Standing in the church lobby, we watched hundreds of people streaming out the door of the sanctuary, though we recognized few faces. The Easter musical sponsored by the Calimesa, California, Seventh-day Adventist Church had worked again: our third year of the musical (three performances over two days) drew more than 1,300 attendees.
But can you really call offering musicals to your community evangelism? Or have we defined evangelism too narrowly? Is it a lowering of our evangelistic heritage to offer the community a theatrical representation of our full message? Arguably the musical was just that—a staged presentation of our message: the great controversy story on stage in word (narrators), song (a choir), and choreography (scripted movement). The musical told the Adventist metanarrative the great controversy between God and Satan—through the words, songs, and movements performed by more than 65 characters and a live band. By all accounts, it was a magnificent performance, in part because of the visually creative and stunning costuming work.
How do we wrap our minds around types of evangelism that do not fall into the traditional public evangelistic patterns? Perhaps the concept of outreach is more accurate. Outreach can be a lot like traditional evangelism, but it is not necessarily the same thing. What are the goals of traditional evangelism and outreach, and how can a church embrace both?
Evangelism and outreach
The goals of traditional evangelism can be expressed in a two-part perspective, both designed to fulfill the Great Commission: first, the aim is to spread the good news of Christ’s salvation so that others can hear and accept His call; second, most often there is a tangible blessing for members who are involved in traditional evangelism. This positive experience for church members can be a good argument for holding traditional evangelistic meetings, even when the new converts are few.
The goals of outreach are similarly twofold: First, we seek to offer a glimpse of our Savior to the community around us. While this glimpse may be through words, such as the life skills course we used here at Calimesa, it may also be through music (a concert series), or through stage performance (the Easter musical). Second, such outreach is also a blessing to our own members. Great power flows through those gifted by God with musical skills. Music moves people in ways that the spoken word simply cannot. Additionally, the methods of sharing God’s truth on stage through the entire range of human senses moves the listener as a whole person—emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually engaging the participant with truth.
With this background in mind, what follows are several elements of the Calimesa church ministry.
Traditional (but not so traditional) evangelistic series
Traditional evangelistic meetings have not had a track record of success in our community, nor have the members met them with enthusiasm. So in our strategic planning for evangelism, we wondered how we could get members involved in a Revelation Seminar to the degree that they would bring their friends and relatives.
We came up with five principles to enhance our more traditional evangelistic meetings and make them more appealing to members and visitors. These principles were based on the Revelation: Hope, Meaning, and Purpose series from the Hope Channel: (1) a verse by verse, chapter by chapter approach, (2) more gospel oriented, (3) more Christ centered, (4) a practical everyday life element, and (5) being more positive toward other faiths. When the members learned about these five principles, particularly the first and the last, their attitudes toward the evangelistic series changed and they became more open both to coming and also bringing family and friends.
We then designed the program to look and feel like a community college class. We would meet the second and fourth Tuesdays of the months, when local colleges are in sessions (September through May). We would take Christmas, spring break, and summer off, and run the 26 meetings over a year and a half (which was also more conducive to our own busy schedules). We also decided to charge 30 dollars (the current rate for community college classes in California) and provide assignments for those attending. Instead of spending money on advertising, the church created a Web site, ran off inexpensive posters and flyers, and relied on the members to develop the interest.
We are now in the second year of the program. Would we do it again? We have learned a number of things. On the positive side, more than 200 people registered for the class on the Web. A number of relatives and friends of members are attending. Opening night registrations included about 15 walk-ins from the community (drawn by personal invitations and a banner created inexpensively by one of the pastors). So far two people impacted by the meetings have joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But perhaps the biggest result is a renewed enthusiasm within the church for the prophetic message of Seventh-day Adventism. On the other hand, if we were to do this again, a shorter period (such as three to nine months) would work better than 18 months, and we would want to do a better job of tracking attendees than we have done.
On another level, more in line with the second goal of evangelism and outreach noted above, this approach also seeks to address the way people form lasting life commitments and sustained relationships with others. We know that the people we are most likely to retain after traditional evangelistic events are those who have developed relationships with other people in our community of faith. Furthermore, one questions how wise it is to encourage life-altering commitments to anything after only a couple of weeks of content-intense gatherings. This approach allows people to be present at the church for more than two years, thus getting to know others there. The fact that the “evangelist,” or teacher of the course, is a member of our church helps develop these positive relationships. The members of the course can attend church and see the evangelist and his or her family as a regular part of our congregation. Seeing the message of the course lived in the life of the church is an added value. The challenging and yet low pressure style of the presentations allows people time to process what they are hearing in an unrushed manner, and to get to know people; thus, by the time the series is over, if they have not done so already, they can make decisions about becoming part of a community they know, based on a message that has had time to sink in.
One of the hazards of evangelistic strategizing is the trap of thinking that evangelism is primarily results, rather than a way of life that reflects the priorities of Jesus, regardless of the results. Jesus extended healing to ten lepers; only one returned to say Thank You. Jesus likely would have done the same, even if that one had not returned, because evangelism is not defined wholly by results but by the life of faith extended to others.
One of the ways this takes place at Calimesa is in the support we provide to the House of Decision, a non–Seventh-day Adventist residential ministry that takes in people who need a new start. Many are women and their children who escaped violence and abuse. Others have lost jobs and have nowhere to go. Others have been through crises, some even self-induced. But for those willing to connect with God, this provides a transitional place to put their lives back together. The House of Decision is a faith-based ministry operating solely on donations. The Calimesa church is honored to share with them through financial support, counseling services, and routine invites for them to join us during special programs. Some of our church members have directly benefited from their ministry, not to mention that a resident of the House of Decision has shown an interest in baptism.
Another time we adopted a local mobile home community and, in conjunction with our church school, helped many of the residents. Some had health problems that limited their mobility, and so we would clean up and care for their yards, make repairs on their homes, and so on. Some residents have developed close relationships with church members who served, and the contact continues long after we completed the projects there.
We are currently involved in helping to provide a community garden. We provide a half acre of space from some property owned by the church and, in conjunction with the local Chamber of Commerce, offer the space for many families to grow vegetables that will help supply their nutritional needs. This has given us the opportunity to develop relationships all through the community, which sees us as people who are willing to serve.
The Calimesa Community Concert Series is a tradition in and of itself. Because of the dedication of one family, our church has, through the tenure of many pastors, offered the ministry of Christian music. For 26 years, the Calimesa Community Concert Series has averaged six concerts per year, offered primarily in our church sanctuary, but occasionally held in our church school auditorium or in other churches. The premier event each and every year is the Christmas concert, which is offered twice on Friday evening and once on Sabbath afternoon. While the musicians (and musical style) have varied throughout the years, the aim of the ministry has been to bring non–Seventh-day Adventists into our church in a nonthreatening way. The musicians are primarily and purposefully non–Seventh-day Adventists. The gift of music can be celebrated across denominational cultures and the crossover blessing is substantial. Not only have scores of community members written letters of appreciation, but the relationships that we have developed with these musicians has been encouraging as well.
The musical guests are well-known local, national, and international stars. In most cases,they did not know much about us, but, after responding to our invitation and getting to know us in person, they have been exceedingly positive. Certainly, these relationships help break down barriers. We must show our wider community that Christianity, Seventh-day Adventist Christianity in particular, is neither a cult nor a sectarian oddity. People have come to know us in a way that is focused on a broader message of celebrating those aspects of Christ that all people can appreciate. In addition to those who come explicitly to hear our professional guests, others now come because the concerts have become a family tradition. Whether or not they have any connection to Adventism, they come because the concert series is a community tradition.
Drama ministry: The Easter musical
As noted above, attendance at the third annual Easter musical was stellar. In the second year, we added a third performance; this year, we purposefully put the third performance on Sunday morning. The hope was that we would draw even more people from the community to attend on the actual day of Easter. We targeted those who might routinely look for a place to attend a religious service on this special occasion. (We put a general advertisement into the local newspaper toward that end.) Some in your church may not be inclined to engage in outreach on Easter weekend, but our strategy is to reach our community with the least threatening and combative form of outreach possible. We solicited audience responses to the musical through specially printed cards included in the program bulletin.
The musical was about the story of salvation, emphasizing that our own personal stories are a part of God’s story—the story of our entire universe. We asked on these response cards if persons would like to share their own stories with us, as a community of faith interested in how we live out our part of God’s story. While we have not received as many response cards as we had hoped, those who did respond were positive and many requested future performances. Part of our overall outreach is a consistent effort to simply minister to our community—again, regardless of the positive number of those who respond.
In keeping with the second goal of evangelism and outreach, as noted above, one of the most important elements of our Easter musical is the ministry it provides our own church members. For at least six months prior to the Easter weekend performances, the director and her team worked with cast members, ages 4 to 80. The simple fact that more than 65 cast members and their families were memorizing lines, traveling to and from rehearsals, sewing costumes, practicing their parts on stage, and thinking about how it would all come together is a huge blessing. This is a ministry in and of itself as the entire team worked together, praying at every step. On a personal and practical level, it is very natural and nonthreatening to invite your friends and neighbors to see your daughter, husband, or cousin perform in a play at your church on Easter morning.
Our outreach strategy is presently focused on building teams of church members and interested visitors to work with specific sections of the community. Teams of about ten people will work together with the purpose of building connections and relationships with residents and businesses in their particular sections of town. As they have routine contact with our community members, the attendance rates for all of these outreach modalities will surely increase. As these team members get to know those in their districts, we can better focus our strategy to the needs of our community as well.
At Calimesa, there is a complex blending of the twofold purpose of responding to the Great Commission. The purposeful approach of the church as it responds to God’s calling to share His message is paying rich dividends in the lives of those already in the church and those in the community we serve.