I know we often talk about them, but the last couple of decades have taught me that there is no such thing as a cold interest. If someone shows an interest in what you have to say about Christ, it is because God has already been wrestling with him or her.
When Peter baptized 3,000 in a day, his audience was “devout men, from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5).1 They were already spiritually inclined. The Ethiopian eunuch? Already studying the book of Isaiah before Philip gave him a Bible study. Saul of Tarsus? Already had an encounter with Christ before Ananias showed up. Cornelius, the first Gentile convert? Already a “devout man” who gave of his possessions.
God always takes the initiative
Every time someone comes to Christ, you will discover that God was working with that person long before you came into the picture. God has already stirred the heart and made a person interested. Paul is pointed in his remarks: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
John Wesley would have spoken of this phenomenon in terms of prevenient grace. He developed an idea that some would consider the middle ground in the Calvinist-Arminian debate. God retains His sovereignty, making the first move in the sinner’s heart. He wakes up the conscience, making a person spiritually receptive—but the individual retains the ability to choose. He or she can respond or refuse. Wesley’s idea fits the biblical data: God arouses interest in a sinner’s mind, and then He sends in the preacher or teacher.
My personal testimony
This was also true for me. A direct path into the church was charted the moment the first Gulf War broke out in the early 1990s. For some reason, that event completely arrested my attention. Every evening, I was riveted to my television. I also heard the endless string of evangelical commentators speculating that the next development would likely be Russia joining the Arab nations and ushering in the battle of Armageddon.
It was irresistible, because when I was younger, I had read The Late, Great Planet Earth. Much of what Hal Lindsey was saying did not make sense. But then the war started years later; and for a moment I found myself wondering, Was he right? Some of what was happening in Iraq seemed to square with the predictions of the dispensationalist preachers: the world at war in the Middle East, threats against the nation of Israel, the rumors that Saddam Hussein considered himself a modernday Nebuchadnezzar with plans to rebuild the city of Babylon.
But where did my strong, sudden interest come from? I had read through the book of Revelation as a child, but my upbringing did not offer much in the way of prophetic study or interpretation. The churches I had attended treated the book of Revelation as a mysterious appendage to what would be considered the more serious portions of Scripture. We never heard a sermon from Revelation.
So, why was I suddenly obsessed with the idea that the world might be ending? Why was this so dramatically irresistible? It seems strange to write, but in a peculiar way, Hal Lindsey may have actually helped me into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In spite his book’s obvious flaws, his writing proved to be a catalyst. He imparted a sense of urgency to his readers. He gave his audience a distinct sense that it is no longer business as usual on planet Earth, and in that regard, he was right.
In hindsight, I can easily identify many other factors that contributed to my arrival at the doors of a Seventh-day Adventist church. Some were subtle; others dramatic—even miraculous. An Unseen Hand carefully choreographed my journey to the baptistry, all without violating my freedom of choice.
The pastors and evangelists were simply the final contact before the decision. God did absolutely everything else. I have met tens of thousands of new Adventists over the last couple of decades, and they all tell the same story: it happened over years, and God did it.
Current interest in end-time events
I have discovered that few things arrest public attention like the Second Coming and other apocalyptic themes. It flies in the face of conventional church board wisdom, which has been increasingly telling us that we need a new approach to the public, one without beasts or atom bombs. And every so often, I have experimented with trying to attract the public with other themes. But nothing has drawn a crowd like the end of the world.
For a number of years now, I have been putting a simple card in the mail, inviting people to take Bible studies. Some have raised their eyebrows when they see what I have printed on the card: Interested in Bible Prophecy? “Tell me you’re not going to put that in the mail! In this day and age? This is the postmodern, secular world!”
There is no way I could make a truly secular person interested in spiritual matters. But I also understand that right now, at this very moment, God is busy in every community, waking people up.
The same is true of evangelistic advertising. People have pleaded with me that the time has come to move away from prophecy in public outreach. And naturally, there is room for other approaches. No two people are alike; God labors with people on numerous fronts, using many different subjects. But every time I advertise the book of Revelation, the hall is full. And it stays full for weeks.
Pay careful attention to the enter-tainment industry, where executives sink millions into marketing research. Look through available programming and note the large number of programs with an apocalyptic flavor. They air those programs because the audience is interested. They are not guided by evangelistic conviction but by the bottom line, and the Apocalypse sells— more than ever.
In 2014, nearly half of Americans (49 percent) believed that extreme weather patterns are a sign of the end. That is up from 44 percent in 2011. Of course, America is still quite religious, but even among the religiously unaffiliated, a full one-third believe that changing weather is a sign of an impending apocalypse.2 Those people are our audience. They are already awake, trying to make sense of a quickly changing world.
A relevant message for the 21st century
It is important to remember that the twenty-first century did not catch God by surprise. He did not fail to anticipate secularism or the postmodern generation; postmodernism, in fact, was already being shaped in the minds of philosophers at the very moment the Second Advent movement was taking root.
Experience has shown me that our message actually sells better to this current generation. I get better audiences now than I did 20 years ago, and that is because God has been busy building the audience. In fact, my very best audiences are almost always found in places that are traditionally difficult or notoriously non-Christian. There are thousands of people going through the same experience as I did many years ago. They might treat your claims with skepticism; they might actually be dismissive to your face. But that does not mean they are not interested. It might mean that you are not approaching them the right way, but it does not mean they are not interested. It is important to understand that you and I are not in the business of converting people; we’re in the business of finding people that God is converting.
People have asked why I continue to use the second chapter of Daniel as my opening night topic. The answer is simple: it works. I have never seen anything arrest—and keep—attention like that statue. For the Christian (or the person with a Christian background), Nebuchadnezzar’s dream seems exciting because it provides powerful and clear affirmation that the Bible is reliable. For the non-Christian, it is like a bucket of cold water—stunning evidence that the Bible is no ordinary book and that somebody or something must be working behind the scenes. The second chapter of Daniel demands attention and speaks powerfully to the unrest, the deep interest, the sense of eternity that God places in human hearts.
But approaching the public with the Second Coming also makes sense. I have opened public events with all sorts of topics over the years, but nothing has consistently captured and retained audiences like the return of Christ.
If you know people personally, you can start your spiritual discussion with just about any topic, particularly if the topic is one they are most interested in. But when it comes to a large audience, the best approach is to follow the order of subjects, step by step, that God used to build this movement in the first place. He started us on the Second Coming and then worked His way through the message of Revelation 14.
Preaching the Second Coming works because there is a growing sense of unrest in the hearts of many people and a struggle to make sense of an increasingly confusing world. The topic of the Second Coming works because it answers the disquiet that God plants in the heart. It works because God designed it that way. Every time you preach it, He has already got an audience for it.
Every time I launch a public event, I now pray for one thing: Lord, fill these seats with the people who have been hearing Your voice. Allow me to give them what You gave me when I came to one of these meetings. Let them recognize that the Voice in this Book is the same Voice that has been whispering to their hearts for years. Let them recognize this moment as theirs, the moment when they will finally come home.
That is the kind of prayer God loves to answer because He has been waiting for us to notice where He is already at work.
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is from the New King James Version.
2 Emma Green, “Half of Americans Think Climate Change Is a Sign of the Apocalypse,” The Atlantic, November 22, 2014, www .theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/11/half-of-americans -think-climate-change-is-a-sign-of-the-apocalypse/383029/.