Amultiyear and multicity evangelism program in the Southern Africa- Indian Ocean Division (SID) presented “Johannesburg for Jesus” from August 29 to September 20, 2008, with evangelist and General Conference vice president Mark Finley as the primary speaker. Adventist World editor Bill Knott recently sat down with Finley and SID president Paul Ratsara to learn about this remarkable event.
KNOTT: Mark, you’ve been in many challenging places as an evangelist—Moscow, London, Manila, Los Angeles. What were the unique challenges you and your team encountered in Johannesburg?
FINLEY: Johannesburg is an amazing city, and it’s a complex city. It’s a city of the very rich and the very poor. It’s a city of the educated and the uneducated. It has multiple ethnic groups, and it has the historic challenge of a division between peoples. One immediate challenge in Johannesburg is the complexity of getting around. You have to plan differently when you look at the difficulty of moving people around. Second, there’s a big challenge with crime, particularly in the evenings, and it’s openly acknowledged in the society. Bringing people out in the evenings was a major challenge. Third, the world well knows the recent history of South Africa as it has worked to erase decades of segregation and apartheid. That historic division between people tends to separate persons and isolate them, rather than bring them together for a common purpose.
Paul, tell me about the process that led up to this. What happened in the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division to prepare people for this event? Did people discover anything in working together to plan for this campaign?
RATSARA: An event like this is the time to apply what we believe. We believe that evangelism is not an event; it’s a process. So we took time to prepare for this big event in prayer. We put people to praying with each other. We befriended people, we met in small group trainings, and finally we involved them in bigger training events. Months before the event Mark came to meet with us, and we had a great gathering of workers and supporters who were looking forward to the campaign. This was groundbreaking for our region: it’s never happened quite that way before—prayer, small groups, training opportunities, and large-scale rallies to motivate Adventist members.
How many Adventists would you estimate were part of the wider team supporting Johannesburg for Jesus?
RATSARA: Hundreds, I’d say: maybe even more than a thousand. We had nearly 175 Adventist Mission pioneers, as well, who were very much involved in training and will now be heavily committed to follow-up.
FINLEY: I was excited to see the two primary conferences in the Johannesburg area, Transvaal and Trans-Orange, working together to support this campaign. Transvaal Conference opened the doors of its youth camp and invited all pastors to come to a major training event. We had 150-200 pastors, Bible workers, and others meet at the camp. We studied about the ministry of prayer and growth in the local congregation: how to organize small groups; how to do community outreach; how to reach people who might not be religiously inclined. We studied about the nature of public evangelism. Those meetings would be with pastors and workers during the week, and then we would climax with a large meeting on Sabbath. The first public rally for members brought out nearly 7,000 Adventists, the second somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000. We also laid the groundwork for downlinking the meetings via satellite to more than 200 cities in South Africa, and we made plans for a one-week delayed broadcast on Hope TV all across the country and the continent.
RATSARA: Adventists around the world have been used to hearing wonderful stories about evangelism on the continent of Africa during the last 10 years. But the challenge in an increasingly secular South Africa is very different, and we’ve learned to measure in different ways. Soweto and Johannesburg together have more than 8 million people in them, but there are only about 11,000 Adventists in the region. You could almost say that this is an unentered territory. The ratio of Adventists to the general population is very low.
I’ve heard that you planned several large-scale sites for evangelism. How did that work?
FINLEY: I actually preached in two sites each day. I preached at Soweto, which is the southwestern township area, an area traditionally for black South Africans, and I also preached at Wits [Witwatersrand] University, a very prestigious academic institution in the city. We specifically targeted that university to reach younger people and emerging thought leaders in South African society, as well. So there were two meetings five nights every week—one under a big, beautiful tent in Soweto, and the other in the university amphitheater.
What was it like moving between two very different audiences every night?
FINLEY: The audience at Soweto was lively, even exuberant. It was an absolutely marvelous experience going into that township every night and being so warmly welcomed. People came in off the streets. We had a feeding program before the meetings began every night so that children who had nothing to eat, so adults who were hungry, could come and be fed. Bible study lessons were being distributed every night, and many were coming to participate in that part of the program. Musical programs led off each night for at least 45 minutes before the program. We also pitched a second tent where we had a health/medical symposium every night. There was a lot taking place each night before I stood up to preach! We were geared up to meet Soweto’s needs. We asked ourselves: “How can we reach out and feed people? How can we help them to understand the Bible? How can we meet their medical needs, their family life needs, and, of course, their spiritual needs?” Hundreds came and found Christ at these meetings because they were being ministered to. The Spirit of God was touching their hearts, and it was a thrilling meeting.
I’m guessing that the meetings at the university were quite different.
FINLEY: When you come onto the grounds at Wits University, you meet security first: there are guards at electronic gates who let you in. So we bussed our support people in there. We had university students coming and some faculty attending, and it was a more subdued audience as I preached each night, to be sure. But they were thoughtful people, as well, and we watched as the Spirit of God touched their hearts and lives.
The platform chair of our Wits University meetings had special reasons for being delighted with the campus meetings. He and his wife years ago became Adventists out of a non-Christian background. His wife’s relatives were also members of his previous religion. He and his wife began to pray for her family members. Every night he’d leave the platform to sit with his wife and her sisters a few rows back. I would see these lovely non-Christians sitting there, and as I preached I noticed the tears in their eyes. I noticed the spirit of God touching their hearts. The night before our final baptism the elder came to me, beaming from ear to ear, and hugged me. “Mark,” he said, “my wife’s sisters called, and they have said they are going to be baptized.” And on Sabbath at the large baptism that family was united.
Initial reports tell us that more than 900 persons were baptized as a result of Johannesburg for Jesus, and the projections are that many more will follow. Paul, what do you think the impact of this campaign will be on the church in South Africa?
RATSARA: We won’t ever be the same again. This campaign has had a major impact on the community and on Adventist members, as well. Adventists felt the power of God in a mighty way and discovered the joy of reaching out. You can feel the excitement with pastors, with church elders, and with members. We built tremendous goodwill in several communities—something that’s not easy to get here. The image of the church, the way it’s perceived in the society, has changed.
FINLEY: The ripple effects of these efforts will keep going on for many months. Hundreds of Adventists invited people into their homes to watch the meetings on television in small groups. That impact is yet to be felt. We taped these meetings, and DVDs are being produced by the thousands and given out person-to-person. In a sense, the meetings haven’t ended yet, and won’t for many months as they continue to do their work in homes and small groups all around the country.
RATSARA: Mark is absolutely correct: the impact will only grow. The day after the meetings ended in Soweto and Wits University, we brought the newly baptized members together for training and support. This is a process, not just an event, and we know that as they learn how to share their faith hundreds—maybe even thousands—of others will decide to follow Jesus. What we’ve seen thus far is just the first fruit. Many, many more will follow.
What should the world church learn from what has happened in Johannesburg?
FINLEY: One of the keys to the success of Johannesburg for Jesus was the integrated unity of the division, the union, the conference, church members, and pastors. I think there’s a lesson for the world church. When we focus on mission together, the Holy Spirit does far more than if we work individually and alone.
RATSARA: I believe that thorough preparation yields results. If evangelism is a process, then we go on to work on retention, support, nurture, and training of new members. With this way of seeing evangelism, we shouldn’t be afraid that new members will disappear in a few months. In many ways, the activity level actually increases when the evangelistic campaign itself comes to an end.