Authentic packaging of timeless truth
By Gerald A. Klingbeil
We all have seen them in our hectic cities: twentysomething professionals with eyes glued to their iPad or smartphone; busy men and women trying to find family time together and often living past each other; lonely retirees shuffling past us on a busy downtown street. Most of them, when asked about God and the future, would shake their heads: no time, no interest, no chance to open their heart. And yet we wonder, How can we reach these diverse, mostly secular people and share the love of Jesus with them?
Missiologists tell us that throughout the developed world (and more and more also in the developing world, particularly in the megacities) secularism makes evangelism increasingly difficult. People don’t like to open doors. Others are too busy to listen. Some just don’t care. Hard-core secularists are passionately opposed to Christianity and its perceived “easy” answers to life’s challenges.
Here are some numbers from Germany, right in the heart of secular Europe: Less than 20 percent of all Germans enter a church—any church—on a regular basis.1 While nearly 65 percent are nominally Lutherans or Catholic it appears that this does not affect their lives—including also church visits.2 More than 60 percent stated in 2009 that humans developed from other life-forms, with another 20 percent who were unsure about the biblical Creation account.3You get the picture: For most people living in Germany, organized Christianity and its biblical foundation is of little or no consequence—obviously a major challenge when trying to be faithful to Jesus’ command of going and making disciples (Matt. 28:18-20).
However, this is not just a European or German phenomena. All around the world we can see similar trends. Secularism is on the rise—particularly in the big cities that dot this planet.
Exciting things usually begin with a dream.
In early 2007 Matthias Müller, general manager of the Media Center of the Euro-Africa Division(EUD), Stimme der Hoffnung, began dreaming after he returned from participating in the Council on Evangelism and Witness at the headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A., where he had heard about the availability of an extraordinary tithe for special mission projects. As he paced the halls of the Media Center in Alsbach-Hähnlein in Germany he ran across Klaus Popa, one of the editors of Stimme der Hoffnung, and spontaneously asked if he would be interested in joining him in planning an innovative evangelistic approach that would use all kinds of media—TV, cinema, the Internet, social networks. He was (and not just because it was his boss asking)! Later in the year, during administrative meetings of the EUD, Matthias probed the division treasurer: “How big should we plan?” “Think big!” was the answer—and that’s what the team did. In the summer of 2007 Matthias and Klaus spent hours brainstorming. What was needed to reach a secular, postmodern society, speaking an understandable language? What elements and media should be included? How should one go about getting the local churches to buy into such a program?
In December of 2007 the project was submitted via the EUD to a special appropriations committee at the General Conference. Eight months later Matthias and Klaus got the green light, and the team began to further develop the concept. The year 2009 was reserved for bringing the regional church administrations on board (including representatives from all German-speaking European countries), and the project was finally voted in December of that year. Two years of planning and extensive discussions lay behind. Now it was time to get into promotion mode. In February 2010, during a Hope Channel advisory in Beirut, Lebanon, the ambitious project was introduced to media experts from around the world, and a month later the German-speaking unions formed an oversight committee and named Pastor Willie Schulz as the Faith.Simple4coordinator. Nobody counted the dozens of visits to local churches, ministerial meetings, or administrative board meetings. As more and more churches signed up, the excitement for this new evangelistic approach grew by leaps and bounds. In the end, Faith.Simple had 462 official (and numerous unregistered) downlink sites—a huge increase when compared to previous Net-evangelism experiences.
The team, guided by the oversight committee, had decided to run the live TV program for 17 evenings, twice a week, between October 8 and December 3 of 2011. The relatively long time window would give guests tuning into Faith.Simple a more realistic chance to connect to a local church. Furthermore, the lighter rhythm of the evangelistic project would help avoid event oversaturation. After 482,115 flyers, 37,715 business cards carrying the Faith.Simple logo and invitation, and 16,089 posters, the clock was ticking louder and louder. An online prayer chain had prayed for 365 days. Hundreds of churches, thousands of church members, as well as the hardworking team around Matthias and Klaus were ready—kind of. It was time to communicate to a secular and postmodern culture that faith is truly simple, that God is still on the throne, and that pain, death, and disaster are not forever.
After more than four years in the works, Faith.Simplefinally went live on October 8, 2011.
Every evening consisted of five segments. In the first part a short three- to five-minute video clip was shown of a feature-length film that had been shot in 2010 in New York. While the film was not made by the Media Center, the team had significant input into the scriptwriting process and coproduced it. The movie tells the story of Niklas, a secular German yuppie bank manager on a mission to close down an affiliated bank in New York, and Leticia, a talented young woman from Brooklyn, growing up in a Christian home with a father pastoring a church in New York, and dreaming of a music career. As these two people meet and their lives interact, their worldviews collide and many questions and conflicts arise.
Each carefully selected film episode was connected to a short (15- to 20-minute), thoughtful presentation of the main topic of the evening by either Matthias or Klaus, shot on-site in New York. The link to New York helped connect the presentation to the preceding film clip and also made the reflection more universal and applicable to different cultures and contexts. Shooting the reflection pieces on the streets of New York also emphasized the real-life focus of Faith.Simple—visitors should intuitively understand that God’s Word cannot be contained in a pulpit; it simply touches everything in our lives.
This was followed by a 30-minute panel discussion, transmitted live out of the studio at the Media Center in Alsbach-Hähnlein. Each evening one of the presenters would be the host and would interact with two specially invited guests, his cohost, and a live audience. Klaus remembers what impressed the audience the most: It was the unscriptedness of the conversation. It was not “safe” TV programming, but very personal and open conversations about a God who is reaching out to the world but cannot always be explained. “We reached a level of vulnerability that impressed our audience,” recalls Matthias. The Bible was central to the conversation—and linked to real life.
Prior to the final wrap-up from the studio, there was one additional segment of 25 to 30 minutes that really grounded the biblical presentation and connected it to the audiences. Following the televised live discussion from the Media Center, each local downlink site throughout Austria, Germany, and Switzerland (and beyond) hosted live discussions about the topic of the evening. People interacted about the particular topic, be it onsite or virtually. Topics included Creation, the Sabbath, the future and last events, death, or baptism. Each site had a discussion leader guiding the conversation. People felt free to ask questions, and as they searched together for answers in Scripture there was a sense of community. Strangers began to feel at home.
Finally, a five-minute wrap-up by the presenter of the evening concluded each Faith.Simple program. This was the decisive moment, often layered with personal experiences and definitely content-driven. It included the call to make a decision for God—even a small decision leading to change; because life as we know it cannot go on when we have met Jesus. Ninety minutes of reaching out for Jesus in a way understandable by secular, postmodern people had come to an end. The studio lights went out. However, Matthias and Klaus and the Media Center team spent another hour each evening interacting with hundreds on social media and via phone. People commented on the program, asked questions, requested prayer, or obtained media files from their sites.
Matthias tells about a Catholic woman who drove one and a half hours in order to be at the studio site. She had discovered Hope Channel “by accident” on the first night of Faith.Simple. “I sat spellbound in front of that TV set,” she said. “Is it possible to find something so authentic on TV?” She called her skeptic husband, and they watched together. Then she lost the channel, found it again later, and continued to watch every night. In the last week she brought her two daughters to the studio. “My skeptic husband is now enrolled in your Bible correspondence school,” she excitedly told Matthias.
Listen to Sonja’s feedback at the end of the last program on December 3, 2011: “Dear Faith.Simpleteam, thanks so much for this series and your long-lasting commitment. My friend and I were very blessed. After the program last Wednesday my friend prayed for the first time in seven years. God gave her a wonderful prayer experience—she could hardly believe it! We are now watching the previous programs on the Internet and want to thank you again for your courage and energy to allow God to use you.” Or what about Sabine who happened to stumble over the channel “by accident”? When her satellite dish installer told her about an Adventist house church in a little town not far from her city she found a church that was highly respected in their small community. “My 14-year old granddaughter is looking for God, and I took her to church. It was the first church service in her life! She is enjoying reading her Bible.”
The program drew on average about 10,000 viewers at the official downlink sites. Additionally, the Web stream was watched at another 500 computers, and nobody knows how many people saw it on satellite or cable TV. Based on the reporting of the downlink sites, nearly 1,500 non-Adventist guests participated each night. These numbers may look insignificant in some parts of the world. However, these 10,000 viewers represent nearly 25 percent of the Adventist population of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland—a huge part of the total church population.
Many German-speaking church members felt affirmed by this culture-sensitive evangelistic approach. Members of the Hohe Marter church in Nürnberg, Germany, highlighted the importance of having two different presenters, each representing a different age group that enabled them to connect to different audiences—and demonstrate generational cooperation. Matthias concurs: “I always dreamed that all age groups should be able to work together in the church. For me it is a fulfillment of Malachi, you know, bringing the fathers back to the sons.” Klaus adds: “We took a risk, the two of us, to embark on a journey, representing different age groups, and different personalities. Some people told us, ‘You are kind of different, you guys.’ But to believe that different age groups can work together so closely—that was a sign in itself.”
Faith.Simple is not a successful one-time event that worked in Germany, in the heart of secular Europe. Faith.Simple is much bigger than that. It represents a model of how to present in a culturally sensitive way unchanging truth that can connect to different age groups. It provides a wholistic way of reaching the secular mind, moving beyond modernity’s arguments and paying attention to Jesus’ method of reaching the unreached. It underlines the need to listen and begin a dialogue with people beyond the walls of our churches. Lasting evangelism must always be dialogical—it begins with an invitation and continues with an honest conversation that lasts into eternity. Faith is that simple—period.
1 Seehttp://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/179832/umfrage/haeufigkeit---kirche-oder-religioese-veranstaltungen-besuchen/, which is based on a 2008 survey of nearly 20,000 people.
2 See the numbers at http://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/179440/umfrage/zugehoerigkeit-zu-einer-religionsgemeinschaft/, of which nearly 30 percent indicated that they did not belong to any religious community.
3 Compare http://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/5171/umfrage/glauben-an-schoepfungsgeschichte-oder-evolution/.
4 Following the conventions of digital expression, the title should be read “Faith-dot-Simple.” Check out the German version atwww.glauben-einfach.com.
Gerald A. Klingbeil, a native of Germany, serves as an associate editor of Adventist World and is married to Chantal, who is homeschooling their three daughters.