Reaching the cities

The role of the person-to-person approach in large-city public evangelism.

Alejandro Bullón is Ministerial Association Secretary of the South American Division, Brasilia, Brazil.

Evangelism is my life's passion. Specifically, evangelism that seeks to reach the cities. Come with me to Rio de Janeiro, perhaps one of the most pagan cities of the world. Prostitution, drugs, and violence seem to dominate the city. A great metropolis, indulging itself in sin, day in and day out. Yet, when we began an evangelistic campaign recently in the heart of that city, more than 35,000 people jammed the Apoteose Square, to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.

How is it possible that people in this sprawling city of almost ten million, would want to come to a public place to hear about Jesus Christ? They work, running from one place to another at a feverish pace. They are attracted by the lights, the shows, the Internet, television, and every conceivable attraction, but there are still many who are hungry and thirsty and searching.

Visit Lima, the capital of Peru, with a population of 7 million. Last May our evangelistic crusade maintained an average attendance of 45,000 and ended in a baptism of 27,100. That's significant. More than fifty percent of those who came to hear chose to accept Jesus!

The stories of Lima and Rio can be repeated almost anywhere: New York, Mexico City, Manila, Los Angeles, Calcutta, or any other world metropolis. From my experience in urban evangelism, let me mention some principles that can be implemented as we reach out to the cities with the power of the gospel.

Understanding the human context

People who live in today's mega cities are sad, lonely, filled with fear and anxiety. They live packed into large "sky rises" and yet they scarcely know each other. They are always on the run, not knowing sometimes, where they are going. Whoever stops is overrun by those who come from behind. The strongest and quickest survive, leaving the rest in a valley of despair. There is no time for anything, and if by chance there should be some free time, this is completely taken by the media, which has placed itself in charge of forming the individual's opinion of life and the world. Generally, this opinion is full of the relativism and materialism that characterize the period in which we live.

This context of meaninglessness has produced the individual of our time: the secular human. Such a person doesn't deny the existence of God, but to them God is usually nothing more than a casual detail. He does not affect the individual's life, decisions, or conduct. He is just an energy that can be manipulated. God is there to use, not use, or just vaguely shelve away.

Today's secular person is bombarded by market forces from all sides. Along with this there are mesmerizing political realities, every kind of religious system, from ideologies to consumer goods, from philosophies of nothingness to the gadgets of the virtual world.

So, traffic on the avenues of the modern mind is in a communication jam. To survive, people have learned to defend themselves by selecting the messages they would allow to enter their consciousness. Thus people do not listen to what we want to say. They accept only what they want to hear.

How, then, do we evangelize these modern human beings, entrenched in the city, completely oblivious to the great issues of God, life, and human destiny? Yes, some can be reached by television and radio, but most will just change the channel every time a religious program appears. Others could attend anti-stress courses or stop smoking plans, but many of them will disappear from the auditorium at the time the Bible study begins. Literature evangelism will open many doors. Seventh-day Adventist schools have also developed an important role in establishing contact with the people in the large cities. All these means are necessary and important. But the question is: Where should we invest our financial and human resources if we want to successfully evangelize the large multitudes who live in the great metropolitan centers?

Invest in person-to-person evangelism

In Rio de Janeiro, Lima, Sao Paulo, Montevideo, Santiago, Buenos Aires, and other large cities throughout the world, where I have had the opportunity to preach, we have seen, tested, and confirmed that the best means to reach people today is through other human beings. We have already affirmed that the individual from the large cities is a solitary being in spite of living in the midst of a multitude of people.

Deep inside them is a great emptiness from which they cannot free themselves. They can deny it, they can pretend that they do not feel it, they can disguise it, but loneliness consumes them day and night. Friendships derived in social clubs, parties, and public places are empty and superficial. People need to feel accepted and loved as individuals, and not just used. They need to know that someone is interested in their struggles and conflicts. They need a true friend. Christians should under stand these emotional essentials and authentically come close to these lonely individuals and present them to the Lord Jesus Christ and the fellowship of His family.

With this in mind, in the large cities of South America where we hold evangelism, one of the first things we teach each Christian is to assume their role as an individual missionary. We make each member conscious that they need to seek out people and become friends with them. For the spoken gospel to be successful, it is necessary that it be presented by someone in whose life the gospel has been made flesh. "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father" (John 1:14).

This incarnational principle is the secret to evangelism. God sent His message to the world not only in the spoken and the written form, but also through human flesh. The Word was made flesh and became present among us. The Word came to the intellectual Nicodemus, sought out the sinful Samaritan woman, touched the leper Simon, and reached the publican Matthew. As a result, all these people believed not only a simple religious concept or a theological concept, but in Someone in whose life the message had come to life.

For this reason, I never hold an evangelistic campaign in a city where the church has not been made aware and agreed to their individual missionary function. We spend time and money reviving, inspiring, training, and equipping the church. For example, the administration of the South American Division in 1998 increased the budget for equipping lay members by 25 percent over the allotment in 1997. In 1999 this amount was increased again by 57 percent. Last year this amount has almost doubled yet again. This is because it has been proven that the best method of preparation for an evangelistic crusade is friendship evangelism each member seeking a friend, relative, neighbor, or workmate, speaking with them about Jesus, and later studying the Bible with them. Statistics show us that nobody can establish contact with the modern human being better than the individual church member.

In 1992 we employed a research firm to survey major Brazilian cities. The first question asked of people on the streets was, "Have you ever heard of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? If yes, how did they hear of the Church first: Through (1) a medical institution; (2) a school, academy, or university; (3) a radio or TV program; (4) a book or magazine; (5) a stranger who knocked on your door; (6) a friend, neighbor, or a relative.

Seventy-one percent of those who had heard of the Seventh-day Adventist Church said that it was through a friend, neighbor, or relative. This means that only 29 percent had knowledge of the Church through all the other means combined.

Another survey among baptized members of the Church revealed almost the same result: 70 percent heard of Seventh-day Adventists for the first time through a friend, neighbor, or relative; 30 percent through other means. Many of us can confirm this fact in our own experience.

This is why in my evangelistic campaigns I do not spend much money in advertising. Each member who has studied the Bible with a friend is in charge of taking that friend to the stadium when the public meetings convene. When I make my altar call, I say "Help your friend to come to the front, embrace your friend, congratulate your friend, accompany your friend to baptism and then care for him or her throughout his or her life because your dear friend is a spiritual child." What I mean is that the new convert is not bonded to the evangelist, but is bonded to the friend who helped him or her reach Jesus.

My crusades do not last for weeks. At the most they last eight nights. But they are nights of decision. Very few people today will attend a campaign that goes on for 45 nights, but any one can make plans for a week-long period to accompany their friend to a stadium.

You may ask "How is it possible to present all the message in only one week?" It is important to remember that, as mentioned, the message and the doctrinal teachings have already been presented by the friend in small home study groups. So when the cru sade comes, people are already prepared and only need to make a decision. The week of evangelism is just a week of decision or harvest.

In Peru, for example, long before the crusade began, church members were involved in Bible studies with 120,000 people. When the crusade itself began, more than 50,000 of those who finished the Bible course attended. Thus it was that finally 27,100 made their decision to be baptized.

Reaching the upper class

One significant challenge of urban evangelism is reaching the upper classes. We have an intimidating perception that the rich and powerful do not want anything to do with the gospel. This is simply not so. These people are just as lonely and emotionally in need as anyone else. They too have problems in their homes; their marriage seeks focus, their chil dren need help. But they would hardly open their doors to a stranger with a Bible on a Saturday afternoon or attend an evangelistic campaign after hearing a radio ad.

How, then, can we reach the upper classes? Is it possible that in our churches there may be members who belong to this class? Do they not have friends, relatives, neighbors, and workmates?

Joao Apolinario is a successful businessman in Sao Paulo. He invited friends to his home once a week for social get-togethers. But what began as cordial fellowship eventually turned into a Bible study group. Later, when a harvest campaign was held, Apolinario took his friends to the meetings. Of the 16 in the group, 13 were already baptized, one of them a bank director. Today the bank director and his wife are studying the Bible with their other friends.

Dr. Clayton Rossi, a church member in Brazil and a former Attorney General, was the friend of a high ranking government minister of Brazil. They had studied together at the same university and shared a friendship since their youth. However, Dr. Rossi had never spoken to his friend about Jesus. One day he attended a seminar on evangelism and began to under stand his role as a personal missionary. He realized that he alone could best share his faith with the minister, because he was his personal friend and could reach through the official barriers of someone in the position of his friend. A few weeks after they began to study together, the minister wrote this to the Adventist Review in Brazil. "My friend, Clayton, invited me to watch a television program the other day. I was never interested in religious matters, but when Sunday arrived, more because of consideration for my friend than because of interest in the program, I turned on the TV and when the program was over, I thought, 'If Clayton has some thing so marvelous, why has he kept it to himself for such a long time?'"

Since then, Clayton has passed away. But today this former government minister continues studying the Bible and daily reading a morning devotional. It would not be a surprise if one day he would announce his desire for baptism.

But, isn't the minister a friend of the senator and the senator, in turn, a friend of the governor, and the governor a friend of the president? Of course! The gospel must be preached by testimony. That's the divine plan. One by one, friend to friend, relative to relative, neighbor to neighbor. Then, the evangelist comes to harvest the results.

The challenge

When I was a teenager, Billy Graham conducted an evangelistic campaign in the Lima National Stadium. My older brother and I went to hear him speak. As I saw 35,000 people listening to the message, I asked myself , "Aren't we the church of the end time? Don't we have a complete message? Then why are we satisfied with filling a tent with only 1,000 people? Why are we not capable of filling a stadium like this one?" From that day on I felt the Holy Spirit disturbing me, and years later God gave me the opportunity to work with young people. One day I challenged them. I taught them to seek out their friends and study the Bible with them. Then I challenged them to take their friends to the Ibirapuera Gymnasium in Sao Paulo, and for the first time in South America, we saw thousands of people together in a stadium to attend an evangelistic crusade.

Evangelizing large cities will always be a challenge for the Church. But after all these years, I have concluded that the most powerful element we have to win the large cities is the member of the church who is transformed into a disciple.

The Great Commission does not command simply to go, baptize, or teach. Four verbs dominate Matthew 28:18: go, make, baptize, and teach. Of these, the Greek wording puts only one verb in the imperative: make. The imperative of the Great Commission is to make new disciples. Each disciple is to be involved in the mission of making new disciples. An evangelistic crusade cannot exist effectively without the work of individual Christians.

That's the challenge of evangelism the challenge of reaching the urban masses. We must meet that challenge. The Holy Spirit will do the rest.

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Alejandro Bullón is Ministerial Association Secretary of the South American Division, Brasilia, Brazil.

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