November 18, 2015

Making Friends Is the New Face of Evangelism

Editor’s note: News commentaries are intended to express the richness and variety of informed and responsible Adventist opinion on current issues. They do not necessarily convey the viewpoint of the Adventist Review editorial team or the General Conference.

, president, Florida Conference

I have always loved public evangelism: the energy in preparing for the opening night, getting to know those whom the Lord has brought through advertising and member invitations, building a prayer list of those who are contemplating full surrender to Christ, visiting people in their homes, and trying to move them to a decision by the final Sabbath of the five- or six-week campaign.

I am very indebted to this wonderful process as my mother came into the church through public meetings. Those evangelists who brought many people to Jesus and into the Adventist movement over the years through this method are true heroes.

But change has overtaken U.S. culture at warp speed. Around 30 percent of people under age 35 (20 percent of the general population) report no religious affiliation of any kind — Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or other. A lack of respect for Christianity is evident in the media and pop culture. Biblical illiteracy is the new norm. Simple Bible stories are unknown to most people. Many young people have never been inside a church except to attend a wedding or a funeral. In 2015, only 14 percent of Floridians in my conference attend church. About 90 percent of the population lives in metro regions, and society is becoming increasingly secular.

Unfortunately, the trusted methods of yesterday do not work in reaching young adults. African-Americans, Caucasians, and second- or third-generation people from Latin or Caribbean families are no longer as responsive to traditional methods.

Yet people must be reached with a Christ-centered message of hope and wholeness. If we are going to remain effective, we must establish new methods in more long-term, relational strategies. About 70 years ago, people were hungry for information. Today, they can access more information with their smart phones than they know what to do with. What they are now hungry for are genuine relationships.

I recently interviewed Roger Hernandez, Ministerial Association director for Adventist Church’s Southern Union Conference, which includes my Florida Conference. He is using methods strongly tied to relationships between members and people who are far from God. Here are some of the things I learned from methods he is piloting:

1. Evangelism is like having a baby. A shift from a short preparation process with a long evangelistic campaign to a long preparation process followed by a short campaign.

Hernandez likens the evangelistic process to having a baby. Bringing a baby into the world involves three things:

  • Conception. This may be likened to making friends in the community. It is an ongoing process for a disciple-making church, but there is a renewed focus upon this principle at the start of the evangelistic countdown.
  • Pregnancy. This is likened to the momentum established in the church as the congregation continues to make and cultivate friendships in the community through various avenues of service. Just as a mother prepares for childbirth for nine months by attending training classes, reading books, etc., this new evangelism model is also a nine-month process.
  • Delivery. In childbirth, the preferred outcome is for the delivery process to be shorter rather than longer. If the labor extends too long, it isn’t the ideal. If enough relationships with nonbelievers have been cultivated, a lot can be accomplished by a one-week (eight nights) evangelistic program. The momentum will build because much work is already being done with people in their homes.

2. Every member a minister. A shift from depending upon paid evangelistic workers to training volunteer church members to be missionaries where they live and work each day.

Every evangelist I ever worked with wished the harvest would be prepared before the meetings opened, but members were not taught the biblical concept of every member a minister. Frankly, we preachers didn’t understand it either. Evangelism and ministry were considered to be the pastor’s job, but a renewed emphasis on every member being a minister is changing the way members think. Interestingly enough, this concept has always been present in the writings of Ellen White. When put into action, the number of new members who remain after baptism is increasing.

In Hernandez’ model, a large-scale launch to prepare the church is held nine months ahead of public meetings. At the rally, an appeal is made for members to work with their pastor and attend all of the monthly training events. Here are some of the trainings:

  • Intercessory Prayer. Training in intercessory prayer is provided at the outset. Later in the preparation process leading up to the public meetings, a 40 Days of Prayer event is organized, and it becomes a spiritual revival for the congregation. The prayers are especially targeted toward people who don’t know the Lord.
  • Service. Service is the most practical and essential component for preparation. Research today tells us that service is a foundational element in helping people grow to maturity in Christ. When 40 Days of Service was conducted last year in West Palm Beach, Florida, it was exciting to see our churches come alive with engagement around this model: free car washes, painting houses of people in the neighborhood near the church, and doing good deeds for older people in the community. The multitude of service projects carried forth by young people, middle-aged, and older members was transformative.

3. Personal invitations. A shift from depending upon mass mail to personal invitations.

The money usually spent on mailing brochures is spent on a small wage for a couple of people who will give Bible studies for three months before the start of the eight-night series. These are temporary hires, but members are also trained to give Bible studies as volunteers. In the past, since pastors and evangelists were trying to do everything, churches looked to public advertising to bring people to the meetings — and it worked! My mother joined the Adventist Church after she saw meetings advertised in the local newspaper.

Unfortunately, today, fewer people respond to mailers, newspaper advertising, and posters. Members may hand out advertisements to those with whom they have established a relationship.

4. Practical sermons. A shift from a monthlong series to a one-week series.

Hernandez conducts baptisms each night and calls for decisions because people have been studying the Bible in homes for months. He advises, “Preach decision sermons that answer the question, ‘So what?’ and show the blessing and benefits of the Sabbath, a life of vitality and health, and the second coming.”

These practical sermons help people to embrace truth. Since U.S. society knows less about the Bible today than at any other time in our history, people are much less resistant to embrace Bible truth since they possess fewer prejudices or biases.

5. Make a friend. A shift from little follow-up to follow-up that is well-planned and implemented.

Every new convert is given a ministry assignment. They are immediately involved and assigned one or more spiritual mentors to encourage him or her in their walk. Make sure their circle of friends in the church enlarges quickly. When we relied primarily on advertising, most of those who decided to be baptized had very few, if any, friends in the church. The likelihood of their staying in the church was challenging.

My friend Alex Bryant, executive secretary of the North American Division, was invited to hold meetings this summer in Kansas City. He told the congregation if they would conduct service projects and establish relationships with 1,000 people, he would hold the meetings.

Two groups of people were baptized. One was a delightful group who were relatively new in the U.S. His sermons were translated every night, and a number of people were baptized.

He had another group who came from friendships. They were people who we usually don’t win in large numbers, but because they were connected with members and saw them as friends, they came. Many were baptized and enthusiastic about being a part of a family who are sharing the gospel in practical, loving ways.

People are hungry for relationships. So, I challenge you to make a friend today. It may be a life that Christ will touch through you for eternity.