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Monday, April 11, 2005

Coca-Cola Evangelism

David Wayne over at Jollyblogger has an interesting little piece on what I am calling (for lack of a better term) "Coca-Cola Evangelism." Here's a little snippet:
You may know the name Steve Sjogren - he is the pastor ... who started a little revolution in evangelism with the publishing of his book Conspiracy of Kindness. This book and the whole ministry has the motto, "little things done with great love will change the world."

God has remarkably blessed Steve's ministry and the ministry of the Cincinnati Vineyard as they have sought to evangelize through simple acts of service - like giving away free cold drinks on hot days, hot drinks on cold days, free car washes, light bulb and smoke detector battery giveaways and all kinds of things. The basic idea is that you give away these gifts and services and refuse to take any kind of compensation for them as an expression of the freeness of the grace of God.
Having done a few of these projects over the last 2 years, we haven't seen anyone come to our church as a result and because of this, there could be a temptation to think that this isn't working.

But this kind of pragmatic way of evaluating such a ministry misses a fundamental point. The point of "servant evangelism" or "irresistible influence" is not to use these things as just another church growth gimmick. In fact, to the extent that these things are turned into church growth gimmicks, to that extent they will become fads and to that extent they will fade away just like all the other church growth gimmicks. The real value of these things is their potential to build good will in the community for the church.
Here's what I like about this - it DOES get people doing something in the way of sharing their faith; it DOES model the gospel in a way that will probably be surprising to many people (giving you an opportunity to graciously explain what the heck you are doing). So I don't want to say that this is all bad.

That said, I'm not sure I feel totally comfortable with it either. You see, David connects this type of approach with the actions of the early church. And that makes me a bit uneasy - they cared for outcasts in society, they visited the untouchables in prison, they gave their lives for the sake of their creeds; we on the other hand, pass out cokes.

And there seems to be something a bit disproportional in that. Yes, what we are giving away is free; but its also fairly cheap. And we live in the wealthiest country on the face of the planet. It reminds me of going to trade shows and getting a free keychain, or... ooooh! a T-shirt!

Don't get me wrong. I like free T-Shirts (well, some of them). But I tend to value something based on what it's worth. As Bonhoeffer pointed out - yes, grace is free, but its certainly not cheap; it's incredibly costly, incredibly valuable. After all, salvation was something so expensive if cost the Son of God his life.

It seems to me that what people are looking for today is something precious - and relationship lies at the heart of that. I think about Brandon's comments regarding community a couple of days ago, and I wonder which is more meaningful to unbelievers: a coke from a stranger whom I will never see again? or someone who moves into my neighborhood and is willing to invite me into their lives?

What what really models the value of the gospel? Something that cost less than a dollar? Or something that requires me to radically rearrange my life in order to give it?

At the end of the day, something tells me the soft drink approach isn't going to quench anyone's thirst...


At 6:41 PM, April 11, 2005, Blogger rs said...

I would have to add that the worst thing about this approach, or at least the worst thing about comparing it to the book of Acts is what you said towards the end...that the early church was ministering to the actual needs of the poor and widows.

If we want to really serve, I think we need to get down and dirty the way the early church was. Giving out a cold drink on a hot day is not exactly serving a deep need. I'm not saying it is bad or that they shouldn't do it. But they shouldn't make a leap from Acts to what they are doing and call them equals.

At 2:45 AM, April 12, 2005, Blogger CM said...

I think what wories me most is this sort of action can become nothing more than a salve for out conscience.

The early church reached out to those with needs that they could reach, in todays world we can affect people globaly, and there is still plenty of need.

I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say, but I guess it's got a lot to do with our reluctance to step out of our comfort zone...

At 10:57 AM, April 12, 2005, Blogger Christian said...

Just an addendum - there was an incisive comment over at Jollyblogger from someone who has actually spent time in the church referenced in the article. Here's what he said...

As someone who was a part of Steve Sjogren's church for many years, I wanted to comment on servant evangelism.

Servant Evangelism CAN work (emphasis on the "can".) The Cincinnati Vineyard was quite successful at using this evangelism technique to get people into the seats. Over the years, I participated in several servant evangelism outreaches, so I know they can be used to share the Gospel with people.

That said, I offer several strong cautions:

1. Servant evangelism can make for lazy "evangelists." Because this technique can be done by anyone, you don't have to have any knowledge of the Bible to use it. This takes the onus off those handing out cokes or washing toilets to actually KNOW the Gospel message. Since the expectation in many cases is that the outreach is intended more to bring people to the church to hear that message than to present it right on the spot, in some ways this method could be used by Mormons, Hare Krishnas or just about any other cult. Sadly, those cults are picking up on this method. If the Gospel is not front and center at the time of presentation, though, we lose the whole reason for servant evangelism.

2. Servant Evangelism creates false expectations in the receiver. Since the underlying message of servant evangelism is "The Church exists to give you free things," once that expectation is set, it is very hard to break. People now come to church with the expectation that the church will constantly meet their needs. Even if someone does come to Christ using this method, that expectation of "give me something or I'll go elsewhere" is set. In the years I was at Sjogren's church, the cry for money increased many times over due to periodic money crises that erupted because so few people coming to the church were actually giving to it--even after they had become Christians.

Worse still, the expectation of the church being a place for handouts flies in the face of the cross. Bonhoeffer wrote, "When Christ bids a man, He bids him, 'Come and die.'" But this is not at the core of servant evangelism. It CAN be, but that means, again, that this idea of dying to self be presented very early on in the Gospel presentation that accompanies the servant evangelism. I never saw this as being the case in the way Sjogren's church did things (and I was there for thirteen years.)

3. The effectiveness of servant evangelism techniques MUST be tied to strong discipleship. Putting butts in seats is not the end goal of any evangelistic outreach; it is to lead people to a discipleship relationship with Jesus. If you do not have a strong discipleship program for adults, you are wasting your time doing ANY kind of evangelism.

4. Servant evangelism can make for a "dumbed down" Christianity. As noted in #1 above, if you are relying on your Sunday messages to be the main presentation of the Gospel to people lured to the church through servant evangelism, you better have a way to get meat to your mature believers because they are not going to hang around if every message is catered to people who have never heard even a shred of the Gospel. Milk is fine once in a while, but not as the daily main course. Over the years at Sjogren's church, this had the result that 40% of believers left year over year. They got tired of rock-bottom basic teaching and could not get any more depth in the small groups the church emphasized. I remember sitting in a group of 3000 people one Saturday at the church and when the question was asked how many people had been Christians for more than ten years, only a half dozen people raised their hands--and my wife and I were two of them. You can't have an effective church if you have no core base of older believers to work with the younger ones.

Anyway, this is getting long, and while I have more comments, I'll let others speak for now.

Don't toss out servant evangelism, but do consider the things I wrote and tweak this method of evangelism to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the overall model.


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