Six-fifteen, Sunday evening. People are starting to arrive already. But no one is orchestrating the parking lot. Where is my associate? And all those helpers to care for the ushering, the seating, the offering? Only one dear saint is in the foyer to handle the greeting!
It's opening night of the Revelation Seminar I've planned for at least six months. Now I can't think of praying and I can't pray for thinking. From the offering plates to the slide projector, a dozen things to do and no one around yet! Most of what makes an evangelistic seminar successful has already been done, or will happen during and after the meetings. But no one needs this kind of last-minute jitters.
Ironically, I fell in love with this method of evangelism five or six years ago because it was so "easy." Compared to pitching a tent, as I had been accustomed to doing, it was a piece of cake. No more divorcing my wife and kids for eight weeks while I married that huge, fragile, and insanely jealous hunk of canvas. No more courting and pampering a team of "show people," musicians, quiz captain, and the like for half the summer. And no more fasting and praying (usually in vain) for a big budget to pay for a team. There were Bible instructors, tent managers, and all kinds of odd jobs associated with high-impact public reaping meetings.
No, prophecy seminars are fairly simple, straightforward, and prepackaged. Besides, in a seminar people study their way into the truth. There would surely be a lot less attrition going this route, as opposed to the tear-stained saw dust trail.
I conducted my first seminar while I was pastoring a delightful suburban church with adequate resources and a perfect location. The members were enthusiastic, and the neutral site we rented was only a short distance from the church. It was ideal in every way. Three hundred fifty people showed up opening night--150 nonmembers. We baptized more than 50!
I've not had quite such good results since. I've tried to recall the formula that made that meeting so successful, and compared it with other meetings that I've conducted since then. I've isolated a few factors that made the difference.
My rule No. 1 is "Never communicate anxiety or discomfort. Who needs it?" The confidence that must pervade your planning and conducting of a good meeting is related to your own self-concept. This is an essential condition of Spirit-filled leadership. Fast and pray until you know God is leading you in this direction. Give fair hearing to every legitimate objection to your plans, but then as God places the burden on your heart, go forth in His name and His power. Visualize the results you want, and act like you're going to get them. Your efforts will never end on a note higher than you begin with. In golf there are two kinds of putts: there is the "lag," which you hope will wind up somewhere near the cup; and there is the "real," which you must aim right at the center of the cup, expecting it will end with that sweet plop of success. Don't aim for "lag" evangelism. Go for success.
There's no such thing as a flop unsuccessful seminar. No earnest effort to proclaim the message is ever a flop. Do your job well. Work with your church. Encourage the "friends of the church," those nonmembers who regularly attend Sabbath school and church services and may be in your prebaptismal classes, to come to the seminar. The Holy Spirit will provide the results. And every seminar is a learning experience; you get practice and probably learn some things not to do next time.
Let me assure you, if God be for you, who or what can stand against you? When you get up off your knees, put on "Holy Ghost glasses," and they will re veal the true nature of every obstacle and make plain every opportunity. Evangelism demands an extraordinary kind of thinking: You are doing Jesus' business. Never can we be more sure that He is on our side, parting waters and building bridges for us, than when we're advancing the kingdom through evangelism. This essential mind-set not only is exhilarating and vitalizing to body, mind, and spirit but is contagious! It will spill over into your preaching.
Oops! Did I say preaching? Aren't we talking seminar? My rule No. 2 is "Never forget who you are and what you're doing." Don't let the term seminar or the format deprive you of your passion for the gospel and the precious souls seated before you. We don't need the trappings of a church building or a tent to communicate our love for Jesus and His sacrifice, or to demonstrate our excitement over the fulfilling of Bible prophecy right before our eyes! What we believe is marvelous!
So, in my meetings I try to establish a certain comfort level, and do my best to let the people know what a warm, friendly, and simply wonderful human being I am, even if I have to tell them! It is important to maintain a balance be tween a serious structured format and a relaxed informal atmosphere conducive to learning and reflection. Acceptance comes on more than the intellectual level.
Then I approach each subject as it should be: good news. It is! God still likes, loves us. He's planning to take us home, and His plans are unfolding right on time. We bear a message of supreme importance and urgency from the King of the universe. How to do it without sounding authoritarian or manipulative is the challenge.
We can meet the challenge if we remember that personal preparation must be followed by effective communication. Gospel communication involves sharing in three dimensions teaching, proclamation, and witnessing or demonstration. The evangelistic seminar affords opportunity to do all three.
Good teaching begins with good learning. Spiritual learning begins with prayer. I have found that a healthy set of internal butterflies about six months before opening night forces me to order my whole life around the seminar. I realize that I will be handling the "dynamite" of God! I am driven to my knees to seek purity of motive and clarity of discernment with respect to the will and Word of God. Then I begin living with the subject I will be teaching, gathering illustrations and fresh ways of presenting familiar truths. I've learned that I can be more successful at this if I set up an open file system where each lesson of the seminar is in its own file folder and kept in open view of my study area. Every time I come across a good idea it's easy to drop it into the appropriate folder. The challenge is to step out of our own relationship with a certain doctrine or Bible story and to view it from the perspective of a first-time hearer. What makes it worth listening to? Is it important? Does it mesh with anything significant in my life? When I can answer these questions positively, I feel confident that my presentation will be clear and compelling.
Then I try to build into my presentations an ebb and flow of awe and joy. The timely truths of the Seventh-day Adventist message claim the most serious consideration of our listeners. But the ever lasting gospel is always full of hope and cause for rejoicing. This is where proclamation and witnessing have their place along with teaching.
Nothing of a frivolous or trifling nature should ever be allowed to break the spell with which God surrounds the truth seeker. People come to our meetings out of great soul longing. Some have waited all their lives to hear answers to eternal questions and to find help and healing from the Word of God. Now they sit before us as babes waiting for the sincere milk of the Word. The Holy Spirit has led them to the brink of salvation. Their whole worldview is being reshaped. We dare not trivialize this moment of truth for them. But neither should we make it difficult for them. These fragile souls ought not to be made to bear the burden of so much guilt and responsibility that they are overwhelmed by it. Coming to Christ for the first time or coming closer to Him in conformity to His Word should always be a warm experience. Our teaching must communicate this in content as well as in our manner of presentation.
One way I make my presentations come alive and have greater heart appeal is through the use of slides. Yes, my old evangelistic slides. I select a few appropriate frames to illustrate my subject, usually those with scriptures. Then I include two or three frames of gospel appeal to conclude each presentation. I make sure the screen is large enough to impact the viewers--a point I learned years ago from George Vandeman. You are not merely trying to "show slides." Your aim is to embrace the group with the poignancy and warmth of your mes sage.
Another important teaching device is the question-and-answer period just be fore the lecture. I insist that all questions be submitted in writing, and I answer these at the next meeting. This gives me time to prepare Bible answers, and gives the learners an incentive to come back. I also invite written prayer requests, and I get to know the people a little more personally this way. At times I take up questions that would help clarify a subject, without pretending that they came from the audience.
Proclamation complements teaching. It is that spiritual elan that drives the messenger beyond the canons and restrictions of logic and convention into the realm of heavenly authority. It was said of Jesus that "he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law" (Matt. 7:29, NIV).
It was this confidence-building aura of Jesus that amazed people and drew them to Him. Can we too seek such influence? Do we have the right to assume such? Notice other biblical treatments of authority. Mark says that Jesus had authority, not only in teaching but also over "evil spirits" (see Mark 1:22- 27, NIV). Luke points out that Jesus gave such authority to His disciples even over demons (see Luke 9:1, 2). So every preacher has the right and the responsibility to stand before the people with authority, after he or she has knelt before the cross. To be sure, authority does not mean we become arrogant or overbearing. No one needs another personality cult. But it does mean that our proclamation carries confidence and assurance with it.
It is better to do nothing than to have precious souls warmed by the prophecy seminar and then be frozen by the church.
If your church is not ready for growth, why force it? Better spend your time preparing your congregation to assume its nurturing responsibilities before you launch any serious outreach efforts. A seminar format requires several elements in church preparation.
1. Organize your congregation into small groups long before the seminar opening. A year is not too long to get your church ready for its part in the witness. Start with Sabbath school classes. These groups are already cohesive enough. They form a natural portal of entry into church fellowship. Challenge them to plan and prepare for mission activities as ministry teams. The suggestion may seem simple enough, but watch out for turf battles and congregational gridlock between departments, ending up with nothing getting done that is the least bit out of routine. Such obstacles can be overcome only by the workings of the Holy Spirit. Whether you elect to work through department leaders, Sabbath school classes, or congregational groupings, make sure you have gotten your plans from the Lord.
2. Select the best leaders. These leaders must become your personal discipling group. Spend time with them, sharing the vision the Lord has given you for the seminar. Model all that you would have these leaders bring to their groups. Share with the leaders your pilgrimage and growth experiences. Don't hesitate to move to deeper levels of love and affection with these people. Trust them to be your friends and supporters. Pray for them and with them and watch the difference it makes. Extend your fellow ship to a meal or two-together. As you come together weekly or monthly you will find that your burdens become theirs.
3. Plan together. The small group leaders can become a "mission board" for strategic planning of your evangelization and assimilation. They may provide information and support to your church board when it considers the total outreach plans.
4. Train your members for their role. Adventism is caught, as well as taught. Nothing is more contagious or eloquent for the message than a sweet, friendly Christian.
Several weeks before the seminar, I begin orienting my group leaders about the role I expect church members to play in the meetings. Some will be asked to make a commitment to support the meetings by regular attendance. Others will serve as greeters, ushers, parking attendants, or clerical helpers on a rotating basis.
The transportation pool is especially effective in developing friendship bonds that lead to church involvement. Perhaps because of the quiet time for reflection and questioning that occurs on the drive back home, we have had several families come into church fellowship via the transportation pool.
5. Encourage groups to adopt goals. Challenge them to pray, plan, and be involved on a personal level. Let each group focus on bringing a definite number into its fellowship. As people, come in, let group members greet them, sit next to them, and perhaps help them locate texts. Often at the end of the meeting I invite everybody to stop by and meet Little Debbie on the way out. During the lecture the greeters have converted the registration tables into serving tables. Fruit punch or hot chocolate is served along with some of my favorite cookies. This affords a few minutes of fellowship, encourages comments about the seminar, and provides an opportunity for inviting attendees into your small group or Sabbath school class.
The real test
And now comes the real test of the church's spiritual health. When the gospel has done its work, and the cross has drawn all kinds of people to Christ, how will the church receive them? If your small group experiences have been good and have spread to a significant degree throughout the church, you'll have no problem. The church's dynamic will be felt: its loving skills will provide the transition, acceptance, and support new members need as they are embraced by group members and welcomed into their inner circles. Those who labor are never unmindful of how precious the fruit is. They will be examples of courtesy, tact, and acceptance. The same small groups become the focal point for assimilating activities such as potlucks, picnics, and classes for particular interests that new converts have. Soon you will have a request for another seminar!
I am indebted to the following authors for some
of the ideas expressed in this article: Elmer L.
Towns, Ten of Today's Most Innovative Churches
(Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1990); Charles
Swindoll, The Grace Awakening (Irving, Tex.:
Word, Inc., 1992); Ellen G. White, Evangelism
(Washington, D. C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,