Without your love
I only hear the loudest voices
The ones with something new to sell
And now it's all
Big talk, big name, big noise, New York
—Donald Fagen, “Big Noise, New York”
If you’ve not heard of NY13 yet, you will. According to Shawn Boonstra, “It’s possibly the most ambitious outreach project in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.” That’s shorthand for lots of money and lots of PR. Expect that during the next 18 months, the 2013 evangelistic thrust in New York City will be the cover story of the Adventist Review/World, advertised and pushed and fundraised for in every conceivable way. The impetus to kick off urban evangelism there comes straight from the top: part of Elder Ted Wilson’s résumé is as an urban outreach pastor in NYC a couple of decades back.
As I’ve said here before, good questions can be raised about the effectiveness of traditional Adventist public evangelism, but in fact a large number of congregations do precisely nothing to reach out to their communities, so it’s hard to fault church leaders for pushing to see something happen in what is arguably the capitol of world culture. Ellen White was fairly specific on the subject: “In Greater New York the message is to go forth as a lamp that burneth. God will raise up laborers for this work, and His angels will go before them. Though our large cities are fast reaching a condition similar to the condition of the world before the Flood, though they are as Sodom for wickedness, yet there are in them many honest souls, who, as they listen to the startling truths of the advent message, will feel the conviction of the Spirit. New York is ready to be worked.” (Testimonies, vol. 7, pp. 54, 55)
There is much I hear about NY13 that I like. In an interview posted on the NY13 web page, Elders Dan Jackson, Ted Wilson, Donald King, and Frank Bondurant spoke of NY13 as a new kind of total evangelistic outreach: integrated, intense, participative, with a large training component. Said Elder Wilson, “I think the Lord wants us to do something in a comprehensive, practical way, that ties in everything, so that it is not just an event, but a sequence of activities with local church members, young people, literature evangelists, medical missionary work, integrated media, everything pointing toward reaching the hearts of these people in New York City.” That means a ton of Seventh-day Adventists descending on New York City, with literature, programs and personal contacts. If a presence like that doesn’t make a difference, I don’t know what would.
Frank Bondurant quoted Frank Sinatra: “If we can make it there, we can make it anywhere,” and hoped that New York City will be a lab for developing evangelistic methodology that can be used in other world cities. This suggests innovation and risk-taking. And, it agrees with what Ellen White said in 1902: “Those who bear the burden of the work in Greater New York should have the help of the best workers that can be secured. Here let a center for God's work be made, and let all that is done be a symbol of the work the Lord desires to see done in the world. . . “ (Testimonies, vol. 7, pp. 38).
I do have some questions I wish I could raise with the planners, though. These come from my own and friends’ experiences with evangelistic programs through the years. I realize that in the upper reaches of the church, to even raise questions can be interpreted as disloyalty. Yet I also know that decisions made from an office aren’t always informed ones. All my friends in administrative offices say, “I’m just a pastor like you”—but they don’t realize that the view changes radically, and surprisingly quickly, once you step into that office. What is obvious to everyone in the field isn’t necessarily obvious from the other side of the desk.
1. How are the NY13 planners working with local churches?
When big ministries with big money come to a community, there’s not necessarily a conversation with congregations and pastors. A pastor friend who was part of one of one the big west coast outreaches a few years confirmed this. “No one ever talked with us about it. The message was, ‘We’re doing this. You will support it.’ The attitude was a little condescending, and turned a lot of us off before it even began.”
I would like to know if planners sat down with pastors of significant NYC-area churches and said, “We’re about to expend a lot of resources and talent on your community. You know the city far better than we do: what would you do here? Do you believe what we’re planning will work? Is your heart in this? What will happen if we baptize 50 people who could attend your church. Can they be integrated here? How can we help you keep them from being casualties of disinterest or conflict in the congregation?”
Presumably the purpose of NY13 is to build up congregations in NYC. That means the local churches could receive (potentially) hundreds of new church members. Are they ready for that? Do the planners, in fact, know the congregations they’re trying to fill? Hint: they’re not like the Silver Spring Seventh-day Adventist Church. Even in NYC, many of them are small. We have in NYC multi-ethnic churches, black churches, West Indian churches, African churches, Asian churches, hispanic churches and other ethnic churches, spread over five conferences. How will they fit converts with churches?
2. Is this really something new?
The NY13 website has many incomplete links, so it isn’t clear yet precisely what will be integrated into this outreach. What I hear so far is good, but hardly new. Medical missions means cooking schools, smoking cessation groups, and health screenings. Literature evangelists will be trying to sell some of the same literature (possibly with new title and cover) we’ve been using for 100 years. We’ll send out vast mailings, and buy time on NYC stations to invite people to come to our meetings. We’ll cap it off with some big evangelistic series in large venues, where we’ll sing hymns, showcase some excellent musical performers, deliver clear, powerful sermons, pass out response cards, and make altar calls. Bible workers will visit interests and answer their questions. There will be some baptisms, and then the evangelists and the money and The Big Adventist Presence will go away.
Some of it will work, of course. But what will happen that will make a difference? You can put a radio in a model T, but that doesn’t make it a Lexus. Will we, when everything is finally in place, try anything new? Or is this a case of doing the same things we’ve always done and hoping for better results?
3. Is this something we know how to do?
NAD Adventism, black and white, is mostly middle-class, mostly suburban. Even people in our immigrant churches experience social lift and move into the suburbs. What do we know about working in an urban setting? How many people do we have who are totally immersed in that world? Elder Wilson says in the video that 50% of world’s inhabitants are urban, but I’d be surprised if a single one of the presenters, planners or trainers live anywhere but in the suburbs, or if more than a handful of NAD pastors have lived and done ministry in a genuine urban setting.
Ellen White wrote her prescription for New York City outreach 110 years ago. It was a time when you could set up a tent in a vacant lot and people would come. Not anymore. Is door-to-door canvassing in a place like Manhattan, where every apartment is protected by a doorman, even possible? What would even a million dollars buy in media exposure in a place like Manhattan? Will New Yorkers react favorably to a group that comes from the outside to rescue them because it sees them “as Sodom for wickedness”?—possibly true, but hardly an endearing reason for joining the church.
One New York City pastor told me, “This isn’t the city of 25 years ago. It’s far more ethnic and gay-positive, extraordinarily expensive, and very cynical. I don’t think they know what they’re getting into”. Which means that to be effective, we’d have to do ministry rather far outside of our comfort zone.
4. How will we measure success?
A pastor friend told me about a big union-funded evangelistic event in the metro area where he lived. Afterward, the announcement went out that 750 people had been baptized. When he met with his fellow pastors, all of them were scratching their heads. Where were those 750 people? They’d seen only about 50 baptisms at the meetings. They didn’t want to accuse the PR department of exaggeration, but even taking into account the generally greater evangelistic success in the hispanic churches, they couldn’t account for 750 new people attending their congregations.
NY13 is a chance to see whether doing a full court press on an urban center using our usual evangelistic methods actually works. But that will require an honest audit of the results. Just coming up with a round number of baptisms for a report in the Adventist Review/World and the union magazines, featuring a few of the individuals won, won’t do it.
Evangelists take their measurements at the high point, and never have to subtract all the people who leave within a year or two. Would you give a salesman an award if 90% of his sales had to be repossessed? And it won’t do to say to the local church (as I have been told) “We baptized them. If they didn’t stay, it’s because you lost them.” When you say that, evangelists, you are basically admitting that what you do doesn’t build congregations. Even if you believe that it’s the congregations’ fault, if you are imposing yourself on congregations as an expert to build membership it is part of your responsibility to help churches keep the people you baptize.
But usually you pack your trailer the night after the last meeting, hand us a list, and we pick up the pieces. No wonder the perennial complaint of congregations is that “the new converts came in the front door and went out the back door as soon as the evangelist left.”
I challenge the organizers to put in place a transparent method for measuring not just dunkings in the baptismal tank, but real church growth. Subtract church children and regular attenders who the pastor had already studied with and who would have been baptized anyway. Measure how many people are still there, attending regularly, a year later. Give us a real measure of how much value you added in terms of fully-supportive, long-term church members. That will help you, and us, know whether what we’re doing works, or has to be rethought for the next urban crusade.
I’m excited to see what NY13 planners will come up with. I hope this is really something new, something transformative for Adventist church growth. I hope the Adventist people in NYC give them lots of support. Let’s pray we’ll see a new birth of Seventh-day Adventism in The Big Apple.
 “The church has tended to have two postures toward the city. One has been indifference, a kind of pragmatic separatism that happens when we don’t acknowledge either the problems or the gifts of our cities. … The other posture would be a pathologizing of the city, in which we talk about it as a place that desperately needs charity or service, which the church then is called to help provide.That’s a step up from indifference, but it still falls short of what we are trying to get at with the phrase ‘this is our city.’
We don’t mean ‘this is our city’ as in ‘This is the Christian city, and the rest of you need to get in line’ but in the sense of sharing in something that is worth celebrating. We have Christian reasons, biblical reasons, to think that cities are worth celebrating. God’s gift to humanity at the end of the story in Revelation 21 is a city. Cities are not just an agglomeration of problems but also an incredible creative fusion of resources.” Andy Crouch, “Celebrate the City”, in Faith and Leadership [emphasis mine]
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4676