A fellow author for BJS, Pastor Joe Abrahamson, brought to my attention this testimonial of a woman who apostatized after realizing that her life as a Christian was not much different than her job as a saleswoman. From listening to her story it hit me at how much happiness and fellowship she was enjoying during her short monologue. Her comrades of scoffers reacted with hearty laughter as she recounted to them, with her calm sense of humor, the events that led to her conversion to unbelief. You can take a listen if you would like. What her whole presentation reveals is how damaging market-style evangelism is for souls. And we should not be fooled.
The problem with market-style evangelism is that they tend to shift the focus toward “ministry” often at the expense of actually preaching the gospel. I have heard too many sermons where the emphases are on going out and spreading the gospel without actually preaching the gospel to the people gathered to hear it. The articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, instead of remaining the central emphasis, is at best a preface to what we are really here for: making disciples. With the enthusiastic doctrine of “everyone a minister,” they replace the central message of justification for Christ’s sake through faith alone with “Go and make.” Instead of compelling people to confess the gospel simply by preaching the gospel of Christ’s love (2 Cor 5:14), they motivate by the law in a frantic spirit by pointing out statistics of how many people die not knowing Jesus. Instead of concentrating mainly on feeding the sheep with the pure spiritual milk of the gospel, pastors see themselves as coaches who equip the saints for them to do the work of ministry.
But this is more than just an error of emphasis. This market-style evangelism is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is seeking God outside of his external means. God’s external means are his Word, Sacraments, and his institutions. When we teach people that pastors are simply there as fellow ministers who coach them to perform the ministry, then we teach them to seek God’s favor outside of the means that he has provided; we teach them enthusiasm. Yes, we seek God’s favor in the ministry, because the ministry was instituted to preach the gospel. Even the pastor seeks God’s favor in this ministry, not by his own work, but because of the doctrine that God has given for this ministry to teach. This doctrine saves both preachers and hearers (1 Tim 4:16). The office of pastor is given by God “that we may obtain such faith …[that embraces the Gospel] to wit, that God, not for our merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. (AC V)” To turn the pastor into the leader of marketers and entrepreneurs for the church is to redefine what God has instituted – the essence of enthusiasm.
I can’t point specifically to the one thing that killed this woman’s faith, but two things are evident from her story. First, she makes it clear that what really drove her away was realizing that the Christian life – at least in her experience – was not much different than the life of a salesman. Second, rather than seeing her pastor as a spiritual father (1 Tim 1:2) who cares for her soul (Heb 13:17), she saw him as one who would rally her to sell the product of the gospel to other people. When the message to the church, “Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom, (Luke 12:32)” becomes instead, “People are going to go to hell unless you reach them with Jesus” then the sheep are turned away from the means through which God has chosen to work. They are made enthusiasts.
Becoming an enthusiast is a great danger, and it is the beginning of all error. It is the beginning of all error, because it is turning away from God’s Word – the essence of unbelief. Usually when we think of an enthusiast we imagine someone who says that the Holy Spirit is speaking to him directly outside of the Word. This is certainly the classic example, but it is not the only example. Enthusiasm, again, is seeking favor, blessing, or growth from God outside of the means he has provided. This is a much broader road than we might think. So for example, to seek a good youth ministry apart from the involvement of parents – the office that God has instituted to care for children and bring them up in the fear and instruction of the Lord – is enthusiasm. To seek justice outside of the rule of law is enthusiasm. To start a mission in which the goal is not to establish a congregation that regularly gathers around the Word and administration of the sacraments by a called minister – this is enthusiam.
The evangelism model that God has established was instituted by Christ (Matt 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:21-23), and it was described by Paul when he told Titus to ordain presbyters (pastors) in every city (Titus 1:5). This model also includes making sure that these pastors are apt to teach (1 Tim 3:1ff; 2 Tim 2:2; Tit 1:6ff). To abandon this model or to replace it with something else is enthusiasm, because this is more than a mere evangelism model. It is the office that God has instituted.
The institutions of God don’t limit the gospel, but they do limit us. Centering our mission around God’s institutions limits us for our own good, so that we don’t turn the mission of the church (whether intentionally or unintentionally) into our own product for selling. But this does not mean that Christians are chained down and kept from confessing the gospel. The gospel grows. It spreads throughout the regions. That’s simply the nature of the Word (Acts 12:24). So it’s certainly a good idea – no, crucial! – to remind Christians that it is their duty to confess the faith to everyone (1 Pet 3:15) and teach their children at home (Eph 6:4), but these are simple table-of-duty instructions. The Word that is still for them and for the nourishment of their souls is the same gospel that is the power of salvation for all who believe (Rom 1:16; 1 Cor 1:18). And this gospel grows. That’s simply what it does. People talk about it. Some believe it and some don’t, but the gospel insists on spreading. Whether the one who hears the gospel believes or denies it has nothing to do with the gospel’s growth. And turning the gospel into something that we need to sell, whether by making our “style” more culturally relevant (see Rom 12:2) or by adjusting our language (see 2 Tim 1:13), is robbing the gospel of its inherent power. It is enthusiasm.
So how can we avoid being enthusiasts? The first thing we do is repent of our sinful desires that are constantly raging against the desires of the Spirit, and walk by the Spirit through faith, free from the accusation of the law (Gal 5:16-18). Learning from the 10th Commandment, which exposes these desires (Rom 7:7), we proceed by encouraging everyone to stay and do his or her duty according to what God has ordained (SC I, 10). Encourage pastors to preach the Word with clarity. Insist that any ceremony, any tradition, or any style in the Divine Service is for the sake of clearly teaching the pure gospel and promoting unity with those who do the same (see AC XV). Encourage parents to teach their kids God’s Word. Encourage the fathers not to teach their children that church is just for women and little kids. Encourage all Christians to live in the truth, confessing the gospel to each other and to anyone in their paths.
But all of this encouraging is in vain unless we insist that the pastoral office is the office of the gospel. Insist that your pastor continue to preach to you and teach you what the gospel is. This is primarily for your comfort and spiritual care. When this is the case, then you experience the joy and unity from your fellow saints who gather around the same divine instruction. This gospel becomes a delight for you to confess, because even while you hear this truth being denied, this stone, rejected by men, remains your chief cornerstone. You are given direction in your life as a Christian, according to the table of duties instituted by God, not according to some arbitrary and vague ministry that your supervisor drops on you. You therefore live with a good conscience in your walk as a Christian, because you live your life under the cross whereby Christ made full atonement for sins, the cross that is preached to you every Sunday. We therefore flee enthusiasm, because there is no rest in that dwelling place (Micah 2:10), and we cling to the gospel of the forgiveness of our sins, making use of the means that God has given. In this way, we live in Jesus’ name, knowing that our labor is not in vain.