Adventist Evangelism Tomorrow--A Prognosis

Adventist Evangelism in the Twentieth Century—4

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

THE historical role and character of public evan­gelism as an instrument of Seventh-day Adventist action have largely de­pended on the relative dominance of prophetic versus institutional inter­ests within the church. The modern era of large-scale public evangelism was launched under the direct urging of Ellen G. White near the end of her long career as Adventism's "prophetic" voice. The tension then evi­dent between prophetic insistence and in­stitutional reserve has continued as a pri­mary condition, with the balance of policy control shifting occasionally from one side to the other; each, of course, supported in appropriate circumstances by the writings of Ellen G. White who at various times urged not only aggressive public evange­lism but also strong institutional develop­ment.

Secondary conditions affecting the rela­tive prophetic-institutional dominance have included political, military, eco­nomic, religious, and other social develop­ments. In times of relative social stability and prosperity success in public evange­lism has diminished, and, consequently, its support by the denomination. In times of acute social crisis, particularly when ac­companied by instability in other religious groups, the eschatological focus of Advent­ist belief has become clearer, its public evangelism has been more successful, and denominational emphasis has become more "prophetic" than institutional.

In the mid-1960's there are a number of portentous religious developments con­ceivably capable of creating a climate fav­orable to such a resurgence of Adventist public evangelism; in fact, "conservative" evangelism in general.

One of these developments is the flower­ing ecumenical movement, which provides strong confirmation of certain Adventist prophetic views. "Striking indications of acceleration in the ecumenical movement," cited by Eugene L. Smith, executive secretary of the World Council of Churches,' include wide-ranging moves toward Protestant union, and increasing Catholic-Protestant fellowship and dialog —especially in the wake of Vatican Coun­cil II.

One bloc of prospective converts in any new Adventist evangelistic offensive may well be persons of conservative Protestant backgrounds who find such trends either objectionable or alarming, or both. In addition, there is some evidence that former or marginal Adventists see in present trends sufficient reason for coming into the

fold. For example, among the converts in one recent campaign were found a number of former Adventists who explained their return to the church as a result of the shock of witnessing the arrival of the Pope on American soil. Conceivably, there may be here an omen of evangelistic things to come.

Of even greater promise to future evan­gelistic gains, in view of the historical record, is the simmering clerical revolt in large segments of Protestantism against traditional views of Christ, God, and the church. Flowing from the teachings of Tillich, the Niebuhrs, Barth, Bultmann, and Brunner, "a passion for a radical transformation of Protestant Christianity in all its contemporary forms and formulas is cur­rently sweeping U.S. churches," according to Kenneth L. Woodward, Newsweek reli­gion editor.'

Citing numerous Protestant leaders, Woodward maintains that "U.S. Protes­tants today display no clear sense of iden­tity or purpose," and that "less than half of the total American Christendom really believes" in "Christ crucified, risen, and coming again."

According to Paul Moore, Jr., Episcopal Bishop of Washington, D.C., the Protestant church, jafticl by the Negro renewal and Catholic renewal, has been doing some very radical thinking. Where-ever you look—in the church's increasing social involvement, in the ecumenical movement and in the new theology—there is this "opening up."

Woodward declares, significantly, "To conservative Protestants, the direct in­volvement of clergymen in secular prob­lems is a betrayal of religion itself." He stresses, however, that this could not mat­ter less to the "revolutionaries"; for to them "the church as it now is structured is already doomed." According to Robert McAfee Brown, a Protestant theologian at Stanford University, "We have to act with a certain ruthlessness, today. When a structure stands in the way between the believer and Christ, it must be axed."

The result seems likely to be division in at least some of the larger Protestant churches. According to Don Benedict, di­rector of the Chicago City Missionary So­ciety: "We will get real schisms over the church-in-the-world issue. Some congrega­tions are going to be split right up the middle in the next ten years." Contribut­ing to this possibility of schism, Woodward believes, is a "theological vacuum" at the local church level, where "a heretofore lethargic" laity have been stirred by Rob­inson's, "Honest to God" demythologizing and the "God Is Dead" philosophy of Al­tizer and other "new theologians." "Pastors and even seminary professors," Wood­ward says, "are being pressed with funda­mental questions, and the answers . . . are slow in coming."

Another journalist, T. George Harris, senior editor of Look, reports—religious restlessness everywhere you go. The big denominations, long placid, are suddenly possessed by turmoil. Pope Paul needs all his authority to con­trol, or try to, the revolution in Roman Catholicism. But Protestantism, with no central machinery, is rocked even more violently by the same historic disturbance.'

Harris further reports that—radical young theologians want to abandon the word "God" because church-going millions use it as a nickname for superstition. Conservatives, shocked, fear that the "new theology" degrades Christ to a "myth." Result: a full-scale battle of the Bible over the purpose of the church and the living test of truth.

Disparities of belief in some of the larger Protestant churches, according to Rodney Stark and Charles Y. Glock, are so great as to represent "cleavages . . . that may well hold a greater potential for fac­tionalism than did the old disputes [that produced the historic schisms in Christian­ity]." Stark and Glock maintain:

Although earlier disagreements that accompanied the fragmentation of Christianity were bitter, never­theless they took place among men, who for the most part, shared commitment to such basic com­ponents of Christian theology as the existence of a personal and sentient God, the Saviourhood of Christ, and the promise of life everlasting.

But today . . . the fissures . . . fragment the very core of the Christian perspectives. The new cleav­ages are not over such matters as how to properly worship God, but over whether or not there is a God of the sort it makes any sense to worship.4

If in expectation of a larger prophetic role amid these trends Adventists should gird up their evangelistic loins they would find themselves in step with other evangelicals who share their concern—although perhaps without our framework of specific prophetic predictions. The "voice" of con­servative Protestantism, Christianity To­day, recently editorialized:

Old landmarks are being destroyed, old sanctities overthrown. What is the responsibility of those who believe in the validity of revealed religion? . . . We reply in the words of the prophet Isaiah: "To the Law and to the testimony: if they speak not accord­ing to this Word, it is because there is no light in them." . . ,

Never has the burden of presenting historic Chris­tian theism fallen so heavily upon the shoulders of a vanguard of evangelical theologians. That the living, supernatural God has revealed himself; that he has made his ways known in objective historical acts and in objective truths about himself and his purposes; that the Bible is the authoritative norm of Christian faith and practice—these were ele­mental truths that the early Christians proclaimed to the pagan world.. . . The evangelical witness was never more needed than now .5

Billy Graham, the nation's best-known evangelical, sees Protestant turmoil as "a growing rebellion against the institutional life of the church, which has become bogged down in its own machinery." There is some reflection of such a revolt in the statistics of church attendance, as cited by George Gallup, Jr., who reports that the percentage of the adult population at­tending church in a typical week reached its peak in 1958, having risen by that year to 49 per cent, from only 37 per cent in the 1930's. However, since 1958, it has been gradually declining, dropping to 45 per cent in 1964.

With this background, there is perhaps more significance than might ordinarily be seen in the scheduling by evangelical forces of a World Congress on Evangelism in West Berlin during parts of October and November, 1966, with Carl F. Henry, edi­tor of Christianity Today as chairman, and Billy Graham as honorary chairman.

Among the objectives of this congress, which will be attended by 1,200 delegates, guests, and observers,' are: "To define Bib­lical evangelism. . . . To stress the urgency of evangelistic proclamation throughout the world in this generation. . . . To sum­mon the church to recognize the priority of its evangelistic task."

The Adventist Church today is better prepared to make common cause with these other evangelicals than at any previ­ous time in its history; and to benefit more, evangelistically, from any fallout of disaf­fected conservatives from other denomina­tions.

First, it has a number of effective "tools" for evangelism that have been in develop­ment since the early 1950's, techniques centering in the blending of mass media, personal contact, and the public platform. Perhaps the most significant general tech­nique is that of systematically "preparing the ground" before launching public meet­ings, with the meetings themselves the cli­max rather than the beginning of an evan­gelistic "effort," as of old.

Moreover, in its theological emphasis—in the wake of the "Christ-centered evan­gelism" movement beginning in the late 1940's, and the Adventist evangelical dia­logs of the late 1950's—the denomination is more definitely oriented than ever to the historic evangelical concepts of Christ, the atonement, and salvation. According to L. E. Froom:

Today the old largely negative approach—em­phasizing chiefly the things wherein we differ from all other religious groups—is past, definitely past. . . . The hour has come to accentuate the positive, and to stress the everlasting gospel before the world. . . . Let us be done with a lopsided, inadequate emphasis. . . . We are to move into our rightful place as today's foremost heralds of Christ. . . .

We are to present a positive, saving gospel, not merely—or chiefly—to proclaim a negative warn­ing."

With this approach to evangelism Seventh-day Adventists will in large measure be participants in a common crusade with other conservative, evangelical groups in opposing "apostasy" within the large de­nominations. They should thus suffer less under the disadvantage of conservative cross fire than was the case in previous times of conservative-liberal controversy.

The heavy, sometimes bellicose, empha­sis on the law and the Sabbath in times past undoubtedly struck more raw nerves among conservative, Sundaykeeping peo­ple than among the liberals. The Advent­ists were thus left open to charges by their "competitors" for the conservative "fall­out" that they were not truly Christian but rather "legalistic." With defectors from larger denominations flowing to "the sects," as previously mentioned, this charge possibly deflected many persons from the Adventist Church as a place of spiritual refuge in favor of other sectarian groups.'

In contrast today, with a clear assertion of the denomination's evangelical heritage establishing its Christian "acceptability," the Adventist Church has other advantages that could greatly enhance the effectiveness of large-scale public evangelism. These ad­vantages may be apparent not only to dis­contented members of other churches but also, to many unchurched persons previ­ously unattracted to any denomination.

The extensive Adventist institutional de­velopment, with medical, educational, publishing, and other establishments, to­gether with a strongly denominational church structure, more effective conference organizations, and a high level of minis­terial training, could be attractive to per­sons who prefer the denominational to the more typical, relative unstructured sectar­ian environment. Moreover, while Advent­ists disavow a "creed," the church does have a reasonably well-defined body of doc­trine which despite the changes of public emphasis that have been noted has re­mained reasonably consistent through many years—largely because of the interpre­tative role of the writings of Ellen G. White.

Along with this institutional, churchlike structure the denomination also provides a program of social service, possibly ap­pealing to persons who though conserva­tive are not entirely alien to the church­in-the-world concept.

Also affording the Adventist Church a competitive advantage over some other evangelical groups is its upward socio-economic mobility mentioned earlier, and the values of educational and professional at­tainment advocated within the church. The results, seen in denominational statis­tics, suggest that professional and technical occupations may be twice as prevalent among Seventh-day Adventists as among the general United States population, and a college education perhaps three times as prevalent.' Thus, there are in the Adventist Church possibilities of social and economic benefit as well as religious satis­faction; possibilities that may be apparent to some prospective converts."

Despite the emphasis that has been placed here on radical change in the "es­tablished" churches as a contributing fac­tor to Adventist evangelistic success, it should be repeated that in the past this has been a factor coincidental with, or even subordinate in importance to, mili­tary or economic crisis. If to disaffection in other churches is added such catastro­phe, Seventh-day Adventists, with an es­chatological message—now couched in more widely accepted Christian terms—and their institutional advantages could experience substantial evangelistic success.

Even short of catastrophe, the times well may be sufficiently unsettling, and once se­cure religious moorings so tenuous, that many more persons than in the recent past will be attracted to the voice of evangelists who speak with assurance and authority. Examples of new Adventist success in large-scale public evangelism may thus prove to be harbingers of a new era of evan­gelistic emphasis and membership growth.

REFERENCES

1 Year-end report, World Council of Churches, New York office. January 12 1966.

2 The following several citations are from Newsweek January 3, 1966, pp. 33-37.

3 Look, July 27, 1965, p. 17.

4 Rodney Stark and Charles Y. Glock. "The 'New Denom­inationalism,' " Review of Religious Research, VII (Fall, 1965), p. 14.

5 Christianity Today, Dec. 17, 1965, pp. 22-24.

6 Newsletter, PR Reporter, Sept. 13, 1965, p. 2.

7 Statement in public lecture, Atlantic City, May 3. 1965.

8 Among the observers to be present: R. Allan Anderson, secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association.

9 The Ministry, March, 1965, p. 22.

10 L. E. Froom, "New Approaches Imperative for a New Day." The Ministry, March, 1966, pp. 10, 12.

11 It has been noted that Charles T. Everson, virtually the only Adventist evangelist of the 1920's who maintained a level of success equaling the World War I peak, appealed to a religiously unsettled but prosperous public in the evan­gelical Christian terms which a majority of Adventist evan­gelists are now prepared to employ.

12 Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists A Study of Seventh-day Adventist Church Membership, 1961­1962, Report No. 2 (Glendale, California: Pacific Union Con­ference of Seventh-day Adventists).

13 Seventh-day Adventist Youth at the Mid-Century (Wash­ington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing. Assn.), 1951.

14 Howard B. Weeks "Religious Television Programing as an Evangelistic Medium" (unpublished research report, Michigan State University, January, 1964).

Advertisement - Healthy and Happy Family - Skyscraper 728x90

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

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

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - Southern Adv Univ 180x150 - Animated

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - Healthy and Happy Family - Skyscraper 160x600