Henry Feyerabend, the famed Canadian evangelist, used to tell the story of a workers’ meeting in South America where he found a young intern in the hall, fighting back tears. “What’s the matter?” he asked.1
“I just found out that they’re not going to ordain me this year,” he replied, his disappointment palpable.
“Why not? Is there a problem?”
“I only baptized a little more than 200 people this year,” he uttered sorrowfully.
If this young pastor was baptizing more than 200 people a year in North America, I suspect we’d be putting him on the front of church journals and dragging him in front of workers’ meetings in dozens of conferences, asking him to share the secrets of his dizzying success. Those are the kinds of numbers usually seen only by itinerant evangelists.
Different parts of the world, of course, yield different results, even though the basic principles of biblical evangelism remain the same.2 When I first moved from a rather secularized Canada to the United States, I was amazed by how much easier the work suddenly seemed: decisions came much faster than they had back home. (I occasionally hear workers bemoaning the post-Christian state of America, but the United States is one of the least post-Christian states in which I’ve labored.)
The issue of numbers in evangelism raises an important question: At what point do we consider an evangelistic effort a success? Fifty baptisms? One hundred? Five hundred? My team has seen anywhere from six to 16,000 baptized in a single effort. I’ve heard various people describe each of those efforts as both a success and a failure, depending on whom you ask.
What number would be considered a success? Should we develop an algorithm that accounts for costs, regional and cultural differences, time spent . . . then create a chart that lets us know if the effort should be considered a success?
If we’re going to do that, what would we do with Noah? He built a boat that, by any standard, would be considered massively expensive, especially considering the fact that he was preparing for something that had never happened before. Then he preached for 120 years . . . and “baptized” only his own kids. Yet we find him in the Hebrews 11 hall of heroes.
And what would we do with Jesus Himself? On the day of Pentecost, there were only 120 disciples gathered in Jerusalem . . . after three and a half years of public ministry (see Acts 1:15). He preached one sermon during His itinerant years that lost Him a huge swath of His interests—they simply quit following Him (see John 6:66).3 His evangelistic team was often dysfunctional, marked by quibbles over who was most important. One of them sold his soul for the price of a slave, then committed suicide (see Acts 1:18). Another had to be scolded by Paul because he was duplicitous, refusing to be seen hanging out with unclean Gentiles when Jews were watching (see Gal. 2:11, 12).
Was Jesus a failure? Of course not. “I have brought you glory on earth,” Jesus prayed to His Father near the end of His ministry, “by finishing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4).
A glance through John 17 reveals that Jesus was doing much more than accumulating baptismal totals during His public ministry. And of course, we need to factor in the fact that Jesus was also the Lamb of God, here to secure our salvation. But His ministry was reflected in Noah’s: faithful.
I should probably state for the record, before I continue, that I firmly believe in counting the numbers. (After all, God placed an entire book in the Bible by that name!)⁴ Each baptismal total represents real human beings—people God knows by name—who will be secure in the kingdom because we were faithful. We need to be willing to consider the fact that if our ministry never bears fruit, we might be doing something wrong—because there definitely is a right and wrong way to pursue evangelistic work.
Ellen White wrote: “The conversion of sinners and their sanctification through the truth is the strongest proof a minister can have that God has called him to the ministry. The evidence of his apostleship is written upon the hearts of those converted, and is witnessed to by their renewed lives. Christ is formed within, the hope of glory. A minister is greatly strengthened by these seals of his ministry.”5
Perhaps it would be useful to consider why God has us doing evangelistic work in the first place. Surely an angel would be far more eloquent, far more reasoned, and far more persuasive than me. (I sometimes wonder if I’ll get schooled on what I did wrong from my angel while we are en route to heaven.) So why use us? There’s an important clue in that spiritual masterpiece, Steps to Christ:
“If you will go to work as Christ designs that His disciples shall, and win souls for Him, you will feel the need of a deeper experience and a greater knowledge in divine things, and will hunger and thirst after righteousness. You will plead with God, and your faith will be strengthened, and your soul will drink deeper drafts at the well of salvation. Encountering opposition and trials will drive you to the Bible and prayer. You will grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ, and will develop a rich experience.”6
We have a proclivity for thinking that the work of personal spiritual growth boils down to more study and more prayer. These things are essential, of course: we simply will not grow without them. But still, fallen beings have a tendency to make their spiritual experience about self: we become obsessed with our personal progress (or lack thereof). So what does God do? He gives us an all-absorbing assignment that focuses on others, so that our egos melt into the background. And with self out of the way, the Spirit can work on us.
“The spirit of unselfish labor for others gives depth, stability, and Christlike loveliness to the character, and brings peace and happiness to its possessor. The aspirations are elevated. There is no room for sloth or selfishness. Those who thus exercise the Christian graces will grow and will become strong to work for God. They will have clear spiritual perceptions, a steady, growing faith, and an increased power in prayer. The Spirit of God, moving upon their spirit, calls forth the sacred harmonies of the soul in answer to the divine touch. Those who thus devote themselves to unselfish effort for the good of others are most surely working out their own salvation. . . .
“The only way to grow in grace is to be disinterestedly doing the very work which Christ has enjoined upon us—to engage, to the extent of our ability, in helping and blessing those who need the help we can give them.”7
God doesn’t need me to save the world. But Ineed the experience for my own good. He’s teaching me an all-important skill I’m going to need in the coming kingdom: faith. When we arrive on the new earth, we aren’t going to suddenly become omniscient; we will have to rely on God forever. (Remember: Lucifer was not admitted to the councils of the Godhead; I highly doubtwe’ll be.) For all eternity we will be living by faith.
Therein lies the problem: we’re not good at faith. We broke faith with God in Eden. We no longer trusted His word. So how will God restore faith? One of the key methods, it seems, is to give us a seemingly impossible assignment. He gives us the three angels’ messages, which we love, and asks us to preach them to a world that does not seem to love them at all, and sometimes seems incapable of grasping it. “Go ahead,” God says. “Try it out and see if I won’t come through for you. I want you to see that I’m doing this, not you.”
Have a quick look through your Bible: God gives a lot of impossible assignments to His people. Leave Egypt and cross the Red Sea. Take the city of Jericho, even though you’ve been recently liberated from slavery and can hardly be considered a crack team of warriors. Take on the Midianites with a tiny fraction of the troops deemed necessary. Go and preach in the streets of Nineveh, to one of the most violent and oppressive cultures in the world.
What God has asked us to do has never been possible, which tells me something important. Studies reveal that preaching is getting more difficult, and that audiences are becoming more skeptical of religion. I’ve seen studies proving that culture is shifting rapidly. But then God reminds me, at the very moment I’m tempted to succumb to the data, that in an early feasibility study, 10 out of 12 spies determined that conquering the Promised Land was utterly impossible.
The Bible is the story of people who ignored the odds and chose to believe. When the walls of Jericho fell, God’s people had never touched them. When Gideon entered the camp of the Midianites, God did all the heavy lifting. When the day became too short for victory, it was God who turned back the sun. In a valley full of sun-baked bones, God showed a prophet that He could give them life.
“Do you believe I can do this?” God asks. “I don’t know,” replied Ezekiel. “Watch!” says God.
Over the years I have chosen to ignore the studies that tell me the assignment is impossible. To be sure, I read them—then I ignore them and press ahead anyway. I refuse to allow mere statistics to stand in the way of what God wants me to experience by faith. I remind myself that God did not made a mistake with the assignment that He gave the remnant church: He did not choose the wrong message for a world perched on the eve of Christ’s return.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church was established for just one purpose:
“In a special sense Seventh-day Adventists have been set in the world as watchmen and light bearers,” wrote Ellen White. “To them has been entrusted the last warning for a perishing world. On them is shining wonderful light from the Word of God. They have been given a work of the most solemn import—the proclamation of the first, second, and third angels’ messages. There is no other work of so great importance. They are to allow nothing else to absorb their attention.”8
Even if there was no response, we’d have to keep doing this—just as Noah did. Fortunately, for the moment we live in pretty exciting times. Overall, I’ve been seeing larger, more responsive audiences than in the past—yes, even here in North America.9 I’ve even seen audiences stop the sermon by launching their own altar call, coming forward before I’m ready. They’d heard enough. They wanted to make a decision.
I’ve seen God defy the studies and the statistics again, and again . . . and again.
But eventually, when the crowds no longer appear, and the decisions begin to dwindle, I will continue to do this, because the point isn’t really the numbers (although they do matter). The point is to learn, to grow, and to understand and trust God better. “Let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me,” God says (Jer. 9:24).
If you want to know God more intimately, go join Him where He is still very much at work. If you want to learn to trust Him, grab hold of this impossible task and watch Him work. Go where He continues to seek and to save that which was lost (see Luke 19:10), and you will see the Spirit of God move with power.
Be faithful. It’s the whole point.
“But you, keep your head in all situations,” Paul wrote to Timothy. “Endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5).
Oh, and Jesus, the “failed” evangelist? Never forget: every last baptism in the past 2,000 years—billions of them—can be traced back to those sermons Jesus preached for 42 short months . . . and to the continuing labor of those mediocre, hopeless disciples He trained. Every last one of them. Including the ones He’s going to let you participate in.
Shawn Boonstra is speaker/director of the Voice of Prophecy media ministry.
Are you sure that’s everything?” The officer looked at me across his desk while pointing to something on a computer monitor visible only to him. It was my naturalization interview for U. S. citizenship; you’re supposed to declare every occasion you’ve been detained by law enforcement over the course of your entire life—including traffic tickets. You are instructed to add additional pages to your application if you need them. Sadly, I had to provide the required addendum.
My mind raced. What, exactly, did the officer see on that monitor? Had I forgotten to declare something? Was he just bluffing? Would I be denied citizenship if I got this wrong?
“I think so,” I answered. “But we’re talking about a lot of years, so there might be something I forgot to declare.”
He smiled and dropped his finger from the screen. “OK,” he said, and finished up his computer work. He had been testing my honesty. But then he hit “Send,” and his sober look returned. “Hmm,” he muttered, “the system doesn’t like this. What exactly does ‘without due care and attention’ mean?”
It’s not comfortable to know that someone is quietly keeping track of your crimes.
“It means that I totaled a car when I was 16 and the cops had to charge me with something, so they charged me with not paying attention.”
He frowned again and tried a few more keystrokes. A surge of anxiety doubled my heart rate. Would it all fall apart at this point, after all these years?
“Good news,” he finally said. “It went through. You’ll be hearing from us by mail.”
And with that, I drove home knowing that I soon would be a United States citizen.
It’s not comfortable to know that someone is quietly keeping track of your crimes. When I was a small boy, there was a statement from Jesus that terrified me: “For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:2, 3).* It’s a nightmare akin to that one where your clothes disappear in public. I could visualize angels shouting my secret sins across my neighborhood, imagining the hot shame of having people know what I was really like. That nasty picture I drew of my teacher? Posted in the local paper. That not-so-kosher story I whispered to the other boys on the playground? Captured by a hot microphone.
No, it’s not comfortable to know that someone is quietly keeping track of you. From that perspective, it’s understandable that “fear God . . . , for the hour of His judgment has come” (Rev. 14:7) might garrote our hearts with a cold wire. But is terror the response that God hopes to elicit?
To some extent, perhaps. I won’t deny that the thought of facing our life’s record without Christ should make us squirm. Sometimes we become so obsessed with creating an atmosphere of love and acceptance that we want to prevent all discomfort. But Isaiah isn’t wrong when he describes restless nights brought on by sleeping on a too-short bed with a too-small blanket (Isa. 28:20). Conviction isn’t comfortable, and Paul didn’t seem to mind disturbing Felix’s peace with the idea of judgment (Acts 24:25).
But in God’s kingdom, conviction is not designed to create hopelessness; instead, it drives toward reconciliation. You do not feel conviction because God hates you. The goodness of God is what leads you to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
Heaven is not seeking some technicality with which to bar you. The high price paid at the cross to secure you for the kingdom should demonstrate that God is trying to get you in.
Perhaps that’s why David can describe judgment in terms of joy and thanksgiving:
“Jerusalem is built as a city that is compact together, where the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, to the Testimony of Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. For thrones are set there for judgment, the thrones of the house of David” (Ps. 122:3-5).
During the past quarter century of public evangelism I’ve noticed something curious. Public audiences love the investigative judgment. I’ve never had an objection—except from some Adventists who find the subject distasteful. I struggled to understand why.
Why do so many in our midst, in spite of the astonishing love of Christ portrayed in our unique understanding of the great controversy, still carry a largely medieval European impression of judgment? Why do we see judgment the way Michelangelo portrayed it in The Last Judgment? The painting is despondent enough close up, but it becomes more sinister as you try to escape it, taking on the appearance of a grinning skull when viewed from the other end of the Sistine Chapel.
Where would we have to stand if we want to see what David saw?
If you have already come to Christ but the thought of the judgment still terrifies you, perhaps it’s time to reread Daniel’s account and ask an important question: What, exactly, is the case being considered in heaven’s court? Go ahead: grab a Bible and read Daniel 7. I’ll wait.
Did you find any mention of you in that chapter? No. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you won’t face judgment. We all do (see Rom. 2:3-5; 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10). But notice that only two individuals are mentioned in Daniel’s account: the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man. The rest of the scene is corporate. It’s a group of angels considering the record of a run of large empires established in defiance of God’s throne. No solitary human being is depicted.
Perhaps because of my sinful, selfish bent, I want to think that the heavenly court session is all about me. The immigration computer is fired up, then an angel points to it and asks, “Is that everything? Have you really come clean?” But I’m not mentioned in this chapter, and neither are you. As with the rest of Scripture, the central focus is Christ. It’s dealing with His right to His inheritance:
“I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13, 14).
In other words, the primary subject of the trial is Jesus. Unbelievably, God has put Himself on trial.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that when Jesus comes for His church, His feet never touch the ground. Instead, we are caught up into the air to meet Him. Feet were a symbol of possession in the ancient world, which is why Satan’s answer to God in Job is so deeply freighted with meaning: “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it” (Job 1:7). He’s not informing the assembly that he’s been out for a stroll: he’s declaring ownership of the fallen planet.
In God’s kingdom, conviction is not designed to create hopelessness; instead, it drives toward reconciliation. You do not feel conviction because God hates you. The goodness of God leads you to repentance.
When the angels review the books, they come to the unmistakable conclusion that Jesus deservesHis inheritance–that the Last Adam, God in human flesh, has taken back what rightfully belongs to Him. All earthly kingdoms will now be set aside in favor of His: the throne belongs to Christ.
But before the verdict is ultimately executed, He takes us in
to the courts of heaven to review the books as well (Rev. 20:4, 11, 12). We, too, must be convinced, of our own freewill, that Jesus deserves His throne. Only then does His foot touch the mount of Olives (Zech. 14:4).
Of course, we cannot escape the fact that when Jesus returns, the fates of the righteous and wicked have already been decided (Rev. 22:11,12). But the books of heaven are not there because God can’t remember who belongs in the kingdom. They’re not there in order to change God’s mind about you. They’re there for the benefit of angels—and then us—so that we can understand why God made the decisions He made, and forever settle the question of God’s worthiness.
They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying: “Great and marvelous are Your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints! Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. For all nations shall come and worship before You, for Your judgments have been manifested” (Rev. 15:3, 4).
The big question in judgment is not whether or not you are worthy. That was established a long time ago. You can let go of your mental anguish, always wondering if you’re good enough to make the cut: the angels know full well that you are not. That is not their primary consideration. This is about Jesus and His right to establish a kingdom in which He invites you to share His throne (Rev. 3:21; 20:4).
The good news? Jesus wins. If you’ve got Jesus, you’re in. You can bask in the knowledge that the judge in your case also happens to be the defense attorney (John 5:22; 1 John 2:1). We can have boldness, not fear,in the day of judgment (1 John 4:17, 18).
If you don’t have Jesus, why in the world would you reject such an incredible offer?
Perhaps you remember the story of Boaz and Ruth. It tells of an immensely prosperous landowner who wishes to marry the girl of his dreams. The girl would like to marry him too: she has already lain at his feet, wanting to be claimed (Ruth 3:7, 8). (Just in case you’re missing the typology, Christ is the exceptionally wealthy landowner, and His church is the dream girl.) There’s a barrier to the wedding, however. There is a previous claim to the land and the girl—someone who is more closely related and has a more natural right to her. “Now it is true that I am a close relative,” Boaz states. “However, there is a relative closer than I” (verse 12).
That other, more closely related suitor would be the devil; after all, we handed him the keys of this world in Eden, and we chose his rebellion over the throne of God. We are more naturally inclined to be like him than we are to be like Jesus. So what does Boaz do about it? He will not be deprived of his dream girl. He goes to the gate of the city, where judgment was held, and takes the case to the elders. “Sit still, my daughter,” Naomi reassures Ruth, “until you know how the matter will turn out; for the man will not rest until he has concluded the matter this day” (verse 18).
At the judgment footwear changes hands, and it is determined that Boaz has a right to the land and his bride. It’s the best possible verdict. And in Heaven’s judgment, the bridegroom might be delayed (Matt. 25:5), but the verdict will most certainly be in His favor . . . and yours. It’s not about whether Jesus is obliged to take you; it’s about whether or not He can have you—and it turns out He can.
“Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God’” (Rev. 21:2, 3).
I’m with David. That is an occasion for thanksgiving.
* All Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Shawn Boonstra is speaker/director for the Voice of Prophecy, headquartered in Loveland, Colorado.