Author's note: I had a wonderful time during my evangelistic series this summer and will document some of the more positive experiences in coming posts, but today, a critique.
A smile lit Dr. Alan Parker's face but his tone of voice carried a more serious edge. "We have to make sure people feel welcomed. On opening night, it's important that you don't speak in Adventist lingo and that you make it as comfortable as possible for visitors. Tell the church members—specially the greeters and/or hosts."
He's chuckling now as he gets away from his slides and closer to us. "Please. Avoid 'Happy Sabbath' as the generic hello. Visitors have no idea what that means."
Then he goes back to his slides continuing his lecture on best practices for the opening weekend of an evangelistic series.
I was amused. He's right, I thought. Many of our everyday (or perhaps every week) church habits have no reference point for the visiting non-Adventist Christian, much less the visiting non-Christian.
I think it was a week or two after that Parker lecture when we were (gently) encouraged to go visit a church in the nearby area where an Amazing Facts evangelist was conducting his own evangelistic series. Dr. Parker felt it would be helpful to us student evangelists because he was presenting the same topic we would present that weekend. We could notice how a professional did it and perhaps learn from him.
As I walked into the church, I was surrounded by greeters and the pastor. Everyone was friendly enough as they guided me to sign my name in the attendance sheet. I felt tense. Even though I am an Adventist and I knew exactly what I was walking into, I still felt a little overwhelmed by the whole situation. It was a building I had never been in before and I felt a bit overtly dependent. The greeters pointed me in the right direction and I walked towards the meeting hall where the seminar was taking place.
They were doing round tables. Now I felt intimidated. I would have to sit at a round table with new faces; they were going to ask me to introduce myself and they would be talkative. Would they assume I was a miraculous-young-person visitor? Sigh.
"Wow, I had never realized how intimidating it is to walk into a church's evangelistic meeting," I mumbled to Sebastian, one of my colleagues.
It was opening weekend. Several months of anticipation had been leading up to this moment; I had the privilege of speaking first and I was excited. The first night's message was simple and straightforward—Jesus is the center of the book of Revelation and we can trust Him. The message was designed to be simple and accessible enough to be well-received by non-Adventist Christians but challenging and intriguing (because its focus was positive and Christ-centered) so as to provide reasons for visitors to keep attending.
Link Russi, my co-preacher, and I had sat in lots of trainings and classes by this point. Our pastor had guided us through a walkthrough with the church's volunteers. I was delighted to see how many church members were supporting the series with their time. At the walkthrough, the pastor had reminded the members to avoid Adventist jargon. "Don't greet everyone with a happy sabbath," he said, "Visitors won't know what that means."
Everyone chuckled because of course they knew that be weird.
It was sometime during the third weekend of the evangelistic series. I had started making a connection with an attendee who had completely lost her faith. She had tried Christianity but then went through some painful experiences that caused her to question everything—right down to the existence of God. It was quite the story really. She was forming connections at an Adventist seminar where Jesus and the book of Revelation were being taught. Her pain was real; she wanted to believe but her skepticism led her to demand evidence. She was seeking but her search was being held up by a fragile courage.
On this night after presenting, I came to sit with her as I liked to do to ask her if she had questions. She did and we begin to dialogue back and forth; I was doing my best to give weight to her doubts and respond with nuance. In the middle of our dialogue, a church member who had never sat there before and as far as I could tell had no connection with my skeptical friend butted into the conversation.
She proceeded to ask about why she didn't believe. What's holding you up? Well, I used to believe but now I don't and I want evidence. Oh well you know if you just have faith, I think you will realize God is real. You know when I struggle, I...
Her rants continued. She was direct—her straightforwardness came across as dismissive. I tried to redirect the conversation back to dialogue. I tried to interrupt. I tried but this lady was not going to be stopped until she got her message across to my skeptical friend.
My skeptical friend and her husband never came back after that night.
Evangelism requires a willingness to sacrifice. For the community wanting to bring in new people to the family, there must be a willingness to be flexible and adaptable; the community should be sensitive to the new ones and be willing to communicate in ways that make sense. An engineer cannot speak engineer to non-engineers; cultural old-time Adventists cannot speak cultural old-time Adventist to people coming to an Adventist church for the first time. It is wicked to prioritize personal agendas or local traditions above the salvation experience of spiritual babes.
Beyond that, new blood will necessarily cause transformation. A community that says they are committed to evangelizing and bringing in new people must be willing to face the communal transformations that will occur when said new people come in. Cliques must be willing to open up to newcomers; leadership must be willing to welcome in new leaders, and friendliness must extend beyond the dates of the seminar.
And this is all in keeping with Scriptures, for it is written, "we should not cause difficulties for those who turn to God..." (Acts 15:19, HCSB)
It was 7pm so that meant it was time to start. The elder in charge would welcome and open up, then there would be a special music and then it would be me. We wanted to keep our programming streamlined so as not to wear anyone out.
The elder, a sturdy black man with a winsome smile, approaches the mic. With a smile, he begins his remarks,
"Happy Sabbath everyone. We're glad you're here. These young people are like modern-day Noahs, proclaiming a difficult truth message even as those around them don't wanna hear. But God is with them."