the quest for salvation to a short "magical incantation," made the list, as did the emphasis on "premillennial dispensationalism" and other apocalyptic teachings in some churches.

Carter is also tired of long, improvised public prayers in which every other phrase contains the word "just," as in, "We just want to thank you Lord." He would like to hear more sermons focusing on the life of Jesus, as opposed to preachers and evangelists focusing on their own dramatic life "testimonies." And while he is in favor of growing churches, Carter is worried that the "church growth movement" has evolved from a fad into a permanent fixture on the American scene.

"What most people call the church-growth movement is something that grew out of business principles, instead of growing -- organically -- out of the life of the church," he said. "People started trying to figure out how they could change the church so they could get more people to come inside, rather than doing what the early church did, which was going outside the church and reaching people by actually getting to know them. ...

"It's like people started saying, 'What kind of music do we need to play so that more people will join? What do we need to do to the preaching? What kind media can we add to the services?' "

But the thread that runs through this online manifesto is that Carter is convinced that evangelicals need to spend less time striving to make quick conversions and more time training disciples who stay the course.

In the end, he said, techniques will not carry over from one generation to another.

"Part of the problem is that evangelicals really don't have traditions," said Carter. "Instead, we have these fads that are built on the strengths and talents of individual leaders. ... But a real tradition can be handed on to anyone, from generation to generation. It's hard to hand these evangelical fads down like that, so it seems like we're always starting over. It's hard to build something that really lasts."