C. H. Spurgeon on ‘top-down’ evangelism

Some evangelicals in Britain have advocated and adopted a ‘top-down’ evangelistic strategy. Evangelistic effort is focused narrowly on the top echelons of society, in the belief that conversions at that level will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of us. Particular effort is made to evangelise young people at leading universities and schools and younger members of the professional classes, as well as those likely to reach senior positions in finance and industry. John Stott pursued, in part, a strategy of this kind during his time as rector of All Souls, Langham Place, an approach critiqued by Alister Chapman in his assessment of Stott’s ministry, Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement (OUP, 2012). It was the approach championed by Eric Nash in the Iwerne camps that he set up for public school boys and survives, in one form or another, in the thinking of some evangelicals today. Win the elite and you win the nation, is the idea.

This entire approach was challenged head-on by Charles Spurgeon, Baptist minister in London in Victorian times, in a sermon preached on a Sunday morning in January 1857. (It can be found in volume 3 of The New Park Street Pulpit, numbered 114.) The sermon is entitled, ‘Preaching for the Poor’, and it exemplifies Spurgeon’s own evangelistic strategy. His text was Matthew 11:5, ‘The poor have the gospel preached to them’; in somewhat idiosyncratic fashion, he takes as each of his three main points a different English translation of that verse. For the first point, he takes the translation of the Authorised Version, as just given. He comments:

‘It is one delightful mark of Christ’s dispensation, that he aims first at the poor … It was wise in him to do so. If we would fire a building, it is best to light it at the basement; so our Saviour, when he would save a world, and convert men of all classes, and all ranks, begins at the lowest rank, that the fire may burn upwards, knowing right well that what was received by the poor, will ultimately by his grace be received by the rich also.’

In other words, Spurgeon believed that the biblical mode of evangelism is bottom-up, not top-down. He argues that, if the lower classes of society are converted, the more powerful have to take notice. This sounds initially counter-intuitive, but I suspect that he is right. This is the way that Jesus operated, argued Spurgeon, and he was followed by the apostles and early evangelists. They certainly took the opportunity to preach to rulers and monarchs when it came and Christ made clear to Paul that he was called, at least in part, for this purpose. Yet the great bulk of their preaching was to the ordinary people. And, as Paul noted (1 Cor. 1:26), it was they, rather than the rich and powerful, who most readily responded to the gospel call and who made up the vast majority of the early church’s congregations.

This is, of course, how most churches operate today – and have always done. Not many of us are sufficiently positioned that we have any ability to evangelise the rich and famous, or those destined to be so. Our situation compels us to focus on everyday folk leading ordinary lives and we are very glad to do so. It is of such that our churches are mostly made up, just as in New Testament times. And it is this, rather than top-down evangelism, which, by God’s grace, has kept the church going in Britain, and everywhere else, in the 21st century, despite all that is against her.

With that in mind, it is worth heeding the advice that Spurgeon then gives, in his sermon, about how to evangelise ‘the poor’ – and extend his advice to our attempts to evangelise all the normal, ordinary people who make up the vast bulk of our cities, towns and villages:

  • ensure your buildings are welcoming to them, not off-putting
  • go to them; don’t expect them to come to you
  • show them respect and courtesy
  • preach attractively: clearly, interestingly, simply
  • use ordinary language (‘The language of one class of Englishman is a dead language to another class’)
  • make sure it is the gospel that you preach.

‘Preaching must reach the popular ear; and to get at the people it must be interesting to them, and by the grace of God we hope it shall be’, commented Spurgeon as he gave this advice. (I wish my preaching were more like that. By God’s grace, I will try to make it so.)

Thankfully, top-down evangelistic strategies seem to be less in vogue than they used to be. Now is the time to sound their death-knell and follow the principles that Spurgeon set out, in order to reach the vast mass of the people of our nation with the gospel.

2 thoughts on “C. H. Spurgeon on ‘top-down’ evangelism

  1. Very helpful, thank you. I’m sure the “top down” advocates have their sophisticated way of dressing it up, but it’s a prime example of worldly thinking (to which we are all prone) and a negation of 1 Cor 1:26 as you point out

    I believe it is true to say that in Spurgeon’s day the majority of the congregation (and perhaps the membership also) were in domestic service, though the great and the good would stop by sometimes to get their first-hand view of one of the wonders of London.

    That passage from Matthew still makes me catch my breath as it reaches its crescendo in 11:5b. I think it provides a complete answer to the arguments of the signs and wonders folk (remember them?).


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