We got everything ready. Cleaned up the church. Had all our leaders and presenters lined up. The big expense was sending out handbills to the community. Pretty, full-color brochures that announced a series of Bible lessons filled with hope and reassurance. We backed up our efforts with prayer.
The big night came. But no visitors showed up. Not one.
It hurt all of us, and some of us were nearly in tears. This church isn’t large, and it isn’t rich. The expense of doing the meetings was about all we could handle. Did the brochures actually make it to people’s mailboxes, we wondered? Yes, they had. But mixed in with all the other junk mail, they hadn’t been heeded by anyone in the zip codes we’d targeted.
I remember once visiting an elderly church member, who told me about how when she was young an evangelist set up a circus tent on an empty lot about a quarter mile from her house. “Everyone went,” she said. “Everyone. It was the biggest show in town.” She and her family were all baptized.
But a series of evangelistic meetings isn’t the biggest show in town anymore. It has a lot of competition. Not only other religious meetings, but just about everything else, from TV to movies to concerts to … well, you name it. Religion isn’t the draw that it used to be. And, there exists now in the culture something that wasn’t true when I was younger: a relentless cynicism about everything having to do with organized religion.
In one of my church libraries I found an old promotional book about the history of The Voice of Prophecy. I knew that H.M.S. Richards was the Seventh-day Adventist church’s first media presence. What I didn’t realize was that he was one of the early presenters of any religious affiliation to be on radio. When I was a child, the list of stations that aired VOP was pages long—multiple stations in every state. Even in places as large and lightly-populated as North Dakota, there wasn’t a community where you couldn’t get a station that aired it. It’s no wonder that tens of thousands of Adventist families today can trace their membership in our church to the Voice of Prophecy.
I’m not sure if VOP still has that much coverage. But a lot has changed. On the same dial now are two or three Christian radio stations that have professional and polished programming. And they don’t carry our programs.
I was a pastor in Silicon Valley during early years of the internet. I remember how miraculous it felt, to be able to enter a search term in (back then) the Alta Vista search engine, and suddenly dozens of sites showed up. Click on one and all the information was there, at your fingertips. One of my church members who saw this said, “This will finish the work.”
But he didn’t reckon with the competition. Some years later I was part of a city-wide evangelistic series in a larger metropolitan area. I remember meeting a marvelous young couple whom I really hoped we would baptize. They would have fit in wonderfully with our church family, I thought. But when one of our visitation team went to their home, they told her, “We looked up your church on the internet, and learned it is a cult. We don’t want anything to do with it.” The evangelistic worker’s pleas and arguments didn’t convince them. Turns out the internet is a two-edged sword. It makes all information about us readily available—even if it isn’t flattering to us.
What does it take to get the world to hear the gospel? I’ve always wanted to believe that the Christian message should advertise itself. People who came to churches would find there an experience with God that couldn’t be matched out in the world, an experience that would electrify them, empower them. If the gospel can do what we say it can, the result should be a whole lot of extraordinarily kind, honest, generous people, who live life with the confidence that their salvation is assured. Great people to be around, in other words, who draw others to them. Ellen White was never more profound than here: “No other influence that can surround the human soul has such power as the influence of an unselfish life. The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian” (MH 470).
But we’ve had to resort to a lot of other promotional tactics to get people in. A few years ago when the price of fuel was climbing a very good church I know, with a skilled and conscientious pastor, bought down the price of gas for a day at one gas station near the church (they gave the gas station owner thousands of dollars, and had him put up on the sign that gas was being offered at half of current prices today courtesy of the Seventh-day Adventist church). I’ve heard of churches paying people to attend. I read about a church that passed the offering plates full of money for people to take.
Those are unusual examples of trying to get people’s attention. More common in the evangelical world is an expensive variety program for worship. The biggest and best-attended churches have a massive pipe organ and a choir for one service, and a couple more featuring a well-choreographed light-rock band of professional musicians. Though Jesus could get away with having nothing about his appearance that attracted people, the best pastors nowadays have to be showmen, actors, entertainers. A good head of hair is helpful (there are exceptions—bless you, Doug Batchelor). Though the trend has been toward expensive programming rather than lavish buildings, there’s still the occasional Crystal Cathedral raised up to try to draw people to God. But given that most Seventh-day Adventist churches are small, with an attendance less than 100, that disqualifies a lot of us from that competition.
Lately some in our denomination have been flooding entire cities with copies of The Great Controversy. I, like many of you, have benefited from this book. But I wonder if The Great Controversy is our best first approach to people: a dense, Victorian tome that can be interpreted as anti-Catholic, presented in an embarrassingly low-quality printing, copies of which can now be seen piling up in trash cans all over San Francisco? Is that good PR? Is there such a thing as market research in our church, to discover what outreach activity really works, and what turns people off? Or should we care?
There is fierce competition for people’s attention. Never before in history have so many had so much to sell, and knew how to do it so effectively. When we join the advertising fray, when we say “Hey! Over here! Look to us for the answers!” we’re part of a massive chorus. Why should they attend to our voice when a new SUV or a sale on shoes or a political candidate will also salve the soul for a few moments? Why should they come to our show, when there are a myriad of fabulous ones available? Why should they read our pulp-paper book when there are so many more interesting things to read? We have to have something more, something the rest simply can’t offer.
I’m not certain what the whole answer is, but I suspect it will have to do with profound people rather than powerful programming; with effective Adventists rather than effective advertising; with committed Christians rather than clever Christianity. Ellen White seems to agree. “Only through a living faith in Christ as a personal Saviour is it possible to make our influence felt in a skeptical world,” she wrote. “The gospel we present for the saving of souls must be the gospel by which our own souls are saved” (MH 470).
The product is supposed to be appealing all by itself. “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me” said Jesus (John 12:32). Maybe we do too much church and too little Christian living. Maybe, like Amway, we’re more about the sell than the soap.
One thing is for sure: Jesus didn’t give us permission to fall silent, to sit in our pews and wait for someone to show up. We have to find a way through the noise. Colored handbills and free Ellen White books won’t be enough, nor will more of The Voice of Prophecy, and most of us can’t put on a Vineyard-style worship variety revue. We need a different kind of attraction. As Paul said, it is transformed Christians who “prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Romans 12:2).
Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.