WE MEET today as an evangelistic council, and it is a joy to welcome each of you here. In some ways we are making history, for a council of this kind is definitely a new experience with us. This is not a ministerial institute, much less a general workers' meeting, but a council called for the study of basic problems in public evangelism. In the cities of today there is so much to challenge us that we have long needed an opportunity of this kind. Our problems seem to grow greater with every passing year.
While the message of the everlasting gospel is ever the same, yet the contemporary situation in which we must interpret God to men is vastly different from what it was even a few years ago. The thunder of world-shattering events, the crash of old and trusted ideas, have left the multitude bewildered. As a panacea for broken hopes and disillusionment many are turning feverishly to pleasure. Never was amusement so eagerly sought and so little valued. TV has brought the vaudeville to almost every home.
It is against this background that we as evangelists are to proclaim God's last message of mercy. Ours is a generation that has been robbed of its familiar gods of material security, human progress, and self-sufficiency. But to such as these we are sent as heralds of God. We are commissioned to proclaim the everlasting gospel in the setting of God's judgment hour. To some the time may seem unpropitious for public evangelism. Yet in the light of history, the more desperate the situation, the more realistic the evangelism. The challenge becomes the chance; the calamity creates the opportunity.
"Come ye yourselves apart," said Jesus to the evangelists of an earlier day. And that is precisely why we are here. We have drawn aside from the pressures of our calling to commune with Him and with one another. If the spirit of humility pervades our gathering, then this council will prove a rich experience for us all. We are here as a group to learn: first, from the Word of God; second, from the counsel of His Spirit; third, from one another.
Solomon's prayer might well be ours: "I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in. . . . Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart" (1 Kings 3: 7, 9).
All who occupy responsible positions need to learn the lesson that is taught in Solomon's humble prayer. They are ever to remember that position will never change the character or render man infallible. The higher the position a man occupies, the greater the responsibility he has to bear, the wider will be the influence he exerts and the greater his need to feel his dependence on the wisdom and strength of God. . . . Position never will give holiness and excellence of character. . . . Every truly converted soul can say, "I am but a little child; but I am God's child."—Testimonies, vol. 9, pp. 282, 283.
It is good for us to realize that we do not have all the answers. In both technology and theology God has much to teach us. And our coming together can broaden our thinking, provided we are learners. Henry Ford said: "We have no experts in our organization. If we discover one we fire him. There is not one job we do but can be done better." The gigantic Ford industry was built on the principle of learning and sharing. During these days let us be both learners and sharers. No two of us are alike. We react differently to situations. And we will each emerge from this council with our individual experiences, but the over-all value of this council can be tremendous.
We are gathered here, not to promote a program. We have nothing to sell. We have come to discuss in the spirit of Christ the things concerning His kingdom. We are a group; One is our Master, even Christ, and we all are brethren. Then let us face our problems together, no one seeking to dominate. Group discussion demands mature thinking, yet such study and discussion is superior to the one-way communication of a lecture. Discussion has been defined as "the art of thinking independently together."
And yet we are more than a group. We are a fellowship—workers together with God, and representing in particular, public evangelism. It is important that each recognize his responsibility to the group. Some will probably have more to say than others, but each has a responsibility to bring something to this council, as well as to take something away. No two of us follow the same pattern in our approaches or our presentations to the public. If we did the same things in the same way this council would be unnecessary. We have come to compare notes and to strengthen one another in our service. When we return to our fields we will not be just the same men as when we came. While we will still be different as individuals, we will, however, by the grace of God, be bigger men. Discussion will enlarge our vision. Furthermore, it is unlikely that we will settle all our differences in methodology, but the opportunity of comparing ideas is wonderful. Someone has said: "It is better to debate differences and to leave them unsettled than to settle differences without the right of debate." But in our discussions let us be aware of the presence of God. We must constantly see in our midst "the Lord high and lifted up."
While we speak of ourselves as a group, yet we are more—more even than a group of ministers. We are the church, the body of Christ. Whenever and wherever one Christian meets and fellowships with another Christian, there is the church. In stressing the universality of the church we may fail to experience the reality of the church here right where we are. The Holy Spirit chose an interesting Greek word to express the church—ekklesia. Originally the ekklesia was a meeting of citizens called by a herald to discuss the official business of the empire. Likewise, we are the ekklesia, having been brought together to discuss the business of the kingdom of God.
In contemplating our God-given mission to this great North American Division, let us face our task in the light of the contemporary scene. A new America is emerging, radically and speedily. Are we aware of all the implications of this? Or are we content to think in the thought patterns of twenty years ago? Then too, are we willing to realize that a new civilization demands new and perhaps radical approaches? And again, are we willing to take a bold and imaginative approach, or are we so bound to our dearly beloved structures of the past that present progress is impossible?
Now, let us face the fact that we live in a rapidly growing world. Populations are increasing so fast that sociologists view the future with dismay. The present population of the United States for example, is 180 million! By 1970, we are told, it will be 200 million. And according to the most conservative estimates, forty years from now—it may be hard for us to imagine the Lord's mercy lingering that long for the harvesting of souls—the United States population will be in the region of 350 million! Facing this, dare we continue as we are? And one of the most alarming facts about this is that 90 per cent of our nation's growth is in urban areas. Plans and expenditures for evangelism in past years are nothing compared with what the church must do in the immediate future.
Then consider another problem—the mobility of this generation. In many of the leading cities of America, one out of every five, on the average, changes his address every year. In some large cities it is claimed that there is almost a complete turnover of the population every three years. Can we consider that one campaign a year, or worse still, one in a decade, can meet this challenge?
Then too, people today are thinking altogether differently from the way they did a few years ago. Advances in education have brought this about. Scientists now talk glibly about populations not only on this earth but on 100 trillion planets. What an opportunity for the presentation of the great truths of Revelation 14! To be able to give men a new concept of God is a tremendous challenge. The message of Isaiah 40 was never more relevant: "Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things." And again: "Say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!"
Then let us think too of the clamor for freedom, not only in Africa but all over the world. Right here in America the masses are determined to break from the shackles of past patterns and live their own lives.
While many things about the Roman Catholic Church give us cause for concern, yet in some ways they can set a real example to Protestantism, and even Adventism. They have a definite sense of mission, they are not just running "missions" or campaigns. They declare they have a divine responsibility to the world. For decades they have been planning an over-all program calculated to bring all men everywhere face to face with the Church's claims. Among other objectives they have set about to emphasize the importance of the priest. That perhaps as much as anything else is the reason for the Pope's recent move for a worldwide council. Then in order to meet the challenge of Communism, which seems to appeal to the working man, they have appointed a group of top scholars to make a study of labor—to find the relation of the working man to the church. Fifteen years have been given for this group to do its research. It is reported that by 1975 they will have a theology that will meet the need of the worker.
Actually, the Catholic Church is facing a crisis. Many of their best informed laymen are ready to throw over the priest, because, they say, he seems unable to meet the need of present-day thinking. It might be worth our while to become aware of the thinking of many of the forthright laymen within the ranks of our own denomination. This might result in a change in some things we have taken for granted. It would certainly challenge us to sober reflection on some of our evangelistic approaches.
Yes, we face a different America today, with altogether a different set of values from those it held twenty-five years ago. There is respect for religion, but little or no spiritual power. In some areas of this country more than 90 per cent of those over 14 years of age claim some church affiliation. That also calls for a new evaluation of our task. Despite the popularity of religion, crime is still on the increase. We are witnessing two ripening harvests—the wheat and the tares. While the shattered debris of blasted hopes leads many to despair, it leads others to hope in God. The next few years hold tremendous possibilities for the evangelist in whose hand the Word of God is a swift rapier to cut its way to the heart, causing men of all ranks and conditions to cry out: "What shall we do?" Our very name "Adventists" suggests that eschatology will be prominent in our preaching, yet we must never forget that the preaching of the cross is the power of God. It was the blood-stained cross and the empty tomb that inspired those first evangelists and sent them forth in triumph over the kingdom of darkness. And there too we may find our strength.
The joyful news of a risen Saviour turned those heralds of hope into flames of fire, and through them God set whole cities ablaze with the revelation of His love. "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you" was their message. Not debate, but declaration was their technique. They confronted men with stupendous tidings of God's omnipotent act, when He cleft history asunder and, "travelling in the greatness of His strength," became "mighty to save." Confronting the disillusionment of our day, crushing it with the cross of Calvary, shaming it with the resurrection, and sweeping it into a flame with the hope of the imminent return of our Lord—that is real evangelism.
We live in an hour of crisis, but Christianity is a religion of crisis. It was made for a world in ferment. History is not wandering aimlessly. There is purpose and plan even in the very confusion of our day. God is about to invade history again, and this time He will bring eternal deliverance to His people. What an hour for God's ambassador to move forward to his task!