There are two distinct viewpoints that obtain among us as regards methods and procedures in public evangelism. One is that of the active evangelist himself. The other is that of the theorist, whether he be in college classroom, pastoral study, or administrative office. The theorist is often rather critical of the field evangelist. He not infrequently charges him with sensationalism in his publicity, lack of dignity in his presentation, superficiality in his discussion, carelessness in his citation, and with the lack of the staid, worshipful atmosphere of the church in his temporary auditorium or tent.
We submit that these two contrasting conceptions are both needed. If rightly related, they serve as a wholesome check upon each other. And they should doubtless continue, but with greater understanding, cooperation, and charity for each other.
The tendency of the theorist, who is, perhaps, a specialist in some given field, is to criticize the evangelist, who in his public work must deal with an amazing variety of subjects—involving not only theology and doctrinal and prophetic interpretation, but Biblical languages, history, science, archaeology, descriptive astronomy, geology, biology, health and temperance principles, nutrition and cooking—to mention but a few of the diversified fields. The tendency of specialists is to become exceedingly critical of those who venture into their own respective fields.
The active evangelist, however, is faced with the very practical necessity of arresting the attention and gaining the ear of large audiences of men and women of the world—people who are indifferent, hostile, hurried, or curious in attitude. These he must succeed in gathering together, and must continue to bring back, in order to give them the advent message, persuade their minds, win their hearts, answer their objections, revolutionize their concepts, change their habits, and transform them into substantial Seventh-day Adventists.
The practical necessities of the case—and ofttimes the laboratory of exacting experiment —have taught these men what kind of advertisements, for example, succeed in securing a crowd, and what kind prove to be failures. The return of the crowd, or its waning, shows what type and form of sermon is successful, and what type fails of its purpose. No amount of theory can determine this. The practical test lies in the evangelistic meeting itself.
This editorial is in defense of practical evangelism. In defending evangelism and evangelistic methods, we refer only to sound, sane, Scriptural, representative, successful evangelism, and not to the cheap, lurid, superficial, sensational type practiced by some, against the protest of the ministry as a whole. With this distinction and definition clearly understood, we take our stand behind sound evangelism and against that regrettably constant barrage of criticism laid down by some who have teaching, pastoral, or other gifts, but who probably could not gather and hold a large outside audience through a single meeting, much less bring back five hundred, a thousand, or fifteen hundred night after night for twelve or fifteen weeks—until a hundred to two hundred have broken with the ties that held them, and have joined the remnant church. Evangelism is truly one of the distinct gifts of the Spirit.
Criticism of the evangelist, his message, his method, and his results, is quite the vogue, however, especially among the highly trained who have specialized in various fields of learning. The scientist comes along with a heavy criticism of the evangelist's handling of evolution and creation, or astronomy and the Bible. The archeologist tears apart the allusions to the testimony of the monuments and other witnesses from antiquity. The physician takes issue with the form and content of his health and temperance presentations. The historian challenges his historical evidences concerning the fulfillment of prophecy. The teacher of Biblical languages criticizes his allusions to the original text, or his employment of other translations or versions.
The English teacher deplores his vigorous diction and free style. The speech teacher is distressed by his tonal qualities and his gestures. The music instructor deprecates his lack of musical training and appreciation. The editor registers distress over his lack of finesse in writing his sermon reports and articles. The printer expresses disgust over the layout of his publicity materials—the crowded copy and lack of white space. The scholarly research worker is annoyed by his loose citations and credits, and his failure to distinguish between authorities. And so on, ad infinitum.
Poor evangelist—or what is left of him ! If he were to eliminate every feature of his work which was criticized by these earnest and really well-meaning critics, he would have to fold up to do? He had better move straight forward with his commission, profiting as much as possible from the numerous suggestions, but meantime giving his commissioned message while others continue to criticize.
If the sundry counsels and varied criticisms were all borne in mind during his public presentations, the evangelist's message would become so self-conscious, hampered, and stilted that all the evangelistic fire would be well-nigh extinguished. His message would be so trimmed and guarded that it would lose its force and drive and appeal. He would become the same tame, inarticulate type of speaker as are most of his critics, who are devoid of the evangelistic gift. It is better to prepare the evangelistic sermon and do one's best, than to have one's message emasculated and thus lose all power of presentation.
On the other hand, foolish is he who disdains constructive criticism, and suicidal is that attitude which is not constantly striving to improve in content, form, and method of delivery. The evangelist must study, improve, and increase in soundness and power, or he is courting failure. But doubly foolish is he who tries to please everybody and thereby loses the force and personality and appeal of the gift of God that is in him.
L. E. F.