The story really isn’t mine to tell. But what I can tell you is the story still has God’s fingerprints all over it. In the first electronic words transmitted by the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F. B. Morse: “What hath God wrought!” (Num. 23:23, KJV).1 But in this story the satellite transmits God’s miracle.
How else can you explain that concerned group huddled in a Denver hotel room in 1993? Their earnest petition: “God, ignite the church again with Your fiery gospel commission.” Powerful prayer, but how? Russell Burrill (former North American Division Evangelism Institute director) recalls: “One of us, I don’t remember who, made the wild suggestion that we hold a large public meeting and uplink it by satellite so that it could be downloaded all over North America. We all laughed. It sounded ridiculous, but the more we talked, the more we became convinced that this was an idea sent from heaven.”2 Fingerprints of God.
But how could local churches possibly navigate the complexity of locating a geostationary satellite 22,500 miles above earth? Warren Judd and his Adventist Media Productions team took on that immense technological challenge. He eventually secured one of only two 40-channel audio/video mixers in existence in the world capable of sending out UN-style translations in 39 languages simultaneously. Only CNN had similar capabilities at the time. God’s fingerprints.
Thus, despite such complexity, “it was clear,” Glenn Aufderhar (North American Division-appointed coordinator/director of NET ’98) recalls, “God wanted [satellite evangelism] to happen. The vote to proceed was unanimous.”3 God united the church in a single missional event. His fingerprints. Again.
The rest is history—compelled by the Holy Spirit, propelled by the evangelistic preaching of Mark Finley, beheld by congregations on large white screens in sanctuaries or fellowship halls or Sabbath School rooms. They called it “NET ’95.” I well remember gathering with the Pioneer Memorial church congregation to witness Mark preach his heart out, appealing to people he couldn’t even see in nearly 700 congregations across North America! Then came NET ’96 with Finley again. With each NET event the proficiency in satellite technology and evangelism deepened.
So when Alfred McClure, then president of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists (NAD), called me in 1996 to convey the invitation to be the next NET event speaker, the operative word for me was “intimidating.” Who was I—the still-young pastor of Pioneer Memorial church—to follow such a gifted evangelist?
I needed to quickly learn: “Whatever is to be done at [God’s] command may be accomplished in His strength. All His biddings are enablings.”4 As Burrill observed: “The task was colossal and herculean,” but God pulled it off.
Committed to the Call
We called it “NET ’98: The NeXt Millennium Seminar.” Why the capital X? A few summers earlier I had spent a sabbatical studying how to reach “Generation X” (Gen X—born between 1965 and 1980). It was clear the Adventist Church needed to find a way not only to reach the Gen Xers for Christ, but to mobilize them for the kingdom. NET ’98 could be that perfect opportunity—not just at Andrews University, but around the world.
A team of Pioneer Memorial church leaders worked with Skip MacCarty, pastor for evangelism, to identify 43 ministry areas needed for our local event, and recruited 1,500 volunteers (including many Andrews University students) to staff them.5 As every local pastor and church knows, the commitment and caliber of volunteers, ignited by the Holy Spirit, make the critical difference for any public evangelistic endeavor.
One such Pioneer volunteer, Donna Habenicht (well-known child psychologist at Andrews University), designed and wrote an entire children’s program curriculum for all five NET ’98 children’s divisions, so young families could attend the satellite presentations.
One of God’s gifts was the two-year interim between the 1996 and 1998 NET events. We needed every day of those 24 months. In May 1997 NET ’98 coordinators from every world division gathered at Pioneer for three days of training for this live global satellite mission. There was no playbook—it would be live, with no retakes! Each of the 7,700 local downlink sites would be crucial to the success of NET ’98’s ambitious kingdom mission. We prayed much during those three days.
The messages for NET ’98 needed to be written and edited the summer of 1997. To provide time for materials to be printed and ready for opening night, the 31 messages (27 nights and four Sabbath mornings) needed to be translated into 39 languages a year in advance.
So on July 1, 1997, I sat in a quiet room and pounded out a “philosophical/thematic/development” guide for the messages. I began:
“The character of God. This obviously is the central paradigm around which all truth clusters. In harmony with COL 415 [“The lasts rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of (God’s) character of love”],6 NET ’98 will construct a relational portrait/paradigm of God and His character of undying love. In a world of brokenness, there is Someone who offers deep, existential healing. Someone to run to, not run from. Someone to be a friend of, not afraid of.”7
This became the byline of NET ’98: “God isn’t somebody to be afraid of—He is someone to be a friend of.” We called it “Finding a Forever Friendship With God,” our truly “Forever Friend.” Twenty-five years later it remains the shining summation of Scripture.
Progress Through Prayer
But the story of NET ’98 cannot be told without recalling the central place of prayer in the entire evangelistic endeavor. Ruthie Jacobsen, former prayer coordinator for the NAD, set a goal of enlisting 100,000 prayer partners for this event. Like the leaves of autumn, her colorfully designed bookmarks spread across the continent. She and her prayer team organized teen and adult prayer conferences around the division, highlighting the rallying call: “It is never too late for God. No battle is too nearly lost for God to win. No combination of opposing forces is too strong or too numerous for God. Forward on your knees!”8
That’s why Alfred McClure, NAD president, wrote to the churches and pastors of this division appealing for a day of fasting and prayer on behalf of NET ‘98 in North America: “I especially hope every NET ‘98 pastor and volunteer team will be present for that prayer dedication service [uplinked live on Sabbath, September 26, 1998], all of us united in prayer by the Spirit and satellite, going to our knees on the eve of our going to the world.”9 Forward on our knees indeed!
“Forward on Our Knees” remained our rallying cry at Pioneer. Under the prayer leadership of John and Millie Youngberg, prayer teams were organized and trained, support intercessors assigned to all 40 preachers (39 translators and me), and a 24-hour on-site prayer vigil conducted two days before opening night. Through their indefatigable prayer ministry the Youngbergs led us to move with the Spirit, “forward on our knees.”
Opening night was electric—for the two young hosts, Shasta Burr and Bernie Anderson (both Gen Xers), for me, for everyone. Even behind closed doors you could hear, feel the buzz of anticipation from more than 3,000 attendees crowded into Pioneer’s sanctuary, the youth chapel, the seminary chapel, and eventually Johnson Gym. Outside, giant satellite trucks and dishes clustered, pointing toward the stars, everyone awaiting the director’s cue to throw the switch that would transmit (at the speed of light) the everlasting gospel 22,500 miles up to a hovering satellite and in the next split second back to earth and eventually 7,700 sites on every inhabited continent. You can’t make up a story like this!
Take the Reader’s Digest cover story of the Ayala family—whose teen daughter, dying of an incurable disease and desperately needing a rare bone marrow transplant, was saved by the birth of her baby sister, intentionally conceived by their parents in hopes of procreating a lifesaving genetic match. Opening weekend I interviewed them before that world audience, and when I asked 6-year-old Marissa what it felt like being the one who saved her older sister’s life, she burst into tears. That moment on camera—illustrating the profound truth it took the birth of a Baby for God to save the human race—set the course for this global event. We never looked back.
The Adventist Review carried a cover story on NET ’98 in December 1998, summing up the event:
To understand the scope of NET ’98, maybe a little math is in order: six continents, 12 satellite feeds, 25 broadcast technicians, five cameras, 22 floodlights, 1,500 host site volunteers, 31 programs, 7,600 sites (2,000 in North America), 100-plus countries, millions of potential viewers, one message, one world, one God. All told, a global adventure that brought the Adventist message to a world audience as never before.10
NAD president Al McClure responded: “The NeXt Millennium Seminar united the church in ways we’ve never seen before. And the unique thing was that around the world Adventists and their guests heard the gospel presented in the same way.”11
Brad Thorp (then director of Adventist Global Communication Network/AGCN) later estimated totals of 7,700 global sites with a cumulative audience of 1.3 to 1.5 million viewers (including live-event and post-event showings).12 In her book on satellite NET events, Candace Thorp reported: “God blessed NET ’98 with more than 25,000 baptisms [100 at Pioneer], an electrified university campus, changed lives, renewed commitment, hearts mended, and a broadened vision.”13
“What hath God wrought!” indeed. But then, who can measure Calvary’s estimate of our daily, quiet, living-for-Jesus witness to strangers and friends alike?
I think of that pack of skinheads in Brno, the second-largest city in the Czech Republic. Rosta Klima, a Seventh-day Adventist youth, wondered how he might reach them—dyed hair, earrings, leather jackets, and all. He started by playing volleyball with them. That led to conversations, five people at first. But by the time NET ’98 started, 17 of them were meeting. Rosta told his new friends about the NeXt Millennium Seminar. They began to watch the programs live (via Internet) at 1:30 a.m.—in English! They grew from 17 to 25, meeting in apartments around the city. More friends joined. Parents, suspicious of what their kids were watching in the middle of the night, were soon watching NET ’98 themselves. The group grew to 37 strong. After a live altar call from Pioneer in the middle of the night, 17 skinheads gave their hearts to Jesus.14 All because one young Adventist reached out.
“What hath God wrought!” Twenty-five thousand, 1.5 million, one Adventist with a heart to share their faith—what does it matter? When God leaves His fingerprints all over your story, the number that matters most to Him is one—it is you.
So I ask you: 25 years later, where do we go from here? As I have reflected on those halcyon days and nights of satellite evangelism, I wonder—is there a gospel vision left to ignite the hearts of this new generation? Or are we so ideologically divided that this sort of global collaboration would now be impossible? I keep brooding over a comment Russell Burrill made: “[NET ’98] brought the SDA Church together in unity as nothing has ever done before or since. . . . What impresses me about my reflections is [that] this unity . . . happened when we all came together to accomplish something enormous.”15
Have we lost a vision for the enormous nature of our divine mandate? Are we settling for chump change and tiddlywinks when we could be dealing with huge drafts of heaven’s currency in a supernatural storehouse we have yet to draw from?
Robert Browning is right: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”16 Or have we abandoned the kind of reach and stretch those persons in that Denver hotel room were led by God to make? Who among us will cast the next vision? If we wait much longer, how much of this nation and world will be reachable?
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Eph. 3:20, 21, NIV). It is high time to say again, “What hath God wrought!”
1 https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/what-hath-god-wrought, accessed Aug. 28, 2023.
2 Russell Burrill, Reaping the Harvest (Fallbrook, Calif.: Hart Books, 2007), p. 84.
3 Glenn Aufderhar, emailed reflections, Aug. 24, 2023.
4 Ellen White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900, 1941), p. 333. (Italics supplied.)
5 Skip MacCarty, emailed reflections, Aug. 24, 2023.
6 E. G. White, p. 415.
7 Dwight K. Nelson, unpublished paper, “Philosophical/Thematic/Development for NET ’98,” July 1, 1997.
8 Wesley Duewel, Mighty Prevailing Prayer (Grand Rapids: Asbury Press, 1990), p. 236.
9 Skip MacCarty, emailed reflections, Aug. 24, 2023; ACN News Bulletin, September 1998.
10 Jack Stenger, “The NeXt Level: Responding to Fresh, Relation-based Evangelism, Thousands Find a Forever Friendship With God,” Adventist Review, North American Edition, December 1998, p. 9.
12 Brad Thorp, emailed post-event AGCN report, Mar. 5, 1999.
13 Candace Thorp, Miracle Factor: Awesome Stories of Satellite Evangelism (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2005), p. 111.
14 Betty Cooney, emailed report from Daniel Duda, ministerial secretary, Czecho-Slovakian Union, October 1998.
15 Russell Burrill, email reflections, Aug. 22, 2023. (Italics supplied.)