In May last year I led out in a reaping series in Indonesia, resulting in 128 baptisms. Of this number, 127 came from five percent of the population (Christian), and one came from 95 percent of the population (Muslim). An evangelist I know well routinely baptizes 700 to 1,500 people overseas. When he conducted a campaign in the United States, his results did not even reach a double-digit figure.
In my home country of Great Britain, most of the growth in our church comes from ethnic minorities who make up only about five percent of the population. In the United States African-Americans once constituted the fastest growing segment of the church, and then Hispanics took over as the fastest growing minority. Now Asians provide the most explosive growth for the church here. All of these groups boast a rich Christian heritage. However, when it comes to reaching secular people and non-Christians with the gospel, the Adventist Church has achieved little success. We have barely touched the adherents of the great religions of the world: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, etc. For example, in Fiji the vast majority of our members and baptisms come from 60 percent of the population Christian. The other 40 percent, which is Hindu, has barely been penetrated.
Most of our baptisms come from those parts of the world that are already Christian. Why do we have this difficulty in reaching secular people and other great religions? I believe there are three main reasons: our fixation with numbers, our preoccupation with bearing witness to "new" truth the reason for which our church came into being and our lack of revealing the character of Jesus.
Our success is determined by how many baptisms we get. Goals are set around baptisms. Pastors are rewarded on the basis of baptisms. Church growth results from baptisms. Thus we seek out areas that will produce the largest and quickest results. Since little results come, at least in the short term, from working with secular people or with the great faiths of the world we spend little time in those areas.
I helped write the original document for Global Mission. We defined an unentered area of the world as a population segment of one million that contained no Adventist presence. We defined a presence as an organized Adventist church. We then divided the unentered areas into two levels of priority. We said that the church should first plant a presence where there were no Christians. Once the non- Christian areas had been entered we were then to concentrate on the world's Christian areas that had no Adventist presence.
This prioritization was based on the philosophy that other Christians already know the gospel and can be saved. But non-Christians are doomed to a Christless grave unless someone brings them the gospel. However, by the final draft this two-level prioritization had disappeared. Why? I suspect that number of baptisms still was far more important than number of areas penetrated with the gospel. As long as we are recognized as successful by the number of baptisms we get, then it is only human to focus on those areas where growth is easiest.
Origin of Adventism
The second reason for our difficulty in reaching non-Christians stems from the original reason for the existence of the church. The Adventist Church began to convince people who were already Christian of the need for further truth hence the emphasis on the Sabbath, sanctuary, state of the dead, and so on. Joseph Bates, one of the co-founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, provides a terse example. One day his neighbor James Madison M. Hall inquired, "Captain Bates, what is the news?" Bates's immediate response was doctrinal: "The news is that the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord our God." A good response for a fellow Christian and Adventist, but totally inadequate as a foundation for reaching non-Christians.
Most of our evangelistic advertising, Bible studies, and tracts presuppose a Christian audience. Revelation seminars attract a certain kind of people. Traditionally the focus is more on beasts, wars, plagues, and trouble than on the Lamb. Those who already know the Lamb are ready to learn about the rest. Those who do not know the Lamb do not care. Most of our evangelism, our seminars, and our advertising are based on converting people to Adventism not to Jesus Christ. Even when we have tried new approaches such as a health emphasis, they have often been dismissed as preevangelism, and no serious attempt has been made to develop a wholistic system of reaching Christians and non- Christians alike.
We originated from other Christian churches and needed to stress our differences rather than our agreements. The 1888 Minneapolis General Conference session represented an attempt to change this paradigm and introduce a gospel approach, a Christ-centered approach, rather than the traditional doctrinal approach. The fact that our evangelism still centers more on doctrine than it does on the cross illustrates that we have still to learn the full lesson of what God was trying to teach us at Minneapolis.
A value system developed to reach fellow Christians is totally inadequate to reach non-Christians. I recognize that we have been successful in reaching people with animist backgrounds, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Secular people need to know Christ before they learn about the Sabbath and other doctrines. Secular people are not interested in further truth until they have been introduced to the Truth. None of the doctrines has any real meaning until a person has first fallen in love with Jesus.
Some have tried to reach secular people by beginning with a completely secular approach such as using archaeology. I have participated and led out in such. This approach begins with large audiences, often in the thousands, but soon dwindles down to a few. Reaching secular people is far more complicated than tossing out a few bones about ancient civilizations.
Lack of Christian graces
Jesus said that His followers would be known by how much they loved one another (John 13:35). Paul tells us that love is the glue that holds everything together (Col. 3:14). Peter surprises us by saying that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Ellen White puts her discerning finger on the key to effective soul winning: "If we would humble ourselves before God, and be kind and courteous and tenderhearted and pitiful, there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one" (Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 189).
What is the answer?
The Adventist Church does not need to give up its doctrinal approach. It does indeed have a special message for these times, but it does need to develop another completely different stream. This is not easy. Since the church was founded on the basis of converting people to additional truth, many are afraid that if we emphasize purely a gospel approach, we will lose our distinctive nature. That is the tension. It would be much easier if we could teach, like the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses do for their respective organizations, that you have to become an Adventist to be saved. But we do not believe that. People can be saved outside the Adventist Church. That is why I was sorry that Global Mission dropped the two-level prioritization.
Article II, "Purpose," in the Constitution of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, states: "The purpose of the General Conference is to teach all nations the everlasting gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and the commandments of God." We do well at teaching the commandments of God; witness our success in reaching other Christian groups. Now we need to find ways to be just as successful in teaching the first part of our purpose: "to teach all nations the everlasting gospel." This gospel, which is the good news that Jesus died for our sins and gives us eternal life when we believe in Him, is simple and complete. This gospel is the answer to secular people's search for meaning. But secular people want more than pious platitudes. They want to see this gospel believed and practiced in loving, kind, and considerate people.
God wants numbers. He is "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). Those numbers will come only as we each one, individually, fall on the Rock Christ Jesus, live by grace each day, and allow Him to develop His character within us. When secular people see something different in our attitudes, not just our profession, many will inquire as to why the difference. Then we can unfold to them the joy and privilege of living for Jesus.