Just got back from the county fair. Got to eat some cotton candy and watch the kiddos enjoy some rides. I also experienced a first, in that a lady carnival worker offered to babysit our kids if we would only spend some money at her booth. (right...) Good times.
I also was approached by a gentleman who was working a tent advertising The Wordless Book. For those of you who don't know, The Wordless Book is an evangelism tool. The "book" has a handful of pages, with each page being a solid color that represents a different aspect of the plan of salvation.
I am well acquainted with The Wordless Book because when I was in high school our church did the same thing at our local county fair. It was expected that each member of our youth group would take a turn manning the tent. I took my turn, but I really disliked it. Even at that age, I remember thinking "This is a very awkward/unnatural way to talk to someone about such an intimate decision." I also remember feeling dirty, like I was manipulating people to come hear the Gospel. When the county fair was over, it was announced at church that over 100 professions of faith were made at our tent. The thing is, I don't remember one of those people ever being baptized or coming to church.
I always felt kinda guilty for not wanting to do The Wordless Book, like if I was more spiritual, or cared about lost people more, I would want to do it. Over time I have come to realize that there are good reasons why I didn't feel good about it...
In Luke 14, Jesus implores the multitudes to "count the cost" before following Him. It's in this same passage that Jesus says whoever wants to follow Him must "take up his cross." His message was clear, "If you are going to follow Me, you must be prepared to sacrifice greatly, and perhaps even give your very life!" (Isn't it just a little funny how we try to make following Jesus as simple as possible, when Jesus Himself practically discouraged people from following Him?) This is why I'm uncomfortable with evangelism methods that encourage people to make a quick decision. Would we invite someone into our tent and say, "We want you to forsake all your earthly possessions, leave your family behind, and agree to die a martyr's death. Would you like to make a commitment to do that right now?" Most of us would think that's a bit unreasonable, yet according to Christ that is EXACTLY what we must be willing to do to truly be His disciple!
No... We must implore people, like Jesus, to count the cost. We must allow them to come week after week and squirm in the pew when the invitation is given. We must trust God's Spirit to do His work on His timeframe, without rushing the divine process. We must not make it easy for them. And we certainly must not pretend that a mere acknowledgement of what Jesus did on the cross, combined with a willingness to repeat a prayer, is the same as making a radical, life-altering decision to follow Christ.
What I am NOT saying...
1) Gospel tents are bad... I like the idea of a tent at the county fair. I like the idea of handing out cold water in Jesus' name. I like the idea of face painting. I like the idea of handing out Bibles. I like the idea of having counselors on standby should someone want to discuss what it means to be a Christian. But let's drop the canned presentations, and let's drop the manipulation, and let's drop this false notion of drive-by conversions. (What if we put up a sign that said, "Have questions about God or the Bible? Ask them here!")
2) People who practice these evangelism methods are bad... I love the people who are willing to come to county fairs (and other similar venues) and do Kingdom work. I shook the man's hand who approached me tonight, and let him know how much I appreciated his efforts. That man loved the Lord Jesus and, for that, I loved him. At least he, and his church, are doing something! (Which is better than many of our churches can say!)
3) God never uses these evangelism methods... I'm not saying that such Gospel presentations are totally without merit. God is God. He will use whomever and whatever method He wants, and I am quite certain that God has saved people through such presentations, although I am willing to bet it is the exception more than the rule.
4) The Wordless Book is bad... There is nothing wrong with using colors to share the plan of salvation. I've used them myself many times (usually with kids), and there are many variations of this method (bracelets, soccer balls, etc). Rick Warren teaches his people to draw a diagram on a napkin. I teach my people principles from curriculum called "Share Jesus Without Fear." All of these things are tools to share the Gospel. My beef is not with the tool. My beef is with how we use it.