Evangelism in a non-Christian culture

Some insights from Taiwan

Carlos Martin, Ph.D., is professor of missions at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Southern Asia Pacific Division.

Two years ago I was invited to conduct a reaping crusade in Kaohsiung Seventh-day Adventist Church in south Taiwan. Even though I have served as a pastor and evangelist for 20 years, this invitation made me realize my two limitations: first, I am an outsider; second, I have had no exposure to the Taiwanese culture. Also, some students and colleagues at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) had warned me how difficult evangelism is among the Chinese. From my experience, I have learned that there are some universal principles and ideas that are common to evangelism in any culture.

Universal hunger for truth

First, I have learned that there is a universal hunger for truth. We began with a simple invitation to attend a Christian church to find out what we believe. "All over the world," says Ellen White, "men and women are looking wistfully to heaven. Prayers and tears and inquiries go up from souls longing for light, for grace, for the Holy Spirit." 1

Six pastors came to observe the crusade. Some had never conducted or participated in an evangelistic campaign, but all had reservations about the viability of evangelism in Taiwan. Finding out that it can work is perhaps one of the most important results of the crusade. When the right principles are followed, the gospel demonstrates its power everywhere. When the truth is presented with prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit, baptisms do follow, even in places known to be challenging.

Some pastors have never been involved in public evangelism because they did not know how to do it. Some had an improper understanding of what public evangelism was. Others had tried it but became discouraged because they defined success in terms of baptismal numbers.

That leads me to the second lesson I have learned.

A definition of evangelism

Pastors need to regularly review their definition of evangelism. Primarily evangelism is the proclamation of Jesus and the truth of the Bible as it centers in Him. Evangelism means proclaiming Him in such a way that people will be persuaded to accept Him as Saviour and choose to serve Him in the fellowship of the church. Good church administration cannot convert souls. What we need are pastor-evangelists who love people and have deep-seated desires to see them at the foot of the cross.

The campaign venue

A third insight gained in our crusade is the importance of location. We chose our local church as the venue. The church had about 50 members in a city of two million. A crusade in a neutral place such as a school, an auditorium, or a gymnasium may bring more non- Christians. However, a church setting has some advantages. It has an honesty and openness those who come already know that the meetings have to do with the Christian truth. A slow approach is necessary as ground preparation, but a reaping crusade hardly provides enough time for such a strategy. Those who came to the meetings knew they were going to be exposed to Christian teachings.

Spread the word

A fourth simple evangelistic axiom was reaffirmed: members must spread the word that something is happening in their church. People will not come if they have not been invited. The Kaohsiung church distributed about 3,000 invitations. A few hundred would not have been enough. Although a town needs to be saturated with written invitations in the marketplace, in homes, in business centers; through telephone, mail, posters, streamers the best invitation is personal. Invite friends, family members, neighbors, and work associates. There is nothing like a personal invitation. It expresses care and conveys the message that you have something important to share.

The people were busy, and I was told that although they might come on the weekend, they would not attend three or four meetings during the week. This proved false. Out of about 70 non- Christians who attended, 15 had perfect attendance records.

Present a loving God

Fifth, we learned that no evangelism can succeed without presenting a loving God. In our evangelism in Taiwan we learned that people are looking for a God who loves and cares and who is compassionate and deeply interested in their lives, their families, and their future. I used personal testimony to express my own love for Him, and how He loves my family and me. I told them that I am not afraid of God, and that I can approach Him boldly in prayer and meditation. I read from the Bible many assuring promises of protection against demons and evil spirits. Once they saw the full picture of God, as revealed in the Bible, it was not difficult for them to make their choice.

Out of this biblical perspective I was able to address other concerns rooted in their culture. One of these concerns was ancestor worship. From the Bible, I showed them what it says about the dead, and what it says about honoring one's parents while they are alive. When they die, we should not forget them. Presenting such a high view of the children's responsibility to their parents helped to eliminate the issue of ancestor worship for many.

Ask for public commitments

Sixth, it became clear that we should not conclude that certain cultures do not lend themselves to public response and commitment. Each evening I asked people to make a specific decision. In this I used different approaches: show of hands, standing to show acceptance, altar calls, coming to Sabbath morning meetings, and finally the baptismal call. We were delighted that 15 non- Christians chose to accept Jesus.

Often pastors do not ask for public decisions because they do not want to embarrass the audience. They may be afraid that no one will respond when they make the call. That kind of fear cannot be a part of evangelism. The evangelist must call for a decision, and leave the matter of ultimate persuasion and response to the Holy Spirit.

Promote personal work

Seventh, we also learned all over again how important personal evangelism is in fulfilling the goals of public evangelism. Pastors and supporting church members found ways to be involved in both forms of evangelism in this unique non- Christian environment. They saw immediate and positive results. Public evangelism is an ideal setting for friendships to bloom into the new dimension of soul winning.

Use appropriate visuals

Eighth, I found that my audiovisual presentation was not necessarily suitable in that setting. My presentation had no local flair. Nevertheless, what I had was better than nothing. Pastors need to develop slides and illustrations that are appropriate to their culture and environment. Localized illustrations will naturally grip audience attention more effectively. A Revelation Seminar may be quite appropriate in a Western setting, but may not be so to the Eastern mind.

Every night I showed about 300 slides, simultaneously using three projectors operated by remote control. As expected, audiovisual presentations attracted a larger crowd than a regular sermon. If evangelists are unable to illustrate their sermons with slides, they should use oral pictures. Jesus never preached without using parables (Matt.13:34).

Seek out the youth

Ninth, I returned to the Philippines with the conviction that something significant must be done for our youth. There were no children or teenagers in the church in which we had the meetings! The youngest person in the church was 19 years old. Adventist schools are indispensable to our youth and to retaining them in the church. So are Pathfinder Clubs and other attractive programs for children and young people. Providing creative ways of attracting the young in our secularized societies must be a priority.

Follow the interest

No evangelism is complete without executing a consistent follow-up plan. After our series the church pastor held a follow-up crusade four nights a week for four more weeks. We have it on the best authority that this second series is more necessary than the first.2 Without earnest and prayerful follow-up the level of dropouts can be quite high. The second series has another advantage: the newly baptized persons will have an opportunity to bring their friends to the church before they themselves lose their first love.

The challenge of missions

Evangelism should be the watch word of the church and one of its institutions seminaries, colleges, schools, industries, publishing houses, language schools, health-care centers. On the second floor of the building that housed the church, an English language school was holding classes for numerous college students, yet none of these young people came to our meetings. A clinic next door served many patients, but as far as we know not one visited our services. Evangelism cannot succeed unless the evangelistic vision is thoughtfully and intentionally made a part of the passion of all our institutional functions.

We must see in every person a potential citizen of the kingdom of God. It is our God-given calling to go out proclaiming that the wedding feast is ready. We must invite the people in, uniting all the agencies of the church for this superb task.

1 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1911), p. 109.

2 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 334.

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Carlos Martin, Ph.D., is professor of missions at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Southern Asia Pacific Division.

February 1997

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