NET '98

NET '98: Reaching the urban, secular audience

Evangelizing with a particular target audience in mind

Monte Sahlin, D.Min., is vice president for creative ministries at the Columbia Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Columbia, Maryland. An important collaborator in this research is Hoger Dudley, director of the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, who serves as research director for the Adventist segment of Faith Communities Today (FACT).

Trying to preach the gospel in this mega-city is like punching at fog," a pastor told me two years ago. His metaphor is apt! He was then assigned to a congregation of about two hundred fifty in one of the 20 largest metropolitan areas in North America---the old "Central" church.

We can spend large amounts of money and invest enormous energy in public evangelism in a highly urbanized community, but the results seem to tell us no one is even listening. "Punching... fog." You give it your best shot, and "there is no 'there' there."

Of course, there are some exceptions. The Adventist Church has experienced tremendous growth among immigrants in the large cities. One sociologist recently con ducted an in-depth study of the Adventist membership in New York City and revealed that in the decades since 1945, it has be come almost entirely a city of immigrants.

Then, tent revivals conducted in the African-American communities of the largest cities in the U.S. regional conferences continue to be effective in planting new churches in the inner city, as well as in other communities.

Yet, in many ways the exceptions serve to prove the generalization! Where a multicultural, urban congregation is growing, its new members come more from the sons and daughters of immigrants than from the majority population in its community. In some large cities in North America there is no longer even a single Adventist church where the majority of the members are of the same people group as the majority of the urban population.

Two kinds of people seem to be particularly difficult to reach even though they constitute the largest numbers in most of the largest cities: young, urban professionals and established, blue-collar workers. The vast majority of the second group are lifelong city residents, the fourth and fifth generations of nineteenth-century immigrants from Europe, now almost entirely assimilated.1

These two groups account for the majority of urban population in North America. If they are not reached, then we have not reached the cities. Today, there are almost no examples of successful Adventist evangelism among either group.

Attempts at urban evangelism

At the same time, a new generation of Adventist pastors and evangelists is more interested in reaching the cities than at any time since 1906, when the Adventist Church effectively dismantled its original city-mission strategy. Since those days, a couple of stabs have been taken at the topic.

The 1910 General Conference Annual Council, held in New York City, was entirely devoted to the topic. It voted to publish the papers presented, but that never happened, and they have evidently been lost forever.

In 1950, the General Conference provided major appropriations to start evangelistic centers in London, New York, and Chicago. It was the vision of radio evangelist H.M.S. Richards to start programs along the lines of the highly visible People's Church, in Toronto, which combined a wide range of social-action programs with weekly public-evangelistic meetings. The Chicago center never opened, and now the London and New York centers are gone.

In 1967, in response to the urban crisis sweeping the United States, the General Conference Annual Council established the Inner City Program. Its level of funding has never kept pace with the project proposals, and four years ago the General Conference quit funding it all together. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) is currently attempting to renew the program under a new charter.

If you read Ellen White's correspondence on the topic during the last ten years of her life, you will see that she went to her grave deeply disappointed about the church's performance in this arena. Maybe we are finally ready to pass the torch that burned in her heart for the cities.

The secular mind

As the population of North America and Europe has become more urbanized, it has also become more secularized. The two phenomena seem to be related and to rein force one another.

Today, not only are four out of five Americans urban residents, but the influence of urban culture reaches to the farthest frontier over satellite television and the Internet. Children in the most isolated cab ins of Alaska or the Yukon can be immersed in a daily dose of "HOI Street Blues."

Religious leaders fear secularization; and what we fear, we often misunderstand.The "secular mind" of North America is not atheistic. Consistent survey results demonstrate that more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God and pray. Three out of four believe that the Bible is God's Word. The majority claim that they go to church regularly.2

Yet, here is the key to understanding the secular mind. When Kirk Hadaway and an interdenominational research team tested the poll numbers of Americans who say they were in church last weekend by actually counting heads in an entire metropolitan area, it was discovered that less than half as many actually made it as told pollsters they were present.

"Dirty trick," people complained when the results were announced. The key to understanding the secular mind is realizing that it does not reject religion, but rather believes strongly that religion is definitely a private matter. Secular people find it easier to chat about sex while they hang around the water cooler than they do to talk about religion.

Anyone who brings up the topic of faith is violating a taboo. Therefore, almost all church members fall into one of two categories. The smaller number are well-known among their work associates, neighbors and friends as people who regularly violate the taboo and talk about religion. They are tuned out by almost everyone. The larger number respect the taboo and rarely mention the topic among their acquaintances outside the church.

At the same time, because the secularized majority classifies religion as "private," the only effective route to this audience is through private channels and methods.

How then can we get people who see faith as "private" to attend a strong public evangelism outreach such as NET '98?

An urban strategy for friendship evangelism

William McNeil, an Adventist pastor in Albany, New York, has perfected an ur ban strategy for "friendship evangelism." Local churches across North America have begun to adopt and use these methods.

1. Announce, affirm, and support from the pulpit the expectation that believers will share Christ with their circle of acquaintances on the job, in the community, and among relatives. Teach the principles of informal, non-programmatic, incidental witnessing. Uphold examples regularly.

2. Provide training in the skills of casual, conversational witnessing. Use introductory training curricula such as Friendship Evangelism Seminar and Making Friends for God. Also provide continuing education and skill development through a monthly People In Evangelism (PIE) meeting where those members who are doing friendship evangelism can pray for one another, debrief, practice what to say next in relationships, and solve individual problems. (I recently saw a nice touch in a church where at the PIE meeting, people not only ate one kind of pie but fresh-baked, homemade pies of a different flavor each month. This has proved to be a great attendance-builder.)

3. Schedule a Friend Day and then fol low-up with other special Sabbaths about once every four to six weeks. These are Sabbaths designed for nonmembers, especially unchurched people attending for the first time. There are also times when your members are urged to bring their friends and acquaintances with them. Once they see that you are serious about this strategy, they will begin to bring new people to church.3

4. Focus on your most recent converts and help them reach out to their circle of friends. All too soon, they will have less and less contact and influence with this group as they become part of a new fabric of relationships in the church. And, in the zeal of their "first love " new converts need guidance to be most effective in reaching their relatives, neighbors, and others. At the same time, this is one of the most fruitful sources of new interests. It is well worth the time and effort for any pastor to visit personally with the nonbelieving family and friends of each person they baptize.

5. Encourage and facilitate the involvement of long-term Adventists in a community-action program. Volunteer, community service is a proven door-opener to win trust and establish relationships that become a natural context for sharing faith. The longer a person is in the Adventist community, the fewer nonmember friends they have. Even when a person is in a profession that does not lend itself to workplace witnessing, a volunteer role in a service program can open a place for them to share Christ at the "private" level.

6. Develop small-group ministries as a bridge between private and public evangelism. Secular people often turn to faith in times of trauma and transition, so if your church sponsors one or more support groups such as grief recovery, divorce recovery, or 12-step programs, it will become a magnet for these individuals. If these are offered alongside Bible study groups, people will move at their own pace from a focus on their needs to a focus on accepting Christ and learning more from Him.

7. Events like NET '98 become truly "reaping" occasions with a flow of persons who have made it over the barrier of "private" religion and into the arena of public evangelism. Even among the secular audience many people need such an event to make a definite decision for baptism and church membership.

Visibility, positioning, and word-of-mouth

With all the money we spend on evangelistic advertising, we often forget that the advertising industry says that visibility, positioning, and word-of-mouth are the most powerful promotional tools. Any ad agency executive will tell you that money spent on direct mail, newspaper ads, or TV spots is wasted unless there is a strategy that includes complex elements such as "shelf space" and "consumer attitude."

How much visibility does the Adventist Church have in your community? How is it positioned in the minds of civic leaders? What is the reputation of the church as it is passed around informally among thought leaders in the community?

Frankly, this is one of the weakest elements of our outreach strategy. Nothing will undercut the potential harvest through NET '98 as will our collective neglect and under-investment in these elements over the past two decades.

In 1994, a survey of a random sample from the general public conducted by the Center for Creative Ministry for the North American Division shows that in the previous decade the percentage of North Americans who recognize the name of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has dropped from 75 to 53 percent. The 53 percent were also asked, "When you hear the name Seventh-day Adventist Church, what comes to mind?" The majority said, "Nothing." And, half of those who responded with some thing were inaccurate or expressed a negative attitude.

The 53 percent were also asked what contribution the Adventist Church makes through community service, and nine out of ten members of the general public said they did not know. The remaining 5 percent of the population was split between those who felt Adventists make a positive contribution and those who felt it was negative.

The Adventist Church is likely to be almost invisible in your community, unless definite steps have been taken to build a strong, professionally directed community-service program. By "community service," I do not mean the delivery of holiday food baskets or even an emergency food pantry. The traditional community-service activities at churches do not "earn" any points in public positioning, although if they don't exist, points are "taken away."

In fact, community-oriented events held at the church, such as a stop-smoking program or parenting class, do not position the church significantly. In order for civic leaders to pass the word that the Adventist Church is making a valuable contribution, your community-service program must step beyond a church-based role and be come a truly community-based agency. An example is Good Neighbor House, in Day ton, Ohio.

But does this pay off in baptisms? The evidence is very strong that it does, although the cause-and-effect relationship is indirect. Research among urban Adventist churches shows that those that sponsor strong community-service programs baptize far more new members than do those who are not involved in community service. The more urbanized the location of the church, the more vital this factor becomes.4

If a local church has real respect among the influential individuals in the community because of the nonreligious contribution it is making to community needs, then the thought leaders of that community convey positive word-of-mouth messages about the church, and more individuals decide to respond to its evangelism. If yours is an urban or suburban church, this factor can make a significant difference in the results you gain from NET '98.

How to get more visibility

Here are some ideas that will help to begin positioning your church for more visibility and positive word-of-mouth from significant sources in your community:

1. Join with one or more neighboring Adventist churches in a steering commit tee to conduct a community-needs assessment. ADRA North America has a kit, including fact-finding instruments and a training video to guide the group to find a need and develop a plan to fill it. This works most effectively when several Adventist churches in the same metropolitan area collaborate.

2. Get involved in a disaster-response project. Through Adventist Community Services, we have a strong reputation for disaster service. Even if your local church is hundreds or thousands of miles from the disaster, you can get in on the visibility by organizing a community collection of donated goods and organizing a truckload to be sent to the disaster.5

3. Sponsor a community-based tutor ing program for underprivileged children. The national Adventist Community Services leadership in the U.S. has opened a door with the coalition chaired by Gen. Colin Powell. ACS has hired a number of young adults to help local churches set up tutoring sites. This is a timely service that catches the eye of civic leaders, and yet it does not require costly equipment or buildings. It is an opportunity for church members to demonstrate real compassion for at-risk children and make friends in the community.

4. Join the Adventist Health network and sponsor a "Heartbeat" community coronary risk evaluation. This is a proven, up-to-date, strategy for a community-based approach to health screening and education. You can get a fact sheet by calling 800-381-7171.

Need for a metro ministry strategy

The public media, as well as business and civic institutions, no longer work at the neighborhood level. Television and radio stations cover the entire metropolitan area, as do the daily newspapers and advertising strategies for "chain" stores and "franchise" businesses.

In order to be effective in the urban areas today, the Adventist Church also needs a metro strategy. A coordinating commit tee with representation from all of the churches, both suburban and inner city, is needed to construct a strategy for advertising, building relationships with the media and civic officials, and developing a long-term agency for public service.

During NET '96, the churches in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area came together in this kind of coordinated plan and greatly increased attendance and baptisms over NET '95 results. You can ask your conference administration to convene a similar committee. If your metro area touches on the territory of two or more lo cal conferences, the union conference can bring together a coordinating committee.

The secular, urban audience can be reached through NET '98. But, as is always true in any kind of farming, the results will have more to do with the preparation, seed-sowing, and cultivation than it will with the harvest itself.

1. A good primer is the recent documentary on Irish immigration to the United States, "The Long Journey Home," on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

2. The most recent evidence is published in "One Nation, After All," by Alan Wolfe (Knopf, 1998). Studies published over the past several decades by Gallup, Barna, and others all yield the same findings.

3. A complete kit of materials for promoting a successful Friend Day is available through AdventSource at 800-328-0525. Themes, tested invitation letters, and complete graphics are available for seven different special Sabbaths, some keyed to holidays such as Mother's Day and Christmas, in the Welcome Home package available from the Center for Creative Ministry at 800-272-4664. All of the materials are also on CD-ROM.

4. A copy of the research report on "Urban Church Growth" by Monte Sahlin is available from the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University.

5. A needs list and how-to sheet can be obtained from the ACS hotline at 800-381-7171. A disaster sign kit with large, professionally created signs for both indoors and outdoors can be obtained from AdventSource at 800-328-0525.


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Monte Sahlin, D.Min., is vice president for creative ministries at the Columbia Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Columbia, Maryland. An important collaborator in this research is Hoger Dudley, director of the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, who serves as research director for the Adventist segment of Faith Communities Today (FACT).

July 1998

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