Methods Matter! A Consideration of Paul's Approach to Evangelism

One cannot dwell within Christian circles for long without hearing the mantra that our “message must never change, but our methods must always be changing” if we are to effectively minister to our contemporary culture. To most, this entails a pragmatic approach to reaching the lost and keeping converts within the walls of a particular local church. For example, many churches attempt to do evangelism by hiring a local rock band or holding a Bible study at a bar in order to appeal to the youth even though such music or a particular venue may not be liked or appreciated by the older members of the church. Other churches may attempt to lure the unchurched through the church doors by offering special gifts or incentives to those who attend on a particular Sunday. “The methods don’t really matter; what really matters is that we preach the gospel message to these people and have not changed the message at all.”

While many Christians and churches may have pure motives in reaching out to unbelievers or unchurched Christians, is it wise simply to assume that the methods used in evangelism do not matter as long as the message of the gospel is pure and undiluted? Might Scripture reveal otherwise? It is quite possible that methods do matter. The purpose of this brief study is not to endorse or condemn certain methods of evangelism and discipleship but simply to raise an awareness of the fact that the popular assumption that “methods do not matter” may be, in fact, an untrue—and even unbiblical—assumption.

Unbelieving Jews and Gentiles frequently criticized and persecuted the apostle Paul, as he traveled from city to city in an effort to preach the gospel and plant local churches. In the city of Thessalonica, certain troublemakers questioned Paul’s genuineness and his love toward the new believers in that city. They told the Thessalonian Christians that Paul was no different from all the other traveling teachers—spreading their own wisdom and using gimmicks and deceit to gain followers and other perks, only to move on and repeat such schemes in another city or location. They told these new Christians that Paul did not care for them since he had not even returned to see them (in reality, Paul could not return to Thessalonica due to the threats he faced from those within and without this city). These troublemakers in Thessalonica apparently accused Paul of being afraid of suffering and persecution.

How did the apostle Paul respond to these serious accusations? Paul did not quit his ministry. Paul did not change his message. Paul did not change his methods. Paul did not change his attitude or his behavior. Paul did not even address or answer those who were slandering him—he left that up to God. Instead, he wrote a letter (First Thessalonians) to the believers whom he loved, and he defended his integrity, his behavior, his motives and his methods so they would not fall prey to the lies of his enemies.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:1-2, Paul proves his sincerity to these believers in two ways—he reminds them of his openness and transparency, and he reminds them of his suffering for the cause of Christ. Those to whom Paul wrote knew all about the apostle. He had nothing to hide. Therefore, he continually appealed to their knowledge of him when defending himself from his detractors (see 1:5 cf. 2:1-2, 5, 9-11). Yet he also reminded them of his intense suffering and persecution. Clearly, one will only suffer for that which he or she sincerely believes to be true. Paul was genuine in his belief and concern for the people, and this was evident by the fact that he remained committed to God’s message and to seeing people grow spiritually and change even though he continued to be persecuted for it.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:2-9, Paul declares his three-fold intent to the Thessalonian saints—to give a pure message, to have the proper motives for ministry, and to use the proper methods as he evangelized the lost. Every aspect of Paul’s three-fold intent should mark the life and ministry of every Christian. Clearly, the content of the message, the gospel, is unchangeable (v. 2). The word  bold means “to say all the words.” Paul did not alter the message or delete those parts considered to be offensive to the hearer.  Paul understood that the message was not his message to change (v. 4). Believers are “put in trust with the gospel,” and “even so we speak.” We are stewards of a message, and stewardship requires faithfulness. He also declared that his motives stemmed from love for those to whom he ministered (vv. 7-8), and they centered around God’s glory (v. 4). Paul realized that God knew his heart and that he could not bring glory to God while ministering in order to impress others (cf. Gal. 1:10).

Yet, Paul not only revealed to the Thessalonian Christians his proclamation of an unchanged message and his pure motives for ministry, but he also revealed to them that his methods—howhe delivered the gospel to them—really mattered! For Paul, the end did not justify the means. Pragmatism did not guide the apostle in his evangelism and church planting. The methods he used to share the truth were integrally linked to both the content of the message as well as his motives for ministry. Notice Paul’s method, for all believers today should consider and duplicate such methods used in ministry.

1. Paul did not teach error.

The word deceit in verse three relates to the content of the message Paul preached. Sound doctrine was vitally important to Paul, and it should be to every Christian. Paul was extremely careful in his proclamation of the truth and made sure that what he proclaimed was, in fact, free from error. Of course, it would have been much easier for Paul to have removed the offence of the cross, the improbability of the resurrection or the reality of personal sin from his vocabulary as he spoke to the unbelieving Jews and Gentiles of his day. Yet Paul’s method always included the truth—the sinfulness of man, the death and resurrection of Jesus and the need for repentance and faith.
        
2. Paul refrained from impure motives.

The word uncleanness in verse 3 means “impurity in motive.” Paul seemed to continually inspect his own heart and judge his reasons for preaching the gospel and planting churches from city to city. Before God and men, the apostle could claim no “uncleanness” in his reasons for sharing the truth. He loved these Thessalonian people as a nursing mother loves her own children (2:7-8) and as a father loves his own children (2:11). His motives stemmed from a pure heart of love for people and love for God.

3. Paul did not deceive, trick, manipulate or coerce. 
    
The word guile in verse 3 signifies “catching fish with a bait”—in other words, using gimmicks, bribes or trickery in an effort to bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Paul did not lure people to his Bible studies with the promise of a hot meal, a gift-card to a local department store or a free ticket to a local concert or amusement park. Paul did not call the unbelieving young people of Thessalonica together under the guise of a “pizza party” or “free concert” only for them to discover that the true purpose of the gathering was to evangelize or slip the gospel message to them under false pretenses.

Today’s church has much to learn from Paul’s method. Some churches try to lure people in by gimmicks and bribes. Some try to “win people to Christ” by going door-to-door and acting as though they are taking a neighborhood survey, with the actual intent of leading an unbeliever to “pray a sinner’s prayer.” Proponents of such trickery, manipulation or deception often claim that such tactics bring in the results they want. “It works!” they say. “At least people are coming to the Lord!” First, such a conclusion (that those who merely pray a prayer are truly born again) is extremely questionable. Second, Paul was speaking to believers in this letter to the Thessalonians and reminding them that he did not use such deceitful tactics—regardless of whether or not they appeared to work. To use them would have proved his detractors right!

4. Paul did not flatter.

Notice verse five: “Neither at any time”—never! Not even for pragmatic reasons did the apostle Paul use flattering words. In other words, Paul never told people what they wanted to hear. Of course, to do so would have made him more popular and liked by the world; to do so would have allowed him to gain a larger following; to do so would have probably furnished greater support for his missionary endeavors. Yet Paul never used “flattering words,” and these Thessalonian Christians knew it (“as ye know”).

As incredible as it may sound, many church leaders today are actually telling pastors and Bible teachers to preach and teach only “positive messages” and read only “positive texts” of Scripture because this approach resonates with audiences in today’s culture. They are being told to refrain from speaking to unbelievers about sin. Therefore, many of the methods used for evangelism avoid any discussion of sin at all, and this actually changes the message of the Bible! God’s Word describes this flattery as a characteristic of the church age in the last days (see 2 Tim. 4:3-4)—men, women and young people will desire to surround themselves with Bible teachers who tell them exactly what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. Paul wanted nothing to do with any method of evangelism that entailed flattery, and neither should any believer today.

5. Paul did not desire their possessions.

In verse five, Paul says he never used a “cloke of covetousness”; that is, he never disguised who he really was in an effort to cover up a greedy heart that desired to take advantage of those to whom he ministered. Sadly, many charlatans stand in pulpits and sit in church classrooms today who are in the business of “church” for money or personal gain. They sometimes employ methods of evangelism (or methods of “keeping people churched”) that appeal to those who would be great assets to a church or ministry, that is, those who are wealthy, prestigious or influential in a community. Many missionaries or church planters today are encouraged to seek out the wealthy or influential in a particular community and target these individuals in order to win them to Christ and grow their ministries.

Paul wanted nothing to do with this kind of approach to ministry, and he certainly did not practice it himself. Rather, he worked with his own hands to support himself (v. 9), even though as an apostle of Jesus Christ he could have required support from those to whom he ministered (v. 6). Paul was extremely careful not to give any appearance of greed, manipulation, coercion or preferential treatment to those at Thessalonica.

6. Paul did not seek the praise or approval of men.

While verse six may initially appear to address Paul’s motives rather than his methods, the fact of the matter is this: Often, churches and Christian leaders whose primary focus is on evangelism are concerned about discovering new and novel methods of evangelism or ministry in an effort to impress other Christians or market a new approach. Paul realized that if he strove to please men, he could not claim to simultaneously be a servant of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:10). Therefore, Paul’s methods always centered around the glory of God.

Conclusion

In the final three verses of chapter two, Paul challenges the faithful Thessalonian believers—and every Christian of all ages—to “walk worthy of God” (vv. 10-12). Of course, nobody is, nor will become, worthy of God’s mercy and grace, yet the responsibility of the Christian is to walkworthy, that is, live a life right now that glorifies Him—a life of selfless service to Him (v. 12). According to 1 Thessalonians 1:3, this involves a “work of faith” (works produced by faith), “labor of love” (laboring fervently to minister to saved and lost alike due to our love for them) and “patience of hope” (confidently awaiting and expecting Christ’s return). We must never come to the point where we feel as though we are worthy. Humility is imperative in the Christian life.

Paul’s behavior—his message, motives and methods—was above reproach (v. 10). Others could attack him, misrepresent him, falsely accuse him and slander him, but those who truly knew Paul understood that all such accusations were without any truth or merit. He proved by his actions—by the methods he employed in order to share the truth with others—that he loved these people and that his motives were pure. He ministered to them the right way with the right motive using the right methods. Our ministries to others must be the same.

—Pastor Matt Costella