The church will be unlike any you have ever seen.
Evangelism Beyond the Numbers
When challenge is the norm
By Anthony Kent
As soon as the appeal began, responders came running down the slopes of the hill. Their faces were smiling, eager and alert; they were excited!
Their response continued, a steady stream of people moving down the hill into the open area in front of the stage. These candidates had received Bible studies from a team of pastors, elders, and other qualified instructors. They had just heard the last sermon of an evangelistic series. They had come prepared, dressed and ready for their baptism: women in white robes or dresses, men in white shirts and dark trousers. This was one altar call that was difficult to conclude. People simply kept on coming, until 2,495 of them had come forward for baptism.
We baptized them in a nearby Olympic-sized swimming pool, 36 pastors officiating at one end of the pool and another 20 pastors at the other. Two long, patient lines of candidates—one of women, the other of men—streamed into the pool in careful order, for 56 pastors baptizing in unison.
Twenty years later Oscar Osindo, my interpreter for these evangelistic meetings, still beamed with joy as we allowed these wonderful memories to wash over us.
The Difficult Places
But Uhuru Park, central Nairobi, Kenya, is not evangelism’s only locale, or its only kind of result. In many regions of the world, sharing the gospel is a formidable challenge. In rural, secular Australia, where I ministered for years as a pastor and evangelist, where the population is sparse and where people are not easily persuaded, leading a person to Jesus and into the Seventh-day Adventist Church is no walk in the park. Large numbers being baptized remains an illusive dream rather than a fond memory.
And Australia is not unique. Vast areas of Europe, North Africa, West Africa, Asia, and the United Kingdom are difficult to evangelize. Mere mention of the much-cited 10/40 window evokes mental imagery of evangelistic hardship. And while the United States has its God-centered “Bible Belt,” not all of North America fits that characterization. Indeed, difficult is the norm in many places on our planet.
Difficult Is Not New
This is neither new, nor peculiar to our era.
Even Jesus, who was lovely in every way, dramatically anointed by the Holy Spirit at His baptism, dedicated to prayer, free of all spiritual, personality, and character defects and disorders, faced rejection during His evangelistic efforts. Luke 9:52, 53 provides us with a glimpse of some of the resistance He endured:
“And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him” (NIV).
Opposition wasn’t confined to Samaritans. The people of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth gave Him a memorably toxic send-off: “And they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff” (Luke 4:29, NASB).1 This is hardly hometown hero adulation.
True, Jerusalem was at times responsive: at Jesus’ triumphal entry, when Peter and others preached on the day of Pentecost, following the healing of a crippled beggar at the Temple’s Gate Beautiful. Crowds raced to see the healed man and to listen to Peter proclaim the message of Jesus (Acts 3). But these exceptional instances contrast with Jesus’ lament “Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling” (Luke 13:34, NAB)2 Jerusalem is the city where He was crucified.
Stephen had his evangelistic meeting in Jerusalem conclude in less-than-ideal circumstances. For this man described as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5) there was no parade of baptismal candidates. Instead there was an evangelist’s funeral.
Then there was Saul, later called Paul, specifically selected and identified by the ascended Jesus as “a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Yet Paul encountered enormous opposition during his evangelistic ministry, especially in Jerusalem. Not all of his evangelistic endeavors were stellar numerical successes.
What then of those today who attempt to evangelize less-receptive hearts and regions—how should we regard them, their efforts, and their ministry?
How easy it is to conclude that some evangelists simply don’t pray earnestly enough; or that God, for some reason, is not with their effort! How easy to question the motives or character of speakers or leaders when the baptismal numbers are unimpressive. Some may blame a poor work ethic or substandard technique, or even some hidden, scandalous, secret sin inhibiting the work of the Holy Spirit.
From my observations these seldom have their basis in reality. So many people who positively share the good news about Jesus are inspirational, loving, and lovable Christians. They are faithfully living and sharing the Word. And the size of their harvest is not much different from that of the perfect Jesus and the amazing apostle Paul in many places.
Some people and communities are more receptive to the gospel than others. Jesus had more success at the Samaritan village of Sychar (John 4) than He did at the unnamed Samaritan village described in Luke 9. Similarly, the Bereans of Acts 17 were more nobly attentive to Paul and his message than were some of his other audiences. And because we don’t dare question the spiritual qualities of Jesus and Paul when we read of their evangelistic disappointments, we need to extend the same charitable attitude to those dedicated, faithful, and gifted workers of today who labor in fields full of thorns and stony ground. Why aim our weapons of criticism and condemnation on these messengers of God, particularly at their backs!
Responding to the Challenge
So what should we do in those tough and difficult regions? Ellen White urges us to be “the most unflinching” where Jesus is most despised; “to fight the battles of the Lord when champions are few—this will be our test.”3
There is much that we can do, especially, as this quotation points out, in terms of spirit and attitudes. We must persevere; we must continue praying; and we have to keep dreaming and believing. Knowing that Jesus’ blood was shed for the stubborn as much as for the willing; treasuring memories of God’s past miracles of conversion; harboring His promises for the future; savoring His presence with us always (Matt. 28:20)—all these will kindle warm hope within!
Moreover, let’s dare to experiment. Jesus can give us new bottles filled with new wine of wisdom. Then we can pour out its refreshment for the surprise and spiritual gratification of gospel-thirsty men and women.
Beyond this, however challenging the circumstances, nothing must dampen the eagerness of our search for opportunities to witness. We may ever be privileged to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit’s whisper in our ear, “This is the way” (Isa. 30:21). Focus on Jesus: His life, grace, message, ministry, and faith! And know that ultimately, Jesus wins!
Anthony Kent, a General Conference associate Ministerial Association secretary, loves to witness for Jesus, regardless of the circumstances.
1 Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright ? 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
2 Scripture texts credited to NAB are from The New American Bible, copyright ? 1970 by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C., and are used by permission of copyright owner. All rights reserved.
3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 5, p. 136.