The lady in the aisle

Is it time to re-evaluate how we do evangelism in our churches? The author shares several stories that may answer that question.

Don Jacobsen, DMin, now retired, was special assistant to the president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.

Her first sentence I found somewhat affirming. “Pastor, I was blessed by your sermon.” That was nice; I was a guest in her church, and she was being a gracious worshiper. However, her second sentence nearly made my knees buckle. “The problem is, I never know when it’s safe to bring visitors.”

“Never know . . . safe?”

“Tell me what you mean,” I said, wanting to explore this a bit further.

“Well,” she said, “being a small church we have quite a few guest speakers and some of our own people ‘preach,’ and they all mean well. But I never know what they’re going to say or how they’re going to say it. I often find myself thinking, I’m glad I didn’t bring a neighbor with me this morning, they’d be shocked or confused or bored.”

I looked at this woman, slight, graying, buoyant, and I thought, My dear sister, you deserve better than that. Your neighbors deserve better than that. Your God deserves better than that from His church.

Sad to say, I have heard this before—this idea that members are sometimes afraid to bring guests to church because they’re not quite sure what they’re going to encounter when they get there.

Who is to blame?

If, when the elders in your church, or anyone else for that matter, preach, they sometimes scold, use in-house language, ride spiritual hobbyhorses, or concentrate on spiritual to-do lists, who is to blame? Who taught them that? Most have only the homiletic training and theological perspective they received from going to church.

People come to church to experience God, to bask in His presence, to marvel and worship Him for who He is, and not just to be told about the things He doesn’t like. We are remade when we see Him as He is, not when we are given instructions about what we should or shouldn’t be doing.

Of course, there is a time for rebuke. Scripture makes that clear. But when Jesus uttered rebukes, He had tears in His eyes, and that wasn’t His theme. I mean, little kids didn’t crawl into a lap that was crowned with a scowling face.

He was about good news. The whole Book is about good news. His church should be about the business of good news. And the sister who just started this conversation deserves a regular, weekly opportunity to be reminded that we know how the good news story ends, and we know which side of the wall we’re going to be on when it does.

Change as danger

What can we categorize as more dangerous, change or no change? It depends. Change can mean compromise. Change can mean tampering with the sacred. Change can mean losing something valuable.

But no change can also mean losing something valuable, something we must never lose. Like relevance. Like speaking a language that assures us people will listen when we tell our story.

We don’t need to forage very far back in our history to come on a time when people in our culture were attracted by propositional truth. We could lay out our arguments, underscore them with Scripture and logic and history, and voilà! The light would go on.

“I understand that, I believe it. Where do I sign up?”

I did evangelism that way for 40 years in many countries. I loved it. But it took me a long time to discover why it was not working so well in North America during the past few decades. The following story, I think, expresses how things work—at least in North America.

Paradigm shift?

Recently an officer from our General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists headquarters phoned a clerk (whom we’ll call Shirley) in a store not far from where my wife and I live. He wanted to buy cabinets. The caller was so kind and gracious on the phone that Shirley was impressed. After they hung up, she stared at the wall for a few minutes thinking about the remarkable conversation she just had and how something in this man’s voice, in his demeanor, in his attitude, had caught her by surprise.

A few days later he showed up at Shirley’s desk. The face to face was even more impressive than the phone call. There was a genuineness, an authenticity, an overt caring, almost a radiance in his manner that confirmed her earlier impression. What was it about this man? Whatever he had, she decided she wanted some of it.

A day or two later, Shirley was introduced to her new friend’s son-in-law, a pastor of the local Seventh-day Adventist Church who had just moved to town with his wife and baby. She talked to him for a while, and when he walked away she thought to herself, Would you believe it? He’s got it, too!

As it turned out she couldn’t accept his invitation to attend church that week because her schedule included working Saturdays. Would she like to visit on Wednesday night, instead? She said she’d love to. And she did. In fact, she’s hardly missed a Wednesday night since.

But an interesting thing happened. She walked into the church that first Wednesday evening, was warmly and genuinely welcomed by the members, and told me later, “I sat there thinking to myself, Wow, they’ve all got it!”

Thus, she started keeping company with our church family and recently called us “my church” when she conversed with a group of colleagues at work.


Let me suggest one of the most jarring observations. Would it be heresy to reckon thus: with the previous paradigm we advertised and proclaimed the truth. The path of the seeker was (1) believe, (2) accept our lifestyle and other issues, then (3) join.

But could this be today’s paradigm: (1) join, emotionally, at a deep, I want what they’ve got level—though not by membership yet; (2) accept our lifestyle and other issues, not because we proved them but because experience demonstrates the transformation they create; and finally (3) believe—which eventually leads to membership. At that point, any obstacles they may encounter in our belief system are inclined to be minimal.

Though that process seems backward, it might just seem that way. Those who follow trends in North American Christian churches assure us that the first question most people ask when approaching a church today is not, “Do these people have the truth?” But rather, “Is it safe here? Is this a place where I am loved and accepted and understood? Does what these people believe make them authentic and attractive and joyous and contagious?”

The earnest leaders of the Reformation, in attempting to rectify some horrific misunderstandings that had been growing for 1,500 years, defined the church as “a place where . . .” and then they went on to talk about preaching the gospel, receiving Communion, and celebrating baptism. But when the New Testament talks about a church, it seldom refers to a building, but, instead, usually refers to a people. Not so much a place where but a people who. A people who are an extension of the loving hands of Jesus. A people who are the personification of the unconditional beckoning arms of God. A people who are missionary minded with a passion.

Missions exist in the DNA of every believer. A missionary (pastor) first learns to speak the language of the people to whom they are sent. Right? Thus, my fear is that, perhaps, we are standing again in the aisle, talking to a slight, graying, buoyant, little Christian lady in her church, who laments that the “missionaries” in her church don’t always speak the language of the people whom she hopes and prays they will influence.

Certainly something we all, as ministers, need to think and pray about.

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Don Jacobsen, DMin, now retired, was special assistant to the president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.

April 2008

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