Sowing in the Right Soil
For the past decade or more, many Seventh-day Adventist churches have struggled to succeed with traditional public evangelistic events. The denomination employed these approaches from its beginnings to the mid-20th century, resulting in many churches being planted and established. Over the past few years, I have thought, written and taught about this topic in my seminary classes and seminars for pastors and church members. One of the critical factors that has led to this decline is quite evident—the current culture in these places is nothing like the culture when the Adventist Church began. And yet, many Adventist churches continue conducting evangelism efforts as if it were. Furthermore, just as culture has changed dramatically over the past century and a half, it will continue to change until the end of time. Learning to adjust and adapt continuously is necessary if the church wishes to reach surrounding communities.
Adventist Cultural Context
As a culture changes, so do people's thoughts and reactions—as noted in the shift from modernism to postmodernism, and more recently, the change from postmodernism to the thoughts and ideas currently shaping the world. While there is a place for tradition, there must also be room to share long-loved beliefs in ways that people can relate to and understand. Just as Jesus talked about the sower and the seed to the farmers around Him, we, as followers of Jesus, must pay attention to the stories happening around us. And, in doing so, we must help people living these stories to understand how the Gospel intersects with daily living and can transform their lives, just as it did in Jesus’s day. To be effective in our efforts, we must be relevant.
The Seventh-day Adventist denomination had its origins in America during a time known as the Second Great Awakening.1 During that time, the country was alive with the gospel and revivals took place in churches every night. Many youth and young adults, filled with a love for Jesus, began studying their Bibles in earnest and making tremendous sacrifices to share what they were learning.2 Through the leading of the Holy Spirit and visions from God, they discovered in the Bible new and distinctive understandings of some doctrines that shed a brighter light on the character of God. Some of these focused on the sanctuary message, the state of the dead and the Sabbath.
The beliefs and teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination began to develop during subsequent years, and they were written down, organized, published and shared broadly. However, early church pioneers did not record the context in which these fundamental beliefs developed, and as a result, did not capture the culture of on-fire gospel preaching and passionate love for Christ. And, unfortunately, the culture of spirituality and religious fervor in society did not persist.
The culture of the 21st century in America has become more secular.3 Today, we are no longer living in a great awakening of Christianity where most people are on fire for Jesus or are biblically literate. The soil in which the sower is trying to plant has changed. Rather than sowing seeds of doctrine in a soil rich with the Gospel, they are trying to sow them in the hard and rocky soil of secularism. Because of this, teaching Seventh-day Adventist beliefs as they were taught during our denomination’s founding years has proved challenging. When I was a child, it seemed that lists of behaviors of what to do and what not to do were very common, and teaching how to have a relationship with Jesus was somewhat new. When I was a youth and young adult, Morris Venden and others were just beginning to preach righteousness by faith rather than by works.4
The presentation of and approach to teaching the three angels’ messages is one example of an Adventist teaching that needs to be updated. When I ask Adventist preachers to describe the message of the first angel of Revelation 14, they usually say, “‘Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come’” (vs. 7, NIV).5 This is partially correct but entirely skips the first part of the message found in Revelation 14:6, which is about proclaiming the everlasting gospel to every tribe, tongue and people. The context of the first angel’s message is primarily about spreading the gospel, which includes respect (fear) for God and joy about His coming judgment because of the liberation from sin and the ending of a sinful world that comes with it. When we include that concept, along with the principles of the rest of the New Testament, we can achieve an even fuller understanding of the message.
As I have contemplated this persistent omission of the first part of the message, the only logical explanation I can come up with is that founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church may have skimmed over this part because it was already known and understood in their culture.6 But it is not well known in the secular culture in which a significant part of the church exists today, so we must put it back into the message in order to be effective. We must be culturally relevant with our evangelistic endeavors to reach people and to truly give them the best opportunity to accept Jesus. Additionally, survey research shows that we lose too many of our own Adventist children from our churches. It’s not just the world at large—we struggle to share the Gospel and to convert our own youth.7
Church Schools: Centers for Discipleship and Evangelism
How can we develop a gospel culture where we can lovingly disciple our church’s children as well as people from our communities into a personal relationship with Jesus? This is where our church’s schools can play a powerful role. Our schools must be campuses that provide a loving gospel subculture for our children and can be centers of gospel evangelism for our communities as well. Where we once tried to reach our communities directly from our churches, now our churches can also reach our communities by working through our schools.8
There are already some schools using variations of this approach with great success. Drawing on my experience working as a church school-based youth pastor for 20 years, and as a professor teaching about churches and schools collaborating in ministry, my observations and recommendations are summarized below as a four-step process.
1. Help Pastors Get Involved at School.
Educators and pastors must both work together to cultivate and build positive relationships between the church and school. Educators can create a welcoming atmosphere that encourages pastors to show up at the school regularly and to participate in activities.10 When the pastor reaches out and finds that he or she can develop caring and supportive relationships with the principal, faculty, staff and students by simply showing up, it quickly becomes evident that the church school is an effective place for discipleship. It may be a place to share meals and conversations, participate in work bees, teach baptismal classes, or be a spiritual companion and mentor for faculty, staff and students.
As pastors learn more about the life of the school, they will naturally see the importance of being supportive at school board and committee meetings, more frequently verbalizing support for the school, and sharing good reports about the school with the congregation.
2. Engage in Community Care and Involvement.
Educators and pastors can work together to teach students how to get involved in community outreach. These activities can be humanitarian or more overtly spiritual in nature. They might include local park or highway cleanup, homeless ministry, shut-in visitation with the pastor or an elder or being a partner in giving Bible studies. Another activity is going door-to-door in the community around the school, spreading God's love through sharing simple holiday greetings and baked goods, taking prayer requests or volunteering to help needy neighbors with yard clean up or other chores.12 These are all excellent ways to let your community know you care.
It’s all about breaking out of the fortress mentality and being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world around us. When pastors, teachers and other caring adults engage in outreach activities together with students, it builds these kinds of activities into the children’s lifestyles and becomes a vital part of their worldview.
3. Have School-based Outreach Evangelism Programs.
Educators and pastors can team up in outreach evangelism based at the school by inviting the community to experience welcoming events and opportunities that Ellen G. White refers to as “acts of disinterested kindness.”13 These are events without a “hook.” That means there is no catch at the end—we just want to help people where they are in life for the sake of helping them. This can include hosting cooking schools and financial peace seminars at the school instead of the church. In most cases, a school campus provides a more welcoming environment for secular people from the community to come and get to know us than for them to come to the church—especially for non-Adventist Christians and non-Christian families who may be sending their children to our schools. Other on-campus activities to which you can invite your school neighbors include gym nights, softball games or craft fairs.
4. Create Worship Experiences that Grow and Nurture Relationships.
Educators and pastors can collaborate to create spiritual worship experiences that nurture friendships and grow relationships. These events or experiences, co-hosted by the educators and pastors, can take place at the school. Newfound friends within the community can be invited to participate in these events as part of the discipleship process. Hosting a worship experience on-campus is an effective way to take the next step in your relationship with those who are now familiar with the school campus and are comfortable being there. As the relationship between the school and community deepens, newcomers will be more interested in learning about what motivates those who attend or lead out in education and worship services.
These worship experiences can happen any night of the week or on weekends. In some instances, a youth or family-oriented church plant may be worth considering. Once the community members become engaged and interested in the spiritual gatherings offered at the school, the next step is to invite them to events hosted at the church where they can be embraced by the church community at large. By engaging in these four steps, the school and local church will help to fulfill the global strategic plan of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, “I will go!”14
By Scott Ward. Ward is an assistant professor of discipleship and lifespan education at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.
The four steps shared in this article are detailed at CollaborativeMinistry.org. A longer original version of this article was originally published in the “Journal of Adventist Education.” The article in its entirety and the references/footnotes from this article are available at JournalofAdventistEducation.org/2021.83.3.8.