The Philippines saw 10,000 baptisms. Zimbabwe had 30,000. Now Rwanda is gearing up for 60,000. Or more.
A series of major evangelistic initiatives organized by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in recent years is expected to reach new heights in Rwanda in May with the largest mass baptism in the church’s 153-year history.
Thousands of local pastors and church members are giving Bible studies, sharing health tips, and engaging in community service in the run-up to two weeks of evangelistic meetings at 2,200 sites across Rwanda in May.
The meetings will culminate on Sabbath, May 29, with the anticipated 60,000 baptisms or more, church leaders said.
“They are doing careful person-to-person work right now as they prepare for something exciting,” Ted N.C. Wilson, president of the Adventist world church, told church members in the Iraqi city of Erbil during a weekend visit aimed at bolstering their faith in the conflict-torn country.
“They hope to baptize a minimum of 60,000 people in hundreds of places on that single Sabbath. It may be more,” said Wilson, who will conduct evangelistic meetings at one of the 2,200 sites in Rwanda. “This is the power of people working together with the Holy Spirit.”
Duane McKey, a coordinator of the Rwanda event and a special assistant to Wilson, said 60,000 baptisms would represent a milestone for the church.
“I’ve never seen 60,000 baptisms before,” he said in an interview. “It would be really thrilling to see that many.”
Rwanda is the latest country where the General Conference, the administrative body of the Adventist world church, has placed a renewed emphasis on large-scale evangelism. In May 2014, more than 10,000 people were baptized in the Philippine capital, Manila, and other places following months of Bible studies and community programs and two final weeks of evangelistic meetings. A similar effort unfolded in Zimbabwe in May 2015, resulting in 30,000 baptisms, and the U.S. city of San Antonio last summer, resulting in several hundred baptisms.
The Zimbabwe baptisms represent the largest group baptism in the church’s history. The Adventist Church, founded with just 3,500 members in 1863, currently has nearly 19 million members worldwide.
The evangelistic work in the Philippines and Zimbabwe was largely organized and implemented by local church members. But Wilson and McKey joined church leaders from the United States and elsewhere in participating in the meetings. Wilson himself led two-week evangelistic meetings in Manila in 2014 and near Harare, Zimbabwe, last year.
While most of the Rwanda meetings will be led by local members, employees of the Silver Spring, Maryland-based General Conference are especially encouraged to participate this year, McKey said.
“It’s an opportunity for people at the General Conference to model what we hope will happen around the world with the world church,” he said. “There’s nothing like preaching the message and inviting people to accept the message because our own hearts are touched in doing so.”
In addition to General Conference employees, 75 speakers are expected from across East Africa, and 35 young adults are to arrive from Paris.
ASI, a supporting ministry of the Adventist Church, is supplying 2,500 sermon presentations on DVD and in printed form. The General Conference’s Total Member Involvement department, which is overseen by McKey, is providing 1,000 DVD players. Not all 2,200 sites have electricity and are able to use DVD players.
Meanwhile, 40,000 Voice of Prophecy Bible study lessons are being distributed in the run-up to the May meetings. Many lessons are going to small group leaders only, allowing each lesson to go further, McKey said.
It was not immediately clear how church leaders would handle the logistic challenge of baptizing 60,000 people in a single day. McKey said the baptisms might be spread out over several days. He emphasized, however, that it was important to hold the two-week meetings simultaneously at the 2,200 sites.
“When it is all at one time, there is this special spirit that takes place that invigorates people,” he said.
Thousands of Rwandan church members have been flocking to prayer and revival meetings led by Jerry Page, secretary of the General Conference’s Ministerial Association, and his wife, Janet Page, associate secretary. The married couple is holding intensive meetings filled with testimonies and prayer in each of Rwanda’s seven conferences, missions, and fields during a 15-day visit that began Feb. 2.
“We have been clearly saying that in Rwanda there is a receptivity to hard work, Bible studies, and involving many people in the methods of evangelism that work here,” Jerry Page told the Adventist Review. “However the real greatest need still is a revival of true godliness among God’s remnant people that will lead to results far beyond what anyone humanly can envision. The people have been resoundingly responding to a desire to see those greater results happen in these meetings.”
Page said the fact that hundreds of pastors, elders, and their spouses have walked hours to reach the meetings is evidence of “a great zeal and love for Jesus and His church that resides in these precious people of Rwanda.” At Thursday’s meeting in the West Rwanda Field’s headquarters in Kibuye, many people walked five hours or more, while others rented vans or found other ways to attend. The crowd was twice as large as the church’s capacity when the meeting began at 9:30 a.m., so the Pages moved outside.
“We spoke from under a tent while more than 1,000 people sat in the sun or under umbrellas until 4 p.m.,” Page said. “We all skipped lunch and waited until 4 so they could make some extra food and we could all eat together.”
During the presentations, the Pages speak about the importance of each church member staying connected to Jesus, the Vine described in John 15, so the results in May will be empowered by the Holy Spirit in the model of the biblical book of Acts. The early disciples waited before they went and lived daily in the upper room experience of much private and united prayer, studying the word, confessing all known sin, and being reconciled in one accord with all their brothers and sisters, Page said.
“The focus on the mission and the baptism of the Spirit brought amazing results,” he said.
The Adventist Church has about 645,000 church members in Rwanda, which has a population of 12 million.
Although the projected baptisms in Rwanda would be double the number witnessed in Zimbabwe, McKey said it wasn’t a matter of competition and noted that it would be “pretty difficult” to match either figure at the General Conference’s next major evangelistic event, scheduled for Romania in 2017. Although Romania has one of the largest Adventist populations in Europe, with 66,500 members, the Adventist Church has found it a challenge to baptize new members on the increasingly secularized continent.
After Romania, the General Conference will hold similar evangelistic initiatives in Japan in 2018, India in 2019, and Papua New Guinea and the U.S. city of Indianapolis in 2020.
Wilson said the focus on those countries would not sideline church efforts to evangelize elsewhere.
“Every year many, many others will be involved in the countries of the world,” he said in his most recent question-and-answer column on Facebook.
“My prayer is that the same kind of evangelistic outreach that is happening this year in Rwanda will take place in all countries around the world,” he said.
McKey invited church members worldwide to pray for Rwanda.
“We are asking God to pour out His Spirit on the country like never before,” he said. “Please pray for this special initiative in Rwanda.”