The Apostle Philip is a model evangelist. Many Adventist conferences would like to have him on their payroll. The majority of Adventist pastors would like him to be a member in their congregation. His varied and even charismatic career gives us insight into the New Testament Church. His missionary work in Samaria, furthermore, paved the way to expand the early church. Although there is only a limited amount of information about his ministry, it seems that Philip was not only a successful evangelist, he was also extremely effective at discipling new believers.
Philip reminds me of a friend of mine who last Christmas visited members of his family who belong to my congregation. The two of us went skiing at Telluride. As we went up chairlifts, he had an uncanny ability to make friends instantly, and often the conversation turned to spiritual matters. On the way home, he picked up a hitchhiker. An hour later, he had made another friend, whom he invited to church. What impressed me most was his friendly demeanor and winsome ways. I think this person has Philip’s gift for winsome witnessing.
So the question turns to our denomination: What can we, as Seventh-day Adventists, learn from the Apostle Philip?
As a relatively new pastor, I was surprised after my first year of ministry to see how easy it is to become more concerned about making new members conform to the image we have for them than for them actually to become disciples of Jesus Christ. I’ve had members who are more worried about “appearances” than genuine changes of heart. Hence, we develop lists to make sure they are “Adventist.” When they do not conform, they leave. As I have visited former church members in my community, the observation I have heard most often is that church attendance looking the “right way” tends to be valued more than attendance itself.
I’ll never forget traveling to a country outside North America to do evangelism. After concluding the evangelistic series, the corpus of local elders pontificated that none of the converts was good enough to be baptized. We didn’t end up baptizing anyone, and to this day I do not know if the potential new members ever came into the church.
In my local congregation, my number one priority as a pastor has been creation of a healthy culture that encourages discipling new believers. I believe every congregation needs to give careful thought about how to do this more effectively and in the spirit of Philip. Churches need to make themselves accountable for fulfilling the biblical mission of making disciples.
So how well have we fulfilled our evangelistic mission, historically speaking?
I found myself challenged as I read Adventists and Evangelism in the Twentieth-Century, by Howard B. Weeks (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1969). Although the book needs to be updated, clearly our evangelistic record as a denomination is mixed.
While writing my dissertation, which deals with the 1919 Bible Conference, I was fascinated by the Fundamentalist prophecy conferences during World War I that Adventist church leaders at that time set forth as a model for what the Church should be doing. The twist was that church leaders were jealous at the success the Fundamentalists had enjoyed.
This was particularly poignant in light of the fact that a number of Adventist evangelists predicted the fall of Turkey during the “Great War.” Adventists were humbled when, despite warnings from a few people, the evangelists brought embarrassment to the church. This set the stage for the 1919 Bible Conference. The feeling developed that, if Adventist exegetes had gotten it wrong, unity on prophetic interpretation could help avoid error in the future. Hence, most of the transcripts of the 1919 Bible Conference deal with eschatologymatters that today would most likely put many of us to sleep. Yet this issue was critical to thought leaders back then, who found themselves publicly embarrassed because they lacked the evangelistic success of other conservative Christians.
Historically speaking, Adventists are good at seizing the attention of the world through startling predictions of the end. The challenge comes arises as to whether we are willing to prepare others to meet Jesus when he does return. In the spirit of Philip, we need to re-evaluate constantly how we do evangelism and ask whether we are not only able to baptize members but also retain them afterward.
Michael W. Campbell pastors the Montrose, Colorado, Seventh-day Adventist Church,
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/965