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ReThinking Evangelism: The Lessons from Grapevine Faith

February 9, 2009
S. Michael Craven
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As you have probably heard, the Grapevine Faith football story continues to gain national attention and Kris Hogan, head coach of the Faith Lions, even received an invite to the Super Bowl from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. More importantly, the actions of the Grapevine Faith fans and players continue to reap kingdom rewards far beyond what anyone could have ever imagined. This is the transforming power of the gospel, properly expressed! This story challenges everything we—modern Christians—have come to accept about evangelism and the mission of the church in the world.

Following that game last November, the Gainesville State School has experienced a transformation. Immediately, the school was abuzz with the news of the Grapevine Faith game. Players were overheard saying things like “I felt like they was angels on the sideline” and “We won!” despite actually losing the game 33–14. Another player (an inmate, mind you) said, “I cried … other people loved me.” Staff members were affected, describing to each other how “those fans in Grapevine—complete strangers, no less—had treated the Gainesville State players as if they were their own” (David Thomas, “Gainesville State gets a big boost from November game against Grapevine Faith,” Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jan. 26, 2009).

Chris Styles, a teacher at the Gainesville school, said, “The boys, a lot of them, just hadn’t had anybody care about them…. When they saw that, they brought that back. And then their peers heard that these people cared about them—really cared about them, not just throwing money at them or throwing a bag of stuff at them…. They actually cared about them, and they showed it through their actions” (Thomas). Styles described the effect on the entire school by saying, “the culture just switched.” Gainesville State superintendant Gwan Hawthorne noticed “an immediate change, not only in the attitudes of the students in the maximum-security correctional facility but also in staff members” (Thomas). The staff received much needed and rarely received encouragement. Mr. Styles said, “This is a blessing … this made us feel good that we work here. Made us feel better about our jobs” (Thomas).  Reporter David Thomas added:

At the time of the game, the school, with a population of about 285 males ages 12–19, was implementing a new treatment program. What happened that night in Grapevine reinforced the program’s emphasis on earned privileges and rewards that come without monetary value attached. Suddenly, staff members were coming to meetings filled with ideas.

The simple act of demonstrating the love of Christ to human beings whose value transcends their circumstances, their conduct, and their condition—because they are made in the image of God—has invigorated the Gainesville State School with hope. “A lot of people are bubbling; everybody’s excited,” said Gainesville coach Mark Williams. “The kids are excited. When the staff and the teachers are excited and they’re upbeat and positive, and when the kids are excited, everybody gets along better” (Thomas).

As a result of this unusual game and the ensuing coverage, this excitement has spread into the wider community. Once considered a less-than-positive community presence, the publicity has inspired area residents—including one local judge—to volunteer and get involved with these kids. Donations have been coming in and the owner of a sporting goods manufacturer offered to design and supply new uniforms. Inspired by Grapevine Faith, other teams have shown similar support to Gainesville in the course of the ensuing basketball season. The Salvation Army had Gainesville State students who had earned off-campus privileges ringing bells during Christmas.

What this simple act achieved is summed up by Gainesville State quarterback Isaiah when he said, “It’s like, a lot of us, we’ve always been known for what we do wrong, what we don’t achieve… But now, it’s like people recognized that we can achieve something” (Thomas). This is hope—and it is nothing less than gospel hope!

Now you may say, “But where are the conversions? The proclamations of faith?”

I would argue that such questions are rooted in the popular but reductionist understanding of the gospel that has its roots in nineteenth-century revivalism.

Revivalism is the idea that men can create conditions necessary to conversion and that upon the creation of such conditions (i.e., opportunity to “accept Jesus”), men must be brought to a point of decision and only this decision can save them.  In other words, present people with enough facts and they can decide their eternal fate. Charles Finney was a leading proponent of this view and is still lauded by many today as a great evangelist. Finney, more so than any other figure, would become the twentieth-century model for evangelism. However, Finney expressly attacked the idea that people are fallen and depraved because of a sinful nature inherited from Adam—the fundamental Christian doctrine of original sin. (See Finney, Systematic Theology, 245, 249, 320.) This is nothing less than ancient Pelagianism, a heresy refuted in the fifth century.

Finney further denied that the righteousness of Christ is the sole ground of our justification, teaching instead that sinners must reform their own hearts in order to be acceptable to God. This is the genesis of decisional theology that has come to dominate American evangelicalism. Finney wrote, “Sinners are under the necessity of first changing their hearts, or their choice of an end…” (Systematic Theology, 249). He issued a plethora of theological assertions that depart from historic orthodoxy. However, due to Finney’s extraordinary “success” and popularity (although being popular doesn’t necessarily indicate Holy affirmation), many came to accept evangelism and the mission of the church in these same terms: present people with the facts and give them a chance to “make a decision.” Making a decision has become the singular goal of modern evangelism. Thus many consider this conversion, and any activity that does not invite a decision is regarded as something other than the gospel. Acts of mercy and service tend to become merely means to an end and in so doing they are inauthentic and the message they bear is rarely received.

So, these folks at Grapevine Faith, whether they realize it or not, have offered a stunning example of the gospel demonstrated. They displayed the gospel of the kingdom in its fullness; they proclaimed the gospel by giving God’s Word, and their actions make way for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit who then draws men into the kingdom. This is what it means to be missional, to bring the transforming power of the gospel of the kingdom to bear on people through demonstration that is rooted in the love of Christ. May we recover this gospel!

© 2009 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Matthew  

February 9, 2009 10:11 AM

It is amazing how much influence Finney and others have had on the west and the influx of decision theology. The more I read, the more I learn what a sad day it is for Christianity. Faith is Christ has been reduced to a moment in time as opposed to a lifetime.

Response from : Martin  

February 9, 2009 11:14 AM

I speak from my perspective. Am I weak? Yes I am.

Is there leadership at my present church? Yes, but I believe it to be going in the wrong direction, therefore I find it very difficult to make a commitment and share its focus.

For the past 15+ years I have observed the church community as per:
• Very little promotion of integrating Christ and culture… there is talk …but little implementation thereof.
• Very little promotion for the need of Christ-centred education… there is talk …but little implementation thereof.
• Very little promotion of biblically based authority… there is talk …but little implementation thereof.
• Very little promotion of providing for the providing for the poor… there is talk …but little implementation thereof.
• Very little promotion of communication with fellow Christians… there is talk …but little implementation thereof.

Who am I am I?
• I do not support the health and wealth gospel that seems to be preached week after week.
• I do not support self-promotion via brandished newspapers and books and applause.
• I do not support the intrusion of psychology into theology.
• I do not support the silent enforcement of ‘church-shopping’.

I believe a reformation awaits us. To deny this to deny the truth, and the truth can not be within you.

I am seeking to converse with others with the ability to articulate what it means to be biblically reformational, present it strongly appears that our local church permits a vision of duality and the intrusion of psychology into theology….with the worship building becoming an ‘edu-tainment centre’ as worship services are identified as presentations.

I believe that another route is required.

Response from : Selase Kwawu  

February 9, 2009 11:18 AM

May God bless you Michael. I have secretly pondered in my heart, even though i have no formal theological training, the correctness of what through this article I have come to know as "decisional theology" It is also revealing to know that it is not a 20th or 21st century theological attitude that the church has embraced but has origins from the 19th century. I trust that radical acts of mercy and love are needed if we are to press the Lordship of Jesus in every aspect of life. I have over the past two months studied the gospels again and it is absolutely clear that the core of Jesus' ministry centered around acts, demonstrations of mercy. May the Lord wake us all up to give our faith a defrost. Thank you.

Response from : Sheila  

February 9, 2009 11:39 AM

...may God con't to bless you & inspire you as you bless & inspire so many others.

Response from : Forrest Williams  

February 9, 2009 12:19 PM

Following your initial review of the Grapevine school game, used it with a program I run called Sports Life Connection where I have around 40 basketball athletes including former highschool and college players along with some who are not quite sure what shape the ball is. At half time I used this story interwoven with my comments form a biblical perspective at half time. I received more compliments from this than any other I have given.

Response from : Karyn Brownlee  

February 9, 2009 1:05 PM

Michael, I would love to read more of your personal view regarding decisional theology in a subsequent article. If I understand the point of this article, however, to be that of the importance of living out the gospel, I wholeheartedly agree. The evangelical movement of at least the past two decades has been a personal blessing to me. Although, during this time of revival, renewed joy in Christ, and refocus on relationship vs. religion in evangelical circles, we have lost to some degree the emphasis on walking out our faith. James emphasizes that without works our faith is dead. Perhaps this is why the larger culture views Christians primarily as hypocrites. We must return to living according to a biblical worldview, accepting His Word as truth, and responding to God as authority. If He is truly Lord, one should eagerly accept the opportunity to serve Him in obedience throughout one’s life, living out the gospel message daily, being lights in a world of darkness. The Church must not forget to emphasize both messages: that of “coming to faith” and then “walking in faith”.

Response from : Beverly Stewart  

February 9, 2009 2:36 PM

Wow, Michael! What great follow-up on this article! Love it. I didn't even think to read further!

Response from : Ron Cornelius  

February 9, 2009 7:01 PM

Michael, FYI Faith plays Gainsville State School in basketball this Thursday at Faith and we are plan to cheer for them similar to what we did in football. Also I heard this the other day and found it to be very interesting. At Gainsville the shop teacher had to deal with fights in his class almost on a daily basis. Since November 8th (date of the Faith/Gainsville game) he has not had a single fight in his class. I am surprised that a simple act of kind could have such and affect.

Response from : henrietta tijerina  

February 11, 2009 10:25 PM

I am hearing about this story at a church meeting & at a friend 's meeting. what amazing story.

Response from : Thomas Peck  

February 12, 2009 5:50 AM

In the last few years I have become a "fan" of Way of the Master, but it always bothered me that the don't seem to worry much about "closing the deal", which is to press for a decision.
Then I remembered my own salvation experience, which happened over a number of years (I was 37 when I repented of my sin and received Christ as Lord and Savior)and God breaking me down.
Salvation is both an intellectual and emotion event. When we press one or the other we get false converts who are looking for justification of their actions and thus deny the sovereignty of God

Response from : nkem chima  

February 12, 2009 12:18 PM

I was indeed blessed by this transformational story and I pray we spread it round our 21st century church. Thanks Mike. Now lets understand there are two extremes on the salvation spectrum which the church often chooses from depending on the exigensies of the times. Decisions of Faith are as necessary as Demonstrations of Love. Correct me if am wrong; We are called to emphasis both. But tragically the church chooses what she wants to emphasise and in this instance DECISION. I will request that you bless us more with a script on the balance of both extremes striking a symetry between the following scriptures FAITH WITHOUT WORK IS DEAD, THOU SHALT LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR AS THYSELF on one hand and WITH THE HEART MAN BELIEVES BUT WITH THE MOUTH CONFESSION IS MADE UNTO SALVATION [Rom 10;9-10] Then Acts 16:31 BELIEVE ON THE LORD JESUS AND THOU SHALL BE SAVED. Of a truth evangelicalism based on Decision has given the Message of Christ a wide spread especially here in Africa where people needed to renounce their hethenistic identities and embrace Christ. Now the love of the church is needed to give it the required depth following the very patterns of the apostolic era.

Response from : Leonie Cooksley  

February 12, 2009 5:43 PM

At last someone who has taken condemnation away from my witnessing. I have always said I'm a "groundbreaker" not a scalp collector!Loved your book "Uncompromised Faith ..." More like this?



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