Seven thousand Adventist church members stood in the pouring rain beside Lake Ilopango on the out skirts of San Salvador, capital city of Salvador, Sabbath morning, May 12, to witness the climax of the most productive evangelistic effort in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church! Ignoring the water that fell on them from the sky, they fastened their attention on the water in the lake, where fifteen ministers stood, backs to the wind-whipped waves, ready to bury in baptism more than one thousand new converts. At the same time baptisms were taking place in three other cities of this small Central American country. Original plans had called for all the baptismal candidates to come to the lake, but when political upheavals took public transportation from the highways, other baptismal sites had to be found. In spite of these difficulties, 1,325 were baptized May 12. A substantial group of 501 had already been baptized March 24 in a "firstfruits baptism," and additional baptisms before the end of May brought the crusade total to more than two thou sand!
A simple concept, developed by Elder Carlos Aeschlimann, Ministerial director of the Inter-American Division, made this crusade distinctive and exception ally successful. The idea was to take the limited funds available for a single, citywide crusade and spread the money over many lay and pastoral crusades to be held in conjunction with one another all across the country. Publicity expenses could thus be centralized to cause a greater impact. Here's how it worked.
In mid-1978 the Evangelism Explosion Plan of the Central American Union provided almost 2 million Voice of Prophecy-type lessons titled When God Speaks to the church members of El Salvador. These members were challenged to enroll their neighbors and then serve as "missionary mailmen" to deliver by hand these lessons on a weekly basis. More than 2,400 members responded ! Nearly half of these lived and worked in the capital city of San Salvador. As the "missionary mailman" pro gram continued, more than 150 lay preachers came together for training sessions. They received evangelistic sermons to adapt and use.
The culmination of the preparation phase came March 1, 1979, when 12,000 church members and their guests came to the National Gymnasium for the graduation of 5,003 students who had completed the lessons, When God Speaks. Elder Milton Peverini, speaker for the Spanish Voice of Prophecy, was featured at this historic occasion, along with the King's Heralds. A few additional meetings were held in the large hall, and then those attending were invited to come to one of the 229 evangelistic crusades being held simultaneously across the country.
According to Elder Raul Rodriguez, president of the El Salvador Mission, the total average attendance during the latter weeks of the nationwide effort was 17,600! The impact of evangelism on such a scale in a country of only some 6 million inhabitants and measuring a mere 150 by 60 miles can hardly be imagined. Most nights, Elder Aeschlimann couldn't find a church elder to accompany him on the platform in his meetings ; they were all out preaching for their own crusades!
Human interest stories abound, of course, in such a crusade. One young man had planned to be baptized, but upon thinking it over decided he should ask the counsel of his parish priest. To his amazement, the priest advised, "Yes, go ahead and be baptized a Seventh-day Adventist. They have the truth. I will loan you my robe to wear!"
The secret of the evangelism explosion in Salvador is simply the secret of total participation. Every pastor was out preaching every night. The mission treasurer, along with another pastor, conducted a series of meetings that resulted in a new church of 350 members being organized in what was formerly an unentered territory. The mission cashier held his own crusade and twenty-six persons were baptized. Each of the departmental directors became an evangelist. Every one of the office secretaries served as a Bible worker, as did the church school teachers without exception; the smallest number any in this group prepared for baptism was six!
Evangelism and soul winning dominate the thoughts of every worker in Salvador. All activity is centered around this priority. There is no aversion to goals, because the mission has long ago passed its goals for the entire year of 1979! Pastors pay little attention to goals except to note the date they passed it. Two thousand crusades have been planned in the Central American Union for the first three months of 1980. The desire is to be able to report at the General Conference session in Dallas that the evangelistic goals for the entire year 1980 have already been met.
Because of its phenomenal growth rate, Inter-America is often accused of baptizing too quickly, thus losing many. However, since laymen prepare most of the candidates for baptism, and since laymen are not subject to administrative pressure or goals, the incentive for hasty baptisms is largely absent. The church members live close to those they study with and learn to love each one. Of course, because of this relationship, they follow these individuals closely after baptism as well. The usual period from first contact to baptism is four to nine months. The all-pervading fervor for soul winning that surrounds the new candidate actually protects him from backsliding. Often he becomes a "missionary mailman" himself, carrying the gospel lessons to others before his own baptism! Inter-America does have its problems, but they are certainly no more serious than those in other areas where the work is not growing as dramatically.
Church members of all ages and back grounds have become enthusiastic about soul winning. During one Sabbath service to which only "missionary mailmen" were invited, the moderator selected at random an elderly woman to come for ward. She came with her 8-year-old grandson. In response to questions, she indicated that she was studying with twenty-eight individuals, and that her grandson helped her deliver the lessons. Twelve of the twenty-eight had been baptized and the others were in a baptismal class.
Not only in El Salvador, but through out the Central American Union, evangelism has become foremost. Each of the seven countries in the union has an active, growing, soul-winning program. More than eighteen hundred lay crusades were conducted in the union during the first three months of 1979. Putting first things first in soul winning dominates the thinking of the small group of workers and the large army of lay members. Such an attitude will characterize the beginning of the outpouring of the latter rain. May it come soon, not only in Central America but around the world!