There are more than 15 million people in the United States who would attend a religious meeting if someone would only invite them!"
The speaker continued his presentation, but I could not follow. I was stunned! More than 15 million people willing to attend a religious service? I remembered seeing hundreds of empty chairs in recent evangelistic meetings. During one crusade I removed scores of chairs and spaced the remainder farther apart to "fill" the tent. Empty seats! And 15 million people waiting for an invitation!
Who are these people? What are their interests and needs? What is the best way to invite them? What do we have to offer that would help them? What time of the week would be best for them to attend a religious meeting? My mind raced with ideas to meet this challenge.
Dr. George Barna, president of Barna Research Group in southern California, found that one out of five adults in his sampling expressed a desire to attend a religious service, if invited. What a challenge! Is it not time that we make some major changes in our approach to this group?
The awaiting group
What do we know about them?
1. This group represents a major block of unchurched people in our communities, but with a difference. They are not attending any religious services now, but would like to if invited. They acknowledge an interest in spiritual things.
2. They are part of the general American culture, and they are not willing to commit beforehand to attend evangelism meetings three to five nights a week for four to six weeks. But they are ready to invest some time in spiritual meetings.
3. The group has little or no basic knowledge of the Bible. A secular society in which families no longer conduct family worship and rarely attend religious services is ignorant of the Bible and its teachings. We need to start with the gentle milk of the Word that speaks to felt needs of our modern neopagan populace.
4. It is safe to assume that these 15 million Americans spend considerable time with sports and television. Our religious services must not compete with these pet diversions. If they do, we will still have hundreds of empty seats in our meetings.
5. Generally, the group is not interested in spending a lot of time in our meetings. Therefore, our meeting format should be of shorter segments and carry more human interest content. The atmosphere of the service must be warm, open, friendly, and noncontroversial. Remember, Jesus uttered His rebukes with tears in His voice and with a heart breaking in sorrow for the salvation of souls.
6. Members of the group are troubled with one or more of the following deeply felt needs: (a) guilt; (b) stress; (c) concern about the future; (d) worry about death; (e) health concerns; (f) coping with single parenthood; (g) issues related to marriage and divorce; (h) concern for the moral issues facing the community; (i) search for personal security.
Approaching the group
How do we approach these 15 million people who have an interest in religion and who are waiting for an invitation? Just inviting them to our normal religious services is not enough. Special approaches for particular situations are the answer. Here are some points that could help in winning these potential listeners to the gospel.
1. Begin where they are. In most communities the Adventist church or perhaps a public hall would be the ideal place for such a meeting. What about an ideal time? The average person has a mind-set that Sunday morning is the time for religion. Why not capitalize on that? Ellen White used the term "disinterested" when speaking of offering services to the community. The thrust of Sunday evangelism must not appear evangelistic. We must meet people's needs even if they never express an interest in the Lord or in church membership.
A highly personalized program developed specifically to address the felt needs of the people in the local community will create genuine interest in the meetings. People today are willing to pay for seminars that meet their needs. We must develop relevant, helpful seminars and have them presented by qualified persons.
Initially, there may be little or no interest in heavy doctrinal subjects or in the study of Daniel and Revelation. Present these topics after the people have been personally helped and have gained confidence in you and in the Adventist message.
2. Be faithful to the whole message. Need-based proclamation does not mean diluting the message. The evangelist needs to transmit the whole message to meet the entire needs of an individual. Faithfulness to the cross is at the core of meeting human need and opening the doors of eternal life. The great testing truths of the last days the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the judgment, righteousness by faith, warnings against apostasy, and the call to follow Jesus must not be minimized.
3. Communicate clearly. Our presentations should be in "receptor terms." Your unchurched listeners will not understand much of Christian and Adventist terminology so commonly used in sermons and Bible studies. For these people, the gospel must be presented in their language, without, of course, changing its content or dynamic.
The same principle applies to singing, as well. Because the Christian idioms familiar to us are not understood by the non-Christian, it is wise to select songs with language familiar to the target group. The music should be joyous and easy for the new person to learn.
4. Cultivate personal relationships. True religion is fellowship. Genuine friendship Within the context of sharing God's truth builds good relationships, and the Holy Spirit has a way of using these ties to bring about commitment to Jesus. Conversions will follow.
A Southern Baptist pastor in California tells of planting two churches within 20 months and tripling the size of his membership. Here are the steps he took:
a. Without his church members believing hi evangelism and supporting it fully, he could hardly begin. So he spent nearly six months winning the backing of his congregation. When the plan became the project of the congregation, he was ready to begin.
b. After surveying the community to determine the felt needs, he developed 10 different seminars, each under a qualified leader.
c. For a special target group in the community, the church selected listeners to a local hard rock radio station.
d. They rented a theater in the center of the city for use on Sunday mornings.
e. They prepared a special radio advertising spot using the music, the culture, and the language of the target audience. To their joy, 200 persons turned up for the opening meeting.
f. Guests could join any of the 10 seminar groups. There was no regular Sunday school program. One of the seminars presented the current Southern Baptist Sunday school lesson.
g. Following the seminars, the group assembled in the main theater for the worship service. Lively music and an abbreviated sermonette in "receptor terms" followed.
What were the results of this evangelistic approach? Fifty percent of the original audience of 200 became regular attendees and organized themselves into a growing church.
Soon the parent church followed the same approach to evangelize the Vietnamese community, with results equally gratifying. The pastor now takes the same Southern Baptist message and presents it in a different style to each of his three congregations.
Obstacles to overcome
For Adventist pastors to serve their communities in this manner, they need to overcome at least three hurdles. First, they may find their congregations unwilling to commit to Sunday mornings on a regular basis. However, the advantage of placing resources in one people-oriented witnessing activity may persuade enough members to commit their time and talents. Shared planning and decision making usually win ample support.
Second, it may be difficult to find qualified seminar leaders. This should not become an excuse to go for canned video seminars. No gadget can take the place of a good leader. Either train leaders from within your church or look for help from neighboring churches.
Third, it may be difficult to find sufficient materials to present seminars with a wide variety of interests. Many seemingly "good" materials may contain concepts foreign to the Word of God. With care and creativity, the evangelistic committee of the local church can come up with suitable materials for many needs fulfilling seminars.
Yes, 15 million people are out there waiting for an invitation to attend a religious service, A service that will meet their needs. A service to which someone will say, "Come and see."