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Gospel Gimmicks: The Foolishness of Preaching Vs. the Preaching of Foolishness - 2

Part 1


Worldly Entertainment to Communicate Gospel?

It is often suggested that before we can reach the world with the gospel, we have to employ the world's methods to proclaim Christ's truth. But this reasoning is indefensible for at least two important reasons: (1) Worldly methods trivialize the message; (2) Worldly methods are contrary to biblical teaching.

1. Trivializing the Message.

Even if we are actually proclaiming the everlasting gospel, we trivialize and cheapen the importance of the message when we adopt the world's entertainment methods to communicate the truth. Entertainment is entertainment and is generally not taken seriously by the public as a vehicle to proclaim important messages. If we adopt entertainment elements such as rock music, drama, clowns, puppets, and magicians, our message will fail to make any real moral demand upon the hearers.

If it is true that rock music (disguised as praise music and praise dancing) is the most effective medium to reach young people today, why is it that math teachers and chemistry professors don't set their classes to heavy-beat and hip-swinging music? Why don't politicians employ clowns and illusionists to present their political messages?

Common sense tells us that these entertainment media are not the most credible methods to communicate serious messages. A doctor, meeting an apprehensive patient, does not dress like a clown in order to tell his patient that she has cancer. If a doctor who wants to be taken seriously does not resort to this kind of frivolity, isn't it folly to announce God's message of warning and judgment to a dying world by resorting to entertainment?

Jesus did not use the gimmicks of entertainment to proclaim his Sermon on the Mount. On the day of Pentecost, Peter did not set up a drum set or ask Mary to lead out in praise dancing to announce the resurrection of Jesus and His enthronement in heaven. And Paul did not persuade people on Mars Hill using gospel magicians.

We are self-deceived if we believe that drums, disco lights, costumes, illusions, and loud noises are capable of representing the infinite holiness and mercy of God to a lost generation. Those of us who resort to these worldly gimmicks can only do so because we serve a different god from the One the apostles worshiped.

The apostle Paul makes it clear that the pre-eminent method of proclaiming spiritual truth is by the spoken word. "It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. . . . Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor 1:21, 25).


2. Contrary to Scripture

It is a mistake for us to think that the world will embrace our message when we use worldly methods. The New Testament tells us that when Christ came to the world, "the world knew him not" (Jn 1:10), for He was "not of this world" (Jn 8:23). What makes us believe that we can succeed where Christ failed?

Jesus Himself mentioned that Christians "are not of the world, even as I am not of it" (Jn 17:16; cf. vv. 9, 14). He stated emphatically that the works of this world are evil (Jn 7:7). He said that true believers are not of the world and prayed that they should be kept from its evil ways (Jn 17:14, 15). Because the Spirit of God stands against the spirit of the world (1 Cor 2:12), the gospel should not be presented in such a way as to be coupled with the standards of the world. "Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed . . . that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God" (Rom 12:2).

The apostles also taught that "friendship with the world is hatred toward God" (Jas 4:4) and that the world "pollutes" the believer (cf. 1:27). Therefore, Christians are urged: "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world" (1 Jn 2:15-16).

We depart from biblical teaching when we think that today's so-called gospel rock, gospel clowns, gospel magicians, and other forms of gospel entertainment can legitimately be employed to communicate spiritual truth. The Scriptures teach that the world is on its own, "without hope and without God" (Eph 2:12). Therefore, instead of borrowing worldly methods to reach the world, Christians are sent forth like the apostle Paul, "to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God" (Acts 26:18).


Bait-and-Hook Evangelism?

It is often suggested that because most people--especially young people--don't want to listen to the gospel, we have to "bait" them with gospel entertainment and gimmicks. Once we attract them by these contemporary methods, then we can "hook" them with the true message. The proof text to justify the use of worldly methods to reach people is Paul's statement:

"And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews. . . . To them that are without law, as without law . . . that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (1 Cor 9:20-22). Thus, some argue, we must employ whatever people like to hear in order to get a hearing for the gospel.

But the context of the passage reveals that Paul was talking about preaching (see v. 16ff.), not the use of worldly methods of evangelism. The apostle stated that in his preaching and witnessing he always tailored his message to suit the level of understanding of his hearers. In other words, he always spoke appropriately. Therefore 1 Corinthians 9 does not teach that Paul employed or encouraged the "bait and hook" method for evangelism. On the contrary, he persuaded the people from the Word of God using preaching as his method.

Moreover, God's end-time church has been divinely entrusted with the everlasting gospel. This stewardship is a great privilege. But it is also a solemn responsibility. For "it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful" (1 Cor 4:2). The faithfulness to which the church has been called compels us to preserve the integrity of the message by preserving the method we employ to communicate it.

The apostle Paul therefore urges us not to try to "catch" people with the entertainment "bait" so we can "hook" them with the gospel. He writes: "For our exhortation was not of deceit, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile. But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts. For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloak of covetousness; God is witness" (1 Thess 2:3-5).

Note the following two facts from this passage. First, the Greek word translated "deceit" (plané) means error. The ultimate issue on any subject should always be truth. "The Gospel is either true or it is not. Paul stakes his entire life on the truth of the Gospel. There's a tendency in our day to judge values by the wrong standard. `Does it work?' is often asked more than `Is it true?' The test of the validity of the Gospel is truth. The danger in preaching to attract an audience is obvious. It is too readily disguised to provide solutions that work rather than truth that is to be confronted. The acid test for every sermon or Bible class must be: Is it true? If Christ is presented [merely] as a means by which we can be successful, happy, or whatever, we are betraying the Gospel of God. We are guilty of deceit and error even though we may be successful in drawing followers."1

Second, the Greek word dolos, translated "guile" in 1 Thessalonians 2:3, means "trick" or "bait" (or "craft," "subtlety," or "decoy"). There is no place for trickery or manipulation in evangelism. Thus the NIV translates the passage as: "For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you" (my emphasis).

We must not employ "deceit" in the proclamation of the gospel. Our message must determine the method. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1 that when the Jews wanted to see miracles and the Greeks wanted to hear worldly wisdom, he refused to bow to their tastes and desires because God had commanded him to preach the gospel. Effective preaching is always the preferred biblical method to proclaim the gospel.


Encouraging Youth Involvement

We sometimes hear that the use of these contemporary methods of entertainment is the only way to involve young people in church life. Advocates argue that because young people have many wonderful talents and abilities, the church must give them "a piece of the pie"--just as was done for our youthful Adventist pioneers. They further claim that failing to allow them to employ their unique gifts in the worship and outreach activities of the church makes young people lose interest in the church.

This argument is not entirely accurate, nor is it biblical. It is true that many of our Adventist pioneers were young people. For example, James White began preaching at 23 and Ellen White was telling her visions publicly at 17. J. N. Andrews held evangelistic meetings at age 21, and by age 24 he had published 35 articles. Uriah Smith became editor of the Review at age 23, having already written a 35,000-word poem called "The Warning Voice of Time and Prophecy" that the Review published in installments the year before. What set these youthful pioneers apart from many of today's youth is that they were converted and studious Bible students. As such, they would not bring themselves to using worldly entertainment methods in the Lord's service.

Many of today's young people have special gifts and abilities. But giftedness in performing certain functions does not necessarily mean those abilities should be employed in spiritual worship or outreach. The fact that a person can play a set of drums, or dance, or even perform magical illusions and acrobatics does not mean we need gospel rock, gospel dancing, gospel magicians or gospel acrobats in church. If this were the case, we would have to insist that gospel footballers and gospel baseball pitchers should use their special gifts during worship services. Rather, we must seek to encourage young people who are truly converted to use their gifts in ways appropriate to the worship service of the Holy God, while not putting them in positions that expose them too early to the dangers of spiritual pride and arrogance (see 1 Tim 3:6).


The Foolishness of Preaching, Not the Preaching of Foolishness

The clear proclamation of God's Word has always been the most effective method of communicating God's truth. Because this method went contrary to the gospel gimmicks of his day, the apostle Paul referred to it as "the foolishness of preaching." Adventist evangelist Carlyle B. Haynes has aptly illustrated the difference between preaching centered on the Word of God and preaching using the worldly method.

Gospel Gimmicks

Speaking to young ministers several decades ago, Haynes wrote:

"I once attended a meeting conducted by a well-known Adventist evangelist who had achieved an outstanding reputation, and whom many younger ministers were consulting for suggestions to improve their work. Some were diligently copying this man's manner of presentation. I had been out of the country for five years in mission work. Reports came to me regarding this man, who was looked upon as a successful winner of souls. His methods, which were certainly innovations among us, were the subject of much discussion.

"I was eager to get a firsthand look at this man and his techniques. My appointments brought me to the city where he was conducting an evangelistic campaign, and I made plans to hear and observe him in action. Mingling with the large number of people streaming in to the meetings, I sat in the middle of the audience, where I could see and hear without difficulty.

"The tabernacle was well lighted and decorated. . . . On the rafters above the platform were hung many lights, and on each side of the platform two spotlights centered on the preacher.

"There was music, much music--instrumental, vocal, choral, solos, duets, quartets, and two little tots who sang an amusing ditty which brought a round of laughter and a handclap or two. Then came an impressive theme song, which many seemed to know and I had never heard. At its close the preacher entered in a sort of hush.

"He attracted everyone's attention, including mine. I was not quite prepared for this. He could not fail to catch attention. Everything had apparently been done with that in mind. He was dressed in spotless white, with white tie, white socks, white shoes. Even the Bible he carried was bound in white. A woman at my back exclaimed breathlessly to her companion, `Isn't he a honey?' and I had to agree. He was indeed. From that first moment he was the focus of attraction. No one could hear, see, or think of anything else but that `honey' of a preacher. His words were little noticed, yet no one moved his eyes from the speaker, and all heads swung around with him as he stood or moved about in the glare of the spotlights. . . .

"I didn't listen, but I certainly looked. I couldn't help looking. It was an impressive performance. What he said, I don't know; but I can remember yet what he did as he skillfully moved about the platform. . . .

"Returning to my hotel room, I tried to recall what he may have read from the Bible. I could not remember his opening that beautiful white Bible at all. While I am sure he must have done so, I did not notice it. The last thing I remember passing through my mind before I sank into slumber was, `He certainly is a "honey." '

"Traveling about the country for some months after that, I ran into a considerable number of white suits and spotlights. They broke out like an epidemic everywhere. The imitation ran its course, as epidemics do, and then subsided--I hope.

"I mention the incident only because I desire to contrast it with another experience that occurred while I was a pastor in New York City. For a number of years I had heard reports about the ministry of a great British expositor, George Campbell Morgan, pastor of London's Westminster Chapel. He had been making annual trips to America for Bible conferences, but I had not heard him. I had, however, read all his books. . . ."


Biblical Preaching

Haynes continued his advice to ministers:

"Learning that Morgan was coming to New York City to conduct a two-week series of studies in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, I was delighted at the prospect of hearing this great preacher and arranged my schedule so that I could attend these nightly meetings without interruption. They were to start on a Monday night which I thought to be a poor night to begin.

"I arrived at the church a half hour before the meeting was to begin. Knowing the church accommodated 2,500 easily, I had no worry about finding a seat. But I was wrong; the seats were all taken. The ushers directed me into the gallery, and fortunately one seat was left there. With a sigh of relief I sat down, astonished beyond measure that 2,500 people would turn out like this on a Monday night.

"The pastor and Dr. Morgan came onto the rostrum quietly and sat down. The congregation sang an old hymn, and during the singing I looked closely at the famous preacher. Never had I seen a more unprepossessing man in the pulpit. He was tall, lanky, awkward, and I thought I might hear his bones rattle if there were not so much rustling by the audience. His clothing was plain, and there was nothing conspicuous about him.

"After the pastor's prayer and simple introduction, Dr. Morgan walked to the pulpit, opened the Bible--not a white one--and in a pleasing voice, but entirely without dramatic effect, read the Scripture passage and immediately began to explain it. I am glad that I examined him before he began speaking, for I never noticed him again during the whole hour. Instead, I was utterly absorbed and entranced at the meanings he was bringing out of the treasure-house of the Word of God. It was one of the most thrilling hours of my life. I had never experienced anything like it before. And it was repeated nightly for two weeks.

"Dr. Morgan had no graces of gesture, no spectacular delivery, and no eloquence in the usual sense. He used no charts, blackboard, pictures, screen, or gadgets of any kind. Nothing in his talk, movements, dress, or manner attracted attention to himself or diverted attention from the Bible. His tremendous power was in what he did with and by the Word of God.

"I was in another world in five minutes, not because of any elocution or oratorical ability. He talked quite casually and in a conversational tone, reading with deep reverence and impressive feeling the passage he was to explore. I forgot the people about me, forgot the church, forgot the speaker, forgot everything but the wonders of the world into which I had been led . . . .

"I went home dazed with wonder at the effectiveness of the Bible alone as the source of great preaching. . . .

"I want to impress upon you that such preaching is wholly within the reach of every one of you, the most powerful that any man can ever use. Throw away your accessories, discard your gadgets and pictures, discontinue your shows and playlets, stop relying on entertainment and theatrical displays, and get back again to the simple, plain, powerful exposition of the Word.

"When I returned home the night after Dr. Morgan's first study, the prayer that burst from my deeply moved heart was, `O God, make me a preacher of Thy divine Word, and help me never to rely on anything else.'"2

May this be our prayer, too.



1. Gary W. Demarest, The Communicator's Commentary Series, Volume 9, 1, 2 Thessalonians, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1984), p. 54.

2. Carlyle B. Haynes, Carlyle B. Haynes Speaks to Young Ministers (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Publishing Association, 1968), pp. 31-36.

This article is a chapter from the author's forthcoming book, Must We Be Silent? Issues Dividing Our Church, due for release early in 2001.

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