What a wonderful hour it is to which we have come! Nothing in all history compares with it. Our opportunities for evangelism today are greater than ever before. As we look back over the centuries we thank God for the great preachers of the past, men who reached crowds of ten, fifteen, and twenty thousand by their unaided voices. But today Evangelist Billy Graham has reached not 20,000 but 120,000 and more in his great revivals. Then what about radio and television? Not scores of thousands but scores of millions are able to hear the voice of the living preacher in our day. Yes, this is a wonderful hour, but what are we doing about it? How are we as a denomination reacting to its challenges and its unparalleled opportunities?
A survey recently conducted by M. K. Eckenroth of the Theological Seminary has brought some vital facts to light. There are trends among us that might well cause us concern. A questionnaire was sent to a group of our ministerial leaders, evangelists, and field administrators, and they were asked to state their opinion concerning certain aspects of evangelism. To the question, "Do you consider mass public 'revivals,' evangelistic 'crusades,' and preaching 'missions' to be outmoded for the last half of the twentieth century as far as Seventh-day Adventists are concerned?" the overwhelming response was "No." One of our ablest union administrators answered by a triple negative—"No! No! No!" That was encouraging. But in contrast, 12 per cent declared that in their opinion public evangelism is outmoded. Another 15 per cent were uncertain. While nearly 80 per cent declared that public evangelism in their opinion is still an important part of our work, yet 50 per cent of these expressed the belief that the financial cost of public campaigns made them impracticable.
We are not here discussing the merits of the case, but this situation brings a challenge to us. It is true that mounting costs of halls and newspaper advertising and other forms of publicity have brought perplexity to our conference leadership. But if public evangelism is definitely a part of our work, then surely there must be a way of financing it. The time was, in our history, when such evangelism was not only thought to be important but the all-important work among us. We existed to preach a definite message. And everything was geared to that end. It is a fact that halls were cheaper, considerably cheaper. But it is equally true that there is no comparison between the conference income of those days and what it is today. Can it be that we have permitted other things to capture our attention and absorb our funds, or are we losing the sense of the urgency of our task?
At the same time the questionnaire was sent to our own leaders, another inquiry was sent to leaders of other Christian groups. The replies received from these are very significant. Our Baptist friends were practically the only ones who replied as favoring public evangelistic campaigns. This probably accounts for the rapid growth among the Baptists, there being more than 18,000,000 in the United States today.
A reply from the Church of Christ stressed education as an evangelistic method. And of course we could agree, for that is a prominent feature of our overall evangelism. Some of the older Protestant churches, such as the Presbyterians and the Lutherans, revealed a definitely unfavorable attitude to such evangelistic campaigns. Yet history reveals that originally these churches came into being as the result of great doctrinal preaching in public places. Today these denominations are well established, with large institutions and settled congregations. Public evangelism seems no longer vital to their existence.
Our Own Attitude
Is that our attitude? Of course we say No. But if we are financially unable to carry out what we consider to be important, then how long will it be before we will have settled down to the idea that public evangelism is no longer an essential part of our commission? In other words, are we traveling the same road as our predecessors? It is always easier to talk the language of evangelism than to do the work of an evangelist.
Of course, we thank God for the great possibilities of radio and television, these newer means of preaching the message, but even with such wonderful aids as these, is it not the living preacher who must bring the interest to fruition? Those who are foremost in these techniques of communication will be the first to emphasize that it is the proclamation of Christ from the public platform that in the long run makes the work they do effective. All other agencies, such as education, literature, health evangelism, radio, television, public relations, are seed-sowing methods—"entering wedges" for the gospel. But is it not the living preacher, "the watchman on the walls of Zion," whose cry must be heard in no uncertain tones in every hour of need? His public proclamation of the message, with the association and help of a team of personal workers, is what brings success.
Modern warfare has revealed the effectiveness of bombardment as a "softening up" process, but only when the infantry marches in is the territory actually taken.
The apostles talked about "the foolishness of preaching," and it certainly did seem weak and foolish to the cultured Greco-Roman world. But it is still God's method of saving those who believe. And that God-inspired method must surely not be relegated to the background in our planning. If we are unable to do this work because of shortage of funds, then perhaps we should study our whole program of finance, to see whether there is a leakage somewhere. Should not every dollar in this cause be an evangelistic dollar, invested in the great program for which God has called us—the preaching of the everlasting gospel to prepare a people for the Lord's coming?
R. A. A.