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8
Jul

Undeserving

One thing is clear: someone is guilty. Little girls don’t end up duct-taped and garbage-bagged in the woods all by themselves. Collective public outrage has been building in the hours since the “not guilty” verdicts left the American public speechless. Ms. Anthony’s parents have already received death threats, perhaps from indignant people who struggle to find a more suitable outlet for venting frustration over the fact that whoever did this will likely never answer have to answer for it – at least not the world’s courts.

To be perfectly frank, I struggled with the verdict myself. As the father of young girls, my paternal blood almost literally boils over when I hear about people mistreating them. And the fact that the most likely perpetrator (or perhaps one of them) is going to walk out of prison a free woman is hard to take. She just looked … so … guilty. Her stories didn’t add up. The explanations offered by the defense don’t make sense in any world I have ever inhabited.

It rattles whatever faith I had left in human government. It makes me long – no, ache – for the kingdom without pain, death or tears. The kingdom where not only parents are safe; everybody is.

In the hours since the verdict was read by a court clerk who appeared as visibly troubled as the rest of us, I have begun to ruminate on a few sobering thoughts.
One possibility, I don’t want to admit: twelve jurors might – maybe – somehow – be right. It’s possible (even remotely) that the rest of us, fueled by modern sound-byte reality, have been drawn by the scent of blood into a public feeding frenzy. History is dotted with stranger-than-fiction stories. Perhaps this is one of them. Like most people, I honestly don’t think so, but I have no choice but to admit that it’s a possibility.

Then there’s the more comforting thought that Someone knows every last detail of the case, and He is known to hear cries for justice from innocent blood stains. “Cain, the voice of your brother’s blood cries to Me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10) “How long, O Lord, holy and true, do you not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10) The Bible reminds us that while real justice will have to wait for the resolution of the controversy, we can rest in the knowledge that Palmoni, the Wonderful Numberer (Daniel 8:13, margin) doesn’t miss anything. “For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:14) He is particularly attentive to the needs and rights of children, who reminded Jesus of His heavenly home.

I don’t like it either, but the jury has spoken; the judge has agreed. The task before me is to leave it with the God of Daniel (“God is my judge”) and get about the business that God has given me to do. I will make every effort to keep it from happening to someone else, and will guard my neighbor’s children like my own. I will also, to the best of my ability, share the only thing that can bring genuine hope in a cruelly twisted world – the redeeming, converting love of Christ.

There is one more thought that has plagued me over recent days, and it is the most uncomfortable of them all. Think about the moral outrage and emotional pain you felt when you first heard about Caylee Anthony’s brutal demise.  Few – if any – of us actually knew her, and yet the anger, frustration and pain were palpable. Now remember Jesus standing at the tomb of Lazarus, weeping for the unnecessary and cruel death of every one of God’s children, and ask yourself what kind of pain and frustration our sin has caused our Heavenly Father. Consider the following paragraphs from Desire of Ages, which underline both God’s merciful love and the deep shame of our own behavior:

Christ did not weep for Lazarus; for He was about to call him from the grave. He wept because many of those now mourning for Lazarus would soon plan the death of Him who was the resurrection and the life. {E.G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 533}

It was not only because of the scene before Him that Christ wept. The weight of the grief of ages was upon Him. He saw the terrible effects of the transgression of God’s law. He saw that in the history of the world, beginning with the death of Abel, the conflict between good and evil had been unceasing. Looking down the years to come, He saw the suffering and sorrow, tears and death, that were to be the lot of men. His heart was pierced with the pain of the human family of all ages and in all lands. The woes of the sinful race were heavy upon His soul, and the fountain of His tears was broken up as He longed to relieve all their distress. {ibid., p. 534}

Someone is guilty of something: little girls don’t end up stashed in the woods like Caylee by accident. If her cruel and ignominious death has stirred such emotion in our own sin-stained hearts, imagine the way it wrenches the heart of Christ. He has had no part in human suffering, but we can claim no such thing. I imagine myself to be utterly incapable of such horrific sins, but I have no plausible deniability when it comes to the pain in our world. I have caused my share of it, for I have sinned. I have never had to hide a body, but I am painfully cognizant of the way the innocent Lamb of God equates hatred with murder. By Jesus’ standards, I have murdered, committed adultery, stolen, failed to honor my parents, taken the Lord’s name in vain, broken the Sabbath. So have you. More times that any of us would care to admit.

Now here’s the clincher: I am going to be acquitted. That’s right – I’m going to be released from the prison of death even though I certainly do not deserve it. My sins killed the Son of God. My pride was a spear in His side, and my unbelief, nails in His hands. My sins were roughly and cruelly pushed down over His brow. Yet I will not receive the ultimate wages of sin because Jesus “condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His.” {ibid., p. 25}

To be sure, I’m not at all happy with the Caylee Anthony verdict. In fact, I’m still cooling down as I write these words. It seems like somebody ought to pay for such a horrible atrocity, and I’m still hoping that somehow, the law will catch up with the perpetrator. But I am also freshly aware that I myself am standing in heaven’s docket, with curious angels marveling at the fact that Jesus plans to take me into the kingdom.

He has not dealt with us according to our sins,” the Psalmist reminds us, “nor punished us according to our iniquities.” Psalm 103:10

Was Casey Anthony undeserving of her verdict? Quite possibly. Maybe even probably.

I know for a fact that I don’t deserve mine.

17
Jun

Jonah Syndrome

I’m going to cheat with this entry; the article is posted at the Review’s website:

http://www.adventistreview.org/article.php?id=4491

9
Jun

Charlie Didn’t Bite Your Finger

There are few people who enjoy social media as much as I do.  Over the last couple of decades, I’ve been far too busy and far too absent for much of a real social life.  I’ve spent almost every waking moment on the job.  Over the last couple of decades, however, the internet has opened vast new possibilities for connecting with the people in my life who deserve some attention.  When chat rooms appeared, I was there.  I was an early adopter for Skype.  I signed up for MySpace (and left about three minutes later when I realized what a moral cesspool it was).  When Facebook opened its doors to non-students, I was in my glory.

And as much as I’ve been loathe to include Twitter in my repertoire (who has time for all of these venues?), I’ve got admit that I’ve been enjoying it thoroughly.

Do I see possibilites for innovative approaches to ministry that involve social media?  No question about it.  I’ve given more than my share of online Bible studies.  I’ve engaged people from a massive range of backgrounds in spiritual discussions using social media – many of whom I would have never otherwise met.  I spend hours each day sharing my faith online in a variety of formats.  I draw attention and then open dialogue with those who show interest in spiritual things.  And when I was leading out at It Is Written, we started pioneering some innovative stuff – from our award winning interactive site My Place With Jesus to the recent interactive online evangelistic meeting, Babylon Rising.  

Is there more to do – other possibilities?  Of course.  We’re just getting started.  Can it work?  Yes.  But as a long-time evangelist who has been blessed with a measure of success, I would like to level a caution at the Adventist world before they dive headlong into the latest and greatest.  I think I can summarize it best by saying: hits are not souls.

Charlie Bit My Finger is hilarious.  I passed it around just as much as you did, because it made me laugh.  It went viral because we all thought it was funny.  And of course, we dream of making our message go viral, too.  Wouldn’t that be great?

It would.  But let’s ask an important question: why did people tune in?  If I was after hits, I’m pretty sure I could drum them up.  Drive your car off a bridge, and I’ll film it.  Slip on the ice and crack your melon on the concrete.  Split your trousers in the middle of your wedding ceremony.  Film your kid when he’s still stoned from a dentist visit.  Sing like Pavarotti on America’s Got Talent.  Guaranteed hits. But as an evangelist and a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, is that what I’m after?  Hits?  Visibility?  Attention?  Is what drove people to Charlie Bit My Finger going to drive them to the cross?

I’ve discovered that “bait and switch” doesn’t work in soul-winning.  You can’t advertise one thing, spend three nights on it, and then suddenly move into our message.  You’ll lose the audience.  Why?  Wrong audience.  So do I want visibility?  Yes – with the right audience.

“But Shawn, you’re on TV.  Isn’t that about visibility?”  Yes, it is.  But it’s also deliberately designed to drive the spiritually curious through the doors of a church, and it may be possible to do the same with internet/social media.    But until I see it working, I’m going to be slow to dump all/most of my resources into it.

Christianity, you see, demands something more that mere content.  It demands the human touch.  Does social media hold that potential?  Undeniably; probably more than television ever did.  But it’s not enough.  The teachings of Christ cannot be distilled down to two minute videos any more than they can be distilled down to a 28 minutes and 30 seconds of television content.   It’s not enough to get noticed.  Our task as Christians demands human contact and fellowship.  It demands a well-thought-out plan to engage people in the life of God’s church.

And it also demands preaching.  You can recite all the statistics you want that people in general do not want preaching, but I will maintain that I am not after people in general.  I am after those whose hearts are being awakened by the Holy Spirit, and they will listen to Bible teaching.  I’ve seen it tens of thousands of times, in every culture, and in every demographic group.  Once your appetite for Christ has been whetted, you will come to the well for water – over and over again.

I’ve been shown, on a number of occasions, why people will not come to a public evangelistic meeting – and why, if they do come, they will not stay.  And yet, in spite of the charts and graphs, they continue to come.  And they stay – for more than a month.  And they make decisions for Christ.

Do I love social media?  Yes, I do.  Very much.  But through Facebook, I cannot put my arm around you and pray for your salvation.  I cannot weep with you in person as you struggle with your sinful past.  I cannot sense when it is time to stop preaching and invite you down to the front for prayer.  And sometimes, as my own relentless posting and Twittering can testify, the public’s addiction to social media can sometimes be a plain old distraction.  I mean, think about it: people love watching hockey, too – but the playoffs take them away from the message.  Assembling an Adventist hockey team is not going to help, either.  (Seriously: as a young heathen, I remember Christians trying to put together “Christian” versions of everything from rock bands to baseball teams, and it didn’t do much to lure me – or my friends – into the church.  Why?  Because the Christians weren’t even good at it, and we already had those things.)

Preaching might seem like foolishness to those excited about new forms of communication, but never forget that God established, nearly 2000 years ago, that preaching would always seem foolish.  And yet it works.  And yes, it works with young folks, too.  Don’t tell me it doesn’t – I’ve seen it over and over again with my own two eyes.

Honestly, I know of nothing that works as well.  Tell me it’s expensive, and I will still show you the fruits of it.  Tell me about the people who come in the front door of the church and leave out the back, and I’ll show you the millions who stay (I am, after all, one of them).  Tell me about fifth generation Adventists who want to hear something different, and I’ll point you to the millions of people who are starving for the simple Three Angels’ Message – the people who lap it up like a dying man in the desert.  Tell me that I’m not getting enough hits on Youtube, and I’ll tell you about the tens of thousands of people I’ve seen choose Christ because they heard the gospel preached publicly.

I will gladly take fifty or a hundred thousand baptisms over a hundred million hits or “likes”.  I fully recognize the potential of social media to open doors, and to reach into the homes of people I’ve never met.  I’m not against media; I’ve spent most of my working life using it, after all.  But I will caution my fellow believers: think it through.  Do not proclaim a new idea to be the cat’s pajamas of ministry until you have seen God bless it with the fruit of souls in the kingdom.   Do not dump all of your resources into it until you’ve thought through the entire evangelistic cycle.  Show me how the “hits” will translate into souls – how you plan to take your internet contacts and shepherd them through the doors of an Adventist church.

I can get internet hits if I let Charlie bite my finger.  But that is not what God has called me to do.  Charlie did not bite my finger; Jesus died for my sins.  It may not be the most popular message on the block, but it never has been – and yet it is precisely what I have been asked to tell the world.

By all means, innovate.  I’m with you.  I’ve seen the power of the online community.  (I’ve even used it to coerce a back rub out of my wife, having thousands of my online “friends” cyber-bully her into doing it.)  Go ahead, make my eyes pop out with your Youtube video.  Make me “like” a cause on Facebook.  Make me click away on your links.

But at the end of the day, prove to me that this is about more than hits and popularity.  Show me that it isn’t mere name recognition.  At the end of the day, show me the souls.  Show me a well-thought-out plan.  Show me how you plan to close the deal.  Honestly: show me the fruit.  Show me souls in the church – the Seventh-day Adventist church – and show me lots of ‘em.

Do that, and I’ll bite.

6
Jun

On Reaching our Modern Culture

There’s a story in Acts 14 where Paul and Barnabas – through the power of God – heal a crippled man in the city of Lystra. It results in religious pandemonium:  the citizens of the city, stunned by what they’ve witnessed, make a rather unfortunate decision to worship the disciples as incarnated pagan gods.  As far as evangelistic outreach is concerned, it’s a bit of a disaster.  Paul and Barnabas meant for the people of Lystra to worship Jesus, and now they’re going to worship them.

But as the excited worshipers approach with ox and flowers to do obeisance to the disciples, Paul suddenly seizes on the opportunity that has presented itself.  The Lystrans are not a hopeless case, too mired in superstition to be won by the gospel.  On the contrary, they are so hungry for God that they eagerly latch on the first thing that looks remotely right.  Paul recognizes what is happening: the Spirit has been whispering in these peoples’ ears long before he arrived, and because of that, they are winnable.

Pay careful attention to the message that Paul chooses to preach, bearing in mind that he is visiting a culture quite foreign to his own:

But when the apostle Barnabas and Paul heard this, they tore their clothes and ran in among the multitude, crying out and saying, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you….’”  (Acts 14:14,15)

Evangelistic Principle #1: God has Entrusted the Spread of the Gospel Message to Sinners, not Saints.

The world is utterly sick and tired of religious know-it-alls.  If you want to win people to Christ, then point them to Christ.  We live in a day and age where most people, most of the time, will see right through a religious know-it-all.  Our generation has been disappointed by far too many pedestal-enshrined personalities to fall for it.   Maybe it’s the reason we turn so quickly against our celebrities and public figures, devouring them over the slightest of transgressions.

You’ll notice that Paul didn’t hold himself out to the Lystrans as an example, even though they were ready to worship him.  I sometimes wonder how many of today’s Christian pop icons – as steeped as they are in the gospel of success and prosperity – would have been able to withstand the temptation to accept just a little of the Lystrans’ adulation.  Paul, by contrast, cannot stand it.   He tears his clothes.  He runs into the crowd, passionate for the honor of Christ: why are you doing these things?

What the world needs is to hear from “men with the same nature” as them.  They need transparency and honesty.  They need to hear from someone who is not afraid to admit that he or she is a sinner who desperately needs Jesus.  You can have all the religious facts nailed down tightly – you can have amazing prophetic charts and a stellar power point presentation – but unless you are real, you will not have the ear of the audience.

This doesn’t mean you ought to go to great lengths to rehearse the sins of your past.  Personally, I don’t believe in granting the devil airtime for the way he ruined my life, or in giving young people in particular the idea that I got away with it, so it can’t be all that bad.  Sin is horrible, and the less airtime your personal sins get, the better.  They are, after all, forgiven.  But at the same time, it needs to be obvious to your audience that you are, indeed, a real person.  Give people the idea – even unwittingly – that you are the example to follow, and they will not likely stick around long enough to experience the disappointment that will accompany your downfall.  They will leave before that, because you have offered them no real hope.  It is already abundantly obvious to our generation that human beings have little – nothing – to offer those looking for the meaning of life.

“We also are men with the same nature as you.”

The story continues:

“…We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them.”  (Acts 14:15)

Evangelistic Principle #2:   We Are Not Free to Choose Our Own Message

The opening statement in Paul’s message ought to send off alarm bells in every Seventh-day Adventist’s mind.  It is uncannily similar to the message assigned to the remnant church in Revelation 14: “…worship Him who made.”   Regardless of the fact that Paul was addressing a culture quite foreign to his own, he understood what he’d been sent to accomplish.  His task, as an evangelist, was to reconnect these spiritually starving people with the Creator they were so obviously looking for.  He chose to preach, if you will, the Three Angels’ Messages.

It’s become popular in some circles to suggest that in the post-modern secular world, we ought to be looking for another message with which to win the world.  But I seriously doubt that the current generation’s mindset has caught God off guard. He is not currently second-guessing our assignment, saying, “wow – didn’t see those post-moderns coming!”  With perfect foreknowledge, God picked the message of Revelation 14 for our world.  The one we’re living in right now.

Honestly, I don’t see what the fuss is all about when Adventists assume that our prophetic message is no longer relevant. Experience has shown me – again, and again, and again – that this distinctive message attracts.  It fills Bible classes and evangelistic halls.  It causes people to pick up the phone and call in.  It brings out scores of people from every walk of life.   And yet, every time we’re getting ready to launch an evangelistic outreach program for the community at large, someone will ask the question: “but we’re not going to do prophecy, are we?”

Yup, we are.  Why?  Because those are precisely the people we’re looking for when we engage the community with the Bible.  We’ve got to believe that God knew what He was doing when He gave us this assignment.   More on this in a moment; look at Pauls’ next statement:

…who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways.”  (Acts 14:16)

Evangelistic Principle #3: Preach/Teach in the Context of the Great Controversy.

God is allowing sin to run its course.  It’s the only way to preserve freedom of choice and at the same time to permanently inoculate the universe against sin and rebellion.  Lucifer was free to choose against God.  Adam and Eve were free to eat from the tree.  You and I are free to believe and do whatever we want.  God will allow those who do not want Him to walk away.

When the gospel is presented in the context of this rather unique Seventh-day Adventist understanding, it strikes the heart in an unusually powerful way.  God is not trying to condemn us; He is trying to save us.  If He’d been trying to do away with sinful human beings, He would have done it in Eden.  His primary interest is returning us to the relationship we once enjoyed with Him in Paradise.  We will be allowed to go our own way if we wish, but the cross calls us back with the undeniable truth about God’s character: He is love.

Sometimes, I hear people try to draw a distinction between prophecy and the gospel, as if they were separable.  ”Why don’t we just preach about the gospel,” I’ve been asked, “instead of prophecy?”  But when we begin to think of the gospel and prophecy as separate subjects, it’s an indication that we don’t really understand either.  Prophecy is simply the story of what Christ has done, is presently doing, and will do for us.  It throws back the curtains of the universe to show us the incredible magnitude of God’s love.  It answers the problem of human suffering and gives us undeniable hope as it shows us returned to our pre-sin world with Jesus at the head of the human family.  It is, simply, the most magnificent picture of Christ ever painted.

Now don’t miss what Paul says next, because it is easily the most powerful tool in the soul-winner’s arsenal:

Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness.”  (Acts 14:17a)

Evangelistic Principle #4:  God Gets There First

I cannot emphasize this enough: never, ever – ever - think that you will be converting anybody.  You won’t.  You can’t!

I often hear people ask what we’re going to do to win the secular mind.  I would do just about anything to win the secular mind – if I could.  But I can’t.  When people have made the decision to be secular, and God’s not going to force them into the kingdom of God, there’s nothing I can do to change the playing field.  People are free to go their own way.

Not only that, but the Bible is crystal clear that there is absolutely nothing I can do to convert a truly secular person:

“Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.  These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.”  (1 Cor. 2:12,13)

How did Paul teach?  Comparing spiritual things with spiritual.  He refused to use men’s wisdom to present truth, preferring instead to use the methods outlined by the Holy Spirit.  Why?  When we use our own intellectual ability to appeal to people, when we try to dress up the gospel in ways we think will be more appealing to people, we actually get in the way of the message of the cross.  A chapter earlier, Paul makes this rather amazing statement:

“For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.  For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”  (1  Cor. 1:17,18)

If Paul had used “wisdom of words” the preaching of the cross could have been rendered powerless.  He knew enough to get out of the way of what God was trying to present to those on whose hearts the Holy Spirit had been working.  That’s why, in the previous passage we looked at, Paul allowed the Holy Spirit to lead in the method of presentation, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual,” and then he delivers the death-blow to the idea that we can convert secular minds:

But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  (1 Cor. 2:14)

Dwell on that for a moment, because it’s important.  The “natural man does not receive things of the Spirit of God,” “nor can he know them.”  The secular mind, folks, cannot be won.  Present all the wisdom you want.  Use all the clever techniques you can dream of.  When it comes right down to it – when faced with the message of the cross – the truly secular mind cannot comprehend it.  It cannot be won.

Does that mean that all is lost?  Absolutely not.  God is very good at unseating disbelief in the hearts of people, and He is the One who knows what is truly going on in the hearts of those you come in contact with.  He can convert people; you cannot.  Our task is not to convert people, but to seek out those that God is converting.  

It’s really that simple.  Let God worry about those who are not interested.  He has sent us to work with those who are.  Our task is to get to know people intimately as genuine friends.  Listen to them.  Know their hearts.  If they are spiritually inclined – at all – God will show that to you.

You are on a hunt for the spiritually inclined.  Each of them is different, and God is converting each of them using different issues and themes.  Watch for where God is working, and go work there. That was Jesus’ method:

“Then Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner.’”  (John 5:19)

Take a careful look at key evangelistic moments in the New Testament, and you’ll notice something interesting.  On the day of Pentecost, Peter wasn’t winning outright pagans, even though there were lots of them around.  Acts 2 tells us that his audience was “devout men from every nation under heaven.”  In Acts 8, the Ethiopian treasurer had already been reading Isaiah when God sent in Philip as a sort of Bible-study swat team.  In Acts 10, when God teaches Peter to witness to Gentiles, we discover that Cornelius was already a devout man who had been giving gifts to the synagogue.

God gets there first.  He speaks to the human heart, and then He asks us to share scripture with them so they can connect the dots and discover God’s revealed message and plan for their lives.  That’s why I still use Bible prophecy – because I’m looking for people who are inclined by the Spirit of God to be interested in the Three Angels’ Messages.

Now go back to Paul’s sermon for a moment, so we can tie all the threads together.  He (1) preaches the Three Angels’ Messages, (2) puts it in the context of the Great Controversy theme, and (3) reminds his audience that God has “not left Himself without witness.”  In other words, he tells the Lystrans that they feel spiritual hunger because God has been speaking to their hearts.  They are already aware of His presence; they simply do not know His name.  They haven’t heard the rest of the story.

Our courage levels would soar if we understood this one simple principle: God has not left Himself without witness.  Long before we arrive in any community/neighborhood/workplace, God has been working on the hearts of people we are about to meet.  Our task is to discover who they are and introduce them to God’s message through the Bible.  Let God convert people; go find the people He is converting.

There are millions of them.  Millions.

30
May

Niche Marketing

boonstra-1 In recent years, I’ve heard a number of people suggest that public evangelistic meetings – of the “old fashioned” prophetic sort – are no longer a means of reaching the modern world.  I struggle to believe it, at least on one important count: in spite of what my children might suggest, I am not so old that I could not be considered part of the “modern world.”  I am tech-savvy, culturally aware, widely read, and well-educated – and it was public evangelistic meetings that pulled me into the Adventist church.

Believe me, I did not find the meetings appealing because I was already steeped in “Adventist culture.”  To be honest, I found Seventh-day Adventists a little peculiar.  Alright, maybe quite peculiar.  I’d bumped into a few of them along the way, and some of them did very little to create a positive impression.  (The one clearest exception to that was the first Adventist family I met.)

And yet there I was – a beer-drinking, cigarette smoking, heavy-metal lovin’ (I know, I know: embarrassing for someone who spent years studying music formally, but I’m trying to make a point) young man – sitting in the fourth row of an Adventist evangelistic meeting on opening night.  I soaked up absolutely every word of it, and six weeks later, I was a member in good standing of the local Seventh-day Adventist church.   I didn’t go to the meetings because of the music.  I didn’t go because the church was trying to be culturally relevant.  I went because they had something to offer that I didn’t have.  

And the Adventists succeeded in doing something that every other church I’d visited had failed to do.  Oh, the other churches were fun: the music was great (familiar, even), the youth group was dynamic, and the youth pastors were hip.  But it was Seventh-day Adventists who led me to accept Jesus.  They made Him undeniably real – and unbelievably appealing.  It was the first time I felt completely and utterly assured that God accepted me.  (That sometimes comes as a shock to the subset of lifer Adventists who have convinced themselves that prophecy somehow gets in the way of the gospel.)

In the nearly two decades since I sat in those meetings, I’ve scratched my head whenever people suggest that we only reach a certain demographic (often described with a note of derision) with a “traditional” prophetic meeting, because I simply haven’t seen it.  I’ve been told – by people who have never darkened the doors of my meetings – that as an Adventist evangelist, I generally baptize people over 55 years of age.  I’ve also been told that I simply re-baptize Adventists and their kids – or that I can only reach “the churched” with a prophetic message.

Admittedly, I might not be the most widely-traveled evangelist in the Adventist church, but I’ve certainly logged more than my share of miles – and my observations tell me that people who suggest such things are simply dead wrong.   What demographic ends up getting baptized in my meetings?  I’ve had a lot of trouble putting my finger on it.

They’re young.  Old.  Middle-aged.  Rich.  Poor.  Mainline Protestant. Evangelical. Charismatic.  Catholic.  Orthodox.  Muslim.  Jewish.  Hindu.  Buddhist.  Zoroastrian (yes, you read that right – I didn’t just throw it in for good effect).  Agnostic.  Atheist.  New Age.  Nothing in particular.  They’re white – black -brown – yellow – purple – green – pink.

And yes, even the occasional Adventist makes a decision.

I suspect if we were to put the decisions on some kind of demographic chart, it’d kind of look like you nailed it with a shotgun.  It’s a scatter pattern.  Because of this, over the years, I’ve resisted the temptation to “niche market” the Adventist message.  My experience tells me that it would narrow our outreach and effectiveness too much. Honestly, I’d hate to pull into a city and try and focus on Gen X or Gen Y to the detriment of everybody else in town who desperately needs what God is offering.  When it comes to a good target demographic for the three angels’ messages, I’ve discovered it’s most productive to stick with God’s intended audience: “…every nation, tribe, tongue, and people.”  (Revelation 14:6)

Who am I targeting when I preach?  It’s pretty simple, really:  sinners.

It’s a pretty good demographic to shoot for, too, because I’ve discovered sinners are absolutely everywhere.  Society is utterly permeated by them.  They’re your coworkers.  They live next door.  They shop at Nordstroms and Walmart. It’s a group that transcends cultural and generational boundaries.  God sends them through the door of our meetings, not because we’re trendy or culturally relevant, but because He knows they’re going to get what they need: an introduction to Jesus.   They’re going to see Him in ways that are best described in the context of the three angels’ messages.

Before an actual evangelistic campaign begins in a given city, it’s not unusual for people try to convince me that we ought to rewrite the entire presentation – so that it appeals to the “post-modern” generation.  What they usually intend is a de-emphasis of prophecy and our doctrinal distinctives.  The hope is that we will have a wider reach and broader appeal, when the opposite is true.  In a world full of noise, there has to be a reason for people to pay attention.  If you look and sound like everybody else, you get tuned out.  It’s not the iPad look-alikes that create buying frenzies. It’s the iPad.

In the final analysis, our distinctive doctrinal message, rightly focused on the cross of Christ, is why people choose to become Seventh-day Adventists. We must not be afraid to say something radically different from the rest of Christianity.  It is to our advantage, in the 21st century, to be the unique people that God intends us to be.

Of course, by unique, I don’t mean “strange.”  There are those among us who believe that the weirder we look and the stranger we behave, the more powerful our “witness.”   And at some point, as we put on a 19th century pageant and speak in mysteries that angels struggle to understand, the world stops hearing Revelation 14 and they hear Song of Solomon 6 instead: “…I went down into the garden of nuts.”

The real key to relating to the public is Paul’s approach to a foreign culture/mindset in Acts 14: “…we also are men with the same nature as you.”  (More on this in a future post.)  People need to understand, above all else, that you are just like them.  A sinner in desperate need of Jesus.  Believe me, the world is sick and tired of religious know-it-alls.  If we approach the public with even a hint of pretense, they’ll tune us out, because we offer little hope.  They need to know that the God who helped you can also help them, because you are just like them.

Notice the words of Darius as he approaches the lion’s den early in the morning: “…has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to deliver you from the lions?”  (Daniel 6:20)  He didn’t ask, “are you O.K.?”  He asked if God had been able to save him – and the public wants to know the same thing.  The God you serve, is He able to save them?  Can he sort out their problems?  If you appear to be anything other than someone with the “same nature” as them, they’re going to doubt it.

Bottom line?  Put aside pretenses.  Put aside religious lingo.  Just be you – warts and all, as Oliver Cromwell put it. Be nice – not weird, not smothery, not syrupy, not plastic, not pushy, just nice.   Speak language that everybody understands.  Even the most educated among us, once they admit their hunger for something better, will be reduced to tears by a simple gospel presentation. Be a real person – just yourself  - and be faithful about building your outreach around the distinctive truths of the Seventh-day Adventist movement.

And pray that God will teach you to love people like He does. I’ll admit that not everybody is easy to love – but God knows how, and He’ll teach you.  There’s no question in my mind, after nearly two decades of preaching our message, that most people are not won by the sermons alone. People are won to Jesus by people.  In an ideal situation, a public evangelistic meeting is just a celebration of the relationships that have been built in the community by individual church members over the course of months.  (I don’t say years, because I honestly don’t believe it takes that long to win most people to Christ.)  In an even more ideal situation, we wouldn’t need evangelists to come to town anymore, because the members have it well under control.

Don’t narrow your outreach.  Avoid the temptation to declare yourself a niche marketer in the Adventist movement.  You’ll be missing key opportunities.  Jesus didn’t do it: He worked with rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.  His audience was sinners.   He came to “seek and to save that which was lost,” and we ought to be doing the same.

Target sinners.  You’ll be surprised at how many of them there are.  :)

29
May

The Main Thing

boonstra-1 The Bible is, to put it mildly, a big book.  Big – and deep.  Because it reveals an infinite God, there is no end to the Bible’s subject matter.  I’ve found myself pondering a single verse – no, a single sentence – for days.

That is a good thing, of course – unless you allow yourself to wander away from key anchor points.  I’ve heard Christians waste untold hours heatedly debating topics on which mere mortals simply cannot qualify as experts.   How, exactly, can God be three Persons and yet one God?  How can Jesus be fully human, and at the same time fully divine?  When we stray from what is revealed, we venture onto speculative quicksand. It is not a balanced Christianity when we make these questions the centerpiece of our Christian experience.  Some will make it their mission in life to foist their particular understanding of such questions on other church members, often mentally categorizing the sheep and the goats based on their fellow believers’ responses.

But this is not what God has called the church to do.  Sometimes we daringly dash onto sacred ground, forgetting that angels cover their faces in the presence of God.  They delight to simply do His bidding. One day, if God chooses, He will settle such questions when the work is finished and we are safely home.  The books will be opened, and we can ask all the questions we want.

But for now, we have been given a task to perform.  We are to keep our eyes on the main things, refusing to be derailed by speculative side issues.  Almost anything – even otherwise worthwhile Biblical discussions – can become a problem if they keep us from obeying the call of God to seek and save the lost. The church can easily become embroiled in debates that seem like good (even great) causes.  But somehow, the devil knows how to use even good causes to keep us from accomplishing our task.  Otherwise worthwhile discussions can become hindrances to God’s purposes. While we debate the structure of church government, gender issues, new forms of worship, and a thousand other contentious issues, people around us continue to go to Christless graves by the millions.

“There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents,” Jesus said, His heart aching for lost humanity. (Luke 15:10)  It’s not that other matters aren’t inherently important or worthwhile – it’s just that they’re not the main thing.  And when you’ve got limited resources and time, you can’t afford to focus on anything but the main thing.

Imagine what would happen if the first agenda item on every church board agenda was soul-winning – even ahead of the treasurer’s report.  Imagine if the last thing we trimmed from the budget in tough economic times was evangelism.  Imagine what would happen if we put aside our wounded feelings and dropped non-essential disputes so that we could focus on the lost people living in our communities.   Imagine if we quit pontificating on non-essentials in Sabbath School so that visitors could join us and hear the gospel message regardless of the subject being presented.  Imagine if every time we started a discussion of our fundamental beliefs, we made a beeline for the cross – presenting our beliefs through the lens of Christ crucified, Christ risen, and Christ coming again.

If you brought your best non-Adventist friend (and I honestly hope you have one) to Sabbath school, what would you want them to hear?  How would you want it to be said?  What if each of us made it our personal policy not to open our mouths on a matter unless we had also opened our mouths that week to share Christ’s love with someone outside of our church?  What if we refused to engage theological discussions unless we had also recently engaged someone who is living without Christ?  Wouldn’t that give us the all-important context needed to truly understand the Bible?

“If you will go to work as Christ designs that His disciples shall, and win souls for Him, you will feel the need of a deeper experience and a greater knowledge in divine things and will hunger and thirst after righteousness.  You will plead with God, and your faith will be strengthened, and your soul will drink deeper drafts at the well of salvation.  Encountering opposition and trials will drive you to the Bible and prayer.  You will grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ, and will develop a rich experience.

“The spirit of unselfish labor for others gives depth, stability, and Christlike loveliness to the character, and brings peace and happiness to its possessor.  The aspirations are elevated.  There is no room for sloth or selfishness.  Those who thus exercise the Christian graces will grow and will become strong to work for God.  They will have clear spiritual perceptions, a steady, growing faith, and an increased power in prayer.  The Spirit of God, moving upon their spirit, calls forth the sacred harmonies of the soul in answer to the divine touch. Those who thus devote themselves to unselfish effort for the good of others are most surely working out their own salvation. 

“The only way to grow in grace is to be disinterestedly doing the very work which Christ has enjoined upon us – to engage, to the extent of our ability, in helping and blessing those who need the help we can give them.”  (Steps to Christ, p. 80)

It’s a focus on others that makes us more Christlike, not the amount of theological knowledge we manage to accumulate before we die.  Good theology, of course, is important. Careful Bible study and biblical living is essential for every Christian.  But we cannot lose sight of the fact that we will not, in this lifetime, learn even a tiny fraction of all there is to know about God.  What we can learn is to be gathered from the scriptures and understood through the lens of experience.  It’s one thing to read about the loving character of God, but true understanding comes when you venture into the community and put yourself at Christ’s disposal so that He can display His character through you.

This is not salvation by works.  Our best efforts in God’s service are inadequate to pay the debt of sin that we have accumulated.  Our salvation is found in the cross alone.   But then God uses the task of seeking sinners to help us develop a more Christlike character – to help us get our focus off of self and to help us understand the depth of His love for the fallen human race.

This cannot be achieved by reviewing policy or restructuring organizations.  It cannot be achieved by debating fine points of theology.  It cannot be achieved by examining our own Adventist culture ad nauseum.  It can only be achieved by walking the path that Jesus walked.  ”He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.” (1 John 2:6)

“”For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”  (John 3:16,17) 

Evangelism isn’t one of the things God asks the church to do, as if it’s an event to be squeezed somewhere between potluck and the evening business meeting.  It’s the main thing.  In fact, it’s the only thing.


29
May

A New Home for Shawn

boonstra-1 Since health concerns forced me to step down from It Is Written, I’ve really missed sharing Christ with the many thousands of people who used to catch my daily webcast, A Better Way to Live.   While this blog is a rather muted form of expression by comparison, it is a place for me to share what is on my heart.  I hope you’ll bookmark it and come back often – because as I’m able, I’ll keep the content current.

It’s my prayer that the things I add to this site will help boost your faith in Christ and raise your courage level as you join me in finishing this great work that God has given His last-day remnant people to accomplish.

Shawn Boonstra – San Diego, May 2011