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.