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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.