Getting the World’s Attention

(system) #1

We got everything ready. Cleaned up the church. Had all our leaders and presenters lined up. The big expense was sending out handbills to the community. Pretty, full-color brochures that announced a series of Bible lessons filled with hope and reassurance. We backed up our efforts with prayer.

The big night came. But no visitors showed up. Not one.

It hurt all of us, and some of us were nearly in tears. This church isn’t large, and it isn’t rich. The expense of doing the meetings was about all we could handle. Did the brochures actually make it to people’s mailboxes, we wondered? Yes, they had. But mixed in with all the other junk mail, they hadn’t been heeded by anyone in the zip codes we’d targeted.

I remember once visiting an elderly church member, who told me about how when she was young an evangelist set up a circus tent on an empty lot about a quarter mile from her house. “Everyone went,” she said. “Everyone. It was the biggest show in town.” She and her family were all baptized.

But a series of evangelistic meetings isn’t the biggest show in town anymore. It has a lot of competition. Not only other religious meetings, but just about everything else, from TV to movies to concerts to ... well, you name it. Religion isn’t the draw that it used to be. And, there exists now in the culture something that wasn’t true when I was younger: a relentless cynicism about everything having to do with organized religion.

In one of my church libraries I found an old promotional book about the history of The Voice of Prophecy. I knew that H.M.S. Richards was the Seventh-day Adventist church’s first media presence. What I didn’t realize was that he was one of the early presenters of any religious affiliation to be on radio. When I was a child, the list of stations that aired VOP was pages long—multiple stations in every state. Even in places as large and lightly-populated as North Dakota, there wasn’t a community where you couldn’t get a station that aired it. It’s no wonder that tens of thousands of Adventist families today can trace their membership in our church to the Voice of Prophecy.

I’m not sure if VOP still has that much coverage. But a lot has changed. On the same dial now are two or three Christian radio stations that have professional and polished programming. And they don’t carry our programs.

I was a pastor in Silicon Valley during early years of the internet. I remember how miraculous it felt, to be able to enter a search term in (back then) the Alta Vista search engine, and suddenly dozens of sites showed up. Click on one and all the information was there, at your fingertips. One of my church members who saw this said, “This will finish the work.”

But he didn’t reckon with the competition. Some years later I was part of a city-wide evangelistic series in a larger metropolitan area. I remember meeting a marvelous young couple whom I really hoped we would baptize. They would have fit in wonderfully with our church family, I thought. But when one of our visitation team went to their home, they told her, “We looked up your church on the internet, and learned it is a cult. We don’t want anything to do with it.” The evangelistic worker’s pleas and arguments didn’t convince them. Turns out the internet is a two-edged sword. It makes all information about us readily available—even if it isn’t flattering to us.

What does it take to get the world to hear the gospel? I’ve always wanted to believe that the Christian message should advertise itself. People who came to churches would find there an experience with God that couldn’t be matched out in the world, an experience that would electrify them, empower them. If the gospel can do what we say it can, the result should be a whole lot of extraordinarily kind, honest, generous people, who live life with the confidence that their salvation is assured. Great people to be around, in other words, who draw others to them. Ellen White was never more profound than here: “No other influence that can surround the human soul has such power as the influence of an unselfish life. The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian” (MH 470).

But we’ve had to resort to a lot of other promotional tactics to get people in. A few years ago when the price of fuel was climbing a very good church I know, with a skilled and conscientious pastor, bought down the price of gas for a day at one gas station near the church (they gave the gas station owner thousands of dollars, and had him put up on the sign that gas was being offered at half of current prices today courtesy of the Seventh-day Adventist church). I’ve heard of churches paying people to attend. I read about a church that passed the offering plates full of money for people to take.

Those are unusual examples of trying to get people’s attention. More common in the evangelical world is an expensive variety program for worship. The biggest and best-attended churches have a massive pipe organ and a choir for one service, and a couple more featuring a well-choreographed light-rock band of professional musicians. Though Jesus could get away with having nothing about his appearance that attracted people, the best pastors nowadays have to be showmen, actors, entertainers. A good head of hair is helpful (there are exceptions—bless you, Doug Batchelor). Though the trend has been toward expensive programming rather than lavish buildings, there’s still the occasional Crystal Cathedral raised up to try to draw people to God. But given that most Seventh-day Adventist churches are small, with an attendance less than 100, that disqualifies a lot of us from that competition.

Lately some in our denomination have been flooding entire cities with copies of The Great Controversy. I, like many of you, have benefited from this book. But I wonder if The Great Controversy is our best first approach to people: a dense, Victorian tome that can be interpreted as anti-Catholic, presented in an embarrassingly low-quality printing, copies of which can now be seen piling up in trash cans all over San Francisco? Is that good PR? Is there such a thing as market research in our church, to discover what outreach activity really works, and what turns people off? Or should we care?

There is fierce competition for people’s attention. Never before in history have so many had so much to sell, and knew how to do it so effectively. When we join the advertising fray, when we say “Hey! Over here! Look to us for the answers!” we’re part of a massive chorus. Why should they attend to our voice when a new SUV or a sale on shoes or a political candidate will also salve the soul for a few moments? Why should they come to our show, when there are a myriad of fabulous ones available? Why should they read our pulp-paper book when there are so many more interesting things to read? We have to have something more, something the rest simply can’t offer.

I’m not certain what the whole answer is, but I suspect it will have to do with profound people rather than powerful programming; with effective Adventists rather than effective advertising; with committed Christians rather than clever Christianity. Ellen White seems to agree. “Only through a living faith in Christ as a personal Saviour is it possible to make our influence felt in a skeptical world,” she wrote. “The gospel we present for the saving of souls must be the gospel by which our own souls are saved” (MH 470).

The product is supposed to be appealing all by itself. “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me” said Jesus (John 12:32). Maybe we do too much church and too little Christian living. Maybe, like Amway, we’re more about the sell than the soap.

One thing is for sure: Jesus didn’t give us permission to fall silent, to sit in our pews and wait for someone to show up. We have to find a way through the noise. Colored handbills and free Ellen White books won’t be enough, nor will more of The Voice of Prophecy, and most of us can’t put on a Vineyard-style worship variety revue. We need a different kind of attraction. As Paul said, it is transformed Christians who “prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Romans 12:2).

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Thomas J Zwemer) #2

Why in the world would a world living in the 21St century be interested in an Apology for a mistake of the 19th century. The entire Adventist’s exegesis is built around a double misunderstanding of the Hebrew Sanctuary. Gloss, newsprint, or bribe are no longer sufficient. The prosperity gospel has the West In it’s grasp. One has to go back to Stott, et al of English theologian pastors, Adventists who captured that Gospel of the Cross, like Heppenstall, G. Maxwell, Des Ford, to find Christ in all the hysteria of getting ready. Tom Z

(Steve Mga) #3

I would say We NEED to define WHAT IT IS we are attempting to present!
Are we attempting to present Jesus?
Are we attempting to present the FB28s?
IF we are attempting to present Jesus, then we need to have Revelation of Jesus seminars.
13 sessions, using Steps to Christ in 19th Century prose, or in 21st Century speak.

Are we wanting to baptize in the Name of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit?
Are we wanting to baptize in the Name of the Seventh-day Adventist Church?

We ADMITTED we were Powerless, that our Denominational lives had become unmanageable.
That is because we lost our Focus and our Vision is Blurry.
We came to believe that the power in ourselves could restore us to sanity.

I have a Car-less Friend who I have been taking to AA meetings. Last night the topic of discussion was about The Higher Power. Most of these were non-churched people (about 30 present). They had amazing stories of what their Higher Power did, has done, and is doing for them. Almost all of them used the word, “God”, as their Higher Power. They meditate, they pray every day, some more than once. God is giving them Victory over Sin. Their lives are manageable. They thanked God for His Presence in their lives.
WHY is it that people have to go to AA and NA to find Healing in God? WHY cannot Healing be found in an SDA community? These are questions we need to be asking ourselves.
Perhaps we need to begin to read THE BIG BOOK, to read THE 12 IN 12 book. Begin to attend AA or NA to find Healing for our Local Church.

(Rheticus) #4

The world’s attention is easy to get - disappear a plane, catch a horrible disease, or bear some part of one’s anatomy inappropriately. What we want is to change some people’s behavior, not entertain them. That is much harder…

Most big successes start small. Sometimes new technology bursts out of the labs and factories after thousands of people have worked on identifying a real need and building a massive infrastructure (e.g.; cell phones), but the best sellers and hit singles and YouTube viral videos are being randomly selected out of a huge pool - they are bets that paid off when most didn’t.

Your church did everything WRONG. You ignored the research. You didn’t identify a problem people wanted solving. You didn’t identify people with that problem. You didn’t have a solution. You didn’t test your solution. You didn’t show them a solution. You gave up after one failure rather than learning from it.

Ok, so let us start by changing the title from “Getting the World’s Attention” to “Getting my neighbors attention”.

Now, just what problem do they perceive they have that you think you have a credible solution for?

How will you tell them you have a solution?

Why should they trust you?

With SdA Christianity you have a tough sell

  1. Atheists know enough about Christians to divide them into three groups. The social club ones for whom church is just a place to meet friends, the stupid ones who don’t understand science, and the dishonest ones who are using it as a money-raising con-game. In almost all cases Christians (not just SdA Christians) as seen as intolerant ignorant bigots who pretend to help their neighbors while really just running self-serving social clubs and trying to pass laws to stop other people doing things.

  2. Muslims know that American Christians are actively out to destroy their religion by claiming to be nice while funding missiles, bombs, and subversives.

  3. Other Christians know that the SdA make all kinds of claims about what the Bible teaches that most Christians disagree with

so as soon as you identify a weird religion as what you are selling, your audience is immediately very skeptical.

(Steve Mga) #5

Bevin, Great Answer! Great Insight!
Just because we have a “cleaned up room” and the chairs strait does not mean we prepared
people’s minds with an interest to “Celebrate” clean windows, no fuzz in the corners of the room.
It is like having a Free Smoke Ribs PicNic in a Jewish neighborhood. No one is going to come.
Again, great answer!

(Elaine Nelson) #6

It’s all backwards: no matter what is written or proclaimed, all the endeavors have one goal and only one goal: to make more Adventists.
As long as we continue with that major theme it will only continue to be more difficult to get people to listen to what eager Adventists want to tell them (with the accent on TELL).

Was Jesus’ ministry largely aimed at getting people to more carefully observe all the Jewish Law? Did he constantly point them to the Torah or was it feeding the hungry, healing the sick and caring for their physical needs?

Adventists have a reputation of evangelism via radio, TV and public meetings, but what if they expended the same funds toward setting up a program in large cities to help those desperately in need of clothing, housing, food, and medical care? Similar to the community workers who aid people with their insurance, Medicare and Medical, help them to navigate where childcare if available and affordable would give the church a good public name. There are so many who need help and never enough to help them.

There are enough people who can do this, but it must be financially supported, just as are clergy and all the costs for evangelist endeavors that are far more costly than the rewards. In each city there should be Adventists who know real estate and the availability of housing; those who can direct and assist people with getting heathcare and offering classes by a professional on diabetes, heart disease, childcare and more. These are the needs today, not another religious meeting where no one attends. Adventists could regain their name by forgetting denominationalism and truly care for people. Organize that and people will come.

(Rheticus) #7

Yep, those are some things that the lower income level people need. And doing them might attract people who want to provide such help also…

…and, as you say, this is sadly not the SdA “brand”.

(Kai Kronberg) #8

Great article, I love the critical insight brought about the difficulties of presenting the message, and if the methods that we are selecting truly lift up Christ.
Personally I feel the church’s problems are two fold, that we want to introduce and convert to Adventism- and that we are looking for methods that will produce high quantity conversations. We should be focusing on quality conversation. Conversions that lift up Christ and conversions that are about the one person- “one sinner who repents”. I think if we start from these premises and ask ourselves how is this possible, we will find the answers. As an educator, the first question I ask myself is what is the object- then I say what tools can I use to help me achieve this object.
I also think that the early church in Acts offers solutions to this problem. - they worshipped and prayed, waited for the Holy Spirit, who selected who should go, laid hands on the chosen and then evangelism begun. Instead of turning to Adventist history and tradition to solve the problem, we should turn to the Bible.

(Yoyo7th) #10

The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian” (MH 470).
Why, how?? What is the gospel?

“The gospel we present for the saving of souls must be the gospel by which our own souls are saved” (MH 470).

Try presenting the gospel here in less than 4 sentences and then reflecting on why anyone outside the church would be interested?
Anyone saved here?
Saved from what?

The SDA denomination is so wrapped worrying about the past / religious history, the future/paranoid eschatology, WO, evolution, LGBT infighting that they are not relevant for today.
I don’t invite ANYONE to any SDA church to hear any sermons.

Ask your pastor what the gospel is and see if you agree with his response.

(Elaine Nelson) #11

The Adventist church has lost the meaning of Gospel. If you doubt this, simply read their 28 FBs and how they treat more than one-half their members.

(Randle Patrick) #12

Maybe there is a decreasing pool of buyers of salvation stock that is anti-gay, anti-science, and anti-women?

(Elaine Nelson) #13

You just described the average educated person in the U.S. today. Adventists will never reach them, so before they develop a real mission, they must decide who their audience is, and is not.

(Randle Patrick) #14

Since 2010 it appears the audience is a Cliff Clavin, a mailbox, and a crew on a recycling truck.

(Peter) #15

I cannot be anything but Adventist. But I’m sad that I can no longer recommend (witness/evangelize) the church I love to anyone else. We are too busy fighting over women’s ordination, we have too many churches where strident, rigid people are driving even other Adventists away, I don’t find my church safe for visitors anymore. Adventists are driving other Adventists out of the church, literally! Why invite anyone into this currently dysfunctional family? Why would anyone reading this blog want to join this church?

I love the idea of drawing people to Jesus Christ and faith rather than trying to make them Adventists. God will find a way of reaching and saving this world because He is all-knowing and all-powerful! He may have to reach this world by other means than this church. Remember, the Bible itself does not say that the SDA Church will not fall. Only EGW said that. Israel, God’s “chosen” people (according to the Bible) lost its usefulness to God. And we may, too.

Thanks, Loren, for another spot-on message!


Good article. And I see one think that keeps appearing in people comments (and honestly, who can disagree). You can have great literature, good bible prophecy seminars, radio/internet programs etc, etc. However, unless people see that we not only love them…but! just as important, love each other, then they wont flood our churches.

But, oh, man! Some of you are impossible to love…I’m looking in your direction @GeorgeTichy and @elmer_cupino. And who can forget @ageis7, who keeps reminding us about the “Jewish law” lol.

Honestly, its impossible not to love you guys. Then again, its 5 mins from the Sabbath, so I thought it couldn’t hurt to start it on a good note :wink:

Happy Jewish Law day everyone :smile:


I have to share this 4 min testimony with you all. Saw it some back…will bring things into perspective. Powerful!

Video about Helen Berhane, a christian woman who was locked in a metal shipping container in Erirtea for two and half years, for sharing the gospel of Christ.

(Sirje) #18

Anybody noticed - people don’t read anything printed on paper anymore? If it’s not a viral you tube offering, it’s not news.

Not until people feel the need, will they look for answers; and the only way to grab attention is through a glowing screen, as long as there’s electricity flowing in those power lines. When the day comes when the information highway falls off the grid, and panic sets in, that is the time of need. Until then all we’re doing is spinning our wheels. You can’t make those tracts explosive enough to compete with the latest XBOX game, so save your money. In the meantime, …And what does the Lord require of you - but to do justice, to love kindnes, and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

(George Tichy) #19

Last minute decision before the Sabbath??? LOL

@ageis7 @elmer_cupino

(Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:13) #20

That’s the point of this column, isn’t it? You seem to be claiming that all that traditional Adventist evangelism needs is some tweaking? I think the author is presenting the big picture problems.

(Rheticus) #21

Yep, exactly. More than just tweaking. The SdA evangelism could feature as a chapter in Babara Tuchman’s “The March Of Folly”, because they keep on doing it even after their own research shows it is the wrong way to do it.