t was at a weekend youth leadership retreat. The video cameras had just focused on the handsome blond bass in the country/gospel quartet that was performing at the moment. As his face appeared on the two large screens on both sides of the stage, teenage girls in the audience screamed their approval as they would at a rock concert.
A few months before this I entered a church service as worship was already in progress. A senior citizen was giving a reading of what it was like to be 80 years old. She was not an amateur. Her presentation was well done. The audience laughed and clapped. When she finished, she bowed and the congregation gave her a round of applause.
An old expression says “all roads lead to Rome.” As Christians, and particularly as leaders faced with the challenge of reaching the hearts of twenty-first-century men and women, particularly the young and the unchurched, it is important that we ask ourselves, “Do all roads lead to Jesus?”
Outreach and Nurture
The evening I attended the youth leadership retreat the service began at 9:00. After special music, the “worship” (led by a worship team), and a dramatic presentation, the speaker stood up to preach at 10:45. He preached until 11:10.
His presentation was warm and to the point. As I listened I wished he had been able to talk to the young people earlier in the evening. I have no doubt the leaders of the youth weekend, as well as those of the worship service earlier that Sabbath morning, were trying to reach the hearts of those present. But had they, in effect, taken the long way around?
I don’t remember much of what I studied in geometry (I do remember I got a C second semester). But I recall one thing: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Understandably there are some situations in which there could be justification in not coming to the point immediately. The experience of Esther is one example. But generally speaking there are risks in taking the long way around to reach the hearts of our youth and others when the goal is to bring them to the point of making a total commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. The risk is that when we at last take the turn that leads to eternal matters they could either take the turn with us or they could continue on down a road that leads somewhere else.
Many are concerned that some are increasingly using entertainment in their efforts to reach people for Christ. If this is the case, it is important to study what role, if any, entertainment should play in the presentation of the gospel.
A Mandate for the Meaningful
The thesaurus says that entertainment is a performance or show designed to entertain, and it lists the synonyms as amusement, diversion, distraction, and recreation.
As I contemplated these definitions, I felt convicted that as a preacher there have been times when I have entertained the congregation. Maybe I’m the only one; but if there are others I believe it is urgent that we make concentrated effort to determine from the Word of God if this method of trying to reach hearts is consistent with the gospel we are called to proclaim, at whose heart is the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
To put it another way, when we intentionally use entertainment as a method of presenting the gospel, are we taking those present on a detour that runs the risk that they may not fully return to the right road?
Most fellow ministers would admit that we indeed make mistakes along the way (we call it trial and error) in trying to reach youth and young adults with the gospel. When an experiment fails in a laboratory, the result is only dead lab animals. But to fail in an experiment in spiritual matters in which souls are involved could mean the eternal loss of those we are trying to save.
When discussing how to reach the youth or the unchurched, it is common to hear this quotation from Ellen White: “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men [women, and children] as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me’” (Christian Service, p. 119).
This quotation seems clear. But what isn’t clear is how to interpret the words “ministered to their needs.” It is at this point that the plot thickens because of differences of opinion about methods. The spectrum ranges from sunshine bands on Sabbath afternoon to a Saturday night Christian rock concert. This difference of perspective extends even beyond Sabbath afternoon and Saturday night to the worship service itself.
Jesus had barely begun His ministry when He returned to Nazareth where He was raised. Sabbath found Him in the synagogue that He may have attended in His youth. The rabbi in charge that day must have recognized Him, and Jesus was invited to read the Scripture.
“And there was delivered unto Him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him” (Luke 4:17-20, KJV).
That Sabbath in His hometown Jesus announced that these words, written centuries before, would be the benchmark that would set the parameters of His subsequent ministry to reach the hearts of those He had come to save.
It is in the light of this Messianic mandate that we must now return to Ellen White’s oft-read quotation and read the rest of the page in which Christ’s method of winning souls is clearly described:
“We should do as Christ did. Wherever He was, in the synagogue, by the wayside, in the boat thrust out a little from the land, at the Pharisee’s feast or the table of the publican, He spoke to men of the things pertaining to the higher life. The things of nature, the events of daily life, were bound up by Him with the words of truth. The hearts of His hearers were drawn to Him; for He had healed their sick, had comforted their sorrowing ones, and had taken their children in His arms and blessed them. When He opened His lips to speak, their attention was riveted upon Him, and every word was to some soul a savor of life unto life.
“So it should be with us. Wherever we are, we should watch for opportunities of speaking to others of the Saviour. If we follow Christ’s example in doing good, hearts will open to us as they did to Him. Not abruptly, but with tact born of divine love, we can tell them of Him who is the ‘chiefest among ten thousand,’ and the One ‘altogether lovely.’ This is the very highest work in which we can employ the talent of speech. It was given to us that we might present Christ as the sin-pardoning Saviour.
“His presence brought a purer atmosphere into the home, and His life was as leaven working amid the elements of society. Harmless and undefiled, He walked among the thoughtless, the rude, the uncourteous; amid the unjust publicans, the reckless prodigals, the unrighteous Samaritans, the heathen soldiers, the rough peasants, and the mixed multitude. He spoke a word of sympathy here and a word there, as He saw men weary, yet compelled to bear heavy burdens. He shared their burdens, and repeated to them the lessons He had learned from nature, of the love, the kindness, the goodness of God” (Christian Service, pp. 119, 120).
A Model for Ministry
A thoughtful reading of this expanded vision of Christ’s method leads me to conclude that there are possibly things we are currently doing to reach souls that are not Christ’s method at all, or at the very least they take the long way around.
As we study ways and means to effectively present Jesus to others, another oft-mentioned word that needs a clearer definition is the word “ministry.” In the culture of the Christian church there are increasing numbers of activities that are being described as ministries. If we are going to be true to the language, “to minister” is “to care for,” “to serve,” “to attend,” “to do for,” and “to wait upon.”
While there can be no doubt that Christ’s methods were ministries, I’m not sure we could rightly call every activity we currently do in the context of church life a ministry. Things would be much clearer and we would be able to better meet the challenges of carrying the gospel to those who need to hear if we would not mark everything we do in the church, as it were, as apples when in reality there are oranges in the mix.
It remains a challenge to effectively present the gospel to listeners, be they in the church, out of the church, or on the way out. The answer, however, is not beyond our reach. The fact remains, Christ’s method alone brings true success; and Jesus’ ministry was not one of entertainment, but of service. In the days of Jesus, if it was entertainment you wanted there was the Roman amphitheater, the Greek drama, or what we would now call the red light district.
Jesus was found in the company of sinners, true. But in the light of His declared mandate, we must conclude that the sinners who “hung out” with Jesus were not those who were, as we would say, into sin but sinners who wanted out.
If we use Jesus’ methods, our mandate is not to titillate or to facilitate that which could tend to affirm worldly values in the lives of our listeners, be they old or young. The people who came to Jesus were hurting, and they didn’t leave disappointed. In the twenty-first century the foundations that have until now upheld the home and society are being broken up. Whether a hearer is 16 or 66, we have a precious message of hope that goes directly to sinners’ deepest need; and that message need not be presented by a circuitous route.
Our message is one that in every culture, people group, gender, or generation will cut to the chase and go straight to the hurting heart. It has been written, “For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee” (Isa. 60:2, KJV).
Our mandate is clear: In these closing hours of earth’s history the Holy Spirit has anointed us to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent us to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. We need nothing more and we must settle for nothing less.
Richard W. O’Ffill is an author, revivalist, and seminar speaker. He lives in Longwood, Florida.