90% Retention Rate or 90% Attrition Rate? Doctrine Matters

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In this survey, lessons from the lives of Ray Comfort, Charles Finney, and Asahel Nettleton will be examined. Although Finney and Nettleton lived in the 1800's, we can still learn a lot from them, especially as the long-term retention rate of people who were said to come to the Lord via their ministries varied widely.

Ray Comfort

Now 69 years old, Ray Comfort has had ample opportunity to reflect on his career as an evangelist. At a critical point in his ministry, he came to realize that for 20 years, “I had been giving the medicine of Jesus to people who had no idea they were sick.” After this realization he began to change his approach. Earlier he compared his work in a fictional story about a doctor telling a patient that he had found a miraculous cure for a terminal illness. The patient shrugged off the information, as he did not think he had this illness. Later, however, when it was determined that the person had this illness, he eagerly accepted the cure, and then told all of his friends about it.

Comfort’s bottom line is that if our evangelistic message omits the reality of the severity and consequences of sin and its presence in people, then telling them about the wonders of Jesus is like throwing away good medicine.

Asahel Nettleton

From the 1830s to 1850s, Nettleton ministered in upstate New York. He was convinced by Scripture that the human will is dead in sin and that the regenerating, resurrecting power of the Holy Spirit was critical to seeing results in his ministry. His methods followed this conviction and he avoided any kind of slick persuasive presentations that would operate on the emotions of his hearers. Rather, he presented the whole counsel of God, including the holiness of God, the need for an All-Sufficient Savior, and prayed that the conviction of sin through the power of the Holy Spirit would happen. It was reported that as many as 90% of the people who came to know Jesus through Nettleton’s ministry stayed faithful after as much as 20 years.

Charles Finney

Finney ministered at the same time and in the same places as Nettleton. Finney believed that the human will was sick and slightly misinformed. His methods followed his convictions. He invented the ‘anxious bench,’ the precursor of the altar call, and he believed that skilled oratory like a master lawyer would work on people. He assembled huge crowds and early on was declared a huge success. Studies on his work, however, showed that in some places as many as 90% of the so-called converts fell away after 6 months. A number of places where this falling away happened were called “the burnt over districts” as people were hardened away from the Gospel. Sadly, a theologian living at the time stated that Finney, at the end of his ministry, could have done this without the presence and power of God.

Conclusion

These three stories illustrate that theology drives methodology. What kind of theology is behind the way you and I do outreach? If we want to see long-term disciples and to see the name of Jesus exalted, which methods would we choose? If our methods work without the presence of the regenerating and convicting power of the Holy Spirit, what does that say? These are more than theoretical questions: they are a matter of life and death.

Additional resources

1. For a comparison and contrast of the ministries of Nettleton and Finney, see the article "How Does Doctrine Affect Evangelism?" by Rick Nelson. 

Nelson wrote this article to make his PhD thesis more accessible. It is entitled "The relationship between soteriology and evangelistic methodology in the ministries of Asahel Nettleton and Charles G. Finney" (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1997).

2. J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Intervarsity Press, 1961.

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I'm new to this site but I am looking for ideas and challenges.  this article was a good reminder and a challenge.  I agree that many people have a lukewarm response to the good news because they have not seen how bad the bad news really is.  What are ways you have found to present the bad news in ways that you don't 'lose' the listener.

Roger Boyd

   Thanks Roger:

If I might, I would take the Areopagus address in Acts 17 as an example:

a. As much as the apostle Paul was incensed at the idolatry of the Athenians, he still addressed them respectfully as "men of Athens."

b. He did not return the insult when they called him a gutter-sparrow, or in modern language, 'a bird-brain.'

c. He told them that he had made "careful observations on the objects of their worship" or that he had taken the time to really understand what made them tick. This is evident by his observation about the altar to "an unknown God" and his knowledge of Greek poets---even though he used them to undercut their religiosity.

d. He used a very wise tactic of telling them that they were "highly religious/devout" which is a word that can also mean "stupidly superstitious." He did not come across immediately as 'in their face' but would actually show them that the second meaning applied to them.

e. As much as he pointed out their altar to 'an' unknown God it was to confront their wild-card theology that said that all gods---known or unknown--had to be appeased.

f. He took a personal chance---knowing that Socrates had been judged and condemned at the same place--to proclaim to these supposedly smart people, that they really were quite ignorant.

He seems to do this as a diplomat and gentleman and uses the word "us" just like he did at Lystra in Acts 14.

g. He took another personal risk when he told them--at a location full of temples--that God doesn't live in temples, and that unlike Greek gods he is not dependent on humans.

h. Through his 3-point sermon, he moved from creation, providence to resurrection and future judgment--i.e. he packaged the material for a non-Jewish audience, but still used the essence of the Gospel to bring his audience to a call to repentance in light of the impending threat of judgment.

    After all of this, we read that some scoffed, some believed, and some wanted to know more. I believe that Paul anticipated these three responses and yet did not shirk from the task.

 

Hope that helps

John

 

 

 

 

Thanks so much for this thoughtful and extended reply.  It is helpful for me as I work with men in the jail and need a variety of approaches with them.  

Roger

Community Builder

I thought you would like to know that Go and Tell Evangelism Seminar (endorsed by Synod 2018) now has Spanish materials and the videos have closed captioning in Spanish. All of the material is free online. The Go and Tell Evangelism Seminar is an easy and practical way to equip others to share the gospel with others.

Delighting in God,

Jim Halstead

https://declarethegospel.com/spanish-resources/