Adventist church growth around the world is truly inspiring! It demonstrates the power of the Holy Spirit, the faithfulness of a large portion of the membership, the clergy and the church's leadership. Besides that, it indicates the credibility of a message that offers meaning, hope, and purpose.
As a church, we frequently remind our selves that we were once small, but we have grown to global proportions. However, before we are tempted to feel too smug at the prospect of our growth, we need to consider a few facts.
A number of other Christian denominations are growing at a faster rate than the Adventist Church. For example, in 1998 alone, one denomination added 18 million people to its membership, 1 an accession considerably greater than the total baptized membership of the Adventist Church. Another denomination, which traces its origins to the early years of the 1900s, has at least 400 million adherents!2
Our achievement, therefore, good as it may be, must not lead us into a relaxed mood. Instead it should drive us to see ahead an opportunity for much larger harvest. We must pursue and study the "how's" and "why's" of evangelism, like never before! This is no time to dilute or compromise our mes sage; to do so is to deny Christ, the biblical nature of our teachings, and our identity.
Difficult, yes; impossible, no!
Evangelism is difficult and always has been! When the apostle Paul was on his evangelistic journeys, his baptismal tallies in most locations were modest at best. For example, he baptized only a few in Philippi and Thessalonica, and hardly any at Athens. These figures were not startling, yet each candidate was cherished, loved, and celebrated.
Modern authors and practitioners recognize that there is no easy, "quick-fix" solution to the challenge of evangelism. Even the title of some books make this point: Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult. 3
I doubt there is a place on earth where the local residents believe it is easy to evangelize members of the local community. In Africa, at the conclusion of an evangelistic series, when 2,495 people had been baptized, it was explained to the visiting evangelist that the location was a tough area. While the evangelist was thrilled with the baptisms, he was told that if he was to present the same meetings in another nearby location, twice as many would have been baptized. Everywhere evangelism is regarded as difficult, but nowhere should it be regarded as impossible.
In some regions of the world it is possible to baptize thousands of people at the end of an evangelistic series. In such cases, usually a lot of preparatory work has preceded the actual campaign. Pastors train members in the various tasks involved in evangelism. Members get involved in visitation, smallgroup meetings, prayer sessions, publicity, etc. All these activities are foundational for successful public evangelism in any setting.
In regions of the world where baptisms occur at a low rate, where materialism and secularism reign supreme, it is important to remember that a great deal of effort may well be invested in each baptism. Years may be spent working with one individual—sharing a meal, spending time together in recreation, even as the evangelist waits for an opportunity for regular Bible studies. Such work involves an enormous investment of time, energy, interest, and prayer to help individuals on their spiritual journey.
Even in these difficult regions, we are seeing some wonderful evangelistic developments, such as Church Planting, Small Groups,4 and the use of technology in public evangelistic meetings. But ultimately the real success occurs when one believer, led by the Holy Spirit, puts aside all inhibitions, applies his or her spiritual gifts, and engages the person who needs Jesus Christ.
Assuming that we have such believers who are willing to reach out in evangelism, the question still needs to be asked: How can the gospel seed be effectively sown in the face of differing and competing cultures, religions, nationalities, worldviews, and other varying orientations? I'd like to suggest the following seven points.
1. Be pastoral in soul winning
The evil one has maimed, wound ed, and damaged many lives. These victims, and there are multitudes, need "pastoral evangelism." This title is not just a pastor's job description; it also describes the needs of those who are to be the recipients of our ministry. They need "care evangelism."
As a church we need to beware of "remnant triumphalism," which can readily have a "slash and burn" approach to the proclamation of the three angels' messages. Obviously we need to present the message with a fair share of confidence, but bigoted arrogance is to be avoided at all costs!
Pastoral evangelism calls for a care fully cast balance. The pastor needs to show tenderness and compassion for the bruised, searching individual, but at the same time, challenge their comfort zone by the Adventist mes sage and the biblical worldview.
2. Be courageous
The sharing of the gospel requires courage and an element of risk taking. Ellen White puts it plainly: "There must be workers now who will push ahead in the dark as well as in the light, and who will hold up bravely under discouragements and disappointed hopes, and yet work on with faith, with tears and patient hope, sowing beside all waters, trusting the Lord to bring the increase. God calls for men of nerve, of hope, faith, and endurance, to work to the point."5
Courage is also required in other contexts. Nick Pollard makes the point that people develop their own worldview primarily from a wide variety of sources and they tailor it to fit their choice of lifestyle. "They are attracted to a belief, not because they see it is true, but rather because it justifies some behaviour which they find particularly appealing."6
These people need to be appropriately challenged! Sin still exists and judgment is a reality. Michael Green, writing about agnostics, says, "But many agnostics are not genuine. It is a convenient cloak for their personal selfishness. It is not that they can't believe in God. They don't dare to, because it would make too much of a challenge to the way they live."7
Green goes on to say, "I have found numbers of agnostics who have come to faith in Christ when the root of their unwillingness to face God was exposed and dealt with. Once that unwillingness is removed, the living God will not neglect the honest cry of the agnostic heart, Ts anyone there?' He will make himself known."8
While courage is required to challenge people to a different worldview, proficient listening skills and an extra helping of tact and sensitivity are essential.
3. Prioritize soul winning
Nurture is as important as soul winning. Without nurture and soul winning, death of the Advent movement is but one generation away. But, do our expenditure and staffing (which are indicators of priorities) reflect the importance of these two essential components of church growth?
Examine your church or conference budget and staffing pattern, asking, "How does this expenditure/ position, positively impact upon nurture/soul winning?" Such scrutiny will undoubtedly be a painful process. Alterations to budgets, assignments, and responsibilities immediately translate to pain and insecurity in personnel, who are just as valuable as those we are attempting to save. As painful as this process is, it needs to occur regularly, if we are going to be true to the commission.
Looking beyond finance and staffing, particularly in the world regions where the Adventist Church is not growing strongly, another question needs to be asked: "Is evangelism (in any form) a significant priority of the church or have we all but given up on it, merely giving it lip service?" One of the real dangers facing the Adventist Church is an unwritten and unspoken attitude, primarily in the so-called "developed" parts of the world, that evangelism is "old fashioned," "blue-collar" work, practiced largely by those who are "into that sort of thing" and the poor unfortunate individuals don't know any better. If this attitude takes root and prevails, it will spell the end of the "Movement."
4. Dream and experiment
Every successful enterprise begins with a dream or experiment, some where by someone. All dreams and experiments are criticized! That's expected!
The early church and the early Adventist Church took some time before they dreamed the experiment of sending missionaries to foreign cultures and fields. The experiment succeeded and continues to succeed. The experience of experimentation is stressful and harrowing but exciting. Surely we are at the time when "old men will [must] dream dreams, [and] young men will [must] see visions" (Joel 2:28, NIV).
5. Cherish the tested, tried, and true
We have carried on many activities for generations in order to spread the gospel. Some of them are still effective, but every activity and procedure needs to be revisited periodically. While we must be open to new possibilities, we need to cherish the tested, tried, and true.
I was reminded of the need for this, following the horrors of September 11, 2001. Ravi Zacharias, a prolific author on evangelism and apologetics, tried to bring some understanding to the events of 9/11 by referring to the prophecies of Daniel 2 and 8 and by asking his readers to find security in the "coming of Christ." 9 The Adventist Church certainly doesn't have a monopoly on the prophecies of Daniel 2 and 8, but dare we neglect their relevance for today?
While these prophecies may be commonplace for some, a relevant and correct application of biblical prophecies continues to be a "winner" in leading people to accept the gospel. In many parts of the world, Prophecy Seminars continue to be a valuable resource in leading people to Jesus.
6. Provide suitable training and resources
Appropriate training and resources are necessary to equip people to share and distribute the gospel seed. There is no better training than putting a learner beside an experienced, successful campaigner. We learn more when we work with a person in action than when attending a seminar on how a task is to be done.
Training and resources are invaluable. However, a blind reliance on the latest "fad" or some new equipment can dissolve the "can-do" spirit and ultimately be counterproductive in seed sowing.
7. Remember that seed sowers are not alone
It's very easy for seed sowers to feel lonely and isolated as they minister in places with unfamiliar values and worldviews. But such need not be the case, if the evangelist discards the lone ranger approach to witnessing, and embraces the community of believers and involves them as evan gelistic partners.
Michael Green provides us with a challenging conclusion. "Evangelism and apologetics are not a matter of intellectual firepower and technique. They owe a lot more to friendly relationships and laughter, honesty and directness. It is a mistake to imagine that people are hardened against the gospel. They are simply bored by the way it is so often presented—too rigid, too rationalistic, too uncomprehending of other worldviews, too small minded. Let us make sure that no such accusation can be leveled at us." 10
1 Philip Jenktns, "The Next Christianity," in The Atlantic Monthly, October 2002, 59.
2 Ibid., 60.
3 Nick Pollard, Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1997).
4 See William A. Beckham, The Second Reformation Reshaping the Church for the Twenty-first Century (Houston: Touch Publications, 1997).
5 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), 63.
6 Pollard, 38.
7 Michael Green, Evangelism Through the Local Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993), 127.
9 Ravi Zacharias, Light in the Shadow of jihad (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Publishers, 2002), 61.
10 Green, 135, 136.