EDITORIAL NOTE: The following article is a condensation of a talk given by a dedicated layman at a constituency meeting of the South Dakota Conference. It should engender some constructive thinking in terms of minister layman relationships as respects active soul winning.
I AM a layman and my hope is that I speak collectively for all laymen who find themselves on this side of the in credible credibility gap. I feel that it is time that the layman's voice be heard; time for the layman to be more concerned with his own destiny as a Christian. It is time for the re-establishment of effective dialog be tween the laymen and the clergy in order that the gap that exists between us may be closed.
We as a denomination are concerned with two classes of communication. First, intrachurch communication or communication among ourselves. Second, extrachurch communication or the quality of our relationship to our environment the image we present to our own neighborhood.
In my opinion the incredible credibility gap has developed as the result of a failure in the intrachurch communication net work the flow has been mostly from the top down. Thus the abyss has grown wider and deeper over the years.
This condition is not peculiar to our denomination-. The peculiar part is that we seem to be doing less about it than some of the others.
How It Began
When did this gap begin and how did it develop? My memory only goes back to about 1904 and things were certainly different then. In those days the main difference between a preacher and a layman was a swallow-tailed coat. When a hard-working farmer, who was also a good Bible student, became conscience stricken because he was still raising hogs, he sold the hogs and bought a swallow-tailed coat. (This, by the way, is a true composite picture.) And don't forget the secret pocket in one side of the swallow-tailed coat that held the white silk kerchief with which he mopped his brow as he preached. There was dialog in those days and no discernible gap.
Since that time, however, the clergy have advanced until now they are highly trained college graduates, which is exactly as it should be. But parallel to this educational advancement has developed the incredible credibility gap.
The failure of our extrachurch communications is quite as evident. In three very lively small cities in this area I found it almost impossible to locate "my church" by any ordinary means. Even the police didn't know we SDA's existed. In seeking a remedy for this situation, I was advised by the telephone company that even an isolated district church can be listed, giving the number of the local elder. And there is no extra charge for yellow-page listing. The closing of this gap should be self-evident.
I believe that we are faced with two phenomena at the present time. First is a worldwide revolution at the grass roots. This is not peculiar to Seventh-day Adventists. It is not even peculiar to churches. But surely we had better be concerned with turning our little bit of this grass roots revolution to God or it will go to the devil by default. The second phenomenon is the communications explosion. This also is worldwide. The world turns on jet-age communications, and each day it seems that Seventh-day Adventists fall further and further behind. We seem to be ready for neither one of these phenomena.
Are We Meeting the Problem?
Who is interested? I would like to be able to say that we here in this area are vitally interested, both the clergy and the laymen, but I cannot say that. I can re port definitely that the people representing the very top echelon of this denomination are interested. Both Robert Pierson, General Conference president, and Neal Wilson, General Conference vice-president for the North American Division, not only freely admit the existence of the incredible credibility gap but express deep concern about how to close that gap.
What might be a first step in improving communications at the grass-roots level? It could be the layman's finding himself an important person in a real open forum business meeting held at stated intervals and each one worthy of an advance agenda. The chairman will sit and talk across in stead of stand and talk down. His main function: to see that communication flows in all directions. Information, argument, constructive criticism everything but pointless dissent. This is area number one. Area number two is the vote, and area number three is unity of action. There is but one legitimate reason for the meeting in the first place, and that is to decide what WE are going to do.
Only through dialog will the church militant march. Unlock the inherent power at the grass roots and the church will collectively realize that God has entrusted to us the world's greatest task in this the world's most critical hour.
Let's Match Our Resources
We have the tools. Our health institutions encircle the globe and sparkle with quality. Our publications, radio and TV programs, are the envy of the religious world. Our great need now is for men to match these tools and to revamp our limping evangelistic outreach to fit this age. All this will come about when we establish a true sense of dialog between the clergy and the laymen, and when we become copartners in the great task that lies ahead.
You ask, May we become copartners? My suggestion is that we turn the gospel right side up by teaching laymen to go out and search for commitments through sharing the experiences of what happened to them when they met and became acquainted with the living Christ. This is exactly what Paul shared with a friend he met on the streets of Damascus.
And this is the instrument that Mr. Kennedy finally used that brought success to his efforts. I believe we can profit from his experience at Coral Ridge. Mr. Kennedy was the director of an Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Tampa, Florida. One evening he heard a radio evangelist ask this question, "Suppose you were to die tonight and stand before God and He should say to you, 'Why should I let you into My heaven?' What would you say?"
This young man couldn't think of an answer so he started out looking for one. He enrolled in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and three and one-half years later he graduated with the assumption that someone had made a pastor out of him. He was as signed to Coral Ridge, an affluent suburb of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. With an adequate budget for advertising he gathered together a group of fifty people and chartered a church. That was in 1959. By 1961 something had happened. His congregation had shrunk to seventeen people and Pastor Kennedy branded himself as a failure.
What Clinical Experience Will Do
About this time he was assigned to an older experienced evangelist who had some extraordinary ideas. This evangelist taught young Kennedy through clinical experience, by taking him into the living rooms of interested people and allowing him to relate his personal relationship with the living Christ. Kennedy found himself witnessing to what this Christ had done for him and he was startled to find that in spite of his inherent shyness people listened. This was the turning point of his life. He returned to Coral Ridge deter mined to put his new discovery into action.
But he made a sad mistake. He called in every interested layman and told them WHAT to do, but he forgot to show them HOW to do it. After six weeks' training he sent them out to convert Coral Ridge and Fort Lauderdale, too. However, they all lost heart and went home.
Then he said, "God hit me on the head with the realization that I had spent more than three years in classes in the seminary and that it was only when I received 'on the job' training clinical experience in the living room that I learned HOW to do it. I had sent these dear people out without that same training." So Pastor Kennedy started all over again. He took a layman with him on every visitation. This was the first unit, and the plan caught on.
Just what is the magic of this story so far? I'll tell you. One pastor who became a teacher as well as preacher, plus one lay man willing to learn by clinical experience, produced an evangelistic unit capable of being multiplied to infinity. The training of the layman was not limited to a "what" lecture but consisted of a "how" experience.
Let's turn the page and look at Coral Ridge today. There are three hundred active lay evangelists out of a congregation of sixteen hundred. Each year Pastor Kennedy presents a four-month study session in his own church for all who are interested, including especially the new converts, who he informs have been "born to reproduce."
Other denominations have been quick to see the value of such a procedure and Kennedy encourages this by sponsoring annual five-day intensive clinics. Each member of these special classes is required to learn the course material, memorize verses, and then accompany Coral Ridge's experienced lay evangelists on living-room visitations. Each delegate memorizes a gospel outline and a gospel presentation method.
A Presbyterian pastor remarked thus: "The greatest and most thrilling experience of my ministry came at the Coral Ridge church during the clinic. It has transformed my life and I hope to see it transform my denomination."
At present Coral Ridge is busy with a new six-million-dollar church seating 2,500 in the sanctuary. Don't you believe it is time for us to explore the possibilities of such a program? The Spirit of Prophecy seems to favor such a method. We may not match this rate of growth, but I am convinced that there will come a time in the not too distant future when we will learn to work together and thus create a people that others will desire to be like. We will unlock the power for evangelism at the grass roots, and we will become known as the busiest, the healthiest, and the happiest people. Then and only then will the world really listen to what we have to say. We will make evangelists out of laymen and there will be a spiritual explosion at the foundation of our work. When all this has been done, we are then ready to call in the professional evangelist and put the frosting on the cake.
Then we, the laymen, will exercise our greatest privilege. We will come humbly for instruction before the throne of God.
Then we, the laymen, will exercise our greatest responsibility. We will learn to walk tall before men.