With the hymn “I Love to Tell the Story” being played softly by the pianist, I gave the altar call. While inviting people to accept Jesus Christ as Savior, I shared my conversion story: how I left my life as a rock-and-roll disc jockey (DJ) to become a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. As I finished the first invitation to come forward, I wondered if every pastor feels like this after an altar call at an evangelistic series. Scanning the congregation and seeing the new faces of those who had been attending the nightly meetings, I wondered if anyone would come forward.
Will it work? I thought.
Jesus Christ commanded His followers to “ ‘make disciples of all the nations’ ” (Matt. 28:19, NASB). However pastors, church leaders, and members often wonder if public evangelism still works. My church and I contemplated the same thing when we held the Revelation of Hope series in the fall of 2009 as part of the North American Division’s Year of Evangelism. When we began on Friday night, September 11, we still wondered if the Lord would give us success.
What is success?
The most important step for an outreach ministry is to define success and make sure it matches with God’s view of it. The disciples shared the message that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the risen Savior. At times, people believed the message and God’s people rejoiced (see Luke 10:17; Acts 8:8); at other times, few believed and the disciples were physically beaten. Yet they still rejoiced (see Acts 5:40, 41). The goals were to preach the gospel and make disciples (see Matt. 28:18–20). If they shared the message, the disciples counted that as being successful. They left the results of the preaching up to the Lord. Success comes when God’s people are faithful in sharing the gospel.
Marta* walked to the front of the sanctuary as I continued the altar call. Marta and her husband, Dave, drove an hour each night to the meetings. Marta accepted Bible teachings quicker than her husband did, but, as we sang the last verse of the hymn, Dave also walked down the aisle to join his wife. Dave’s only exposure to Christianity came from his childhood, when he witnessed his neighbor, a pastor, drink alcohol and scream at children. After the song ended, the elders and pastors met with all those who had come forward. Dave wrapped his arms around me and whispered, “I’m scared, man.”
I held him and replied, “I know. I remember the feeling.”
Four years had elapsed from the first message I heard about Jesus to the day I was baptized. Do we give up too quickly on people who take longer to respond than we think they should? We must be willing to invest our time and energy to allow people to respond to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we try to harvest what was just recently planted. The public meetings had planted seeds of truth in Dave and Marta, and today they are attending church, studying the Bible, and planning to be baptized.
Evangelism produces growth in disciples. Jesus’ command was to make disciples, which involves more than baptizing people. Churches are to help their members grow in God’s grace and truth. The members who came to the evangelistic meetings said that they were blessed to hear the old story about Jesus and His love again.
One of the great concerns that churches have today is that young adults leave; the reasons for this exodus vary. Some feel the church is not relevant. Others were bruised inside the church. Many leave because, looking for examples of Christ in the members, they find hypocrisy. Evangelism and fellowship can help young adults become connected to the church again.
Like a plant without water, which starts to wither, some members need to be watered in order to start growing again. Several young adults came to those meetings. Some had not attended church in years, but the Lord called them to try the church again. They needed to be watered. They needed to know that the church loves and forgives. As they heard the messages, they saw Jesus in the teachings. The members reached out with open arms and several young adults decided to be rebaptized and connect again with the church and its mission.
Evangelism changes lives for eternity. I looked out into the crowded pews after giving the appeal to come forward and take a stand for Christ. I smiled and thanked the Lord. From the back of the church, Zion, a ten-year-old boy, walked down the aisle. Zion had come to almost all of the meetings with his father, and now he walked to the front before any other person had moved. His father, Dan, followed not far behind. Dan is a young adult who had experimented with a variety of belief systems, from New Age to Buddhism. He told me, “This makes sense. I can see this is truth.” Dan had found what he was looking for when he found Jesus Christ in the prophetic messages. Father and son were baptized together.
What brought success?
For evangelistic meetings to be successful, the members need to be supportive and excited. The members offered several ideas to help make the meetings a success. A group of ladies planned a three-course meal the first night for members and visitors. Others organized refreshments for every night of the meetings in order to facilitate fellowship. Without prayer and the Holy Spirit, our efforts would have been in vain, so we started the Alive at Five program months before the series. Alive at Five challenged the members to pray for five people they could invite to the meetings. Our elders also led a small group that prayed for the newcomers and for the pastor each night as the message was preached.
Our communication director suggested using a social networking Web site to invite people. We needed to use every available avenue. Several team members took pictures during the baptisms. A member quickly loaded the images into our computer so they could be viewed on the screens in the church as people greeted the new members after the service. Fresh from his baptism, Dan looked up at the screen and exclaimed, “This is too much! Pastor, look at the pictures. That is awesome!”
We tried to be aware of the needs of our guests. We started and ended on time every night. We held meetings four nights a week, realizing that people have busy schedules. A member recorded the sermons and broadcast them on our Web site so that people could listen again or catch a message they missed.
God brings success
Success comes when we place the results in God’s hands. We prayed that Satan would have no power to hinder the meetings. As I stood by the door one evening, greeting people, a woman who had attended every meeting handed me a satanic ring and said, “I know what this means now. I don’t want it any more. Will you destroy it?” God was working in ways we did not realize.
One young adult couple, Bryan and Annette, had been coming every night, but Annette had missed several meetings because of an injury. When the night came to preach about a challenging topic, the first person I saw in the pews as I walked out to the platform was Annette. My heart sank into my shoes as my mind raced through her possible reactions. Then I prayed, “Lord, she is in Your hands.” Bryan and Annette left after the meeting before I could speak to them. I drove home and pulled out the decision cards for the evening. I swallowed hard as I found Annette’s card on top of the pile. She had marked every box, including the decision to be baptized!
Evangelism series must not end with the baptisms. The energy and momentum of the meetings must continue. Dan said to me, “This is so exciting! When you come and worship here, when you hear the message, you want to be a part of it. You want to help support the ministry.”
Dan’s son, Zion, faced a tough decision about playing soccer on the Sabbath. Douglas Elsey, our soccer-playing senior pastor, who coaches a team that plays on Sundays, invited Zion to join his team. Zion’s face lit up as Dan said to him, “Remember your prayer last night about playing soccer?”
Those who were not baptized are attending a Sabbath School class for new believers. Our church plans fellowship meals for the newcomers. We work with newly baptized members to help them discover their spiritual gifts. We also invited those who came to the Revelation of Hope series to attend our next laity-led Revelation seminar, which began in January. The church plans community events such as an international food festival, health fairs, Vacation Bible School, a child-friendly fall festival, and drama programs all year long to make connections with the community and prepare for the next evangelism series.
Here are three things to keep in mind as your church plans its next evangelism event:
1. Pray and trust the success and results (seen and unseen) to the Lord.
2. Make sure your evangelism has a personal touch.
3. Learn from mistakes and never give up trying different ways to touch lives in your community.
Walking the aisle
The longest walk I ever took was the distance from sitting in the back of a small Adventist church, down the aisle to the front, as I responded to an invitation to commit my life to Jesus Christ. Indeed, it was a long walk from my old life as a radio DJ to something new with Jesus. That little church held the evangelism meetings, and I think I was the only one who was baptized as a result. They did all that work for only one baptism. Success should not be measured in numbers. In time my wife was also baptized, and the Lord placed us in ministry to lead others to Him. One changed life for God is worth it because one life touches another and then another until our world is changed (see Luke 15:3–7).
Did it work? Were our evangelism meetings a success? The good news of Jesus Christ was preached. Lives were changed. We rejoice that, with God’s power, evangelism still works, just as Jesus promised in Matthew 28:18–20.
* Actual names are not used.