Part 3: When Christianity Is About The Experience, Feelings Become Paramount

An Emotion-Based View Of Christianity, Giving Too Much Importance To The Feelings Of An Individual And To That Of Making Converts

At the heart of the twenty-first century Western model of Christian evangelism is the scripture found in Matthew 28 – what is commonly referred to as The Great Commission.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

– Matthew 28:19 ESV

With this verse Christians have, in sincere and fervent zeal, taken the Gospel message of Christ to all the nations of the earth. Unfortunately, and in spite of their zeal, some may have missed the true intent of the verse. Note that the reference I show above ends not with a period, but with a comma. The folks at Stand to Reason promote the principle of Never Read a Bible Verse[23], which is a pithy way of saying that one should never read a snippet of scripture (or any text, for that matter) without understanding the context of the passage the snippet is contained in. Using this principle, a better reference for The Great Commission would be Matthew 28:16-20, the paragraph which contains Matthew 28:19.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

– Matthew 28:16-19 ESV

20100410-_MG_8327 In examining this scripture one should immediately note, among other things, that the call is not to make proselytes (the common understanding, though incorrect, equates the term proselyte with convert) but to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them. While it may seem like a minor detail, the difference between making a proselyte / convert and making a disciple is quite significant. Some Christians argue that one cannot have disciples unless one has converts, thereby attempting to justify the act of making converts. However, I do not think that such an argument passes muster in the context of this scripture because the command is specifically to make disciples. It appears, from the text, that our responsibility is directly tied to the act of making a disciple, which is further clarified as that of baptizing them and teaching them all of Jesus’ teachings. The distinction between our twenty-first century model of making a convert and that of making a disciple could not be more clear. Whereas a conversion process typically occurs at a momentary decision point in time, discipleship typically occurs over an extended period of time (indeed, sometimes a lifetime), usually between a teacher and a… disciple.

Yet, within the short history of the United States we have seen a strong leaning towards an emotionally based call for sinners to make a decision for God – to make converts. Adam McHugh, in Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place In An Extroverted Culture, describes this phenomenon as it applies to personality styles,

The roots of bias toward extroverted ways of thinking and acting reach back into the history of evangelicalism. The evangelical movement in the United States traces its origin to the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries…

At the center of the first Great Awakening was George Whitefield, an English evangelist who preached in churches throughout the American colonies. Some people hiked for days to hear him, packing every venue. Church historian Mark Noll describes Whitefield’s highly extroverted preaching style:  “In the pulpit he simply exuded energy; his speech was to the highest degree dramatic; he offered breathtaking impersonations of biblical characters and needy sinners; he fired his listener’s imagination; he wept profusely, often and with stunning effect.”…[24]


During the Second Great Awakening – the origin of the camp meeting or tent revival – people would gather under a tent, sometimes for days on end, to hear evangelists preach the gospel. These evangelists addressed their listeners with dramatic urgency and intensity, impressing on them an immediate need for decision. People also responded with great emotion, sometimes in melodramatic displays of weeping or shrieking.

But whereas the first Awakening led to the founding of several of the country’s most elite colleges, such as Princeton and Dartmouth, the Second Great Awakening of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries introduced an anti-intellectual bent to evangelical Christianity. Suspicious of a dry, lifeless, academic faith, the leaders of the Second Great Awakening emphasized that conversion must be an experience in order to be authentic.[25]

[italicized emphasis in original, bold emphasis mine]

And Michael Horton has criticized evangelist Charles Finney’s over-emphasis on the act of making converts. In his article, The Legacy of Charles Finney, Horton writes,

Finney’s one question for any given teaching was, “Is it fit to convert sinners with?” One result of Finney’s revivalism was the division of Presbyterians in Philadelphia and New York into Arminian and Calvinistic factions. His “New Measures” included the “anxious bench” (precursor to today’s altar call), emotional tactics that led to fainting and weeping, and other “excitements,” as Finney and his followers called them.[26]

Has the act of making a disciple has been transformed into that of making a convert – or is there no difference between the two? Whereas many evangelicals have striven and continue to strive for leading unbelievers down a path to a point of decision, using Matthew 28 as their proof text, nothing of the sort can be found when one reads Matthew 28 in basic context.

Or consider the fish breakfast account in which Jesus has a post-resurrection conversation with Peter, alongside the shore, found in John 21:15-19.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

– John 21:15-19 ESV

Note how Jesus exhorts Peter to “feed” and “tend” His lambs and sheep, and not to “find” or “catch” them. While one may argue that Jesus’ initial call to his disciples was to make them “fishers of men” and, therefore, those who would make converts, it seems inconsistent with the structure of the rest of the New Testament (unless one extends, by way of Matthew 28, that being a fisher of men equates to making disciples). Of course, this makes sense, given the fact that it is God who draws a person into His midst (ref. John 6 and John 10). And since we cannot possibly know what will happen or what would have happened, had we taken one of many different courses of action in how evangelize, it again is reasonable to conclude that our obligation is truly in that of making disciples.

That we confuse our obligation to make disciples with that of making converts is not surprising, in my opinion, given our propensity to be cost-benefit-calculating thinkers who adhere (sometimes unknowingly) to the many business model approaches used to measure what we attempt to define as “successful” methodologies. If you already believe that your goal is to get someone to “make a decision”, then counting converts is an easy, quantifiable method of demonstrating your success.

A byproduct of the making converts model is that, due to a singular focus on Matthew 28:19, The Great Commission comes to be seen as the primary reason for a Christian’s existence. Indeed, when one checks the Assemblies of God website, they will notice that, under the Mission Statement section, the following,

The Assemblies of God is committed to fulfilling a four-fold mission. Its primary reason for being is:

1. Evangelize the lost.
2. Worship God.
3. Disciple believers.
4. Show Compassion.[27]

All other Christian responsibilities, then, take on a lower priority to that of “winning lost souls for Jesus” – and they are usually lower to the degree with which they appear to satisfy the primary objective. I once heard a pastor remark how all his effort was directed towards, as he put it, “Go and make! Go and make! Go and make!” Yet, under his approach, it was the making of converts he felt compelled to accomplish, leaving the Christ-followers in his church to self-perform their own discipleship training. Indeed, in such models, the very gathering of the saints for regular times of worship morphs into a gathering mainly designed to attract sinners to Christ – what has since been referred to as a “seeker-centered service.”

As I see it, there is a danger in following the mindset which places a higher priority on the making of converts. What can, and does happen, is that the scripturally mandated act of making disciples begins to be seen of as essentially optional. The reasoning being, whether stated outright or subtly acknowledged, is that those who are already converted – the “church people” – are now “in the club” so to speak, and have no ultimate need for further attention. Don’t believe me? Take a look at how programs are structured at your church. Take a look at where the emphasis is placed. Take a look at what drives the direction the church moves. Is the primary motivation to make disciples or to make converts?

Emotion Enters In

The confluence of the idea that we must make converts with that of a success oriented business model tends toward the mindset of an emotion-based view of Christianity. After all, successful sales approaches tend towards using emotion as the basis for making decisions. A friend of mine, in the sales business, once categorically stated that regardless of the information many people may want when deciding what product to buy (in this case, automobiles), and regardless of how much they may utilize said information, their final decision on whether or not to buy was ultimately based on emotion. Of course, one need look no further than that of marketing campaigns to see how this process works out in real life.

In the evangelical realm, this approach is played out in various ways, such as the so-called “sinner’s prayer”, the “altar call”, the appeal to “enter into a personal relationship with Jesus”, or the notion that Jesus can “set your life straight”. When combined with emotionally-tinged sales pitches, is it any wonder that a good salesman can entice people to “make a decision”? However, the real truth is that there is a distinct difference between making a decision and making a commitment.

20101120-_MG_1129 If you are a Christ-follower, look back at the various evangelistic calls you have seen and heard. Would you categorize them as declarations of God’s Word as Truth, or as the enticements of an invitation offered? Is there not, in fact, a vital difference between selling someone on the benefits of an idea and informing someone of the veracity of an idea? Granted, simply declaring the Truth, while having informational sufficiency, will probably not be sufficient to convince another person of the Gospel message. For, despite my argument that emotion has been over-emphasized, we must not forget that humans are both rational and emotional. Enter the reasons with which you back-up your truth claims. And this is perhaps where the evangelistic paths diverge between those found in scripture and those typically sold to non-Christians in the West. Whereas the evangelistic approaches found in scripture focus around the proclamation of the truth, in love, the explanation of the need for redemption, and the living out of Christ’s love, the evangelistic approaches of the twenty-first century West tend to focus around enticing the unbeliever to make a decision after presenting the Christian walk as one of “entering into a personal relationship with Jesus.” In fact, sometimes the call is presented in the context of “Jesus wants to have a personal relationship with you,” to which I imagine some unknowing non-believer may somehow think they’ll be doing Jesus a favor by responding! Now understand that I am not painting every modern evangelistic outreach as falling under this umbrella. I’m simply illustrating how evangelicals have tended to move from declaration of the Truth, as a means of evangelizing, to that of offering an emotionally-laden plea.

In the book of Acts, which chronicles the beginnings of the early church, the word “love” – specifically, in the context of God’s love – is not found once. Yet in our present age, evangelistic efforts seem to rely solely on pitching the notion that “Jesus loves you, and wants to have a personal relationship with you.” However, many of the exhortations or evangelistic sermons found in the book of Acts rely on explaining to the listeners their condition (they are in sin), their need for redemption, and that said redemption can only be received through their repentance, the grace of God and Jesus the Christ’s act of propitiation.[28] In one instance, Paul goes so far as to state that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (ref. Acts 17)! Imagine the reaction if such an evangelistic message was preached in our touchy-feely self-centered culture?

Now, certainly this does not mean that the idea of God’s love, expressed corporeally through Christ’s actions, is not the basis for his blessing the people of the world. The third chapter of John should make it clear that “God so loved the world.” However, what we do not find happening in the book of Acts are messages given with enticements for the hearers to repent. And one should note that in place of catering to the felt needs of the variety of listener demographics encountered, rather, there is an awareness on the part of the early Christians of the variety of mindsets – or worldviews – in the different regions the Gospel was proclaimed. The variety of worldviews the apostles encountered did not determine the content of their message, but simply determined the how the message was explained. Note that Paul, when having a discussion with the philosophers of the Areopagus (ref. Acts 17), used their own system of thinking to explain the truth. In other words, he took their faulty ideas about truth and pointed out who the true God was.[29]

“If Only One Soul Is Saved”

In discussing this topic with fellow followers of Christ, I sometimes get a counter-argument along the lines of, “Well, I understand what you’re saying, but if only one soul is saved by a particular outreach event, then isn’t it worth it?” Another variation of the argument is, “If we don’t have an altar call, and give the non-Christian the opportunity to accept Jesus into their heart, what if they’re killed in a car accident on the way home?” I call these the “If only one soul is saved” arguments.

A counterfactual[30] is a philosophical term which, as applied to history, is essentially a “what-if” scenario. When one uses counterfactual thinking they are imagining what might have happened in an alternate reality. In my opinion, “If only one soul is saved” arguments are counterfactual scenarios. I do not believe that such arguments constitute a valid defense of the prioritization of the making converts approach over that of making disciples. Let me attempt to explain by using the counterfactual methodology itself:

Consider an outreach event a church is sponsoring, to occur this coming Friday night. Some church members have expressed concern over the amount of money being spent on the event, but other members have noted that “if only one soul is saved” at the event, then it’s worth it. Now, what if I had the foreknowledge to be able to tell you that, indeed, one soul would be saved at the Friday night event?

“Wonderful!”, you might say.

However, and here’s the first rub, if the event were held on Saturday night, there would be 50 souls saved. Now, the second rub is that you can only hold the event on either Friday or Saturday night – not both. With this additional information, then, which night should you choose to hold the event?

Given the information at hand, I believe most people would choose to hold the event on Saturday, thereby reaching the most souls. After all, we are cost-benefit-calculating evangelicals.

Time for another rub. While the Saturday night event will, in fact, result in the saving of 50 souls, that one soul from Friday will not be in that group and, worse yet, he will not ever have another chance to make a commitment to God.

Now what do you do? Do you use logic of “the good of the many outweigh the good of the one” and sacrifice the one “Friday night soul” for the 50 Saturday night souls? Probably.

Oh, after you’ve held the Saturday night event and made 50 converts, there’s one more bit of information I’ll have for you – Remember that lone Friday night soul that was lost? He would have been a Billy Graham clone, and eventually win thousands upon thousands for God.

If you’re anywhere with or ahead of me you will have already thought something along the lines of,

“Wait! We can’t possibly know what’s going to ultimately happen from the variety of choices we have to make!”

Bingo! You’re correct. We cannot possibly know, under our own accord, the future implications or outcomes of the choices we make, regardless of whether or not those choices seem to us to be, at the time we make them, significant or insignificant.

Yet recall that the cost-benefit-calculating mindset, which follows the principles of evangelical capitalism, depends on quantifiable results as an indicator of success. But by our very own admission, we cannot know the impact of our free will choices. Does it seem reasonable, then, to base an evangelistic approach on a methodology with which we can never truly validate?

God, however, is someone who does know what can, and will, happen. And perhaps that is one of the reasons we are not tasked with making (and counting) converts, but with making disciples. Remember, God doesn’t require us to succeed; he only requires that you try.

From my pastor friend, Matt Powell’s blog,

Only the context of eternity can teach me the truth of what happens on earth. Trying to understand the events of this world without an eternal perspective is like using a tape measure with no numbers on it. You might know which dash the end of the board falls on, but you don’t know what the dash means, or how it relates to anything else. When we measure the world without the eternal perspective, all we’re left with is the judgments of man, and so we think a church with 4000 people in it is more blessed than the one with 75.[31]

Catering To Felt-Needs

20091212-_MG_7398 Another argument I receive, when discussing this topic, is that relying strictly on scripture or theologically-based teaching would not be as interesting to non-Christians and new believers. Ultimately, we could not attract people to church or, even if we did attract them, we could not keep them. A corollary to this argument has to do with making church more “fun”, and will be discussed in the next part.

This argument, I think, is a bit more complicated. As such, it probably has a variety of resolutions. I think the idea that difficult teaching shouldn’t be done because it will only drive people away is seriously flawed. While I would agree that Christians, of all people, should speak the truth in gentleness and love, it is still the truth that we must speak. Consider the fact that when Jesus’ teaching became difficult and a great many of his followers left him (ref. John 6:22-71), he didn’t go running after them! Not only that, but when he turned to question whether or not his remaining disciples would continue to follow him, his inquiry was not one of pleading but that of demanding that they state their intentions. We, as Christ followers must understand that the Truth is the Truth, regardless of how a non-believer (or believer) may react to it.

In another blog post of mine from 2005, titled Evangelical Capitalism (part 2): Sensual worship, I wrote,

Given that the typical non-believer is wary of showing up to church, so it is argued, we must strive to make their experience as comfortable, pleasant, and exciting as possible. Otherwise we run the risk of scaring them off or, at the very least, boring them to the point where they want nothing to do with Christianity. I understand the motivation for such evangelical marketing, as couched within the tenets of evangelical capitalism, but I wonder how sound such motivations are theologically.

Consider that the two greatest commandments, per Jesus himself, were to love the Lord God and to love our neighbor. Before we can love our neighbor we must love God. And before we can love God we must understand that we are obligated to love Him.[32]

Related to concerns about scaring away non-Christians and / or new believers is the somewhat Unitarian notion that the Christian experience is essentially encompassed by what’s commonly referred to as “a personal relationship with Jesus.” Never mind, I suppose, about having a relationship with the Father and the Spirit.

In his December 2002 Touchstone Magazine article, A Stunted Ecclesiology?, J. I. Packer wrote,

No one should fault evangelicals for their loving attention to the task of unpacking the gospel message that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Nothing is more important than that the gospel is fully grasped, and exploring it and emphasizing it is a thoroughly churchly activity. But it has led to a habit of man-centered theologizing, which sets needy human beings at center stage, as it were, brings in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just for their saving roles, and fails to cast anchor in doxology, as Paul’s expositions of the gospel lead him to do…

Too often we evangelicals relegate the truth of the Trinity to the lumber-room of the mind, to be put on display only when deniers of it appear, rather than being made the frame and focus of all adoration. The church then comes to be thought of as an organization for spiritual life support rather than as an organism of perpetual praise; doxology is subordinated to ministry, rather than ministry embodying and expressing doxology; and church life is thought out and set forth in terms of furthering people’s salvation rather than of worshiping and glorifying God. The antithesis is improper and false, to be sure, but the man-centered mindset is real, and is one facet of a stunted churchliness.[33]

[emphasis mine]

The evangelical community in America has fallen, I think, into a pit of emotionalism attempting to ground Christianity as a feeling-based entity. In doing so the extroverted personality type has emerged as the driver, sometimes to the detriment of their introverted brothers and sisters. While this series of posts is not intended to address the extrovert / introvert issue, it should be noted that an over attention to the extroverted, or simply an emotion-based approach towards church, has led to a diminished appreciation of the rich, theological heritage Christianity affords. In Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place In An Extroverted Culture, author Adam McHugh details his journey as an introvert pastor as well as outlining how introverts can become productive members in God’s church in the West.

From his book,

The slant towards extroversion in the larger culture has also infiltrated the church. I interviewed dozens of introverted Christians, and without exception, they expressed some degree of frustration and sense of exclusion from their churches.

For several years, my introverted friend Emily participated in a Christian community where extroversion was normal. … The ideal of “intimacy” in this community was people constantly together, and the implicit assumption was that the more activities and social interaction a person engaged in, the closer she was to God. Others thought Emily was antisocial and, therefore, lacking in faith. She was also resistant to sharing intimate details of her life with others, and her lack of vulnerability was construed as a heart resistant to God.[34]

Despite their good and sincere intentions evangelicals who equate being a follower of Christ with that of having a personal relationship with Jesus run the risk of alienating an entire demographic of the very culture they seek to reach. Again, from McHugh,

The evangelical priority on this kind of personal relationship with Jesus has direct implications for the nature of the community that forms around him. It is not surprising that evangelicals have a high value for intimate, informal relationships with one another, and we structure our churches – with small groups in our houses, fellowship hours, social events, accountability groups and prayer chains – in order to support this value. Most evangelical churches strongly encourage (and sometimes require) participation in these kinds of activities.[35]

Let us not forget that our human psyche is made up of both the emotional and the rational. Neither should usurp the other. There is a place in our liturgy for both the emotional and the rational, the loud and the quiet, fun and reverence. To think otherwise, to consider that doing the “church thing” must essentially equate to an act of overstimulation runs the risk of making church equate to being and having fun. And that is the basis for the topic of Part 4.

– all photographs © A. R. Lopez

[23] Gregory Koukl, Never Read a Bible Verse, (Stand to Reason, 2001).

[24] Adam McHugh, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place In An Extroverted Culture, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), 23.

[25] McHugh, 24.

[26] Michael Horton, The Legacy of Charles Finney, (Modern Reformation, 2011, last accessed July 15, 2011).

[27] Our Mission & Core Values, Assemblies of God website, (last accessed on July 15, 2011).

[28] When comparing many of the evangelistic messages found in the book of Acts, one finds a common thread which would typically include a declaration of man’s condition of sin, the need of a Savior for redemption, the existence of the Christ as the Savior, and the need for repentance on man’s part. For example, reference Acts 2:14-41; 3:11-26; 8:26-40; 10:34-43; 13:13-43; 14:8-18; 17:22-34; 20:17-35.

[29] It should be noted that there is no indication that Paul continued to have debate with the men of the Areopagus. Indeed, it seems that Paul’s methodology was to proclaim the truth and work with those who received it, essentially ignoring those who rejected it.

[30] Wikipedia, Counterfactual thinking, (June 15, 2011),

[31] Matt Powell, This Earth, Wheat and Chaff blog, (January 14, 2005),

[32] Rusty Lopez, Evangelical Capitalism (part 2): Sensual worship, New Covenant blog, (January 27, 2005),

[33] J.I. Packer, “A Stunted Ecclesiology?”, Touchstone Magazine, (December 2002).

[34] Adam McHugh, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place In An Extroverted Culture, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), 17-18.

[35] McHugh, 19-20.

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