The Ills of Easy Evangelism
“Much is said concerning our duty to the neglected poor; should not some attention be given to the neglected rich?”
– Ellen White, Ministry of Healing, pp 210
It’s vacation season for most universities and other tertiary educational institutions in Ghana. That means the usual for Adventist students: time for evangelism! Various associations and ministries will have set out, or will soon be on their way; GNAAS, Alive Ghana, Divine Messengers Movement, Announce, THEMSA… Watch out, rural Ghana, for today is salvation come to your towns and villages!
There can be no greater mood, no better spirit in the air as the busloads set out into the dark interiors of ignorance to bring the glorious light to the wanderers there. On board are the crème of our educated youth, fired up with enthusiasm. Doubtless it appears that nothing ill can be said of it. It is a direct response, afterall, to the Great Commission: “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” Nor have I anything negative to say of it, per se.
But I guess that depends, for as Paul wrote after evidently vexing the Corinthian church during one of his visits, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10). I write this with a similar hope; that perhaps – no hopefully – it will lead to an even greater salvation for the lost, no regrets, though a few among us be vexed for a brief moment.
The Big Picture: A Limp in the Run
We’re not just another denomination, and our message, Three Angels’ Messages, the Everlasting Gospel, is not just another message.
If the Adventist message is the closest there is to a fulfillment of the full requirements of the Great Commission, then it is the most important message on Earth today. Yet at the same time, if that is true, then the bearers of this message are the most indictable of all men for stalling its progress.
We’re On a Run
Officially, the church seems rather buoyant about growth. At the last General Conference session in San Antonio, the church’s General Secretary G.T. Ng stated, “The year 2014 goes down in history as the best church-planting year ever.” According to the statistics he presented, there was one new church planted every 3 hours somewhere in the world that year, and 6.7 new ones every day. It’s growth rates like that which have made us, according to Christianity Today, the “Fifth-largest Christian communion worldwide, after Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and Assemblies of God”.
Much of that growth is being driven by work in the Global South, particularly in Africa and South America. In Africa especially, the church cannot be said to be anything but booming, at least as far as new baptisms go. In May 2015 the church in Zimbabwe recorded 30, 000 baptisms. In Ghana, August that year saw some 2,000 baptisms. In just over two weeks from now on May 29th, Rwanda is set to baptize over 100, 000 new believers across some 2,300 locations around the country. God is definitely moving among end-time messengers.
Yet the sad truth is that according to church statistics, for every 100 new converts, we lose 60 existing members. The net loss was 48% the previous year, before a significant membership audit was carried out. Still alarmingly high, if you ask me.
Not only that, but we seem to be doing well when the cultural environment is favorable. For example, in Kenya, even though there are over 800, 000 Seventh-day Adventists in that one country, most of them come from only two out of about forty-two ethnic groups in the country. It’s a pretty similar story in Ghana, where only 2.5% of the Adventist population comes from the three northern regions, while Adventism is doing disproportionately well among Ashanti people.
A few may contend that it isn’t any more difficult for Adventism than it is for other Christian denominations in, say, predominantly Muslim territories, or for the myriad Pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical groups striving for membership growth amongst new peoples. That may be true, but we’re not just another denomination, and our message, Three Angels’ Messages, the Everlasting Gospel, is not just another message. This is the work of the remnant of God’s people; this is the Heaven-ordained final push towards eschatological climax. This should be a movement, more than it should be a mere denomination of Christianity.
All people are dear to God, and the Great Commission is universal in scope. Unfortunately, however, our mission activity by and large focuses on the less educated, less affluent classes of society, much to the neglect of the Wealthy, Worldly and Well-Educated (W3) members of society. This group is the main focus and interest of our discussion.
While the church globally has had a recent focus on city evangelism, local efforts have tended to be rather minimalist and dispirited. In Ghana, the Accra City Campaign of August 2015 yielded results far below the expectation of many.
Our mission efforts seldom reach the more affluent areas. When was the last campaign of any kind last taken to East Legon, Labone, Cantonments, Dzorwulu, Airport City, or the Trasacco Valley area?
One might expect that in places where we find a near-constant Adventist presence co-inhabiting with the wealthier, more educated class, there would be greater witnessing and outreach to them owing to the greater proximity and contact. Particularly such opportunities are present in universities across the country. Yet one would have to think again. In both public and private non-Adventist universities, there are relatively strong Adventist fellowships. These are usually – if not always – organized under the umbrella of the Ghana National Association of Adventist Students, affectionately known as GNAAS.
The reality is, however, that tens of thousands of Ghana Cedis are regularly and consistently committed by these fellowships to evangelistic efforts outside of their academic communities, and instead in remote rural places, where the time-tried method of open-square public evangelism continues to provide an easy conduit for new members into the burgeoning church.
Increasingly this neglect of the educated and wealthy is taking its toll on the church. The effect is a vicious cycle, no clichés intended. Our evangelistic and missiological preference for the less educated and less affluent fosters a neglect of the W3’s, which then creates a predominantly less educated, less affluent church, which in turn makes ministry to W3’s more difficult by way of expertise, resources and social access.
Missing Out on Millennials
This is particularly true and especially painful when one considers our lax evangelistic attitude towards upwardly mobile millennials. Millennials are the young adults of the present generation. Most sociologists bracket this around people born between the ’80s and early 2000s. Across Africa and particularly in the cities, these young people are climbing the educational and economic ladders rapidly. They are coming to own the economic, academic and political future of their respective countries. They are leading Africa’s rise towards middle-income economy.
The vast majority of them are also driving right past Adventist churches into vibrant evangelical and charismatic mega-churches that are intelligently tailored to their sensibilities and status.
Fortunately, rather than going to school on the moon, they are being educated in the same universities and polytechnics as our Adventist intellectuals. They are graduating from the same programmes and sitting in the same classes. Unfortunately, however, they are also being completely ignored by the Adventists on their campuses. Personal witnessing, backed by a strong church-driven evangelism programme, is all but absent.
Unfortunately the furthest our evangelistic attempts go to reach them are the occasional musical concert. Conscientiously tailored Bible lecture series are few and far between. Even our medical outreach ministries seldom target this group deliberately, and contacts made with them are often more accidental than planned.
This makes for a dreadful forecast of the medium to long-term future of Adventism in Ghana: a church of the less privileged, perpetuating itself within itself and unable to have any meaningful impact on a privileged class that is growing increasingly distant, socially, economically and religiously.
A Difficult Mission Field
A common complaint is that the educated and wealthy classes are a difficult group to witness to, for several reasons:
• We’re no match for their intellectual sophistication
• We are not conversant with new philosophical trends of atheism and agnosticism which are common within this group
• They are highly secularist and materialist, and are not very interested in religion
• Many of them are “brainwashed” by powerful Evangelical and Charismatic televangelists.
• We don’t know what methods to use or how to implement them effectively
• We have limited access to their social circles
• Ministry resources for this group are not readily available
These are real challenges. But they are not exonerating reasons. Each of them can be met with the right motivation and commitment. Particularly in our institutional fellowships there is no reason why they cannot be. What we do not know, we can learn, and what we do not have we can acquire. The conferences and unions that oversee these fellowships need to step up to the plate and provide motivation and support to ensure that these challenges are met and overcome. First, there has to be a deliberate commitment to the cause.
The W3’s are a difficult group all over the world, and yet there are many examples of what a conscientious church can do to reach them effectively. The common denominators of these approaches are:
• Service: Ministry that meets them where their needs are
• Friendship: True personal connection that develops into long-term relationships
• Integrity: The sermon of the life is often the only sermon they are interested to hear.
The Real Truth, If We’ll Be Honest
My more radical side has asked whether we should not, as a matter of policy, ban all rural evangelism by these fellowships for the next ten years in order to force a refocusing of their efforts and resources on their own peers and professors.
The biggest reason why we have such a limping mission is that it is much easier to do rural evangelism. It is less demanding intellectually, strategically and operationally. The truth is that we suffer an institutional lethargy that borders on laziness when it comes to the more difficult task of reaching W3s. If we’ll be honest, we are resting on the oars of Daniel-and-Revelation seminars held under the starry night skies of Ghana’s deepest interiors, where we are having astronomical success with methods that will not suffice to reaching W3s.
It is a much bigger and different sort of challenge to evangelise to the mindset of the W3 demographic. Even among our own educated, it is true that we are not aware enough of the thought systems and philosophies that shape that mindset. Yet we must become not only aware of them, but also skilled in answering the objections they raise to faith in general and to Adventism in particular.
As Ellen White has so aptly stated it,
“It is by no casual, accidental touch that wealthy, world-loving, world-worshiping souls can be drawn to Christ. These persons are often the most difficult of access. Personal effort must be put forth for them by men and women imbued with the missionary spirit, those who will not fail or be discouraged.”
That is the real reason why the busloads are going out, year after year, vacation after vacation, like clockwork.
The real truth is that we are turning a blind eye. I’m particularly concerned with the mission programmes of student fellowships in our large universities and their supporting conferences because while we have enough personnel in local churches to carry out evangelism in rural places, they represent our best shot at taking the Everlasting Gospel to the higher classes. If you’re in such a fellowship, then you need ask yourself who will take the message to your professors and administrators? Who will take the message to the future government officials, scientists and business entrepreneurs whom you chat idly with everyday on everything but the Gospel?
Ellen White says on this point, that
“Some are especially fitted to work for the higher classes. These should seek wisdom from God to know how to reach these persons… to lead them to a knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus.”
I cannot agree more. Who better suited than the students and alumni of our universities and colleges, for this work? In the larger world of the cities, who better suited than the more educated and privileged among our flock? Indeed, My more radical side has asked whether we should not, as a matter of policy, ban all rural evangelism by these fellowships for the next ten years in order to force a refocusing of their efforts and resources on their own peers and professors.
The truth is that the typical Invite-preach-baptise route will not be as short or as straight with W3s.
Often it will not even end in a baptism. Yet our chief concern is to be that they receive the good news nonetheless. Seeds sown today will often be reaped many years later. We must determine a whole new set of success metrics for W3 evangelism, and we must be patient and dependent on the Holy Spirit for guidance and reaping.
“So today God is seeking for souls among the high as well as the low. There are many like Cornelius, men whom He desires to connect with His church. Their sympathies are with the Lord’s people. But the ties that bind them to the world hold them firmly. It requires moral courage for these men to take their position with the lowly ones. Special effort  should be made for these souls, who are in so great danger because of their responsibilities and associations.” – Ellen White, Ministry of Healing, pp 209
But we cannot wait, you see. We must see the people come into the churches. We must fill the pews today, not tomorrow. Why overexert ourselves when there are far less difficult fields? The truth is that our mission has become more about the Church than about the Gospel, and we may be effectively sabotaging the Gospel work in these last days, perhaps without even knowing it.
Stay Tuned for Sabotaging the Kingdom Part II:
What Then Shall We Do?