To give or not to give? The question kept going through Nancy’s mind1 as she rode a bus in Phoenix, Arizona. An Adventist layperson, Nancy had some small Bible pamphlets, and she sensed an uncomfortable conviction to give a pamphlet to the man sitting next to her. If she gives him one, would she be considered rude? If she does not, would she miss a great opportunity to share her faith? She thought it over, hesitated, not knowing the man, and pushed the conviction away. Soon, the bus came to a stop, and her inner conviction would not go away. She may never see the man again. She collected herself, dared to brave the consequences, stepped outside of her comfort zone, and handed the tract to the man, expecting the worst. The stranger in the bus looked at her intensely, and said, “You know, I’ve been praying that God would give me a sign if He didn’t want me to commit suicide . . . and I think this might be it.” Both got off the bus to be on their way, one to her routine, the other to think again of what life is all about.
Literature ministry is a call to think of what life is all about—normal people confronting life in all its reality. For many, though, literature ministry evokes mental pictures of fully suited men with briefcases walking in the country, selling hardcover Bible Stories to families for hundreds of dollars. While at times this has been the predominant mode of literature evangelism, such a picture not only is antiquated but also illustrates a narrow category of the broader scope of literature ministries—especially as it relates to the local church.
Today’s literature ministry envisions engaging all believers in the local church in two ways: first and primarily through literature distribution, secondly through sales. Having played a lead part in developing a literature ministry called GLOW (Giving Light to Our World),2 I have had a unique opportunity to see the results of hundreds of laity distributing tracts one at a time in various communities.
In Fresno, California, Jason, an Adventist church member, had a rare experience. One particular day Jason went to the courthouse to attend to some business. While there, he passed through the security checkpoint, where he emptied his pockets into a bucket for inspection. In went his keys, wallet, and Bible pamphlets. The security guard, inspecting the bucket, asked Jason whether he could have one of the pamphlets. Jason replied that the guard could have them all. The security guard shook his head, stating that he already had the other ones.
The Upper Columbia Conference received a call from an inner-circle staff of a famous television personality. Apparently he had found a Bible pamphlet on health in his hotel room and then found the same tract title on the plane the next day. He ordered 1,000 more tracts stating that it was the best write-up on health he had read and that they would be calling to order more.
Then there was the woman who owned a salon in Madera, California. She received two pieces of literature at different times on the topic of the Sabbath. She prayed that God would make it clear if He was trying to speak to her. Soon afterward she was approached by an Adventist who gave her another Sabbath tract—this time in the mall. Amazed, she accepted the tract, called in for Bible studies, eventually was baptized, and is now the literature leader in her local Adventist church.
These are just a few of many stories illustrating the impact of Adventist literature in communities when our members are engaged in active distribution.
Benefits of local church literature ministry
To assess the effectiveness of literature evangelism, some might ask, “How many baptisms does literature distribution generate?” I would propose another reasonable question: “Are immediate baptisms the appropriate indicator of the success of literature ministry?” The point to be noted is that implementing a literature distribution program yields multiple benefits to local churches and conferences, and these benefits are not always necessarily baptism related.
Here are two benefits:
1. Increased lay involvement. One clear and immediate benefit of literature distribution is member activation. Lay activation is a goal in itself: “When we have entire, wholehearted consecration to the service of Christ, God will recognize the fact by an outpouring of his Spirit without measure; but this will not be while the largest portion of the church are not laborers together
ith God.”3 What makes literature distribution an easy facilitator of member participation?
a. Simplicity. Literature distribution does not require any special or expensive modes, such as erecting satellite dishes, syncing projectors, purchasing plane tickets, designing banners, cooking a vegetarian meal, or delivering a sermon. All it takes is a willing heart.
Take, for example, Edith from a small rural church. She is an elderly person with only one functioning arm. When her church found an opportunity to sell vegetarian burgers at a local agricultural expo, she decided she would put a Bible pamphlet in every napkin that went with the meal. That year, Edith, as well as others in her church, distributed hundreds of tracts one of which ended up in the hands of former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Edith later said, “This is one ministry that even I can do!”
b. Fearlessness. Literature provides a fearless medium of communication. This simple fact alone galvanizes the hearts of many laity. After all, their only part in the whole process can be as simple as placing the literature in public—the Holy Spirit will apply the message of the tract to the hearts of the readers.
c. Eloquence. Most laity may feel they cannot adequately articulate their beliefs. Well-written literature makes them “silent preachers,” with the literature doing the speaking on their behalf. An Adventist in San Francisco, for example, has a two-foot high statue of the image of Daniel 2. He simply puts the statue outside and sits next to it in a chair. When passersby stop and ask him what the statue is all about, he does not have to say a word. He simply gives them a tract on Daniel’s prophecy and allows the pamphlet to do the work.
d. Economy. Most literature is inexpensive, some tracts costing only pennies each. This makes literature distribution a viable option for all. This also reduces inhibitions regarding indiscriminate mass distribution methods, given that this is such a small loss if the receiver actually discards the literature. A Samoan evangelical pastor requested Bible studies for his entire church after he found a tract on the ground outside of a taco shop.
e. Mobility. Over and over again, we hear church members telling us how they like the convenience of literature work, particularly with GLOW literature, because of the actual size of the tracts. They can carry them in their pockets or purse. Small though it might seem, this ease of use and mobility is a large factor in the decision-making process of laity. One church member even told us how the tracts are just the right size for his one-legged cockatoo. The man takes his bird with him on walks. When children are attracted to the bird, he gives the bird a tract and the bird gives the tract to the kids with his beak. Apparently he has a high success rate with this method.
2. Increased Bible study. A second stated purpose of literature ministry is to get people to study their Bibles. This often means that they will study alone in their home without immediately contacting the Adventist Church. Ellen White said, “More than one thousand will soon be converted in one day, most of whom will trace their first convictions to the reading of our publications.”4 She even gave a specific example of the delayed, but sure, results of literature ministry: “The results of the circulation of this book [The Great Controversy] are not to be judged by what now appears. By reading it some souls will be aroused, and will have courage to unite themselves at once with those who keep the commandments of God. But a much larger number who read it will not take their position until they see the very events taking place that are foretold in it. The fulfillment of some of the predictions will inspire faith that others also will come to pass, and when the earth is lightened with the glory of the Lord, in the closing work, many souls will take their position on the commandments of God as the result of this agency.”5
These statements lead us to believe that thousands (if not millions) will read our publications and be convicted by them, yet they may not make immediate decisions.
While some readers will not take their stand for the truth until the great harvest, many will be convicted and make immediate decisions on the topic of the tract. Often people who receive literature do not request additional Bible studies but simply make decisions on the light given in the tract they received.
In 2013, a church member placed a literature rack in a Christian bookstore, of course, with the store’s permission. Later, a customer took one of the free tracts, which happened to be on the Sabbath. The customer was so impressed that he returned to the Christian bookstore and showed the tract to the store owner. The store owner was also convicted—so much so that he began to close his bookstore on the Sabbath from then on.
It is not unusual for literature to produce some immediate baptisms. According to our statistics at GLOW for the North American Division, pamphlets tend to produce one Bible study request per 1,000 tracts distributed. Some of these do lead to baptisms.
Commenting on early Adventist baptismal success with literature ministry, Andrews University history professor Brian E. Strayer states, “By 1874, when the General Conference Tract and Missionary Society was formed . . . , nearly 5 million pages of Seventh-day Adventist literature were being distributed each year. Adventist leader John Loughborough credited the Tract and Missionary societies with ‘creating and increasing a missionary spirit . . . of direct labor for the salvation of souls’ in church members’ hearts. The results were inspirational as well: from 1871 on, as many souls were won through tracts and literature ministries as by public evangelists, according to Loughborough.”6
Literature still has the power to convict and convert. The more literature we begin to distribute, the more results we will witness. The top literature-distributing conference in the North American Division averages only two to three tracts per member per month, currently. The story illustrates what could happen much more frequently if our members distributed more literature on a regular basis.
“Every year millions upon millions of human souls are passing into eternity unwarned and unsaved. From hour to hour in our varied life opportunities to reach and save souls are opened to us. These opportunities are continually coming and going. God desires us to make the most of them.”7 Ellen White’s powerful words must convict us of our missed opportunities to witness. This is no time to keep to our own business. Indeed our business should be the business of God—to reach out to those who do not know Him. If we are ever going to fight tendencies towards insularity and become a more opportunity conscious people, we must make use of all the training wheels God has given us.
One such wheel is literature. Simply placing literature in one’s pocket tends to help us remember our missionary opportunities throughout the day. Visits to the gas station, grocery stores, Laundromats, and restaurants now take on a more exciting air as they are transformed into potential missionary escapades. Walks in the neighborhood, around the park, and through parking lots may transform into adventures to reach out and draw people into God’s family.
On a flight from Norway to Holland, I gave a tract, “Myths About Hell,” to my seatmate, a university psychology professor. When she noticed the topic, she was surprised and mentioned that she had a colleague at the university who was currently in the process of writing a book in which he was showing that hell did not exist. She then took another copy of the tract for him. At the end of our conversation she said something I will never forget, “You know, you are lucky in a way because at least you have something to believe in. Most of us are still looking for that.”
Opportunities present themselves continually and in unusual manners. Shall we make the most of them?
1 Narrated names in this article are pseudonyms.
2 GLOW has printed more than 42 million tracts, translated into more than 55 languages since September 2007.
3 Ellen G. White, “Why God Waits,” Review and Herald, July 21, 1896, 449.
4 Ellen G. White, Colporteur Ministry (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1953), 151.
5 Ibid., 128, 129.
6 Brian E. Strayer, “Called to Wtiness,” Adventist Review, January 2002, http://archives.adventistreview.org/2002-1504/story 1.html.
7 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 373.