Evangelism and Institutionalism

Evangelism and Institutionalism

Adventist Evangelism in the Twentieth Century-4

HOWARD B. WEEKS, Vice-President, Public Relations and Development, Loma Linda University

IN THE brief compass of this series of THE MINISTRY articles, it is difficult if not impos­sible to review all the colorful detail of sixty-five years of Ad­ventist evangelistic history. The original work from which the articles thus far have been excerpted re­quires twenty-three chapters to tell the story with anything approaching adequacy.*

In this article and the one remaining thereafter, we will attempt a rapid sum­mary of the major trends and developments since the remarkable breakthrough during World War I—with a hint of what the fu­ture may hold for public evangelism as an instrument of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Throughout the 1920's, despite denom­inational support for a continued evange­listic drive and a substantial number of men in the field, membership growth was uneven at best and at a generally low level. In the social climate of normalcy and pros­perity, many wartime converts drifted away from the denomination, which at the time had limited church building facilities and —with a strong program of ministerial re­cruitment for overseas missions—compara­tively limited pastoral supervision.

Nevertheless, despite the general lack of major success, much effort was expended in public evangelism, with many innovations in technique, particularly in the de­velopment of the public lecture format, which capitalized on a growing public in­terest in programs of an educational char­acter, and acceptance of the Billy Sunday variety of tabernacle as a major facility for public evangelism. Among all the evange­lists of this period, Charles T. Everson was a dominant figure in the American scene, and one who maintained the World War I level of conversions.

However, with the onset of the depres­sion, came a marked resurgence of Advent­ist success in public evangelism, spearheaded by a new generation of evangelistic lead­ers, including such men as John E. Ford, H. M. S. Richards, John L. Shuler, R. Allan Anderson, and Robert L. Boothby.

These evangelistic "stars" were given strong official support by a new General Conference administration including C. H. Watson, president; and William H. Bran­son, a veteran evangelist himself, as vice-president for the North American Divi­sion.

Yet, despite this support, and in a repe­tition of the World War I pattern, no sooner had Adventist evangelistic gains reached a new peak than, as the depres­sion receded, they began a precipitous de­cline—although not to as low a level as in the post-World War I decline (see accom­panying chart). Again, apostasies, which had rapidly diminished during the crisis, began to rise with a corresponding insti­tutional concern over the quality of evan­gelistic converts.

Adventist response in the situation was, in part, a greater emphasis on mass media, and a return of the evangelical mantle to the "pastor-evangelist." In order to make this feasible, the techniques developed by leading evangelists were increasingly sys­tematized, particularly by J. L. Shuler, and distributed by means of an expansion of field schools of evangelism, the publication of manuals of evangelistic technique, and the development of courses in public evan­gelism in the newly organized Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary.

From a low point in 1937, Adventist evangelistic gains rose again with the out­break of World War II. In exactly the same pattern seen in previous crises (World War I and the depression), these gains peaked early in the critical period, then, rapidly declined as the initial shock faded. By 1943, evangelistic audiences were harder to at­tract, apostasies were again on the increase, with the growth rate once more at a low level.

By war's end, however, both Adventist public evangelism and the rate of member­ship growth in North America were again rising, stimulated in part by a general re­surgence of other evangelical groups and by widespread public fears of "atomic an­nihilation." However, these fears did not bring as great a renewal of "big-time" Ad­ventist evangelism as had previous periods of crisis, and the increase in membership growth rate in the postwar period was only moderate.

In the first postwar decade there were a large number of evangelists in the field, but a great majority of them were of the  mid-1950's, the large-scale, extended public campaign had virtually disappeared as an Adventist evangelistic format.

Trends possibly associated with the more moderate (although fairly even) rate of growth after World War II, and the di­minishing of the aggressive public evan­gelistic thrust may include: strong insti­tutional development of the church, with a greatly increased investment in larger con­gregational, educational, and medical fa­cilities; a rising Adventist socio-economic status; greater emphasis on community re­lations and public service; a moderating of the divisive element in evangelistic preach­ing, and initial emphasis at least on Christ-centered beliefs held in common with oth­ers; and a shift from the previous practice of identifying campaigns as part of an in­terdenominational movement, to a candid use of the denominational name, exploit­ing its institutional value.

During the second postwar decade, 1955­1965, these trends have been strengthened with increasing emphasis on a congrega­tional approach to evangelism. The public phase of evangelism has become more a reaping of the results of various institu­tional programs than a public crusade as of old, wherein the Adventist faith was in­troduced in platform address to previously unconditioned masses.

This shift of emphasis has correlated with other developments, including a rela­tively stable and prosperous religious era in the society at large since 1950; with a high rate of church attendance (although recently beginning to decline).

The Adventist evangelistic programs that have developed in this setting have in­cluded a pastor-laymen movement, the cre­ation of permanent metropolitan evange­listic centers, the perfecting of evangelistic techniques in mass communications—all tending toward a more institutional ap­proach.

Two dominant evangelistic forms by 1965 were the short campaign, introduced in North America in 1953 by Fordyce W. Detamore, primarily a reaping effort; and It Is Written, introduced in 1956 by George E. Vandeman, an effort to unify with mass communications the diverse in­direct and institutional evangelistic ap­proaches of the Adventist Church.

In summary, then, it may be said that in the twentieth century, there have been four significant periods of evangelistic resurgence for the Adventist Church; and in each case growth peaks have coincided with times of acute crisis and social dislocation —two world wars, the depression, and the beginning of the Atomic Age—in which the Adventist message seemed to offer the an­swer to many persons shaken from familiar frameworks of reference, and in which events lent added credibility to an apoca­lyptic view of chaos preceding the Second Coming and earthly renewal.

There are also indications, as have been reviewed, of a correlation with Adventist success of: (1) a falling out of conservative Protestants from the established churches, on theological grounds—particularly dur­ing the World War I era; (2) a migra­tion to the cities of rural Protestant people, as seen in both world wars; (3) a general resurgence of conservative revivalism, as seen in the Billy Sunday era prior to and during World War I, during the depres­sion, and in the early Billy Graham era at the end of World War II.

In addition, while in the absence of such factors the internal promotion of public evangelism by Adventist ministerial lead­ers apparently has had comparatively lit­tle direct bearing on its level of success, the readiness of the church and its leadership to capitalize evangelistically on the turning of the wheel of providence—through the preparation and support of evangelistic personnel—does appear to have such a bearing, as particularly illustrated during the early years of both world wars.

Furthermore, the balance of power be­tween institutional and evangelical inter­ests in the church seems not only to affect the readiness of the church to respond in times of evangelistic opportunity, but in itself to be affected by ensuing events. In such times attention and resources seem to be shifted to evangelism, only to be with­drawn when evangelistic success begins to wane, or when the incompatibility of many "crisis converts" begins to disturb the in­stitutional equilibrium of the church.

When the demands imposed on a well-established church or conference by exten­sive public evangelism are considered, its somewhat reluctant support except in times of crisis and heightened public re­sponse may readily be understood. First, the extended campaign period seemingly re­quired to make significant numbers of con­verts from among persons not already knowledgeable concerning Adventist be­liefs and folkways involves almost complete pre-emption of organizational energies for three to six months or longer. This means that institutional interests of the church largely must be put aside, or turned from their usual course to serve the interests of the campaign. This, in turn, means that the pastor usually must in effect become subordinate to the evangelist, or at least yield the limelight for an extended period of time—while congregational programs which the pastor has attempted to develop frequently languish.

Moreover, church members must be will­ing to support the fairly dogmatic and di­visive evangelistic posture that often has seemed necessary to attract from other so­cial settings new converts who are com­paratively unconditioned by prior Adventist influences. Church members secure in a socially accepted institutional setting, with productive social or professional relations in the community, and probably themselves moving upward in the social and economic structure, seem slow to lend willing sup­port to a program that often must down­grade the religious authority of other groups and disturb community relations—unless conditions of crisis proportions have already created division, sharply defined issues, and brought competing religious organizations under fire from other sources as well.

Such conditions in the past have in­cluded catastrophic intimations of an im­minent end, or the inability of the leader­ship of established churches to provide meaningful explanations of extreme dislo­cations, or to protect the faith from a dis­ruptive liberalizing.

A survey of contemporary attitudes among North American Adventist minis­ters toward public evangelism suggests that young ministers do not tend to think of public evangelism as a primary, crusading activity. Rather, they tend to view it as a secondary influence in membership growth, serving mainly to crystallize the interest aroused through Adventist schools, contacts by laymen, the mass media, and other institutional extensions of the church (see below at left).

Ordinarily, with its extensive and increas­ing institutional development, the Advent­ist Church might be expected to settle down at this point to a more sedate evan­gelistic witness. However, younger minis­ters, perhaps even more than older minis­ters, tend to emphasize a belief in the prophetic, evangelical mission of the church—although admittedly seeing its ful­fillment in churchlike ways.

Moreover portentous, even radical, de­velopments in both Catholicism and Prot­estantism during the mid-1960's, together with random signs of renewed success in aggressive public evangelism, suggest that, given the element of world crisis, there is at least the possibility of a resurgence of the vigorous prophetic Adventist evange­lism of former days. 

* It may also be noted that where the history here recorded seems to conflict in detail with the memory of some of the persons involved in these long-ago events, supporting docu­mentary material, of necessity omitted in these brief con­densations, usually provides the key.

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HOWARD B. WEEKS, Vice-President, Public Relations and Development, Loma Linda University

May 1966

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