ReThinking Evangelism: The Lessons from Grapevine Faith
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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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture. Michael is the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress), foreword by Josh McDowell. Michael's ministry is dedicated to renewal within the Church and works to equip Christians with an intelligent and thoroughly Christian approach to matters of culture in order to demonstrate the relevance of Christianity to all of life. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit: www.battlefortruth.org
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.