The pastor of the church in England could not believe what he was seeing. The miraculous events of that day defied every expectation his congregation had; not because they were not a faithful group but, rather, because what they had learned from the “experts” had been utterly disproved in just 21 days. Bewildered, the pastor turned to my ear and whispered, “We weren’t expecting a response like this. We thought, England is just too secular and progressive!”
Yet as family and friends—with songs and shouts of “Amen!”—encouraged their loved ones who had chosen to stand with Christ in baptism, I felt overjoyed, though not at all surprised. This church had put in the effort, utilized the tried-and-true methods of evangelism, witnessed the glorious miracle of changed lives in their community, and experienced a renewed vision for Jesus’ great commission.
Still, mingled with my joy was the sorrow that many in our church question whether public evangelism really works anymore in our progressive, postmodern culture. Some ask, “Do our prophecy seminars really contribute to the growth and strengthening of our church, or are they just powerless relics of a bygone era?” To answer this question, let’s first go back to the apostolic church.
Take me back
That early, impassioned movement was driven by the unashamed public preaching of the gospel. See it in action through the apostle Peter who, during the fiery Day of Pentecost, stood amidst a horde of skeptics, “lifted his voice, and said unto them, . . . hearken to my words” (Acts 2:14, KJV). The result of this public effort speaks for itself: “When they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said, . . . Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter beseeched them to repent and be baptized, “and three thousand souls were added to God’s kingdom” (see Acts 2:37–41).
I used the word skeptics for a reason. The apostles were preaching in a jaded world shaped by systematic Hellenization and Roman polytheism, to which their Jewish brethren were not immune. Yet despite this foreboding environment, the simplicity of their preaching resulted in an amazing number of souls being won. Yes, in a pagan, vice-ridden culture, public evangelism was astoundingly effective, breaking through every language and multicultural barrier. Jews, Arabs, and Gentiles from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Egypt, Libya, and Rome were all won.
It is vital for us not to miss that the message Peter and the other disciples proclaimed on Pentecost was not merely confined to repentance. Sanctification through the Word was an important part of their message. Thus, Peter’s message specifically included the reality that Jesus was at the right hand of God “exalted,” and His post-Resurrection ministry confirms that He is more than just a Savior but also the Lord of our lives. More important, Christ not only intercedes on our behalf today but is engaged in the final activity of the investigative judgment. This work adds solemnity to the ethical demands of the gospel in the closing scenes of earth’s history. How much more firm should be our resolve to carry this very same message to all the world as the early apostles effectively did in their time?
Even in light of this thrilling testimony from the New Testament, many well-meaning ministers in the Adventist Church are choosing to cut away the full gospel message in order to better appeal, they think, to our postmodern audience.
“Jesus only.” My heart broke when this very suggestion was made at a recent church board discussion I attended about an upcoming seminar. The thinking was, “We should preach only Christ’s salvation for the sinner at our evangelistic meetings.” In short, they were seeking to divorce Christ from the unique message of Revelation 14. And this is happening everywhere, as fellow public evangelists tell me privately that they hear this same sentiment across North America and the rest of the Western world, from the mouths of prominent church leaders, in publications, promoted from pulpits, and practiced in churches.
Of course, the salvation of Jesus Christ should be central and primary to every message. We can never say enough about the love of God in giving His Son to save us. But the Bible is clear that our special prophetic message magnifies our need of Christ’s salvation and enhances our response to it. Soteriology does not eliminate eschatology; they are two sides of the same coin—and presenting both at our public seminars is vital. The messages of Daniel and John the revelator to our generation are designed to enlighten us about soon-coming events and help us trust implicitly in our Savior. “The Revelation of Jesus Christ,” says John, is “to show us things that must shortly come to pass” (see Rev. 1:1–3).
The prophet Isaiah summarizes the cohesive nature of the principles of salvation and divine knowledge this way: “Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times, and strength of salvation: the fear of the Lord is his treasure” (Isa. 33:6, KJV). Both were important to the health and growth of the church then, and both are essential, perhaps more so (if that were possible), for the spiritual welfare of the church today.
Lessons from the early Advent movement
It should be both telling and encouraging that the pioneers of our Advent movement dealt with similar sentiments in their day. Telling, because this is a constant challenge to the church; encouraging, because we know the explosiveness with which the church grew in their day by being faithful to our distinct message.
In response to growing murmers in her time, Ellen White felt compelled to write: “The present truth, the special message given to our world, even the third angel’s message, comprehends a vast field, containing heavenly treasures. No one can be excusable who says, ‘I will no longer have anything to do with these special messages; I will preachChrist.’ No one can preach Christ, and present the truth as it is in Jesus, unless he presents the truths that are to come before the people at the present time, when such important developments are taking place.”1
So today, while other denominations and many in our own church are promoting a relationship with Christ without this prophetic foundation, we have been lovingly admonished that we cannot effectively win genuine converts without the proclamation of the three angels’ messages. It is a sobering thought in a church environment where so many are, perhaps, embarrassed by the fullness of our distinct message— including the Sabbath truth—but we are assured it is the only way to move the masses toward making a decision. “Of all professing Christians, Seventhday Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world. The proclamation of the third angel’s message calls for the presentation of the Sabbath truth. This truth, with others included in the message, is to be proclaimed; but the great center of attraction, Christ Jesus, must not be left out.”2 Notice that the work of lifting up Jesus Christ before the world does not dismiss the foundational truths of the third angel’s message. Rather, they are to be united together to flood the world with the light of the everlasting gospel.
We know that many have not taken this balanced approach, proclaiming only “fire and brimstone” and portraying our Savior as a vindictive and arbitrary Judge. As a result, they have turned many away from the simple, liberating beauty of the gospel. This unbalanced, dizzying message was rightly condemned by Ellen White.
However, the mistake of taking Christ’s love and grace out of the third angel’s message does not give us liberty to ignore, soft sell, or in some cases undermine His righteousness and holiness contained within that same message.
Current attitudes about traditional public evangelism
To be sure, let not my defense of our public proclamation of the three angels’ messages be misunderstood. Of course, we need to search out innovative ways of outreach to bring the gospel to those in need. Ellen White counseled, “While city missions must be established where colporteurs, Bible-workers, and practical medical missionaries may be trained to reach certain classes, we must also have, in our cities, consecrated evangelists through whom a message is to be borne so decidedly as to startle the hearers.”3
In addition, each church member has his and her particular gifts. “In connection with the proclamation of the message . . . , there are many kinds of work to be done by laborers with varied gifts. Some are to labor in one way, some in another.”4 God has promised our success if we faithfully employ every gift He has given toward our solemn work. Yet, this does not invalidate a historically successful approach to soul winning over a mere shift in our culture. All new and varied methods are to be done “in connection” with the full proclamation of the gospel.
When I hear doubts—and sometimes even disdain—for methods God has called us to use to reach and nurture the masses, methods effectively used by the early church and early Advent movement, I refer persons to the book of Acts: “These who have turned the world upside down” made the world recognize the power of the gospel through their “foolishness of preaching” (Acts 17:6, NKJV; 1 Cor. 1:21, KJV).
Today, worldwide membership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church exceeds 20 million. We can be certain that any future success we see in new members rooted in the faith will not be achieved by abandoning our early church’s successful approach to evangelism. The prescriptive nature of preaching the full gospel to grow His kingdom during the final scenes of earth’s history cannot be denied when viewing the opening scenes of the three angels’ messages in Revelation 14:6–20, “I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth” (v. 6, KJV).
The common theme throughout Acts is that public proclamation often brought indifference and persecution. Acts chapter 4 declares of the people who listened to the disciples as they publicly taught and preached that “many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand” (v. 4, NKJV). The result? The persecutors “laid hands on them, and put them in [prison]” (v. 3, KJV). Scripture repeatedly shows how this method brought persecution, both inside and outside of the church.5 We can know that even in the persecution to come upon our people for speaking these sacred truths, we must still proclaim them fully and boldly!
The proving grounds
While today’s public evangelism does not result in such drastic persecution in most parts of the world, resistance can still be seen in different and subtler ways. A distaste for public evangelism and the proclamation of our distinctive message should not surprise anyone. It existed in the early church and, we are told, it will continue until Jesus comes again. Still, we are promised, “The message of light given to the assembled multitude on the mount was not alone for them, but was to be sounded in the ears of the church all along the line, through successive generations, resting with more solemn weight upon Christ’s ambassadors in the last days. Sinners are to be turned from the darkness of error to the light of truth, by the foolishness of preaching.”6
I have experienced this fruit time and again through my work as an evangelist. Recently, I received an email from a certain gentleman who attended one of my public evangelism seminars a few years ago. Despite being enslaved to alcohol, he attended nightly, and the gospel cut straight to his heart. I am blessed to report to you that he was baptized at the conclusion of the series. He writes,
Several years ago you baptized me and two of my friends. We are all still in the church and actively seeking to hasten the glorious return of Jesus Christ our Righteousness. This was empowering and unbelievable, as I grew up living a wicked life from a very young age. To hear the preaching of the gospel brought joy. We went over some verses, and from that night I quit drinking, smoking, fornicating, manipulating, acting in violence, gambling, using pornography and drugs, and making selfishness, arrogance, and greed my goals. After the series, I married the woman whom I had been with for seven years—she also was baptized into the church. After being in the church for a year, my wife and I moved to Missouri and brought this same message to prostitutes, drug dealers, and gang members. I became a Bible worker and a literature evangelist. I’m currently going to college studying to be a nurse, hoping to use my education to further the medical work.
Considering his condition before his conversion, I might have concluded, “He’ll just lose interest and drift away if I preach the moral imperative of health reform in the Christian life.” The beauty of the gospel reveals that Jesus meets us where we are but also that He loves us too much to leave us in our current condition. This man’s transformation is a testimony to the power of the Word of God, to renew, transform, and sustain that transformation. The message that was received included far more than repentance and faith, it was the sanctifying power of the gospel that gave this man victory over his habitual sins. Had he not realized the promise of the power of God unto salvation, he could have been easily overwhelmed and discouraged by the power of his past life. The messages and testimonies presented in this public forum gave him hope that he could experience the same spiritual freedom that the gospel promises. The apostle Paul’s words to the church at Rome underscore how this would be impossible for some to experience without the kind of preaching God desires in these last days: “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!’ ” (Rom. 10:14, 15, NKJV).
Revival and reformation
Another vital fruit of preaching this full gospel is often overlooked—that is, the revival and reformation among the members of the church, a result that brings congregations together in a spirit of unity and service. It is a natural desire to see a rush of souls joining the church at the conclusion of a series, and at times we are disappointed because our high expectations are not realized. But considering this precious inward benefit of public evangelism, counting baptismal numbers alone can lead to a false sense of failure or success.
Ironically, the church in England was only expecting a revival among its members with a hope that seeds might be sown to a scattered few in the community. The results were amazing. The message not only revived the church but visitors came out nightly—and at the end of the series, many took their stand for present truth by baptism.
The result only strengthened my conviction that our shared work is to proclaim the everlasting gospel through any and every avenue of ministry, including public evangelism. We can be sure that God will work for us in ways that will only be fully seen when we see the eternal results in His kingdom.
1 Ellen G. White, Manuscript 33, 1897.
2 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 156.
3 Ibid., 354.
4 Ibid., 345. (Italics supplied.)
5 See Acts 5:14, 17; 6:7, 12; 8:1, 4; 11:21, 24; 12:1.
6 Ellen G. White, “Christ’s Followers the Light of the World,” Signs of the Times, January 8, 1880.