Is public evangelism obsolete?

It is often said that new converts go out the back door of the church as quickly as they enter the front door. Public evangelism then becomes the scapegoat for this mass exodus, and the church-growth movement is offered as a ready-made cure for this serious problem. Here the author tackles the difficult question, Has the church-growth movement rendered public evangelism obsolete?

John W. Fowler is president of the Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Public evangelism has in the past been a powerful and effective outreach activity responsible for bringing hundreds of thousands to a decision for Christ and into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Possibly because of its effectiveness, public evangelism seems to have been the primary outreach activity sponsored by Adventists.

Today new winds are blowing within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This visible and welcome shift of emphasis focuses on a perennial program of evangelism in the personal lives of the members and in the corporate life and worship of the church. This movement, called the "Church Growth Movement,"1 is characterized by the work of Donald McGavran, Peter Wagner, Win Am, and others. This new concept emphasizes church growth through "body-life." It compares the church to the human organism and emphasizes the growth of the church through the same types of processes responsible for the growth of the human body. Rather than focusing upon decisions for Christ, it accents making disciples.

Its modus operandi seems to be a variety of small homogenous groups within the church—young singles, older adults, recently married, youth, children, musical, ethnic, linguistic, et cetera. 2 The groups provide a support system that seeks to meet the sociological and spiritual needs of their members, which consist of both Christians and non-Christians. The group then becomes a pathway into the church for the group's non-Adventist members.

As important as this development is, we must not allow any new emphasis to eclipse the place and purpose of public evangelism. Public evangelism is still a powerful and effective agency of church growth and continues to be used effectively by Christian groups throughout the world. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a class A exhibit proving that public evangelism is still a very viable agency of church growth not made obsolete by the church growth movement of the 1980s.

The fact that public evangelism, and specifically itinerant public evangelism, is alive and well was uniquely demonstrated by the International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists ("Amsterdam '83") conducted in the Netherlands during July of 1983. 3 Almost four thou sand itinerant evangelists from 133 countries came to Amsterdam to learn to do what Billy Graham does best. The conference plan was to limit the participants to 3,500. However, because of the great interest and unexpected applications, the number of itinerant evangelists requesting attendance grew to almost four thousand. According to a report in Christianity Today, "Amersterdam '83 was an event that caught fire from the ground up. The crush of Third World participants radiated a vigor and freshness for their calling that ignited their more sophisticated brethren from the West, as well as the conference staff. The fire was sparked from a thousand tiny tails of poignance and spiritual fortitude." 4

The participants came from almost every denomination in the world. "Even the Soviet Union permitted a seven-member delegation of observers to go, and it included two Orthodox metropolitans [equivalent to Roman Catholic cardinals]." 5 Amsterdam '83 made it clear that there is a growing interest in and support for public evangelism throughout the Christian churches of the world.

One church that has always used public evangelism most effectively is the Seventh-day Adventist Church. While some feel this approach to evangelism is on the wane in North America, and possibly in Western Europe, the rest of the Adventist world clearly makes large use of public evangelistic meetings.

This emphasis on public evangelistic meetings is accented by active support in public evangelism by the General Conference president, Neal C. Wilson, who conducted a meeting in Manila prior to the 1982 Annual Council, where more than a thousand were baptized. He just completed another crusade this year in Panama City with more than six hundred baptisms. Elder Charles Bradford, president of the North American Division, is an experienced hand on the public evangelistic trail. He recently completed a meeting in Toronto with more than 147 baptisms. A number of outstanding evangelists in North America are still baptizing three hundred to five hundred persons per year.

At its best, public evangelism provides Christianity with a unique forum in which the Christian message functions most effectively. Religion is most effective when it brings meaning and purpose to the life of an individual or to the lives in a group. It does this by helping them answer the ultimate questions of life. Paul Tillich said that religion has to do with the ultimate questions we have. Dean Kelley identified some of those ultimate questions and states that religion functions effectively in the life of an individual by answering them. Those questions have to do with: (1) "the purpose of his existence, (2) the nature of reality, (3) the fate of the world, (4) the character of the beings or forces that determine his destiny, and (5) how he can relate to them." 6 Public evangelism is uniquely designed to address those ultimate questions, thus bringing meaning and purpose to those who attend.

The public meeting does this first by preaching to the times. The masses question the meaning of the thickening world crisis and are depressed by the incessant bombardment of bad news. The news media does not know how to sell good news; only the preacher can do that. However, God uses the bad news to prepare the way for the public evangelist. The evangelist not only speaks to the crises of our day but presents to a nuclear generation solutions that transcend the wisdom of science, sociology, government, and politics. While sociologists, scientists, environmentalists, and a host of other concerned groups join with the public evangelist in an unprecedented emphasis on the time of the end, only the evangelist sees clearly beyond the imminent threat of nuclear war, environmental chaos, and the destruction of the species. He is divinely endowed to unravel the crises of our age, bringing hope and assurance to the masses. The evangelistic messages when presented clearly and forcefully enable the hearers to see beyond destruction and death to a bright new world without the blight of war or the senseless suffering and loss of death. As the crisis thickens, without doubt the' need for greater public outreach will continually increase.

During public meetings the ultimate questions of one's personal life—Who am I? Where did I come from? What of my future? are addressed. The crucified, risen, and soon-coming Christ provides the answer to all those questions. When Christ is uplifted and His saving work explained with invitations to come to Him five nights a week for four to twelve weeks, marvelous are the results. E. Stanley Jones characterized this result. "Whenever, "he said, "in the history of the Christian church there has been a new emphasis upon Jesus Christ, there has always been an outbreak of vitality and virility in the churches." 7 Lifting up Christ is the preeminent work of the evangelist. Christ is the Evangel, and it is the function of the evangelist to "lift Him up, the risen Saviour, Let the dying look and live; To all weary, thirsting sinners, living waters will He give." When Christ is lifted up, He does draw men and women to Him. Their questions are answered. Their hearts are changed. They find meaning and purpose in God's saving work and enter joyfully into the spiritual kingdom of God.

Public meetings answer the ultimate questions of life by focusing on the great doctrinal truths of the church, often neglected in the regular worship services of our churches. In a public evangelistic series the great Biblical doctrines are developed and linked together in such a way that the deepest questions of life are answered. If the great doctrines of Scripture—the Sabbath and Creation, the origin of evil and the Fall of man, the cross and the assurance of salvation, the state of the dead and the resurrection, the sanctuary doctrine and the investigative judgment, the second coming of Christ and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth—are all presented in such a way that the hearers understand God's work to redeem man and restore His dominion on this planet, the evangelist will have a hearing, and success will be guaranteed.

Also often neglected in the regular worship services, Biblical eschatology, a study of final events, functions very effectively to explain the crisis of history, thus bringing meaning and purpose. Indeed, it does take a series of sermons to help people really grasp the great prophetic and eschatological truths of God's Word. Beginning with a simple view of history in Daniel 2, the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation are unfolded, giving a clear and concise picture of the history of the world from the time of Daniel all the way down to the second coming of Christ and the establishment of new heavens and a new earth. Prophecy answers some of the basic questions identified by Dean Kelley: the origin of evil and the nature of the cosmic forces that affect our destiny. Prophetic presentations develop a sacred cosmos in which both the powers of good and evil can be identified clearly, helping us to see more fully not only God's love for us and the work of Christ in saving us but a very clear chronology of events that give meaning and purpose to history. Probably the greatest question of every individual is how to find inner peace and true rest. Our problem is a spiritual one, and acknowledgment of sin, genuine repentance, and a change of heart are the only way to become healthy spiritual beings.

Public meetings provide a perfect opportunity to woo an audience night after night, leading them closer to Christ until they fall at the foot of the cross and surrender to His love and converting power. Effective public meetings focus every night on conversion with marvelous results. E. G. White eloquently states: "When the Spirit of God takes possession of the heart, it transforms the life. Sinful thoughts are put away, evil deeds are renounced; love, humility, and peace take the place of anger, envy, and strife. Joy takes the place of sadness, and the countenance reflects the light of heaven." 8 Those who experience true conversion will find lasting peace and genuine rest.

Some do not realize that the preacher himself often has doubts and must constantly renew his understanding of the ultimate questions of life. Public meetings can be the source of renewal and revival for the evangelist. No man can stand in the public night after night for four to twelve weeks, uplifting the Christ of Scripture, without himself being changed by that Word he preaches. I know of a number of administrators who conduct public meetings at least once a year just to clean out their clogged spiritual wells, enabling heaven's healing waters to flow freely within them again. There is no greater joy than the joy of preaching God's Word and seeing souls saved. If a man will give himself to this work, whatever doubts and perplexities he may have will quickly vanish. He will find faith, meaning, and fulfillment again in his ministry.

Public evangelism is alive and well. We must listen to criticism and learn from our critics, but not let irresponsible criticism detain us. The idea that greater apostasies take place from public evangelistic converts has never been clearly established in Adventism. In fact, a recent study in the Upper Columbia Conference done by Des Cummings, Jr., and Roger Dudley indicates that almost one out of every two apostasies in the Adventist Church is a person raised within the Adventist Church itself. 9 It appears, in fact, that the new converts to the church are the ones responsible for bringing not only new spiritual life but also new growth within our churches. Hardly a church exists in North America today that could not experience a 10 percent growth through one well-planned and adequately funded public evangelistic meeting. If the church has a healthy and balanced program of pastoral evangelism, public evangelism can play a powerful role in bringing both spiritual and numerical growth. The prosperity of the church will become obvious, and Christ's work will surely be advanced

1 Peter Wagner, "Church Growth," Christianity
Today, Dec. 7, 1973, p. 11.

 

2 Administry, Autumn, 1983, p. 15.

 

3 Christianity Today, Sept. 2, 1983, p. 42.

 

4 Ibid., p. 44.

 

5 Ibid., p. 43.

 

6 Dean Kelley, Why Conservative Churches Are
Growing (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 38.

 

7 Decision, March, 1972, p. 13.

 

8 E. G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 173.

 

9 Des Cummings, Jr., and Roger Dudley,
Adventures in Church Growth (Hagerstown, Md.:
Review and Herald, 1983), p. 146.

 


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John W. Fowler is president of the Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

August 1984

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