Revelation of Hope, Daniel Prophecy Seminars, Amazing Facts: these are typical Adventist evangelistic programs aimed at drawing crowds of people into the church. But the truth of the matter is that the jargon, the “hell-fire and brimstone,” the “we’re right and you’re wrong” approach no longer works — or does it?
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has taken a new direction since the election of Elder Ted Wilson to the top job. His visions are far sweeping and exact. “Revival and Reformation” seeks just that, but — one needs to ask — how can you seek revival and reform at the same time? What does it look like?
In the context of evangelism, it looks similar, sounds similar and sticks to the tried-and-true method of nightly meetings. But there are differences: the graphics have been updated (thank goodness); and the language has become more inclusive and less “Adventist” while still keeping to the teachings of the church. And instead of Mark Finley presenting, we have Ted Wilson himself preaching as part of NY13, the launching pad for the “Mission to the Cities“ initiative.
One of the successful aspects of this campaign has been the groundwork — something I have been privileged to be a part of during the past six months. Far too often within the Adventist church, the “traditional” form of evangelism doesn’t work, simply because we just run a campaign and expect people to turn up. Yet, here in New York City, there has been a concerted effort throughout the past 12 months to reach out to the community through public rallies, health expos, vegetarian cooking classes, ESL classes, prayer ministry, compassion projects and a great deal more.
Yet with such inroads being made with these sort of outreach initiatives, it seems we still haven’t mastered the art of Adventist evangelism in the form of literature distribution. In the lead-up to the flagship campaign in the historic Manhattan Seventh-day Adventist Church in Greenwich Village, many thousands of copies of The Great Hope — a condensed version of The Great Controversy — were distributed. At a planning meeting in February, one of the churches represented was happy to report that they had distributed more than 7,000 copies of The Great Hope. This report was met with a hearty, “Amen!” to which my immediate thought response was “7,000 distributed — but how many were actually read? How many were simply disposed of in the nearest trash can?” At least at that stage, it seemed the marketing success of this evangelistic campaign was being measured through an invasive evangelistic method that can’t actually be measured and is likely to be of limited effectiveness — something that doesn’t sit well with me.
When the time finally came for the meetings to begin, the people began to pour into the church — and the rain began to pour down at the same time. Despite the rain, more than 400 people filled the sanctuary itself and an overflow space downstairs had to be used.
The second night produced a confusion of events with a youth rally in Foley Square concluding with a march to the Manhattan Church itself. With as many as 1,000 people milling in and around the building and hundreds on the street outside, it seemed there weren’t going to be enough seats. But the influx of people was short-lived. The next night — and most nights for the rest of the series — the main sanctuary was filled comfortably with little need to use the overflow space.
Throughout the series it was evident that the message was being well received. Yet what wasn’t overtly evident was whether the message was being well received by Adventist church members — or by seekers, contacts and interests. The nature of conducting a meeting and following up is quite involved, yet it seemed many churches in New York City weren’t willing to be part of this process. Early on some pastors would meet to identify new contacts and communicate with them by visitation or phone — or at least this was the recommended process. But, with so many people involved in the programs and more than 320 Adventist churches in New York City, it became evident that no one really knew how to identify church members from non-church members. Many church members were included on lists for visitation simply because they didn’t know anyone directly involved in the program.
One clearly evident aspect of the program in New York City is that people are willing to hear this traditional type of evangelism — just not the middle to upper class 20 to 30-something Caucasian demographic that resides within the geographical area of the Manhattan Adventist Church on West 11th Street.
So who did attend? From my observation, the crowd was mainly Hispanic people. Many of them didn’t speak English so listened to a message being preached in English through translation. There was also a large concentration of church members who relished the opportunity to listen to and be involved in a program being coordinated by the General Conference with the General Conference president speaking and Mark Finley acting as compere. These church members are already baptized and therefore won’t boost baptismal numbers — one of the key measures we have used to show evangelism works.
So I leave New York City having experienced an evangelistic series with the full backing of the General Conference. I leave having witnessed three nights of baptisms at an evangelistic series, I leave with a renewed hope that perhaps this method of evangelism does work. But I also leave wondering how we are going to reach the young, wealthy, white demographic that we still struggle to access. I am also left wondering where any of our converts will go from here, whether — in the end — we remain more worried about membership than discipleship. For all the work that has been part of NY13, I haven’t seen much attention given to anything more than the initial invitation.
Josh Wood is from Australia, and has been serving as a missionary in New York City for the past six months as part of the One Year in Mission program.
Image: Manhattan Adventist Church in Greenwich Village. Photo by Greater New York Conference.
Read previous Spectrum coverage of NY13 in the following stories, among others.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5379