Perspective: The Different "Seas" of Evangelism and Academia

It is hardly a secret that Seventh-day Adventist evangelism and academia view each other with misgivings. Occasionally engaging each other (at best), tasked with different responsibilities and shaped by diverse life-experiences, misunderstanding is unsurprising. Evangelists complain that most academics do not respect what they do (“elitist intellectuals”), while academics suspect that evangelists are mistrustful of what they do (encouraging students and peers to ask doubt-creating questions). Evangelists feel embraced and supported when their work is described as the “real” mission of the church, while academics often feel marginalized as “highbrows.” Winning new converts is more visible and dramatic than nurturing faith in young people.

Other factors also can create discord between them. Soloists in their work, evangelists decide how to vocalize the score given them by Adventist doctrine and heritage. They have little need for endless committees to approve what they do. As executives of a small operation, their decision-making is only challenged when it fails. By comparison, academics (within our institutions) are relatively powerless. Unlike an evangelistic audience, students and parents pay for their services and demand a great deal. Like church administrators, academics must run a gauntlet of committees to get approval for what they do.

An example: Early in my college teaching career I recall a lengthy faculty discussion about a typical problem. Consensus finally reached a long time later, our new evangelist/pastoral ministry professor lamented out loud: “I feel that we have endured the labor pains of an elephant and given birth to a mouse.” Academia can be slow and prolonged—one thinks in terms of semesters and calendar years. Evangelism is rapid and one plans on weeks or a few months at most. Academics deal with the same group of students and colleagues for years; evangelists deal with their audience, new believers and local pastors for a fraction of time.

Another crucial difference: Evangelists feel obligated to preach their message with a conviction that borders on certainty. Paul’s call-to-arms to the church is rings in their ears: “If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who can prepare for battle” (I Cor. 14:8)? Outreach proclamation to the public strains against scholarly or thoughtful examination in a classroom or scholarly meetings. Preaching to awaken a life-changing decision chases a different mission than reading a skillfully crafted paper to one’s peers, or challenging a classroom to think through biblical and theological challenges. In a few cases, regrettably, evangelists denigrate “school” learning in favor of “experience,” while academics may feel some evangelists meet the public ill-prepared to answer its difficult questions.

In Adventism’s case, let me suggest, the chasm is the result of evangelists and many academics relating differently to the dominant secular culture of our eon. As philosopher Charles Taylor argues in his A Secular Age, the culture that accepted the reality of a personal God, the truth of the Christian faith and the existence of miracles and supernatural beings, is gone forever—even if some groups continue to believe in such things. What was once accepted without question is gone. We all live in an era when the “death of God” or “atheism” or “scientific humanism” is now the overarching cultural paradigm. We must breathe its air, even as our ancestors could not avoid breathing faith. We no longer “feel” what they felt about their Christian heritage.

Perhaps no more insightful metaphor sensitizes us to this change than Matthew Arnold’s use of the “sea” in his 1876 poem, Dover Beach:

DOVER BEACH

The sea is calm tonight. The tide is full, the moon lies fair Upon the straits; on the French coast the light Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. Come to the window, sweet is the night-air! Only, from the long line of spray Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land, Listen! you hear the grating roar Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, At their return, up the high strand, Begin, and cease, and then again begin, With tremulous cadence slow, and bring The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow Of human misery; we Find also in the sound a thought, Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating, to the breath Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.

What this means for evangelists who continue to preach within the “sea of faith” is this: the audiences consist almost entirely of those who sail on that same sea. They live as if the faith “once delivered to the saints” is still the way we feel about reality. Backing up a preacher’s authority in a public meeting by declaring “the Bible says” cannot impress secular hearers. They don’t care what the Bible says. They are neither angry nor interested in opposing belief, so why would they bother to attend an evangelistic meeting and challenge claims made by the speaker? Our apocalyptic-laden handbills announcing the meetings suggest an alternate version of Star Wars to them. Our message is irrelevant to their lives.

The challenge within this secular “tide” means something quite different for academics. Everything they study and teach is dramatically shaped by Arnold’s “darkling plain” where certitude and joy has vanished. Even their students from Adventist homes bring issues and questions to the classroom they would seldom, if ever, bring to their local church Sabbath School class. Science and historical research forces them and their professors to test past explanations, especially the religious ones. We no longer rely on miracles and “healers” when sick. Instead, we visit physicians, hospitals in search of the best remedies offered by modern science. Should an Adventist family lose their home in a tornado, we do not assume the cause was divine punishment. Conversely, if the home is spared, most would not assume miraculous protection.

Added to all this is the disconcerting insistence of secular humanists that they do not feel their moral principles require a transcendent reality. “Commandments from God” or the “divine command theory” are not needed for ethical living. We can find solid principles embedded in what it means to be human beings who flourish only in trusting relationships.

Preachers like Saddleback’s Rick Warren, author of the Purpose-Driven Life, largely proclaim the gospel to people already committed to a basic Christian orientation, while a preacher like Timothy Keller intentionally proclaims the gospel to those who feel no need of it. They inhale the secular feeling of our time. In his first book (2009) The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Keller confronted this culture in Manhattan. He invited anyone who disagreed with his sermons to visit him after church in an open discussion. Young professionals working in fashion, marketing, law and business were taken aback by his boldness, and decided to teach him a lesson. Apparently, they learned some lessons, so began attending his services by the thousands. His after-service Q&A became the basis for Reasons for God. His more recent volume, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters, further challenges the secular sea by exposing its ultimate emptiness. In that way New York soil is prepared for the gospel seed: A personal God and Jesus Christ are the only truly fulfilling alternative.

We need Adventist evangelists and pastors who will approach the secular public with an equally sophisticated message. Were that to happen, many Adventist academics (I refer to both church employees and members) would enthusiastically support them by inviting their friends and colleagues. (Note: The final hurdle for interests generated in this way would be to locate a local congregation for them willing and able to continue their journey in the ways that speak to them.)

To be clear, this is not to minimize the importance of historic evangelism. Most of us (including myself) found the gospel and Adventism in those meetings. Their waterfall of gospel music and powerful preaching captivated us. Tens of thousands still respond as we did. But as we have learned, urban areas are largely populated by the secular mindset. Is it too much to hope for an outreach that reaches them as well?

James Londis is a retired evangelist, pastor, professor, college president, and Ethics and Corporate Integrity officer.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7275
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Read with interest, thanks James.

I find discussing this issue with traditional SDAs to be absolutely exhausting. A circular treadmill of irony, contradiction and misunderstanding. I appreciate the optimistic tone of your article.

Addit. This post was edited by @webEd ed. Why???

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This is a topic long past due. It is not so much how to reach people, but what have we to offer them if we get their attention? Is it our own interest in the product offered when it may be nothing that they are interested in?

First comes the listening. What do people feel that is missing in their lives? Many feel they are swimming upstream with no guides. Anxious for employment security when there is none, worry of how the bills coming due can be paid, and lost relationships, or lack of close ones.

What can religious faith offer as answer to those concerns? Unless those who are eager to reach them with some hope, it will be futile. It needs to be spelled out clearly with no hidden agenda. No plan to introduce organized religion or system suffices. Unless they can tap into their own spiritual life and be shown how to live it wherever they are, time for both is wasted.

Just this morning I was reading of a local group formed by members of several churches that have begun using and building a facility to help those who are homeless, victims of domestic abuse, and unemployed, to get back n their feet and begin again. This, with the aid of professionals but also aides who can be trained with minimal time to seek and encourage those who are in need of such a place. This is the way churches should function. Not a building where people meet once a week to hear a sermon, sing a few songs, and repeat again, ad infinitum. but walking among the people as Christ did,to the the glory of God in helping those in need.

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I was long ago cast off from Adventist ministry because I was supposedly “more suited to tertiary teaching and other academic pursuits than to pastoral ministry.” (At that time in my part of the world, there were very few individuals who could do doctoral level work in religion without private financial backing). Not that the Conference or Union was willing to assist me to make such a move. No! I was just left to my own devices.

Yes! I respect much of what I have experienced in my close association with a handful of gifted Adventist evangelists. Their messages about biblical apocalyptic is exactly what has drawn thousands of people toward belief and confidence in the Scripture and a deep love and trust in the Saviour of the world. They have preached the good news of God’s already and not yet kingdom. (The prophecies of the books of Daniel and the Revelation seem especially designed to help Adventist preachers in this work). And yet like you, James, I wish that our evangelists were able to understand the times and the mindset of the people even more than they do.

Both Adventist evangelists and Adventist Biblical theologians must begin to appreciate the fact that the most useful theology we can learn and teach is a theology that has at its core a practical aim of norming and forming the Christian worldview of believers. Such ‘practical theology’ is no less academically rigourous than the theology of the ivory tower. However, it has a practical purpose!

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Evangelism costs, even for a city the size of Macon, GA, similar in size to Chattanooga, TN, is large. A couple of years ago there was an evangelism effort, hand bills in every mail box [even mine] with all the beasts pictured and the world blowing up on the front.
This was the first one in 10 years by the way. I would say that over $40,000 dollars was spent on the 3 week event. An event for mostly Seventh day Adventist members to attend.
The local members and the Conference were happy to spend that much money.
Since then — nothing.

Speaking of Academic Religion Classes.
The Author noted this MAJOR phenomenon for Young Adults.
A Religion Class at college appears the ONLY place of Safety where one can ask troubling questions.
Young Adults do not feel SAFE asking those questions at their home church in their home church Religion Classes for FEAR. MANY FEARS.
From what the Author stated, Academic Religion Class teachers is the ONLY place where troubling questions are respected as coming from a sincere interest to know the answers, and they are attempted to be answered with no “put-down” of the person asking.

The other day I saw this in ENTREPRENEUR magazine of 11/15, Editor’s page.
“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds
cannot change anything.” — George Bernard Shaw.

When I read that, it made me think of dear old Sister Ellen White. She wrote later in life that we needed to be careful. There may come a time when we have to give up some treasured views about the Bible we have held dearly for years, and accept some new paradigms because of new Biblical information coming through study.
Perhaps it is in Academia of asking Critical Questions that we arrive at more clearer views of Salvation, Grace and Justice, and God’s everlasting love for us from BEFORE the Big Bang 13-15 Billion years ago, when the Plan of Salvation was first discussed among the Father, Christ, Holy Spirit.
Is it FEAR which prevents us from asking Questions outside of Academia that keeps us in Inertia. And FEAR that propels us to keep making new Rules and Regulations of what we can Think, Say, and Discuss openly without the terms “Heresy”, “Heretic” being thrown around.

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I totally agree with this tex, 2 years ago when i did my school of evangelism in North Carolina, the Local Conference mailed more than 10.000 pamphlets with the beasts of Daniel and Revelation in a city with 50.000 people, at the first evening we had 15 guests who came because they were curious about the title of the first evening, that was supposed to be about the Armageddon, and the funny thing was, we didn’t say much about the Armageddon, it was only a word to get people’s attention, at the second evening we have only 9 coming and in one of the conversations that i had with one of our visitors, at the end of the meeting , he was very frustrated because He believed that we will be speaking about Israel, and the Anti Christ, according with his perspective and understanding and we barely covered that, The third evening we had only 4 coming, and that was it, The thing is we use pictures in our materials and also topics regarding what is going on in the world regarding political situations that give the idea that we will cover those topics very deep, and when people realize that we are not covering what we promised, they get really upset and of course they don’t come to the meetings anymore. My idea is that those methods are updated and they don’t work anymore, maybe in the 60’s or no more than the 70’s, with pos modern minds this is not working, what we really need to do is outreach the world with the real Gospel of Christ, the doomsday ideology is not making disciples in this day and age, millennials are looking for understanding, respect, coexistence and love.

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Nothing illustrates your point better than the attempt to convince atheists that the fourth commandment mandates that you worship God on Saturday instead of Sunday.The traditional SDA evangelistic paradigm breaks down face to face with people like myself, people who have a commitment to ethics but no faith and who don’t feel the need for a God in their lives–and who, to boot, have no desire for eternal life. Even if all 28 FBs of the SDA creed represented a fair reading of the Bible, it matters little to those who don’t believe in the Bible’s divine origin. And when you can point out that Christianity is not a creed or a celestial entrance exam, but a fellowship with the divine, you would be more likely to head to the Episcopal church than the SDA church.

The greatest problem that any church has when faced with our largely secular culture is values, not dogma. What has caused secularization in the first place, apart from education and the legacy of the Enlightenment, has been the emergence of values against which large sections of Christians have fought. Take the influence of the Daily Show. Jon Stewart is a good representative of the secular culture discussed by Londis in the above essay, but notice how values-oriented his show was. It was a nearly two decades long ethics-based crusade against bigotry and hatred and propaganda. People today ask themselves if they would want to spend time with somebody invested with the qualities or lack of such that traditional Christians attribute to God.

In the US, profession of faith seems almost pathologically separated from discipleship. Gun-toting brutes claim to uphold the sanctity of the Christian faith, while others live for a creed instead of living for others. I frankly doubt that it is possible to stem the tide of secularism and the erosion of faith we see today, but if, somehow, Christians could find it in them to turn their churches into open houses for people who admire Jesus and who would like to sit around the fire of fellowship to warm themselves and bring in their friends from the community, there might be more of a future for the Christian faith in the developed world. But it would require putting values above faith.

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Elaine, I already have put a “like” under your post, but it is not enough to express my joy in reading it. If only there would be a general understanding of the things you uttered therein.

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James, thank you for this excellent appeal and reminder to do as Jesus told us to do when sharing the Good News. Evangelism and Academia are linked, the packaging and presentation may be different but truth that is being presented is being developed as well. I believe Sister Ellen would have appreciated and liked your post.

“In every age there is a new development of truth, a message of God to the people of that generation. The old truths are all essential; new truth is not independent of the old, but an unfolding of it. It is only as the old truths are understood, that we can comprehend the new.” Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 127.

Two persons in my journey have helped me to navigate these “different seas” One was Pastor Rick Warren, whom you mention, as a Community Pastor in Laguna California, when I was a Chaplain at Saddleback Hospital. He was one of the few community pastors who did personal hospital visitation, also he frequented homeless shelters. He is comfortable in proclaiming the Gospel to all-- mingling with corporate secular types, and those unlike him. I’ve known Warren for several years and I have never read a book of his and he has never heard any of my sermons, but his genuine concern of all is clear to me.

The other person was Dr. Leona Running. I may be the ONLY person who went door to door ingathering in the freezing weather of Benton Harbor, Michigan several evenings with this great world renowned biblical linguist and Hebrew scholar. She asked me to accompany her as she wanted to have that experience and learn from it. While initially timid she did very well and we both enjoyed those outings. Her class was NOT my favorite at the seminary. Her smile, her persona, and her authentic interest in ministry were a great blessing to me.

One was from an evangelistic background the other from the world of academia. At the end of the day, we are all “living human documents” of God’s truth.

In every age there is a new development of truth, a message of God to the people of that generation.

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Thanks Jim for a welcome call for our people to understand the world in which we live and use that understanding for effective witness. I praise God for the likes of Tim Keller and Rick Warren each of whom exhibit what I take to be the Spirit’s gift for evangelism. I confess to total mystification at what moves and persuades people. It was Lou Venden who lured me to Willow Creek while visiting me in Chicago and I heard Bill Hybels preach a very solid Biblically sound sermon. Before that day I had zero interest in driving accross my home city to participate in what I unfairly and ignorantly took to be “religion as spectator sport.” I went away wondering just what it was that drew the thousands and thousands of “unchurched” to that community since it obviously wasn’t the dazzling charisma of its founding pastor, nor was it a message characterized by intellectual power and cultural sophistication. Again I can only say it must be the moving of the Spirit. Thank God for the great cloud of witnesses.

My perception of the scores of students I regularly encounter is that they are not particularly secular in their outlook but are instead unfazed by any convictions of other persons because they hold that all spiritual convictions are purely subjective. It would be tempting to infer that the contemporary mind is blessed with placid self-satisfaction. But surely Augustine had it right when he remarked that the human heart is restless until it finds its rest in God. Perhaps the best we can do is pray that God will make us instruments of his grace to open those restless hearts to Him. I happily testify to his use of you, Jim, in that very way.

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How will this ever happen when members (many, many) like @blc insist that these ideas are foundational pillars and CANNOT be changed? They don’t even believe Sister White on this issue AT ALL. There are cherished and pet “pillars” that will never see change as long as members refuse to be open to the Holy Spirit and who cry “foul” and “blasphemy” and “you-aren’t-a-real-Adventist” when new paradigms emerge. Fear, indeed.

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And how far are you willing to carry that? Is there nothing that is rock solid and immovable? How about the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus? How about the Second Coming or heaven? Are these all subject to change, based on our “enlightened” understanding? Ellen White did say that there will always be new truths to discover, but that these new truths will not contradict old truths; they will compliment them. She also spoke of certain doctrines as immovable pillars.

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There is little difference between an evangelist and a politician - as Shawn Boonstra admitted when he once stated that his first ambition was to be a politician - enough said.

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Thank you very much for a very well formulated description of the problem faced by Christians who wish to be not only relevant members of their societies but also witnesses to the power of the Gospel. It is high time for Christians to realize that reducing the Gospel to doctrines that need to be affirmed is not to promote the importance of the Christ who taught no doctrine.but invited others to follow him. Of course, living in a different “sea” requires adaptation to its ecology. The conflation of Live as Salvation, and Salvation as Life in Heaven, has been a tragic development. Jesus invited others to follow him in the dusty roads of Palestine. Any one wishing to be a follower in the twenty first century must remember that he traced a path of compassion, and solidarity. No doubt how one expresses compassion and solidarity is determined by a scale of values and and symbolic universe. Academics aim at helping students construct these basic elements for the living of a good life on earth. Would that evangelists and pastors dedicated themselves to bring out intelligent applications of these in the life of faith.

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Thank you James,
for quoting one of my favorite poems of all time,
Mathew Arnold’s beautifully evocative poem,
DOVER BEACH.

It is hauntingly sad, as the poet contemplates
"a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
where ignorant armies clash by night"

Very contemporary and pertinent as we contemplate
World War three-- already begun according to some commentators.

The world wallows in misery, just as when Arnold, in 1876 penned the words:
“Sophocles, long ago, heard it on the Aegean, and it brought into his mind
the turbid ebb and flow of human misery”

Since Sphocles era, and before, the world has been immersed in MISERY,
and despite “live streaming” of this abject state to EGW’s "universe"
whom she states has to “vindicate” God before the end of “the great controversy”. we have heard no response from these alien beings, nor from the Angels.

While we have to switch channels when we cannot stomach the evening news,
these aliens and Angels apparently can witness the worst atrocities with equanimity!

And the best Adventist evangelists can promise the multitudes, is a future
Armageddon, and a “time of trouble such as never was”!

It would need another Mathew Arnold to articulate such an anticipated agonizing awfulness!

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Though I was a little worried about the biased tone (and look) at the beginning, your conclusion was really fair and optimistic. I’m personally sailing in the ‘academic sea’ (my formation set me in that direction, and I sense God’s calling to continue in it), yet I can’t help but share what God has done in my life - so that also clearly sets me in the ‘evangelism sea’. In my experience, I became convinced that this unhappy gap should have never been made; there needs to be a rapprochement between the two, and both have place in our postmodern and post-postmodern culture. There are actually people who would respond more to the evangelism style, for example (since you mentioned) Star Wars and other SF/fantasy fans, which are precious and numerous people, and not just a bunch of geeks unworthy of our attention (yes, they’re included in the Rev 14:6 list). They find lengthy and endlessly uncertain academic style boring and uninspiring, but if presented with a powerful narrative in which there is an epic distinction and struggle between the characters, and in which they have a part, they’re hooked - and what’s the central narrative in the adventist message? (See my blog which attempts to contextualize the GC theme in that way: https://conflictofages.wordpress.com). Evangelism should not be dumped, but updated. And academic sea should provide more space for informed certainty, and for bolder discussion of fundamental principles and presuppositions. Once you get to that groundwork, faith ceases to be something so difficult to embrace (just reasearch ontological turn in cultural anthropology - that is an amazing development).

I would like to mirror your optimism by saying there already exist bright examples of updated evangelism, of one that encourages and involves academic insight, for example, Light Bearers and ARISE Institute. In their teaching, they have been blurring borders between the academia and evangelism seas, and equally important, updated the language in accordance with the prevailing cultural concerns. And they are not the only ones, though perhaps the most famous. BTW, LBs such as Ty Gibson and Fred Bischoff elucidated some powerful insights and arguments in favor of WO which would inspire trust in those who view the Bible and SOP highly, but the academia largely ignored it, and in arguing relied instead on the typical Western egalitarian euphoria which the faith-searching Global South is suspicious of (watching that GC discussion and epic fails of some WO defenders was painful to me who hoped that the Global South will perceive the Biblical and SOP basis for WO). That’s a prime example of how ignoring the insights from the ‘evangelism sea’ might have impaired the church. Both sides should value contributions of the other.

So, there definitely is a need for tearing down those unneeded walls of division between the evangelists and the academia, to reach out and listen to each other, to reconsider and review our own presuppositions, thoroughness, motives and experience - and for that, we need humility. And yeah, we also need God.

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James,

Have you read some of Keller’s books, or listened to his sermons? I was curious about your thoughts.

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Indeed I have read four of his books and listened to one you tube sermon. Chuck Scriven has heard him, in person, three or four times in Manhattan. He tells me that it is a traditional Presbyterian service held in rented auditoriums around the city (no church property per se). Keller preaches once or twice without publicizing where he and not an associate will be. So, you attend and take your chances. Keller did an undergraduate in philosophy and at some point, decided to go to Seminary, and then decided to go to New York (without a job) and start his own ministry. His books are carefully researched, reflective and quote his favorite authors (C.S. Lewis among them for obvious reasons–both pious and a fine apologist) and even philosophical arguments to defend Christian theology and ethics. His books are a joy to read.

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I have the feeling Herold, that public events structured more like a large classroom (lecture then small group discussion around comfortable tables with facilitators) would be more compelling for thoughtful, curious people than the straight powerpoint lecture alone. Those Christian speakers who are gifted at this usually have publications behind their notoriety and credibility. Since most Adventist interested in speaking to the public publish primarily in Adventist presses, or preach on television to the already christianized public, they cannot acquire the kind of reputation that Keller or Warren have achieved.

And Daryll, it seems to me that even believers who live by the so-called post-modern sensibility in which every assertion based on a truly rational argument is merely “opinion;” they too are filled with “secular” air even as they attend church and simply believe whatever their favorite preacher proclaims. Your comments along with Herold and many, many others do suggest a need to prayerfully consider our future as authentic witnesses for the gospel!!

Great! I think Tim Keller is a truly gifted man of God. I too have read several of his books, and have listened to many sermons and talks he has given at many major universities here, and at Oxford. He represents Christ, His teachings, and all of Scripture in a full, simple and intelligent way.

I’ve also heard him reference Martin Lloyd Jones a lot too…and others that I am not familiar with, and some that I am, to a degree. I think his preaching/teaching is a passion and a calling…not a profession. It comes through so clearly and authentically.

I would direct anyone, no matter where they are in their walk in life, to listen to Keller.

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