Are Adventist Evangelists Speaking in "Unknown Tongues"?

THE GOSPEL commission found in Matthew 28 has always been taken seriously by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Its efforts to evangelize the world, and in particular to make the world aware of the coming of Jesus, as taught in the three angels' messages of Revelation, have been met with increasing success in many quarters of the earth. In 1973 for the first time, more than 200,000 people were brought into the church. . .

-dean, Kettering College of Medical Arts, Kettering, Ohio at the time this article was written

THE GOSPEL commission found in Matthew 28 has always been taken seriously by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Its efforts to evangelize the world, and in particular to make the world aware of the coming of Jesus, as taught in the three angels' messages of Revelation, have been met with increasing success in many quarters of the earth. In 1973 for the first time, more than 200,000 people were brought into the church.

The overwhelming majority, however, of those who are joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church are doing so from the "Third World," from the developing nations of earth. They are responding as first-generation Adventists, and in some cases, first-generation Christians. In the United States, Canada, and Europe, however, particularly in Western Europe, accessions to the church do not come so easily. In some Western European countries, they come rarely, if at all. In some of these countries we have an "old church."

Our message for the world is a Bible message. The methodology we use to present this message was formulated some seventy-five years ago, at a time when the majority of the people in the United States either believed the Bible to be the Word of God, or liked to think that they did, or at least had a speaking acquaintance ship with it. We used to think of the United States as a Christian nation, whether it was or not.

Competition for the evangelist, when he pitched his tent, was slight. The language he used, the symbols and allusions made, were reasonably familiar to his audience, and the response sought was in character with the society and mores of the times. The majority of people, if not in tune with Biblical ideas, thought they were, or at least ought to be.

Today all this has been changed. A new polyglot society has arisen, fragmented in all directions, with little cohesion, even less common ground. The Biblical message can be as foreign to this society as Sanskrit.

A Major Revolution

A major revolution has taken place since 1890 on the American scene and in Western Europe, not alone in technology but to an even greater degree in the attitudes toward religion in general, and the Bible in particular. This leads to the conclusion that the average evangelist of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and of other evangelical churches speaks today in an "unknown tongue." He uses signs and symbols that are either meaningless to the average American or convey meanings that are not helpful to the propagation of the gospel. Furthermore, he accepts as fact the value systems that are either questioned or have been discarded by the vast majority of the population of our country.

During the past fifty years, the so-called Bible Belt has shrunk and shrunk again. The most recent religious census of the United States to which I have access indicates that only 11 percent of our population are conservative Protestants, 22 percent liberal Protestants, and that nearly 40 percent have no religious affiliation what soever. Some members of liberal churches, of course, more or less believe the Bible to be the Word of God, as do some Catholics and Jews, but probably not more than 15 percent of Americans are Biblically oriented and initially susceptible to Bible preaching or reading. There is no point in preaching from the Bible before confidence in the Bible has been established. As a matter of fact, our Bible-based evangelistic preaching gets through to not more than 10 or 15 percent of the population.

I would like to halt here for a moment, lest you be led astray concerning my intent. It is not in any sense to criticize the evangelistic thrust of the church. The Voice of Prophecy, Faith for To day, It Is Written, and all the evangelists of our denomination, whose preaching brings scores of souls into the church of God, are indeed doing the work of the Lord.

But the shrinking population of those attuned to these mes sages should cause us to pause a moment and reflect. Do we in deed believe that our obligation is to preach the gospel to all the world? And if we do, does that mean those in our own land who are not Biblically oriented? Can we say we have preached the gospel if we have made no effort to reach them in a language they understand? I quote a very distinguished editor of one of our church papers, "For the approximately 89 percent of the population who couldn't care less about the Bible, we might as well be preaching in Swahili, or Urdu, or Tagalog, or Eskimo." Surely, in this group there must be many potential candidates for the kingdom of God.

The remedy for our communication problems with the non-Bible-oriented group ought to be a major focus of our concern as we move from MISSION '73 to '74 to '75. If we accept the task of attempting to reach this non-Bible-oriented group, it means we shall have to study their interests, their concerns, and their thought pat terns, and then explore ways of getting through to them with a concept that there is a God and that the Bible is His message to men in our generation. Until we do that, our Bible-based message makes no sense at all to them.

The Second-Century Apologists

James Sellers suggests that we need to take a look at the second and third-century Christians who are known as apologists, men like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and others. Three principles were keys to the work of the second-century Christian apologists: (1) They first found a mutually accepted criterion, a common basis, a meeting place in thought accessible both to Christians and pagans; (2) they went on from there to demonstrate defects in the content of pagan thought; (3) finally they proclaimed Christianity as the meaningful fulfillment of longing and desire of the pagan systems. The Christian answer for the apologists of the second century could not be proclaimed unless the communicator began on common ground on the truth and the human need, which is mutually agreed upon between the two systems.

Historically, the successful apologists were able to find a point of contact with the outsider not in any virtues or abilities or capacities of the outsider, but in a situation in which the communicator seeks to know the recipient in his individual situation. When he has found this point of conflict, the communicator then will have to step beyond the circle of the insider, drop the language or symbols of the insider (at least in part), and communicate with the outsider as a true partner, using (within the bounds of Christ's standards) the language or symbols to which the partner is accustomed. It's a neat trick if you can do it! The second-century apologists used the philosophy of the Greeks as a suitable tool for preaching, as a tool of symbols known to the hearers from which he could extract whatever he needed.

The work of the church today is not too different from that of the second-century apologists, but it is much more complicated. If we simply followed the second-century apologists, we would try to track down the most important values in the minds of our pagans, demonstrate the obvious conflict between these values and Christian teachings, and then ask our hearers to accept the clearly superior Christian values. But in the twentieth century we can no longer draw such a clear-cut distinction between Christian and pagan values they're all mixed up in the head of our outsider. His brain is teeming with the mixture of Christian notions, which he may not take very seriously, to be sure, and assorted canons of secularism drawn from the industrial age. Indeed, he isn't really sure which is which.

Infinitely More Difficult

How, then, do we go about making contact with this modern outsider? The mixed character of a modern audience and its beliefs makes the job of preaching the gospel infinitely more difficult than it was for the second-century apologist. What this all means, I think, is that if we intend to reach the unchurched, we do not begin with "I am a Christian you are not a Christian," nor do we begin "It is Christianity I am proclaiming and you are living in some thing else." No, one begins by saying, "This is important to us" and proceeds to deal with the value that is indeed important to the outsider as well as carrying great Christian meaning.

The growth of Christianity in the second century was caused not by the technical merit of apologetic proclamation, but rather by the unique power of Christianity to provide a redemptive answer to the longing of the age. The burst of apology was empowered by the same force, and the apologists considered themselves as being engaged in person-to-per son testimony rather than in a professionalized missionary undertaking. Thus the apologist did not spend his time in the professional pursuit of making this person a Christian. What he did was describe his own personal encounter with Christianity for the aid and comfort of the recipient.

Is one of our problems that of spending our time and effort in the professional pursuit of making people Christians? Could it be that we overlook the needs and thinking of the individual in our commendable concern for his soul? Does pride in purity of doctrine often drive us to fight the battle where it is no longer being fought, answering questions that are no longer being asked, tilting at the windmills of yesterday?

Too often we fail to understand the modern premises of relativism. We fail to understand that for the modern we are being dismissed as meaningless, not being rejected as mistaken. For example, we point to the resurrection of Jesus as evidence for the truth of Christianity, but we fail t& see that the existentialist is not concerned whether the resurrection was history or not, but whether, if it occurred, it was not just one more freak event in an irrational uni verse.

Let me turn a moment now to indicate what I am not saying. I'm not saying that, because the world is steeped in psychological language and symbolism, Christianity should be identified with some modern form of psychological truth. I am saying that those who find themselves grounded in this symbolism and this understanding may possibly only be reached by a Christian message that fully understands the psychical inventory of our Western civilization.

Dismissed Not Rejected

It is not enough to look at modern presuppositions with their unhappy conclusions and then look at Christian ones and say, "We believe," because they're different and better. Christian presuppositions must not simply be different or even somewhat better. They must relate to the reality of what is in a way that can be seen to be true.

As individual Christians attempting to communicate the gospel, we are going to have to live in a way that indicates that we are consumed by the transcendent truth of who God is. We must demonstrate a personal relation ship to God who is Himself the truth. While this truth may be spelled out at times in human moral terms, such truth is only true because it is spoken by the God who is Himself the truth.

The Christian cannot accept the Eastern view of man with its low value on human identity and individuality. He cannot accept determinism, with its undermining of the basis for significance, sapping initiative, responsibility, and guilt. He cannot allow the humanist to pass unchallenged, for his view fails to account for the aberrations in man. Man, by nature of his fallen nature, needs checks and balances. When man is guilty he needs to be confronted with his guilt. When he is weak he needs help. When he is in sorrow he needs comfort. The list is endless, but in every encounter the Christian must not only be heard to say that man is made in the image of God, he must be seen to practice this truth.

A Christian community must affirm that human identity is valuable. It must affirm that human aspirations are valid; that a substantial fulfillment of them is possible. It must affirm that man's dilemmas are real, that a substantial resolution is possible. In every area, humanness in living must be demonstrated.

To reach modern man we must also demonstrate Christian compassion. Compassion is made up of true understanding. Jesus understood men. He had compassion on them because He understood them. We cannot understand men as Jesus did; our knowledge is limited by finiteness and impaired by sin and a selfish perspective. But we do know something of who man is and what compassion means. A Christian must know the whys and where fores so that he will not react emotionally or defensively, but with maturity. Such spiritual under standing is the first element of compassion.

But the second element of Christian compassion is outrage. If we see what is wrong as God sees it, we will feel about it as God feels. We will be moved. Genuine outrage is not just a permissible reaction to the hard-pressed Christian. God Himself feels it; and so should the Christian, who also feels the presence of pain, cruelty, violence, and injustice. For the Christian to live with moral neutrality is to betray his faith. Sadly, outrage has be come the monopoly of existential ism and the new left. It belongs to the church.

The third element of Christian compassion is identification. Identification is the determinate of the success of Christian missions everywhere. When we see people as whole men and not just as souls, we can then identify with them. Christians who are unwilling to identify themselves with those they seek to help, run the risk of suspicion and misinterpretation. Mahatma Gandhi once gently rebuked certain missionaries in Calcutta with these words, "I miss receptiveness, humility, willingness on your part to identify your self with the masses of India."

These three elements, of course, basically deal with the reality of communication. And this is the arena in which we have to join the contest. Can we accept this challenge or must we continue to speak in "unknown tongues" to at least three fourths of the people about us?


Condensed from a paper presented at the 1974 Conference on Evangelism, Andrews University.

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-dean, Kettering College of Medical Arts, Kettering, Ohio at the time this article was written

October 1974

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