Bad Evangelism: What’s wrong with the sinner’s prayer?
In his stage production of C. S. Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert, Max McLean portrays an atheist’s grudging journey into Christianity. Using Lewis’s own words, McLean traces his subject’s unlikely path from hard-boiled skeptic to ardent believer. As Lewis himself put it, despite his carefully constructed and meticulously defended unbelief, he couldn’t escape the “unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”
Lewis had extensive problems with Christianity and could well articulate his reasons. Yet, over a period of years, his conversion took root despite all that. This was due in no small part to extensive and invigorating banter with his intellectual peers. He and his Oxford mates often engaged in lengthy, smoke-filled debates, customarily lubricated with ample servings of malt, barley, and hops. His does not appear to be the traditional roadmap to belief. Yet the journey was assuredly genuine.
What had kept Lewis out of the kingdom of God during those early years was Christianity itself. He found it irrational and superstitious. To Lewis, the church was marked by appallingly boring “worship” services, undermined by flimsy songs, marred by poetry bereft of creativity, guilty of general irrelevance, its adherents infected with a proclivity to dispense platitudinous and unhelpful advice. Oh, and it was riddled with rank hypocrisy. (When pressed, I might personally cede several of his points, at least in part.)
Initially, all Lewis could allow himself was a belief in something he called “Spirit.” He could not yet accept that he had come to the traditional Christian concept of God. Yet it is at this point in his life that he came to call himself “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” He understood that the course of his life had changed irreversibly. Notably, he did not yet believe in Jesus as the Son of God. That would arrive later. For the moment, all he admitted to was the truth “that God was God.”
It would take two other thinkers—atheists, no less—to help Lewis accept the reality of the resurrection. Referencing Sir James Frazer, the Oxford philosopher T. D. Weldon said to Lewis, “Rum thing, that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. It almost looks as if it really happened once.”1 This concession shook Lewis. If atheists could admit the possibility of God becoming human, what now would stand in his way of believing in Jesus as God’s Son? And what, pray tell, would stop him from accepting the reality of the resurrection?
Lewis did not pray what we might call a traditional “sinner’s prayer.” He did not respond to an altar call, nor was he proselytized by a traditional evangelist. It’s highly unlikely he would have been receptive to such methods. His spiritual journey was not scripted by a human mind. He came to faith in a way only God could orchestrate. We do well to take note.
Speaking for God
My own path to belief was decidedly different. Raised by parents who deeply believed in the God described in the Bible, I bought into it. I never denied his existence, though I recognized early on that I couldn’t comprehend him. Never did I doubt the virgin birth or the deity of Christ. I also accepted the reality of his death and resurrection.
Yet I can readily relate to many of Lewis’s initial criticisms of the church. From an early age, I had doubts and questions of my own, mostly epistemological in nature. How could we know these things? I found many of the customary “logical” reasons for believing in Christianity to be circular and indefensible—usually some variation of “because the Bible tells me so.” I needed more than that. Good reasons for believing in the authenticity and authority of the Bible are there for the learning, but that takes honest work. And sometimes, it takes the humility to admit we can’t know everything. I didn’t encounter much of that humility.
My faith needed real reasons. I wasn’t getting any that I could see. Whenever I dared pose my juvenile yet deeply serious questions, I was either patronized or given horribly dissatisfying Sunday school responses. It seemed as if those in the church didn’t know how to answer my questions. And “having the answers” was implicitly understood to be a part of “the faith”—a moral platform on which one could securely stand. There was no room for uncertainty in any of this.
At its heart, such a faith is dishonest. Job’s friends, you’ll recall, were as sure of the morality of their answers for a man in terrible suffering as the atheist is certain only of what can be known in the material world. Both views are deficient. Of the two schools of thought, the moralizers are likely the more dangerous. When we moralize, we purport to speak for God.
At about the same time, I began to develop a vague yet undeniable aversion to the evangelistic methods I was trained to use. Even as middle school students, we were urged to go door to door, plying strangers with gospel tracts outlining the four spiritual laws and asking them pointed questions about their spiritual state. This was seen as carrying out the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).
The goal was to get as many people as possible to understand they were sinners and in need of a savior, and then to parrot a prayer we would recite for them. We called this “winning souls to Christ.” This was an ill-advised inflation of a lone Old Testament proverb2 into full-blown mission methodology—one with some unhealthy implications.
Periodically, the youth pastor would come before the church and ask all the students who had led a soul to Christ in the past year to stand and be recognized. This naturally opened the door to the temptation to lie in public. I fear it also served merely to emphasize statistics over, you know, actual people whom we could learn to know, love, and serve. Beyond that, it guilted the introverts among us into recognizing that we were deficient Christians. (Full disclosure: I was not one of the introverts.) More than that, it put a distorted slant on the very nature of the personal conversion experience.
This is by no means an assertion that such methods cannot bring people to faith in Christ. Bad evangelism can work, even as a bad marriage is still a marriage. But, as we intuitively know that a bad marriage ought to be better, our ineffective evangelistic efforts must be shored up as well. Evangelism ought to incorporate all of life.
I have some additional concerns about our traditional efforts. Some who perform it with misguided zeal can actually push people farther away from God. But most of us are different. We’re don’t do cold evangelism naturally, and this induces no small guilt in the conscientious Christian. In most cases, it is a misplaced guilt. This is because we are at least vaguely cognizant of the golden rule as it applies here. We do not want to approach total strangers with awkward spiritual questions for the very reason that we do not want to be approached with similar questions by people of other faiths. Some believers can winsomely engage in healthy debate with the cultist who shows up at their doorstep or accosts them at the airport. Most of us do not.
To make matters worse, our formulaic, scattershot evangelistic methods were paired with a pervasive legalism. God hates dancing, apparently—or at least he once did. He also disapproves of theaters, tobacco, card-playing, nearly all of the listenable music, and oh, did you know that Jesus actually turned water into non-alcoholic grape juice? The list of prohibitions seemed interminable. The longer the list of don’ts by which you lived, the more God-pleasing you were.
The flag we were flying was not one of reconciliation to our Creator and love for his creatures, but of silly things not to be practiced—except gluttony, which is plainly condemned in Scripture, but got an inexplicable and conspicuous pass in the pulpit. Sometimes, gorging oneself was actually condoned in the preaching! Luther must not have eradicated all the indulgences.
This is precisely the sort of nonsense that minds like young C. S. Lewis could mock and contributed to the validity of his charge of irrelevance. The real crime is that, in the process, the gospel could be dismissed out of hand. You people are serious about all the wrong things. I need not bother to consider your arguments.
All of this contributed to my leaving the church. Thankfully, this departure left a huge void in my life, and I soon realized I needed the church. But even when I returned, for years I remained on the periphery. I was fine with Jesus; I simply wasn’t buying everything that was being sold. Beyond that, I liked good music, preferably with substantive and artful lyrics.
And that leads me to my second concern. By practicing evangelism, we were doing a good thing, but we were executing it in a bad way. We had reduced the gospel to a sales pitch. Such methods aren’t exactly modeled in Scripture.
Jesus does extend invitations to follow him, but they never resemble a sales pitch. The Great Commission is a call to make disciples. And of discipleship, Jesus had this to say: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Later, he promised the disciples that they would inevitably face persecution (John 15:20). Lousy sales pitch, that.
He also had the habit of putting obstacles in the way of would-be followers. To a wealthy young ruler he said, “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). Notably, Jesus didn’t say this to all of us; he said it to this particular man because that was the one thing keeping him from following Jesus. Yet Jesus still extended the invitation: “Follow me.”
A third concern I have is that our method of evangelism stole the credit from God. Being human, we’re prone to brag about how many souls we win. In reality, we don’t win them. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me” (John 6:44). That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. We work in tandem with him. And Paul the apostle was careful to keep his personal role in evangelism in perspective. He said of establishing a church in Corinth, “I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6).
There is a fourth concern. It is with the sinner’s prayer itself.
Inoculated against the gospel
First, a kind defense of the “sinner’s prayer.” It is crucial that we as individuals recognize who Jesus is. Belief in the literal death and resurrection is vital, else we are not believing that Jesus is literally God and conquered death. To believe in another Jesus than the one we meet on the pages of Scripture is to disbelieve the actual Jesus.
But the process of inducing another person to repeat a prayer after us and then assuring them that their eternal destiny is secure can be especially dangerous. Intellectual assent is not enough. The individual’s heart—the will—must be present in the decision. Anecdotally I know of quite a few mature adults who assure me they are spiritually fine because of a prayer they prayed as a child. Yet I see no discernible fruit in their lives, no evidence of their taking part in the spiritual battle every believer is called to, no signs of wanting to be united with other believers.
I am not their judge. But Jesus said, “When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples” (John 15:8). He also warned us of false prophets, saying, “You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act” (Matthew 7:16). A genuine believer will live distinctively—not marked by what he or she doesn’t do, but by what they do out of love for others. A false believer will bear different marks, arranging his life exclusively around this world with its shortsighted priorities and selfish ends. In the case of those who claim to be in a good place spiritually because of a prayer they prayed, the prayer seemed only to serve as an inoculation against a genuine conversion experience. We may assume we belong Christ, yet if we exhibit no relationship with him in our lives, the “prayer” is of dubious efficacy.
We need to make the choice to take up our own cross. This is an intensely personal decision, and we err when we try to put words into the mouth of another. The heart does not follow the mouth; the mouth will follow the heart.
Sinners’ prayers in the Bible
What do the actual prayers of the Bible show us about those who choose to believe in Christ?
Nowhere in Scripture do we find a tradition of leading another person in the “sinner’s prayer.” The closest we get is with the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus taught his followers to pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12). But this is a model for continual prayer, not a plea for the event—if we may call it that—we know as personal conversion.
Here are some examples from the Bible of sinners who approached the living God.
The repentant tax collector Jesus described in Luke 18 simply said, “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner” (v. 13). Jesus assured us, “This sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God” (v. 14). It’s only a parable, but as it comes from the mouth of Jesus, we rightly permit it to inform our prayers. The man doesn’t detail every sin he’s committed. He doesn’t invite Jesus to “come into my heart.” He doesn’t even agree to believe in a particular creed. He simply and honestly comes to God.
When a man frantically sought help for his suicidal demon-possessed son, we hear his honest words to Jesus: “Have mercy on us, if you can” (Mark 9:22). Jesus’s response borders on indignation: “What do you mean, ‘If I can?’” (v. 23). The man replies, again, with desperate honesty, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” (v. 24).
In John 6:41 and following, we read that many people were turning away from Jesus because of the difficult things he was saying. (In their eyes, his sales pitch was found lacking). Christ asked his disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Peter answered, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.” Peter recognized there was nowhere else to turn. He added, “We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68–69).
Thomas, the skeptical materialist, when confronted with the resurrected Jesus, said this:
“My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
And perhaps the most beautiful, tragic, anguished prayer of salvation is the one prayed at the crucifixion. When the criminal on the cross suddenly realized that “this man has done nothing wrong,” we hear these words: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
No “I’m sorry for my sins.” No “please forgive me.” He simply understood that “we deserve to die for our crimes,” and that the man hanging between them was unique. His acute understanding of his own helplessness, coupled with his sudden recognition of who Jesus is, was all he needed. The object of his faith was the heart of the whole matter. And for this, he received this immense comfort from Jesus himself: “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43).
Jesus shows up
Again, my own route to faith was different. Yours surely is as well. I was a strong-willed child (go figure), and whenever concerned grown-ups would press me to pray the prayer of salvation, I was having have none of it. Perhaps I already understood that the choice was utterly meaningless unless it was mine alone. But I feared hell. (Lewis himself makes the unsettling point that while he feared hell, he did not fear God.) And so eventually I prayed that prayer. Almost immediately the doubts came. How could I know I would go to heaven?
I was six years old. Those doubts would continue for four full years—a veritable eternity to a child. They kept me awake at night. My problem resembled Lewis’s: I did not fear God, nor did I desire a relationship with him. I simply wanted to avoid hell while living the best life here that I possibly could. And I wanted to do it my way.
And then one day, at the age of ten, I simply said yes to Jesus. This did not take the form of any prayer at all, other than my will saying to him, “All right, you win.” It will forever be the most joyful moment of my life. I knew that I needed to be Jesus’s follower, no matter where he might take me. The doubts evaporated. Joy immediately took up residence in me.
Earlier I spoke of people who show no evidence of following Christ yet claim they are his because of a prayer they once prayed. Contrast that with the personal accounts I know of adults (some quite close to me) who came to Christ much later in life after believing they were his because of a childhood prayer. This was long after they had assumed they were genuine believers. Yet they realized something was missing.
My sister-in-law Kem is one of those. In her desire to stay out of hell and one day go to heaven, she had repeated the words of her third-grade Sunday school teacher. As an adult, she taught junior church—albeit ineffectively. She knew something was missing. One night, feeling desolate and alone despite her “Christian” activity, she finally prayed, “Lord, whatever it is that [her husband] Iggy has, I want that.”
“That” would be Christ. And hers was a prayer he heard and acknowledged. The change was immediate and dramatic. Newly joyful, she went to visit her sister four hours away. Within minutes of arriving, her sister asked, “What’s different about you?”
Up to that point in her life, Kem had been leading Bible studies—insufferably lifeless gatherings that her friends attended merely for the chance to chat with each other. After her unusual “sinner’s prayer,” Kem continued to lead Bible studies. But as her friends told her, “This is a lot more fun now!” Something had changed.
Indeed, something had changed. Jesus had showed up.
Surely there are instances in which a modeled “sinner’s prayer” is exactly what an individual needs to hear. But we need not fear “praying the wrong prayer.” God doesn’t keep us out of the kingdom on technicalities. His rules are simple. The paths to the point of decision are myriad; yet they must all route through Jesus, who tells us unequivocally, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Without belief in Christ, we are lost. With that belief, we gain everything. As Jesus told a religious leader seeking answers, “God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Christ elaborated, “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him” (v. 18). But there was a flipside. “Anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son” (v. 18).
As another wrote, “It is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
It’s not so much how you pray. It’s who you’re praying to.
- Sir James Frazer, an atheist who wrote The Golden Bough, which influenced Lewis and his companions.
- Proverbs 11:30