You LEAN on the Lord a Lot
Adventist World editor Bill Knott and General Conference ministerial associate secretary Anthony Kent talk with Pastors Ted Wilson and Mark Finley about the involvement of leaders in public witness
KNOTT: Pastor Wilson, there are easier places to preach an evangelistic series than in New York City’s Lower Manhattan. How did you make the decision to create the time in your schedule to preach a full-message evangelistic series?
WILSON: It almost seemed a message from the Lord to me. And if you believe the counsel from the Lord about the mission given to all of us, you can’t just ask others to do what the Lord intends from all of us. But public preaching is just one facet of the initiative we’re calling Mission to the Cities. The Spirit of Prophecy is very clear that many different efforts—centers of influence, churches, young people, community service, gospel media, publications, and preaching—all need to work together to create a sustained outreach to our big cities. Public evangelism is simply the periodic reaping opportunity for what these vital efforts sow. As I was thinking about the needs of New York City, I reread Ellen White’s counsels about that city being a focal point of urban outreach. New York City is just the right place to initiate the worldwide Mission to the Cities effort. Interestingly, I ended up preaching a three-week series this June in the same church in which I first served as a young ministerial intern in 1971. And even more remarkably, one of the young adults who worked with us in 1971 is now pastor of that church!
KNOTT: Public evangelism is often called a “reaping event,” but it sounds as though this series was a “energizing event,” too—a chance to put a flag in the ground and launch a new way of doing things. Was that part of what church leadership had in mind with NY13 (New York ’13)?
FINLEY: NY13 isn’t just an event. Church leadership sees NY13 as a process—an extended, sustainable way of reaching an urban community for Christ. As a result the local conferences, the Atlantic Union, the North American Division, and the General Conference have focused on New York City for more than a year. Take Elder Wilson’s meetings in Lower Manhattan, for example. We began with a major weekend at Hunter College in January to inspire members and form prayer groups. Hundreds of members were trained to be actively involved in small groups, lay evangelism, personal witness, and conducting Bible studies. There was a massive health outreach to the city as well. Young people joined in the program. NY13 wasn’t an event that culminated in Elder Wilson’s series, but a transformative program to train and stimulate local Adventist churches and members to get actively involved in sharing their faith.
KENT: When you look at all the wonderful things that happened in the first phase of NY13, what do you think can be replicated in other cities? Is Mission to the Cities basically one program that will be implemented everywhere, or will leaders in other cities adjust parts of the program to match needs in their region?
FINLEY: We built our plan on what we called “five eternal principles.” These eternal principles are valid everywhere and always, but the specific applications will be different in other cities and unique cultures. We asked, “What is eternal in time? What is true everywhere?” We framed our approach in five maxims. 1. Churches grow when they’re spiritually revived. So we focused on prayer, Bible study, and spiritual renewal. 2. Churches grow when members are equipped and trained for service in harmony with their gifts. So we offered training programs to help believers use their spiritual gifts—opening Scripture with others; teaching about physical health; building strong families; organizing prayer ministries. 3. Churches that make an impact on the community are actively involved in the community. The more contact church members have with their communities, the more people they’re going to win for Jesus. 4. Churches need reaping events to gather in the harvest. Reaping events are intended to give men and women a chance to hear the Word of God directly and make decisions to follow Jesus. 5. Churches that plan for the harvest actually keep what is harvested. We said, “We don’t want to ‘dip them and drop them.’ ” We want to immerse them and instruct them. Churches grow when faith is nurtured and discipleship is taught. Everything we tried in NY13 and everything that will be attempted in the global Mission to the Cities program grows from those five principles.
KNOTT: Those five principles would be true in every great world city, but the plans that emerge from them will probably look different in Harare [Zimbabwe] than they do in Manila [Philippines].
WILSON: Every great world city is really a collection of many smaller communities, and the church is dependent on the knowledge and insight of members in those smaller communities for what will work best in their region. But some specific practices are also useful everywhere. Put simply—cooperation always grows the kingdom! Close cooperation among members who are spiritually revitalized, as well as close cooperation among area churches in those city sections, always brings more people to Jesus. Each of the church’s administrative units—each conference, union conference, and division—depends on the wisdom and the witness of local congregations. You can’t just fly over with a gospel blimp and drop leaflets on a city to “reach it for Jesus”! We saw comprehensive, mutually supporting ministries working together in a thrilling way in NY13. We saw congregations embracing each other to work the harvest field together. For the first time in recent history, the Greater New York and Northeastern conferences came together on the last Sabbath of June in a combined camp meeting with mission as the focus. It was electrifying! Church members were clearly enthused and energized. NY13, coordinated by the Atlantic Union, brought an enormous amount of spiritual momentum to a massive city whose needs require just that kind of cooperative effort.
KENT: Pastor Wilson, you have a big job to do. It’s no small thing to step onto a public stage to proclaim Christ and the three angels’ messages. I’m sure there was stress and pressure placed on you. Where did you turn for support? And what would you say to other evangelists who sometimes wonder if the price for doing this kind of work is too high?
WILSON: Jesus never asks to do anything that He doesn’t give us the grace and strength to accomplish. Evangelists everywhere follow Christ’s example, and the gospels tell us He expended Himself in preaching and healing people. When you’re out on His mission, you lean on the Lord a lot: He promises wisdom when we need it. And you lean on the experts to whom God has given great experience and insight. Who could wish for evangelistic series coordinators better than Mark Finley and Robert Costa? These two men did incredible things. My job was really one of the lesser jobs. And the support from church members was so important: they came out and supported the evangelistic campaign night after night. When you preach the message with that kind of encouragement, the preacher gets reconverted and reenergized every night!
KNOTT: I hear in this an implicit call to leaders on every level, saying, “Lead by example. Be out front.”
FINLEY: When leaders commit themselves and their schedules to public witness, it sends a message that we’re placing priority on mission now—that the church is all about mission. Far more important than the number of people that will be baptized in NY13 of New York is the focus placed for the members and pastors on mission. That focus will keep energizing them for years to come. And there’s another aspect to this. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has been emphasizing revival and reformation. Where does revival lead? Where does reformation lead? To a deepening prayer life, a deepening Bible study life. It leads to a desire to win the lost for Christ. Mission to the Cities takes the focus off of us, and puts it on Christ’s mission to lost people in the cities—reaching them by developing relationships with them, reaching them by touching their lives and meeting their needs, reaching them through a broadly based comprehensive effort to share the gospel with them. The principles that were put into practice in NY13 will be just as valid—and just as effective—in Tokyo and Manila and São Paulo and Moscow. God is doing a special work right now for the great cities of the world, and it’s an exciting time to be partnering with His mission.