God's mighty acts in a changing world

God's mighty acts in a changing world (Part 2 of 2)

Nine theologically based changes to traditional Adventist outreach in the face of the challenges of postmodernism.

Jon Paulien, Ph.D., is chair of the New Testament Department, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

In the February 2006 issue, we surveyed recent philosophical changes that pose serious challenges to the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Nevertheless, the emerging postmodern condition reveals the mighty hand of God, who never leaves Himself “without witness” in any culture. We reviewed eight major developments in postmodernism that exhibit God at work. But these changes in the mainstream societies of the West require a considered response from the people of God.

The shift to postmodern thinking naturally affects the way people approach faith and their relationship to faith-based institutions. The Seventh-day Adventist Church will certainly not be able to continue with business as usual in a postmodern world. Jesus gives a glimpse of the Adventist dilemma in Matthew 5:13–16. There He articulates two types of Christian community: One is based on the model of a city/fortress; the other is based on salt.

In the fortress model of evangelism, the saints are safely enclosed in protective walls with strong gates. They avoid undue influence from “the world” and safeguard the integrity of the community. From time to time, however, the citizens of the fortress will hold a “crusade” by opening the gates, sending out the army, and snatching up a few captives! The captives are brought back to the fortress, the gates are slammed shut, and all is well in Fortressland. But we live in a world where the captives are becoming fewer and the casualties larger as a result of this approach.

In the salt model of evangelism, on the other hand, the salt mingles with the food and melts in to the point where one can hardly tell what is salt and what is food anymore. But the result of this process is that the entire dish tastes better. With the salt motif as an incarnational model, the saints go out into the world and make it a better place by their presence.

I am not suggesting that the church discard the fortress model of evangelism. The fortress model worked extremely well in the age of Christian modernism and continues to work well in areas where a large number of Christian modernists can be found, including immigrant cultures in North America, Europe, and Australia. But the increasing impact of postmodernism on the mainstream cultures of the world can be better met by the incarnational model of outreach.

The salt model points the way to a work for postmoderns that will engage the church and society in a productive interaction and has the potential to rekindle the fires of outreach that have gone cold in the mainstream cultures of the West. As I ponder the salt model in the light of the emerging postmodern condition, I see nine changes to traditional Adventist outreach that may be necessary if we wish to participate in the mighty acts of God in the face of the challenges of postmodernism.

1. From public to relational evangelism

Traditional Adventist outreach uses public meetings as the crucial factor in spiritual “regime change.” But postmoderns are not usually comfortable in that kind of a setting. They are not likely to come to the typical Adventist evangelistic series, nor are they likely to be moved by it if they do come. Experience teaches that postmoderns are best reached one on one, through friendships and mentoring relationships. One-on-one relationships allow people to explore unfamiliar ideas at their own pace in a safe environment.

Unquestionably supported by Scripture, such a shift in strategy describes mentoring and discipleship at the heart of the Great Commission proclaimed by Jesus (Matthew 28:19, 20). With only one main verb in Matthew 28:19, 20, that particular verb does not express a command to hold public meetings. Instead it is a command to “make disciples.” While meetings can be an aid to mentoring relationships, the relationships themselves are the primary evangelistic strategy presented by Jesus in this passage.

2. From short-term to long-term

Recent Adventist evangelism is a short-term project. A local church invests in public meetings,tries to move people to baptism in several weeks, and then breathes a sigh of relief for the next year or two. And this strategy can reach people when they are at a point of transition, as is the case with most immigrants. But a clear lesson learned from the New York Project, attempted in the aftermath of September 11, is that mainstream Americans do not join the Adventist Church in a matter of four to six months. It takes a long-term investment (at least three to five years) to make an impact in the mainstream culture.

In the past, we have not shown much patience for this kind of approach. But the model of Jesus’ earthly ministry suggests that patience in evangelism should be the norm rather than the exception. Jesus Himself, the most effective mentor the world has ever known, invested three and a half years in just twelve people and even then suffered a dropout (Judas). We should not expect things to move more rapidly with postmoderns in today’s world.

3. From our agenda to felt needs

Traditional Adventist outreach, based on a clear sense of what outsiders need to learn from us, includes giving it to them the way we think they should hear it, and if they don’t get it, it is “their problem.” Postmoderns, unfortunately, have proven quite disinterested in our traditional agenda for their souls. They don’t feel that the answers we provide address questions that matter to their lives.

A more successful approach involves listening before we talk. Through listening we can discover the felt needs in the mainstream community and meet them in the power of the gospel. Paul articulated such a felt-needs approach in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23. Become all things to all people in order that you might save some.

4. From church-based to neighborhood/workplace-based

In the typical Adventist approach, meetings are held at the church building. Even if they begin in a public hall, they are moved as soon as possible to the church venue. But postmoderns are not likely to come to a church, even if they have an interest in the topics being presented. Waiting for them there is a losing proposition. On the other hand, people live in every neighborhood and work in every workplace with Adventists located in the same neighborhoods and workplaces. To be successful in the Western world, you need to meet people where they are. So a move toward neighborhood and workplace outreach is a step in the right direction.

Paul endorsed this type of approach when he used his skills as a tentmaker to meet the mainstream people of his day. Spending large amounts of time at a tent workshop in the middle of town enabled Paul to meet many people who would never have come to a synagogue. Paul truly met the people where they actually were.

5. From one way to a multiplicity of approaches

The typical Adventist evangelistic approach does not significantly differ from that which was used at the turn of the twentieth century. Though there are variations, the overall approach stays fairly consistent. Those to whom it appeals respond very well, but in the Western world, at least, the percentage of people that find it relevant seems to be declining fairly rapidly.

Postmoderns are as diverse as snowflakes. The beautiful thing is that such diversity can be countered with the kind of variety bequeathed by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12–14). Truly Spirit-filled Christians do not fit into a cookie-cutter mold. They are, in fact, rather unpredictable (John 3:8). The variety of the Spirit’s gifts will lead to a multiplicity of approaches to meet the various mindsets and felt needs of the postmodern seeker.

6. From a conversion to a process focus

Traditional Adventist evangelism focuses on conversion and baptism. Imagine a continuum that goes from –10 to +10. Minus ten designates a person who has absolutely no knowledge of God. Plus ten designates a fully devoted follower of God, with the zero point as the point of conversion and baptism. Traditional evangelism focuses on getting people from minus into plus territory, and success can be measured only when there are baptisms as a result. But mainstream westerners tend to be far deeper into the minus continuum than the typical evangelistic “interest.” This means we have little or no impact in the mainstream community.

Salt evangelism, on the other hand, can occur even with no immediate baptism in view. If a person moves from –8 to –6 on the scale, successful evangelism has occurred. The key to a process focus includes encouraging the people with whom we work to begin or to continue moving in the direction of Jesus. And process evangelism is not limited to reaching secular people. The idea of process is also relevant to the “plus” side of the spectrum, nurturing baptized saints into a more fully devoted discipleship.

The book The Desire of Ages makes it clear that Jesus was dedicated to process evangelism. The best biblical examples of process are found in the way He handled both Judas and Peter. In both cases the journey was fitful and full of digressions and dead ends. Yet Jesus continued to work with both of them and eventually succeeded with Peter. Jesus’ patience with long, slow conversions continues as a good model for working with postmoderns.

7. From church to community

Adventists have grown accustomed to the idea that a community of believers has to have a building to meet in that has the identification of a “church” and looks like a church. But postmoderns do not think of “church” in positive terms. At some point in their experience they have been burned by the church idea. In Britain, among other places, many postmoderns will cross the street rather than walk by a church. The very style of the church building can be a turn-off. So an Adventist community seriously interested in reaching postmoderns will consider new models for community. The models that are being tried include cafes, health centers, gymnasiums, and “house churches.”

This may seem painfully radical to you, and perhaps even heretical. But you might be shocked to find out that the oldest known church building in the Roman world, usually dated somewhere between A.D. 250–300, is located at Dura-Europus in Syria. So for more than two hundred years the early Christian church flourished without church buildings. Our fixation with such structures today is a legacy of Constantine, a character we don’t normally take as a model of sound New Testament thinking. In New Testament times most churches seem to have met in the largest home available to the members in that area. Thus other forms of community are not contrary to Scripture.

8. From church-controlled to God-controlled

Moving to long-term, relational, and process evangelism—not closely tied to traditional church structures—moves things a little out of our control. The traditional process goes to great pains to track people from first contact through interest to evangelistic series to baptism. Although this procedure is effective with Christian moderns, postmoderns will more likely go through a conversion process difficult to track and to enumerate. The process may include entities not tied to the church or even encounters with other religions.

It will not be easy for us to give up some of our control of the conversion process. We may find it hard to trust that God will use our efforts to His glory even if we never see the final outcome of our labors. The biblical model of control was suggested by Paul when he said, “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:5–7). Sometimes we will reap a harvest from the work of others; at other times, others will reap a harvest from ours. Perhaps in this generation the concept of “sheep-stealing” will lose its negative reputation and will be recognized as the norm.

9. From exclusive to inclusive

I have felt for more than a decade that the Seventh-day Adventist Church faces a crisis of identity. On the one hand, we desire a relatively small, focused, doctrinally pure church with consistent standards of lifestyle. On the other hand, we believe that God wants us to go into the whole world and reach out to all kinds of people. But reaching out to all kinds of different people will require flexibility and an inclusiveness that will make the first goal rather difficult to attain.

We face a tension between exclusiveness and inclusiveness, between a focus on pure teaching and the openness of grace. If we concentrate on purity, we will become smaller and more idiosyncratic. At its extreme, such an approach would result in a community more like the Amish than the mainstream culture. But if we concentrate on “becoming all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22, 23) we may become a “great multitude” that exhibits a wide variety of worship styles and standards.

It seems to me that we have, as a group, tried to run a route down the middle, thus losing the potential benefits of either approach. Perhaps it is God’s ideal to pursue both sides of this seeming dilemma (and the Hebrew mind often said Yes to such dilemmas). But with God’s hand truly involved in the emerging postmodern condition (and I laid out my case for this conclusion in the previous article), we will need to become more inclusive and open in the way that we deal with others. We may need to give greater attention to the statement of Jesus, “He that is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50; cf. Mark 9:40).


As hinted already in the previous paragraphs, there are two ways that the Seventh-day Adventist Church can respond to the evident signs that God has a lot to do with the emerging postmodern condition. On the one hand, we could see in these developments the call of God to move out of our comfort zone and reach postmoderns where they are. This challenges us to approaches that will require significant sacrifice on the part of local congregations and will no doubt engender strife and confusion in some places. But we should not expect to have significant success with postmoderns if we do not make substantial changes.

On the other hand, we could take the approach that God has called us to be a pure, doctrinally focused community whose task is the preservation of truth and the demonstration of high standards. We could trust that God will use other Christian bodies to do the front line work of bringing postmoderns to a basic knowledge of Jesus Christ. We could perhaps trust that one day God will do a miracle, shifting the mainstream cultures of the West to the place where our answers will meet their questions without our having to make significant changes. Perhaps such a strategy will be successful, but history and experience tell me that we will likely be permanently left at the margins of society.

Rather, a growing base of evidence that God continues to do a mighty work in this world exists. I would prefer to be in the center of what God does in the world, not at the edges. So from now on I want to reach out to anyone of any background who wants something better for their life. I want to build bridges to other people and other communities rather than build walls to keep them from disturbing my comfort. I want to heal hearts rather than break them. I want to learn whatever God wants me to learn in order to be more effective wherever in the world He leads me. And I hope, when all is said and done, that I will have captured just a little of the spirit of Jesus.

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Jon Paulien, Ph.D., is chair of the New Testament Department, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

April 2006

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