Is public evangelism in the Adventist Church dead? One would not have gotten that impression at the North American Division evangelism council that met recently at Daytona Beach, Florida.
Some 600 evangelists, administrators, pastors, and departmental directors and their spouses convened to discuss public evangelism, the first such far-reaching session in a decade. They studied, prayed, sang, and listened to the cream of Adventist evangelists.
Russell Burrill, a former Upper Columbia pastor, noted, "We would have few accessions to the church if it weren't for the evangelist." Burrill now heads the North American Division Evangelism Institute, based in La Grange, Illinois, which provides additional training in public evangelism for seminary graduates.
Evangelist Ron Halvorsen told the audience that no meeting is a failure in the sight of God. He recalled a large campaign held in New York City's prestigious Carnegie Hall some years ago.
"It was expensive and the baptisms were few," he said. But to those who would criticize such meetings, he pointed out that among the few baptisms were James Londis and Halvorsen himself. Both of the new members went on to become pastor-evangelists, and between them they have brought 5,000 converts into the church.
"Why do we watch the dead, those who have left the church after meetings?" he said. "Why not rejoice over those who were saved?"
This was a time of the best of Adventist preaching, with a morning prayer and praise session getting under way in the early dawn (7:15 a.m.) and with meetings continuing through the evening.
Specialized seminars were held for wives, administrators, and the evangelists, while some 30 exhibitors displayed wares as well as helpful information. The planning for the council had its beginnings at the 1985 General Conference session in New Orleans. At that time Charles Bradford, North American Division president, met with evangelists in attendance to plan the meeting.
Good humor sparked many of the presentations. Frank Sherrill, president of the Arizona Conference, told how he was called out of a church service by police who needed his help.
"We picked up a man walking naked on the turnpike, and he refuses to put his clothes on until he talks to an Adventist preacher," they told him.
Sherrill related how he visited with the man, who did don his clothes. He was sent to the state hospital for observation and treatment. Later he was released and was baptized along with his mother, sister, and her husband. "Because of the shame of my nakedness," he told Sherrill, "they all joined the church."
Canadian evangelist Henry Feyerabend said that as a youngster he prayed for a handsome face like George Vandeman's and a voice like that of H.M.S. Richards, Sr.
"Somehow the order got mixed up," he said. "A friend told me that he had a burden for me to be on the radio." "But I don't have a voice for radio," Feyerabend replied. "You do have a face for radio," the friend responded.
In a challenging presentation, those in attendance heard from Carl George, a church-growth consultant from Fuller Theological Seminary, who has made a study of Adventists. He called Adventists the "silent kingdom," not generally understood by other denominations, and chided those present for failure to take full advantage of the blessings God has given.
"You have the same dangers of being institutionalized as other churches that have lost their first flush of enthusiasm," he said. "Your reward system causes people to look toward a higher level than the local church, and you are siphoning off key staff to local and union conferences."
He noted that the church has been inconsistent in handling Ellen G. White, saying, "You have a prophetess, but you put her writings in the same status as Scripture."
Referring to the continuing controversies about Mrs. White, he added, "You need to stop arguing and look for Jesus' coming."
Dr. George commended the denomination for five main points of belief, including the Sabbath, biblical diet, tithing, Christian education, and the doctrine of grace.
Pointing to the Adventist diet, he said, "If you have the moxie and guts to eat the right way, why apologize for it?"'
One of the more provocative presen tations—"Slogans and Myths That Are Killing Public Evangelism and What We Can Do About It"—was given by Lenard Jaecks, president of the Washington Conference. Among the myths he referred to is the one called "It Is Hard Here."
"Have you ever held meetings in a place where the people said, 'It is easy here'?" Jaecks asked. "We don't let the hardness of the territory influence the program. It's hard anywhere. The devil will make sure of that."
North Pacific Union president Bruce Johnston, who chaired one of the sessions, told the audience that he gained three impressions from attending the meetings.
"I am impressed with how early evangelists like to get going in the morning [he was referring to the early meeting time]. I'm glad to see the number of young evangelists coming on the scene, and I'm impressed with the number of wives in attendance."
Though now in administrative work, Johnston told the audience that he held his first public meeting 40 years ago and that he has held an average of two crusades each year since then.
Russell Burrill concluded his presentation, "The Process of Public Evangelism," with a five-part challenge.
"We need to increase the number of people brought to meetings by members. Advertising isn't the main means of attracting visitors," he said. "We must develop plans by which members make friends of those attending the meetings."
Burrill said that the church needs to be constantly evangelizing in the community and should not depend on the evangelist to do all of the work.
"We must emphasize to members that evangelism is a way of life and not a special program," he added and, turning to the administrators present, concluded, "You must be willing to fund evangelism as a process and not a special crusade."
There were constant references to the blessings of public evangelism. Jack Bohannon, now secretary in the Chesapeake Conference, told of two campaigns that could be regarded as failures. As a 13-year-old boy in Titusville, Florida, he watched a tent being pitched by William Hatch and attended the meetings.
"I had never heard of Adventists before, and I was the first candidate baptized," he recalled.
In the same year another evangelist holding meetings in Plainview, Texas, had only one nonmember in attendance.
"He brought his three kids to the meeting, and they were all baptized, including his daughter Donna, who later became my wife," Bohannon said. "I don't call these failed campaigns."
Kenneth Cox, from the Southeastern California Conference, drew lessons from the story of Jesus' calling Simon Peter to be a fisher of men.
Speaking on the practicality of public evangelism, he said, "You'd better be learning what fish do. There is no greater science than that of soul winning. Study men and women."
Charles D. Brooks, general field secretary of the General Conference and speaker for the Breath of Life television series, called evangelism a gift of God that has to be exercised.
"Peter wasn't ready for the sermon on the day of Pentecost until he had the Pentecostal experience," he noted.
With the topic "The Prerogative of Public Evangelism," Brooks affirmed his belief in the message of the church.
"Every time I go to preach this truth, I feel grateful." Then he asked, "Could the foundations suddenly turn rotten? I answer to myself, No! A thousand times no! In the vernacular of what I read in a sports magazine, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"
Is public evangelism dead?
Judging by the reactions of those present, and by plans revealed for the future in local conferences, public evangelism in the Adventist Church is alive.