Westerners are leaving Christianity at the rate of 7,600 a day. The great cities of the Western world are fast becoming barricaded bastions of religious indifference and secured strongholds of materialistic secularism. Thus it is little wonder that simple, direct evangelistic methods that worked thirty years ago are not working effectively today. Perhaps our failure to keep pace with changing thought patterns is a basic reason why Adventist Church growth in the West has slowed almost to zero.
Paul Hogan is an Australian entertainer whose television program, Hoges, attracts an audience two hundred times greater than major religious programs such as, Hour of Power and The Rex Humbard Show. The ratings indicate that Hogan is much more popular than gospel presenters, who find it impossible to get on prime time. Hogan seems to score his most stunning successes when he pokes fun at organized religion, which he portrays as being quite unnecessary and irrelevant to the secular materialist. Today, in the minds of millions, the Bible is an antiquated collection of pious myths whose ludicrous account of origins has been debunked by the scientific method. Yet Adventists too often continue to fight the good fight of faith in rusty armor that was designed for the era of faith, when in fact we are living in a time of militant skepticism. Atheism worldwide is on the march. In 1900 atheists numbered 0.2 percent of the world population; now they number 20.8 percent.
Our problem of communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ to secular society is compounded by our retreat to our own denominational "cities of refuge." In Adventist institutions a particular brand of language is used that further isolates us from the world. We talk about "the message," "righteousness by faith," "the Spirit of Prophecy," "the remnant church," "the servant of the Lord," "the third angel's message," et cetera. We who live in this rarefied atmosphere of denominational insulation may find it increasingly difficult to talk to the man on the street in a way that is understandable, acceptable, and persuasive. Therefore, it is imperative that we discover the means of reaching people where they are or, to put it another way, to scratch where they are itching. The following represents an attempt to communicate the Word of God to a secure, sophisticated, and secularized society— people for whom Jesus died.
Getting a crowd
There is little point in preaching a soul-stirring gospel sermon to a theater of empty seats. Our first task as Christian communicators is simple, fundamental, and formidable—to get a crowd. Big crowds will not come to hear the gospel preached in most Western cities that today represent our biggest mission field. In Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, certainly; but not in Sydney, Australia. I have had 110,000 attend my 21 successive night series in Port Moresby, but I know from experience that to have a gospel sermon as the opening address in Sydney or Melbourne is as successful as the launching of a lead balloon. One famous American evangelist had an opening audience of thirty thousand in Sydney, but only with the help of hundreds of buses carrying the converted from churches up to four hundred miles away. Unfortunately, very few of the unchurched attended. This lack of response from the secular man is the same in most Adventist campaigns that follow the direct gospel approach.
Many Adventist administrators and laymen are reluctant to accept the actual reality of this situation. This state of affairs is a bitter pill to us who somehow feel that people should be interested in what we are interested in. Furthermore, opening an evangelistic campaign on a gospel note seems the only right and spiritual thing to do. After all, did not Jesus say, "I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me" (John 12:32)? The unpalatable fact of the matter is that the secular materialist is not very interested in Jesus or His cross. A wise fisherman will use bait that is attractive to the fish rather than to the fisherman. After the man of the world has been won to an interest in the Word, then the time comes when Jesus can be uplifted before him. "There is a time for everything" (Eccl. 3:1, N.I.V.).* If our aim is genuinely to attract the growing multitude of secular materialists to the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must devise different methods.
Tutankhamen—soul winner extraordinary
A method that works well is the archeological-prophetic approach. People are actually interested in antiquity, ancient places, and the wonders of the past. Witness the crowds that formed long queues to see Tut's treasures during the recent Egyptian display in America. People are also interested in the occult, that strange world of the supernatural, which includes, of course, prophetic utterances. Combine archeology and prophecy, and you have a crowd raiser in a modern, fully Western city. This method attracted more than nine thousand people to the opening program in Melbourne, while seventeen thousand attended a similar program in Sydney. In addition, some ten thousand bookings were turned away from the opening Sydney program because of capacity houses and the unavailability of extra sessions. Had our faith been larger, we would have had at least twenty-five thou sand attend this opening program!
The advantages of this evangelistic method are as follows: 1. The material presented establishes the credibility and authenticity of the Scriptures. 2. The material presented is not "churchy," and appeals to the secular man. 3. This method is in harmony with the Biblical principle that truth is progressive (Prov. 4:18). It starts with basics—"The Bible is true," "There is a God who is interested in you," et cetera—and lays a solid foundation for the saving truths of Scripture. 4. It leads easily into the great prophetic outlines of the Word. 5. It attracts great numbers of unchurched people, as well as regular churchgoers. 6. It attracts a more professional audience. In contrast, I have observed that when opening topics feature the spirit world or even health, society's fringe dwellers and cultists tend to be attracted. 7. It ensures a good crowd. That may not be everything, but it certainly is a good start.
This crowd-getting, faith-building initial approach is followed by successive programs on archeology and prophecy that gradually become more heavily Bible-oriented. These programs include the following: 1. "My Visit to Petra." The rose-red city of human sacrifice. See and hear: "I Saw Divine Predictions Fulfilled." 2. "Wonder Cities of the Past," "Gods of Gold and Graves of Ashes" (Daniel 2). 3. "Ebla—City of the Gods." Just unearthed, one of the most sensational archeological discoveries of the twentieth century. Amazing evidence of the dependability of the Bible. 4. "The Jew, the Arab, and Jerusalem." The curse of the rabbis and the forbidden prophecy (Daniel 9). 5. "The Dead Sea Scrolls." Mr. Carter has just returned from Qumran, having explored the caves where the famous Dead Sea scrolls were found.
These meetings in turn are followed by more "religious" meetings, such as: 6. "Visitors From Other Worlds." The amazing wonders of our inhabited universe (the Second Coming). 7. "Wonderful World of Tomorrow—What and Where is Heaven?" 8. "Blood on the Moon." Special feature: "My Visit to the Lost Dead Sea Cities." 9. "When the Red Horse of Bible Prophecy Runs Wild." 10. "Who Will Suppress the Bible?" Following lectures deal with the prophecies of Daniel 7 and 8, the Antichrist, the change of the Sabbath, justification by faith, et cetera.
Church sermon or...?
The Sydney Opera House presentations are not churchy. We do not have hymns, choirs, or gospel singers, at least not during an extended period of settling in. We would not in our most desperate moments contemplate conducting our program in a church. To do so in some areas may work well, but not in large secular cities. Religious cliches are definitely out. The speaker is never called "pastor." We are out to win the unbeliever to Christ, so we will not put ecclesiastical hurdles in his way.
The speaker is introduced by a modern-style orchestra, the music being in keeping with church standards, and presents a relaxed-style address called a report. During the early meetings pictures flash on a giant screen.
During the third presentation New International Version Bibles are passed out by the usherettes to each person in the hall. It is our definite conviction that the Holy Spirit works through His Word (2 Tim. 4:2). The audience is invited to notice an amazing story recorded in "an ancient Hebrew manuscript." The people accept the Bibles without reservation, and from henceforth they are a regular feature of the meetings. The programs are not religious. We believe that they are intensely Christian and appeal to believers as well as nonbelievers.
Television commercials are the back bone of the advertising campaign. They consist of thirty-second commercials that were filmed on location in the Middle East by Producer Warren Judd, of the Adventist Media Center, and feature the speaker inviting the people to have their questions answered at the program. The booth announcer urges the people to book their seats by "phoning Sydney 745-4000." Twenty-five thousand bookings were received in the first three days of the advertising campaign, which began seven days before the opening program. So heavy was the flood of incoming calls following two tightly scheduled commercials that the exchange became overloaded and blew its fuses.
Other advertising consisted of distributing 700,000 colored handbills designed by Alan Holman, of the Adventist Media Center. Newspaper ads were inserted by advertising specialist Pastor Bert Metcalfe in the large daily newspapers.
After four months of weekend and midweek meetings, the Opera House is still crowded to the doors. Opera House officials, initially skeptical concerning the whole venture, state that they have never seen such large crowds consistently attend a program.
For this remarkable response from secular, sinful, materialistic, but beautiful Sydney, the evangelistic team of laity and ministry unites in saying, "To God be the glory!"
Perhaps just such a program could work in your city.
* Texts credited to N.I.V. are from The Holy Bible: New International Version. Copyright © 1978 by the New York International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.