Most folks reading this essay will recognize the name of Jonathan Edwards in connection with the Great Awakening of the 18th century. Add to his name that of George Whitefield and eighty years after these two, the name of Charles Finney. Together these three largely shaped the heritage and practice of evangelism prevailing in the 20th century American church.
Through Jonathan Edwards’s ministry, the emoting of deep repentance as response to a message of fire and brimstone, including noticeable physical affectations like “swooning,” reached levels of such common renown that the established church of the day repudiated him. George Whitefield increased the numbers attending meetings in amounts greater than many of today’s mega churches. Ben Franklin once verified mathematically that Whitefield was vocally reaching audiences with his natural voice numbering in the tens of thousands. Finney developed a place for those affected by his preaching and interested in becoming Christians encouraging these move to the front and wait on the “the anxious bench.”
In reading the histories of these three, detailed references regarding their “passion” either at conversion or in the ministry are frequent. Each had theological specifics that differentiated them one from the other, but nonetheless the common denominator of passion cannot be mistaken. From this period of time, two very significant American Christian standards of the 20th century are unmistakably rooted. These are the large evangelical meeting intended to produce large numbers of converts known variously as revivals, crusades or harvest meetings, and the sinner’ prayer at conversion. That this conversion experience is associated with a strong emotional response to one’s condition of sin and need for saving grace is a situation which we have all witnessed. Certainly most of us will admit having seen in various degrees a direct attempt of appeal to emotion as part of the ambiance and rhetoric of the altar call.
The passion of these three historical leaders are cause for debate even today, largely because we as a broad body of believers do not share perspectives on the appropriateness, efficacy, or authenticity of emotion in the experiences of conversion and the Christian walk. I could possibly expound on my thoughts concerning each of these men and their ministries, but that is not my purpose.
Rather I simply submit one can neither separate passion from the human experience generally nor from the Christian walk singularly. We are a passionate race despite individuals known and highly regarded for being dispassionate.
Further the gospel calls us to love. Because Christ first loved us and He died for us (known euphemistically as His passion), we love Him in return. Extending this concept, we are called to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength; and to love others as we love ourselves. These two commandments fulfill the entire law! How can we honestly teach anyone that walking in the truth of Christ is about getting one’s doctrine straight according to a prescribed list of what is and is not correct doctrine?
Why do we shy away from attempting to teach about a heart experience with Christ and elevate an intellectually based theology instead? I suspect this is because the rational approach is both quantifiable and easily reduced to a check list of who should be perceived as “in” and who is “out”. Maybe we need the quantifiable approach, because along the way we believed from experience that the best ministries reached tens of thousands of people at the time. These needed to be rapidly processed through a justifiable means--the sinner’s prayer—enabling a peace of mind that the emotional responses generating conversions were not just emotional. Thus we grew the church. Now in the 21st century, the standard denominational church is fighting to keep membership from being solely gray-haired and those not attending are stating a desire to know God not ritual.
The Christian experience is a human experience involving love. If we do not embrace the emotional level of this reality, we fail the convert in equipping him or her to walk in the newness of life; we fail one another in the substance of the shared experience; we fail ourselves in never understanding our true potential; and we will fail God in our lack of faith.
(Essay written using historical details from Wikipedia on all three men and history of sinner's prayer was first read by this author in Pagan Christianity,/i> by Frank Viola.)