Seventh-day Adventist evangelism is going well in many parts of the third world. In the first world, in contrast, it's a different story. There are two trends, however, that do offer some promise for the developed world.
First is the "seeker church" movement advocated by Willow Creek, a huge nondenominational church in the suburbs of Chicago that has sparked a remarkable movement in the first world. Second is the church planting movement that continues to grow within evangelicalism. Where do Seventh-day Adventists fit into the new paradigms?
In this article we will look at a case study from Las Vegas that could shed light on this issue. What can we learn from this example?
I was sitting on a boat on Lake Mead with a group of lay people. We had gone there to brainstorm. Our purpose was to find ways to evangelize the rapidly growing Las Vegas population.
The breeze had been blowing, and every wave that hit the boat seemed to be a further reason for the people of our city not to want to come to church. We were trying to look at "church" through the eyes of the unchurched and had concluded that to many, church is simply boring.
Pews are weird things! Hymns are in a foreign language and a foreign style of music! Sermons are dull compared to the shows on the Las Vegas strip. And then the biggest obstacle of all: Who wants to go to church on Saturday morning?
That's when I said, "What if we could bypass all of those objections?" The group was quiet for a moment, and then as if on cue the wind died down and the group began to brainstorm in earnest.
What if we did evangelism in a way that was truly pertinent to the unchurched? What if we used popular music with lyrics and a style that was familiar to the general population? What if we held evangelistic meetings in an informal public place where people could come dressed comfortably? What if we could use extensive graphics and video to augment the evangelistic presentation? And what if we offered the meetings at a time when people and the general culture were used to having religious things (or were doing little)—Sunday morning?
The boat got quiet again. Then someone was bold enough to ask the obvious questions: "How in the world could an Adventist church hold meetings on Sunday morning? Isn't that against our religion? How could we get any one to help us fund something like that?" Yet despite these concerns, the group was excited enough about the vision to go to work on the objections. They discovered that Ellen White advocated exciting, relevant evangelistic meetings on Sunday morning. "Whenever it is possible, let religious services be held on Sunday. Make these meetings intensely interesting. Sing genuine revival hymns and speak with power and assurance of the Saviour's love."1
When this was presented to the church body as a whole, there were no theological objections. The whole concept was then presented to the Pacific Union Evangelism Endowment Committee, and we received a grant for our Sunday-morning evangelism project.
Ups and downs of the new project
The Sunday-morning evangelism began on Easter Sunday, 1999. Oversized postcards were mailed out three different times to the ZIP Codes surrounding Cimarron High School, where the meetings were to be held.2
Cimarron was in a great neighborhood for church planting and had been the site of a nondenominational church plant the previous year that had grown from 600 to 2,000 in one year. The marketing professionals gave us the assurance that, based on other marketing campaigns in Las Vegas, there would be about 200 guests for the opening service.
Unfortunately the time change was on the eve of Easter that year, and besides, people woke up to freak snow flurries that morning. Attendance was only 150, including about 50 of our local church members. The next week attendance dropped to around 100, but the spirit was good.
I did the preaching while I continued as senior pastor of Mountain View Church. Because of the good attendance and Union funding, the Nevada-Utah Conference began looking for a full-time church planter. The guests were about one-third Catholic, one-third Protestant, and one-third Mormon, all inactive.
I preached the doctrines of the Adventist Church in a systematic, seeker-sensitive way. I continued preaching through the summer but was much relieved when a pastor who was deeply interested in this unique evangelism method transferred to Las Vegas from British Columbia.
Meanwhile the costs at Cimarron High School went much higher than originally negotiated. For this reason, the Sunday-morning evangelism was moved to a more economical junior high school, in a less desirable location.
With the transfer another advertising campaign was launched. Unfortunately a mix-up on the ZIP Codes sent the postcards to an area several miles from the new location.
The name of our new group was changed from Mountain View Community to Higher Grounds (a coffee shop motif). The time was shifted to Saturday at 4:00 p.m. to accommodate Xers, who were presumably sleeping Sunday morning. The new pastor began to shift away from overt Adventist doctrine to simply preaching through the Bible.
Somehow Xers were unable to dis cover Higher Grounds; attendance dwindled to about 15. The Adventists supporting Higher Grounds gradually dropped out, leaving the core team to about eight people.
After two months of Saturday afternoon services, the time was moved back to Sunday morning at 10:30, and attendance immediately went back up to about 40.
Meanwhile, by September 2000, the core team was beginning to press the planting pastor a little harder to teach more Adventist doctrine, begin Sabbath services, and get the group moving closer to becoming an authentic yet contemporary Adventist congregation. He made overtures in that direction but not enough to satisfy the core team.
Some more conservative members of Mountain View Church were anxious that Higher Grounds be more than just a Sunday-morning church funded by Seventh-day Adventists.
During the Christmas holidays, the planting pastor made a decision to change his career from the ministry to journalism.3 A farewell service was held for the pastor and his family on January 14. To enable new leadership to develop, he was asked to worship with Mountain View and not Higher Grounds for a while.
Attendance at Higher Grounds on January 21 was down to about 20, with none of the pastor's disciples in attendance. Two weeks later Higher Grounds was discontinued. To this date there have been no accessions to the Seventh-day Adventist Church because of Higher Grounds.
What did we learn?
As you can imagine, I was extremely disappointed by the results. We had put in more than a year of hard work and great expense.
Despite the outcome, though, much positive came out of our Sunday-morning evangelism experi ment. The core team is stronger in the Lord and more evangelistic than ever. Perhaps the most successful part of the experiment was the learning that we gained through it that can be helpful to many churches and church plants in the postmodern world:
- A Sunday morning time slot doesn't in itself cause church growth. Even though the Sunday morning time slot was easier than a Sabbath time slot for seekers, it still took mas sive marketing attempts to get people to come
- It is difficult to get Adventists to commit to helping out on Sunday morning. Although there was a good initial response from Mountain View members (and no theological objection), Adventists could commit only to sporadic help on Sunday morning.
- It is difficult to get new Christians to transfer from Sunday morning to Sabbath morning. Aside from the possibility of deep conviction over the Sabbath, why should they change days when we are providing great programming for them on Sunday?
- Holding back on the unique teachings of the Adventist Church doesn't prevent people from slipping away. The attrition rate for those attending Higher Grounds was about the same as it would be for traditional evangelism
- Children's ministry is important. Many people discontinued coming to Higher Grounds because the children's ministry was sporadic.
- Providing an environment where people can come and feel comfortable without having to make any kind of a commitment doesn't cause church growth.
- If a church planter is not totally committed to planting an authentic Seventh-day Adventist congregation, the church plant will likely fail.
Would I recommend doing Sunday-morning evangelism again? Absolutely, with some significant changes.
- I would not switch leadership in the middle of the campaign.
- I would shorten the length of the campaign to less than two months and then switch to Sabbath morning after the Sabbath had been presented.
- I would teach the doctrines of the Adventist Church in a secular or postmodern context and call for decisions.
- I would choose leadership that was absolutely sold on Adventism.
If we are to turn the church growth trend around in the postmodern world, we have to be bold. The history of the Christian faith is filled with pioneers willing to take great risks in order to share the gospel. Unless we can create an environment where it is safe to experiment, we will never dis cover what it will take to put the awe some truths of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in a package accessible to the secular and postmodern people of the first world.
1 Ellen White, Testimonies to the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1909), 9:233.
2 We used the services of Outreach Marketing found on the Web at <www.OutreachMarketing.com>.
3 As of this writing, the planting pastor is serving as an assistant pastor at a nondenominational church.