“Christ’s Method” Reaches Hearts
in New York City
Outreach training key to hundreds of baptisms
By Mark A. Kellner, news editor
If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years, it’s that you just can’t present the Adventist message in the big cities, and certainly NOT in a place such as New York City. It’s one of the world’s largest cities, with people speaking dozens of languages, chasing after riches, and totally uninterested in matters of eternal consequence. As they say in Brooklyn: “Fuhgeddaboutit.”
That may have been the “accepted wisdom” in some quarters prior to June 2013, but you can now deposit that “wisdom” in the museum of disproven theories: New Yorkers are just as open to the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s message as anywhere else, and we have the results to demonstrate it.
By the end of June officials of the Greater New York Conference and the Northeast Conference reported, “more than 2,000 people have been added to the church in both fields, and more are expected as meetings in metro New York continue” throughout the summer and fall.
Kevin Sears, assistant director of the church’s Northeast Evangelism Training School in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, knows this evangelism works. He was the outreach and training coordinator for one of the most challenging parts of the NY13 effort, the campaign to reach people in and around the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Packed with residents who are both highly affluent and who, in many cases, both support and live “alternative lifestyles,” you might not imagine it was a prime location for Adventist evangelism.
Think again, Sears said: “God is working. He’s doing something special. It doesn’t matter where we go to do evangelism. It doesn’t matter where we do the evangelism; God has already been working in many people’s hearts.”
How many hearts? In a single day dozens responded to an invitation to Bible studies, he said.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. No place you go is easy,” Sears recalled in an interview. “So I remember the first week of outreach, our [evangelism] students, only nine students and four teams, went out, and in eight hours they signed up 106 people for Bible studies. I remember I got up in front of the church and shared that, and the church was just floored.”
This was in the place the local pastor, Tony Romeo, a veteran of the advertising and marketing industry, was willing, but also wary: “I remember the pastor saying, ‘You know, Kevin, I don’t know what you guys think you’re going to be doing here. This is Greenwich Village, and you can’t do these things here,’ ” Sears recalled.
Now, Romeo said he’s impressed with the results: “What they did was reignite a spirit of mission in the city,” he told Adventist World. “I think people are now focused on doing something bigger than their thoughts were before. Trying to get people in the community to take studies, but it also was a new attempt to create an understanding for Adventists of what Mission to the Cities is all about.”
The historic Adventist church that Romeo pastors in the heart of Greenwich Village, was the epicenter of the NY13 event. Ted N. C. Wilson, General Conference president and a onetime ministerial intern at this very church, hosted a “Revelation of Hope” evangelistic series there, and was joined in New York City by many world church leaders hosting their own meetings in each of the five boroughs of the metropolis.
“At the same time [Pastor] Wilson’s meetings were going on, I believe there were 150 other evangelistic seminars that began that same weekend,” Sears noted. “And when you look at the numbers of all the baptisms! There were about 200 baptisms at the [Nassau Veterans Memorial] Coliseum that last Sabbath, and there were baptisms leading up to that event as well.”
Sears added that there were plenty of other candidates for baptism who were almost ready, and are expected to be baptized soon: “So there will be over the next six to eight months maybe even double what we’ve had already,” he said.
“We left one of our students behind to do the follow-up with Pastor Tony,” Sears added. “They have a Wednesday night Bible study for the visitors, and they’re getting 40-plus visitors a week to come to that Bible study, plus the student has 10-12 Bible studies a week with other people, about 15 or 16 other people in those Bible studies a week.”
So despite Greenwich Village being perceived as “stony ground,” Sears noted the results that did happen: “In the beginning we were thinking this would not be a place that we would choose to have the world church leader front and center stage. This would not be—there are plenty of places in New York that would have been so much easier to work. So this showed me that this is God’s work. And no matter where we go, if we follow His lead, then He’s going to be responsible for the results. And we’ve seen only a fraction of the results there. So this really, for me, was faith building!”
Sears reported that it wasn’t only door-to-door contact with New Yorkers that brought people into the evangelistic meetings. Also helpful, he said, was an emphasis on the Adventist health message, something even the most affluent could find interesting.
“We filled the place with health lectures,” he recalled. “And in that, we were able to make some connections, make some friends. As a matter of fact, some people that came to the health lectures came to the prophecy series, and a few of them got baptized as well. So one of those [lessons] was in understanding the true power behind the health message.
Those lectures were a major component of the outreach, but not the only one: “It just showed—and I believe God was revealing this—that if we do evangelism correctly, if we do what’s called a cycle of evangelism, do the prework (and prework doesn’t mean you hand out flyers and invite them to the meetings and that’s it), God will bless; we have to be in the community months ahead of time. We have to be studying with people,” Sears said.
One of those who attended the Wilson campaign was among those baptized by the series speaker at the June 29 wrap-up event on Long Island: John MacKneil, a former resident of New York’s Greenwich Village, who returned to the historic Seventh-day Adventist Church to hear Wilson’s “Revelation of Hope” series. MacKneil was a bit overcome at the experience.
“It’s an inspiration to be baptized by this man of God,” MacKneil said, standing next to Wilson in the water. “I wanted to be baptized; I needed to be baptized. I feel good, and I feel inspired.” Both MacKneil and Wilson said MacKneil’s brother would also soon join the church.
While Greenwich Village may have been the “hub” of the NY13 outreach, it was far from the only location. In the Harlem community of Manhattan—eight miles north of Romeo’s church but a world apart—Ella Smith Simmons, a noted educator and a general vice president of the Seventh-day Adventist world church, conducted a four-week outreach of her own.
Simmons began the “My Whole Life Matters” outreach on the evening of June 7 at the Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church in the center of Harlem. That morning she spoke to the church members, many of whom would take an active part in the campaign.
Simmons told the church members that the outreach series—running Saturday through Wednesday evenings—was designed to offer hope at a time encouragement is needed: “Jesus can comfort us . . . whose hearts have been broken,” she said in the morning sermon. “Your conscience can be cleansed. There is only One who can take away our guilt.”
Separately, a single week of outreach meetings—widely advertised, suffused with prayer, and presented by a guest speaker imported from Seoul—marked the NY13 outreach of Korean-American Seventh-day Adventists in the greater New York City area. At least 50 people have signed up for further Bible studies designed to lead to baptism, local Adventist leaders said.
Culturally sensitive and presented in a manner to which other Koreans can relate, the nightly meetings began June 17 and featured pastor Dae Sung Kim, president of the Korean Union Conference in Seoul. Preceding Pastor Kim, 10 young Adventists from the Republic of Korea spent three months in New York City helping to prepare for the event.
Among the 10 volunteer missionaries from the Republic of Korea, the experience of working in New York has already changed one life. Sulgi Park, age 21, is a major in multicultural and English communications at church-owned Sahmyook University in Seoul. Her three months in America ended on July 1, but the impact of her trip will remain, she said.
“This totally changed my life,” Park said, after describing weeks of holding Bible studies with young Korean-American adults and guiding them toward greater participation in the church. “I want to live my whole life as a missionary now.”
One area Adventist pastor also endorsed the NY13 outreach: “I think NY13 is the beginning of something that ought to continue. One of the things that I find exciting about the group of pastors that I’m working with is that the camaraderie is real. I have also found when churches work together, members become more excited about the project, because unity of leadership leads to unity of membership,” Cameron Bowen, pastor of the Elim and Mount Moriah churches, told the Atlantic Union Gleaner. Bowen brought two candidates for baptism and also participated in the baptismal ceremony.