In a previous post we began looking at evangelistic strategies that redefine evangelism and do not resemble the clear pattern and commands of Scripture. After establishing the biblical definition of evangelism (verbally sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with the aim to persuade), we looked at Lifestyle Evangelism, which maintains that a loving and Christ-like lifestyle satisfies the demands of the Great Commission. In this post, we will consider an innovative and unorthodox strategy called “Power Evangelism.”
Please don’t misunderstand me: The goal here is not to reject these alternate strategies entirely or to condemn those putting them into practice. The purpose is to critically examine them according to Scripture to show what they rightly emphasize, where they are being unfaithful to the patterns and commands given to us in God’s Word, and how they can be corrected.
In recent years, Lifestyle Evangelism has been expanded to include the idea that Christians must also walk miracles, signs, wonders, and “power encounters” as Jesus and the Apostles did. This evangelistic strategy, known as “Power Evangelism,” is based on the premise that if Jesus and the apostles did signs and wonders then we can and should do them too. In order for our evangelism to be effective today, our Christian lifestyle and evangelistic efforts should include miraculous healings and words of knowledge (or at least attempts at them).
The goal of this strategy is not primarily the proclamation and reception of the gospel, but simply a “supernatural encounter” with God. According to popular author Danny Silk, the primary goal is for “believers to be conduits on the Earth for Heaven to happen” (Danny Silk, Culture of Honor, 204). Another author puts it this way: “What leads people to repentance is the kindness of God, demonstrated through His people healing the sick, prophesying the secrets of people’s hearts, revealing their true destiny, and setting people free to live a blessed life” (Kevin Dedmon, The Ultimate Treasure Hunt, 20). If someone is healed, then the evangelist can ask them if they’d like to know Jesus personally.
The strength of this strategy is that it takes seriously the power of God and seeks to expect great things from God. But while the desire for unbelievers to see the power of God is truly commendable, and while we should expect and attempt great things for God, there are several glaring problems and potential dangers with Power Evangelism.
Faith Comes by Healing?
The primary problem with this evangelistic strategy is that, like its Lifestyle counterpart, Power Evangelism downplays the verbal sharing of the gospel. The emphasis and goal is not (immediately) sharing the good news of what God has done in Christ. Of course, there is talk of God and love, but what often gets left out is the holiness of God, any mention of sin, the wrath of God against his enemies, the death of Jesus as atonement, and the need for repentance and faith. As long as a “power encounter” is experienced or attempted, evangelism can be checked off the list, even if the good news is never mentioned.
While God may grant physical healing and provide supernatural insight into the lives of others, there is no biblical basis for replacing the preaching of Christ crucified, resurrected, reigning, and returning with attempts to practice and perform miracles. Faith comes by hearing, not healing (Rom 10:13). Simply telling or trying to show someone they “are loved” by God isn’t a replacement for heralding the good news.
Power Evangelism Proof Texts
There are several proof texts usually given in support of the practice of power evangelism. Two of the most common are 1 Corinthians 2:4 and Mark 16:17-18.
“In Demonstration of the Spirit and Power”
One of the main verses used to support this idea of Power Evangelism is 1 Corinthians 2:4, where Paul says his speech and message “were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” This is often thought to be referring to the miraculous power of the Spirit that accompanied the apostles. However, in context, Paul just finished explaining how the word of the cross is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18), not miracles.
It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:21-24, emphasis added)
In other words, God was pleased to use the preaching of the cross to be the means and power of salvation. Jews wanted miraculous signs, Greeks wanted fancy arguments with rhetorical flourishes, and God said the power is in the message of the cross. As NT scholar Tom Schreiner puts it, “The Spirit’s power, then, manifests itself through the proclamation of the cross” (1 Corinthians, TNTC, 78).
“These Signs Shall Follow”
And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover (Mark 16:17–18).
Due to its similarities with the Great Commission of Matthew’s gospel (see Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15), these verses are understood to be just as applicable to the life and witness of the New Testament church today; God will confirm our message with miracles.
However, what’s interesting here (besides the serpent and poison references which don’t seem to be encouraged today) is that these verses are describing the signs and wonders of the apostles found in Acts! In fact, throughout the book of Acts, it is the apostles and their close associates who are the ones reported to have been performing miracles (Acts 2:43; 4:30; 6:8; 5:12; 14:3; 19:11). God indeed confirmed their message with signs and wonders. But what did the rest of the church do? They preached the word (Acts 8:4).
Power Evangelism also leads to a redefinition of the idea of “risk.” In this strategy, risk is the possibility of failing to heal someone or getting a word of knowledge wrong. When Christians are encouraged to step out of their comfort zones and take risks, this means they need to be bold enough to try a “power encounter” and not worry if their prophecy isn’t right or the lame beggar they pray for doesn’t immediately and fully recover (both of which were always the case in Scripture).
In biblical evangelism, however, “risk” is the possibility of rejection, hatred, persecution, and even martyrdom for the name of Christ (Mark 13:13; 2 Cor 2:16). Risk is calling guilty sinners to repentance and faith, and “picking a fight with the world.” Peter and John, standing before the very same council that put Jesus to death, risked their lives by telling the council they were guilty of putting the Son of God to death and needed to repent and believe in Jesus (Acts 4).
This is why the power of the Holy Spirit was needed for the church to fulfill the Great Commission (Acts 1:8; 4:23-31). When Paul asked for prayer, he didn’t ask for the ability to do miracles, or a good percentage of accurate prophecies, and he certainly didn’t ask for the courage to risk getting words of knowledge wrong. He didn’t try to step up his “miracle game” like someone trying to improve their batting average or golf game. Rather, Paul prayed for boldness (Eph 6:18b-20) and clarity (Col 4:3-4) when proclaiming the good news of Jesus.
Signs Required To Share the Gospel
Power Evangelists believe the myth that sharing the gospel should be accompanied by signs and wonders. They believe that miracles will open the hearts of people to be receptive to the good news. They believe that we must earn the right to share the gospel. Faith comes by seeing, and seeing through miracles.
But Scripture says otherwise. First, the signs and wonders performed by Jesus and his Apostles did not always lead to saving faith (Matt 12:38-39; John 12:37). Second, Scripture tells us that Christ has already earned the right for us to share the gospel (Rom 5:8; 1 Tim 1:15). And third, it is God himself who opens the hearts of unbelievers by his Spirit working through his Word (Acts 16:14; Gal 3:15; 1 Thess 2:13).
Let me be clear: the problem with Power Evangelism is not the desire for and expectation of miracles. We should pray and expect our miracle-working God to work wonders (in his timing and his own way, of course). The problem is banking on signs and wonders to be the power of God for salvation, rather than the gospel (Rom 1:16-17; 1 Peter 1:23).
Setting the Bar Low
In the attempt to set the bar high for what we expect God to do, Power Evangelism, in effect, lowers the bar in regard to the outcome of the evangelistic encounter. Rather than expecting God to immediately and miraculously open a sinner’s heart to receive the gospel (which is the greatest miracle of all), we simply want God to provide physical healing or to reveal information about a person, hoping it will eventually persuade people to repent of their sin, believe in Jesus, and follow him.
If God is powerful enough to perform signs and wonders, then why not set the bar high and believe that God can use the “foolish” and offensive message of the cross to bring instantaneous conversion (2 Cor 4:6)? We all too often settle for things like physical healings, thinking relief from headaches or back pain is the greatest display of God’s love that a sinner needs. We forget that the greatest display of love was demonstrated when God sent his Son to the cross to be the atoning, substitutionary sacrifice for sin (1 John 4:10; Rom 5:8; John 3:16).
Power Evangelism: Novelty at the Expense of Fidelity
This strategy, like Lifestyle Evangelism, is another “easy road” to evangelism. No one will be upset if we try to reduce their unverifiable lower back pain. Preaching Christ crucified, on the other hand, might very well end in hatred, rejection, or worse. Unfortunately, we all too often try to show God’s love through anything but the offensive message of the cross, the place where God’s love shines the brightest.
While these innovative evangelistic strategies rightly emphasize the need for a Christlike lifestyle and a confident expectation for God to do the impossible, they downplay or sidestep the verbal sharing of the gospel with the aim of producing converts. In short, they pursue novelty at the expense of fidelity to Scripture.
Beloved, be salt and light in the world. Love and honor one another; pursue social justice; feed the hungry;care for orphans and widows. Expect great things from God, ask great things of God, and attempt great things for God. But above all, boldly and clearly proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Do not be ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16).
Woe to us if we do not preach the gospel (1 Cor 9:16).
Mitch Bedzyk serves as a teacher and worship leader at Elmira Christian Center. He received his Master of Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and works in IT for the NY Office of Mental Health. He and his wife, Sarah, have two sons, Oliver and Micah, and are foster parents. In his spare time he enjoys reading, coffee, guitar, following the Bundesliga and MLS, and playing fantasy soccer. You can follow him @mitchbedzyk