No Soft Option

The changing shape of ministry.

Walter B. Douglas, Ph.D., is assisant professor of church history at Andrews University Theological Seminary.

OUR SOCIETY has become so sophisticated that the role of the preacher is no longer viewed as authoritative in his community. Indeed, the erosion of traditional attitudes to ministers is a social change that has a particular effect on the church and its ministers. It is no longer possible for people, institutions, or beliefs to compel acceptance simply by authority supposedly inherent in them. It is becoming increasingly true that in our age there are people we cannot hope to reach with our message unless we are prepared to take the initiative; prepared, indeed, to move in a physical sense, as well as in a mental and spiritual one, onto the territory of these men and women we love to win.

More than half of our opportunities in this field could be realized through the literature ministry. Where the clear est and most powerful statements from the pulpit fail to reach particular souls, a few words uttered in conversation in the home of an individual, along with the placing of a book or piece of truth-filled literature in his hands, may help to remove difficulties that have been encumbering the way to the cross.

The canvassing work, properly conducted, serves to awaken and convict and may lead directly to commitment and conversion. This sort of work is extremely fascinating, because one can select and apply the gospel, with all its amazing range and fullness, to the immediate needs and problems of an individual at the particular moment in his life, and beginning there, can go on to show its relevancy to his whole life.

"God has ordained the canvassing work as a means of presenting before the people the light contained in our books, and canvassers should be impressed with the importance of bringing before the world as fast as possible the books necessary for their spiritual education and enlightenment. This is the very work the Lord would have His people do at this time. All who consecrate themselves to God to work as canvassers are assisting to give the last message of warning to the world. We cannot too highly estimate this work; for were it not for the efforts of the canvasser, many would never hear the warning." —Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 313.

The ministry and mission of the church is to minister to man as he is and where he is, with his strangely mingled hope and despair about the nuclear era, with his justified and unjustified criticisms of Christianity and Christians, and his dawning hunger for spiritual reality. To this kind of man the literature evangelist must bring the good news, which, as the statement quoted above puts it, is needed "for their spiritual education and enlightenment." If we do not care enough about this man, have we any right to approach him in the name of God, who laid Himself fully alongside us in Jesus Christ, His Son?

The form of service Jesus left us is that which says that God is to be found and served, loved, and honored, not only in some spiritual activity but among men in their need. This is Jesus' kind of com passion that made Him go out to seek the lonely, the individual, the rich and the poor, the religious and irreligious, too. It is a compassion born of love and there fore patient enough to explore the questions, doubts, criticisms, hopes, and yearnings of individuals in an effort to bring to them a triumphantly relevant gospel.

Greatest and Best Opportunity

Our church must face honestly the fact that of the various ways we have for presenting an individual with the gospel, the literature ministry offers us the greatest and best opportunity for reaching him in his situation. Here is found a major opportunity for the church to move out in an engagement with the world. The church has not always responded by looking for ways and means of maximizing the opportunities presented by this dimension of its life. Ellen White, recognizing the critical importance of this work, warns the church in her time, and by extension in our time, that our attitude toward the canvassing work can determine our sense of urgency in finishing the task.

In speaking to this point she says, "We have no time to lose. Important work is before us, and if we are slothful servants we shall certainly lose the heavenly reward. But few have broad and extensive views of what can be done in reaching the people by personal, interested efforts in a wise distribution of our publications."—Review and Herald, Dec. 19, 1878.

This is a very forceful and pertinent statement. Those of us who have made a careful study of the church's attitude toward the literature ministry are bound to agree with Ellen White's observation that "few have broad and extensive views" of the possibilities and potentialities of the canvassing work. The impetus for doing this work conies from Christ's pointed statement: "The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest" (Luke 10:2).

Not too many of us apply this text with any force to the canvassing work. I have chosen to do so because, if there is an area in the total life of the church that cries out for more laborers, it is the literature work. Moreover, only a blind pessimist will deny that the harvest is truly great. The fact is, the conditions facing our civilization are frightening and foreboding, and people are looking more and more to religion for answers and deliverance.

"The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest." A force lies hidden in these words that could give an astonishing impetus to the missionary outreach of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Do you believe as a Seventh-day Adventist that there is a great harvest waiting to be gathered in? Are you persuaded that there are hundreds and hundreds of ordinary folk in the towering city, village, or parish in which you live who are hungering and thirsting for the satisfaction that Christianity alone can give even if it is also true that many of them are unable to understand their own need and require some Christian like yourself to interpret it for them? Or, to make the matter more personal, do you think it is highly likely that if, after reading this article, you were to persuasively encourage some of your church members to go out to prepare themselves to accept God's call to the literature work, that the response might well be generous and overwhelming? These questions are as awkward to answer as they are to ask.

Perhaps the questions are not so difficult, but it is our faith that is too small. We have the assurance from Ellen White that precisely this might be expected in our time: "God will soon do great things for us, if we lie humble and believing at His feet. . . . More than one thousand will soon be converted in one day, most of whom will trace their first convictions to the reading of our publications." —Review and Herald, Nov. 10, 1885.

Since this is a moment of supreme spiritual opportunity when God is so unmistakably active that many fields are already white unto harvest, the first great need in the church is the need of vision and larger faith. We must have eyes to see that indeed the fields are white and ready for harvest, but that the literature work needs laborers now more than ever.

What did Jesus say? "Pray ye there fore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest." Do you see the picture again? On the one side a mighty harvest, on the other side a devastating paucity of workers, and between the two a vast gulf. How can the gulf be bridged? The bridge, Jesus tells us, is prayer. No one can really long for God to act without being willing to be the man through whom He acts. Thus any program for recruits must be initiated with prayer, followed by the offering of ourselves to God, who may use us to help others to become His servants. What we find in practice is that as we pray for the increase of workers, our own desire to be at God's disposal is greatly strengthened.

In a day of great peril and great promise the church is being called to a new vision of what God can do through the publishing work. We dare not take it upon ourselves to judge what can or cannot be made of our service by the Spirit of God. The final issue is in God's hands. The field, the harvest, the work, are His. Ours is the privilege of being invited to share the divine labor. It is His work, not ours; and it only becomes our work, by the "paradox of grace," as we acknowledge it to be first His. The Lord of the harvest, who works with us and through us, was at work before us and will be at work after us. We serve Him best when we serve in the quiet confidence that He will complete what He has begun.

It seems to me that there are what I sometimes describe as two major hesitations in our attitude toward literature ministry. The first is our hesitation about an adequate educational training for colporteurs. We can still hear mentioned the misconception that one does not need too much formal education to canvass.

This becomes evident when we consider that our church has a massive educational program that provides the opportunity for training in the various branches of its total life, except in the precise area of literature ministry. In deed, we have been engaged in the training of preachers, teachers, physicians, nurses, and paramedical personnel, businessmen, and the list could be extended on and on, yet in our educational enterprise we are just now beginning to give consideration to a more serious and planned educational training for the literature ministry. Is it conceivable that just as young people are recruited and encouraged to choose the preaching ministry as their lifework there are also those who should be encouraged to enter the publishing ministry, as well?

The work of literature evangelism in our day demands as never before the training of the colporteurs for the task in hand. They are the ones who have the contacts and the opportunities that the clergy never get; they are exposed first hand to the thinking and the problems of those with whom they share everyday life and work in the world.

One of the most vivid memories of my life as a theological student and a literature evangelist is that of the summer of 1969, when I sold more than $17,000 worth of literature in about eleven weeks. I recall this experience not be cause of the value in dollars, but precisely for the contacts and exposure I received. During that summer more than 75 per cent of the people who bought the books I was selling were highly educated. Their work ranged from the medical and legal professions to the teaching and theological fields, as well as political and business. Many of those with theological training were ministers of other denominations, and one of the politicians was the Speaker of the Canadian Parliament. Meeting with these people in their homes and at times in their offices was indeed a serious challenge, but I somehow had the confidence and assurance that I would be able to dialog with them on a level that they would appreciate. In this situation one's education is of vital importance, because much more than the knowledge of a prepared canvass is required.

These sophisticated people were attracted to my work and were prepared to take me seriously only when they dis covered that I was a graduate student at McGill University, Faculty of Divinity. To begin with, they were not interested in talking about the books I had, but on the contemporary issues in the various areas of their particular interest. While far from competent to talk on all subjects, yet I had a breadth of understanding and appreciation that impressed them. Education is not simply the amassing of facts or the storing up of knowledge, it is also the training of the mind to think critically and analytically; to ask appropriate questions, and to perceive ideas and articulate them in a way that is intelligible and communicable.

Basic Human Needs

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons that was reinforced in my mind during that summer was that the human heart is much the same everywhere, with the same basic needs and longings, and that the literature evangelist, perhaps more than any other gospel worker, must be as Paul said, "I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some."

Trained, educated minds must be convinced of the adequacy of the spiritual resources in the Christian message. Such an achievement cannot be accomplished in a perfunctory way. It requires careful preparation and an education that is both spiritual and rational,

A letter from a leading journalist in a large Canadian city speaks eloquently to this: "As a journalist, I have read with deep and appreciative interest the books you left in our home and have invited some of my colleagues to meet with me to discuss them. I remain convinced that such a work as you are doing seems urgently necessary for the church to fulfill its role in our society."

It should be clearly understood that when we speak of education and training for our colporteurs, we are not referring to colporteur institutes, or such short-term periods of intensive instructions. Our model is more that of what theology students are required to take as basic preparation for the ministry, but it should be so constructed that it clearly reflects the kind of preparation that fits one for the primary work of the literature ministry.

The second major hesitation we must face squarely is our hesitation to ac knowledge the literature ministry as of equal importance as our evangelistic pastoral programs.

It is very unlikely that a pastor or conference president will recommend that a new convert to the Adventist Church be given the responsibility of going out on his own to conduct an evangelistic campaign. It is even more unlikely that if a worker has had poor results as a pastor or teacher he would be encouraged to seek employment as an evangelist or youth leader. Yet this is precisely what happens in so many in stances. I know from experience that many new converts have been encouraged to take up the canvassing work without any preparation.

Many People Turned Off

We must reckon with the fact that many people today are turned off by aggressive, authoritarian, and insensitive forms of evangelism. But there are people I have found who are quite eager and open to a quiet discussion of the truths of Scripture in an intensely personal way. The approach to this kind of individual must be made with the respect due to human personality. Men and women are not to be hustled, far less bludgeoned, into the kingdom of God. But sensitiveness needs to be blended with a loving Christian boldness. Many of us who are now heirs of the kingdom might not have been if some wise, untiring literature evangelist had not cared enough and dared enough to speak to us or our parents about a personal faith in God and to leave some Christian literature in our homes.

The romance of the church pilgrimage is the romance of the recurring discovery of what the literature ministry can mean for its own life and the life of the world. For this reason, this and every generation of Adventists must learn afresh that the only gospel that grips the world is the gospel that has first gripped the church.


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Walter B. Douglas, Ph.D., is assisant professor of church history at Andrews University Theological Seminary.

December 1976

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