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Truthful Evangelism

Every day, I check Google news with the search phrase “Seventh-day Adventist.” Most hits are local newspaper announcements about a cooking school, a church school concert, or a Pathfinder club’s Halloween food drive.

Recently, a piece from Grand Forks, North Dakota, caught my eye.

The Grand Forks Seventh-day Adventist Church is where, thirty years ago, I served my internship year before going to seminary. It was a good year: there were quite a few young couples in the church, and I had a senior pastor I liked.

I also remember that some time shortly before I was assigned there, a visiting evangelist had come to town and baptized sixty-some people. By the time I arrived, there were half a dozen (I think I’m being generous) remaining.

Here’s the story: after the evangelist had announced to the church his great successes and got the church to accept them all into membership, after he’d breezed out of town the morning after his last meeting, my senior pastor went around to visit the converts. He found some in a nursing home who didn’t remember being baptized. Another the evangelist had baptized in the hotel swimming pool the same night he’d met him in the restaurant. There were a several dozen who had no idea that baptism meant they belonged to a church. Many he couldn’t find. The rest simply weren’t interested, if they’d ever been.

(Although I do remember a homeless man coming into church one day, stinking of booze, and asking for a handout. At first my senior pastor refused, until the man said, “You won’t help one of your own church members?” Yes, he’d been “converted” in the same series!)

The congregation was still a little discouraged about it, I remember.

So I was interested to see that the Grand Forks church is still doing evangelistic meetings, this time with Steve DeLong of Sure Word Ministries. Steve was once with Amazing Facts, but Sure Word Ministries appears to be another independent Adventist ministry.

Those of you familiar with Adventist evangelism won’t be surprised that DeLong’s prophecy seminar started in a neutral venue: the impressive (and doubtless high-rent) Alerus Convention Center. Nor that after a couple of weeks in the Alerus Center, they moved the meeting to the Grand Forks Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The Herald’s editor was surprised that Steve kicked off the seminar by buying a full-page color ad from him. You, however, won’t be surprised that there was no mention of Seventh-day Adventists in the advertising. Nor that Steve DeLong billed himself as “one of the leading speakers on Bible history, history, prophecy, and current world events”—a world traveler, an expert in biblical history and biblical languages, and one whose “dynamic speaking and spontaneous humor will keep you sitting on the edge of your seat.”

That’s all familiar evangelist stuff.

But the report raises more serious concerns.

The level of obfuscation about denominational identity is unusual (if the Herald is to be believed—and I honestly hope they’ve misreported this). Steve refuses to identify himself as a Seventh-day Adventist: “I have been Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist, Lutheran. My wife is a Roman Catholic. Now I’m interdenominational,” DeLong told Herald reporter Stephen J. Lee. “I work with a lot of people, from Baptists to Lutherans, Adventists, nondenominational, I work with all groups. I do not associate with cults.”

You don’t need Alex Trabek to figure out the Jeopardy question that occasioned that last answer.

Lee apparently wasn’t convinced. He wrote a follow-up piece to try to get to the bottom of DeLong’s mystery identity. He reports that the Rev. James Goodwin, a local Roman Catholic priest, had attended the meetings. Goodwin told the Herald that the night DeLong identified the antichrist as the pope, he tried to talk to DeLong about it, but found him “brusque, hostile and dismissive.”

The Rev. Goodwin comments about this on another Web site. “I asked him directly about who he was and what church he belonged to. He refused to answer. Likewise he refused to admit the SDA orientation of his seminar. I found him to be hostile. It was obvious he hated me and wanted me out of there.…I do not understand such underhanded tactics.”

Remember, this is half way through the series, and still “DeLong would not acknowledge any affiliation with the Adventist church, but stresses his interdenominational ministry. Except for a brief telephone interview before his seminar began, DeLong has refused to speak to the Herald about his ministry or this seminar.”

I’ve been a pastor for thirty years, and I can tell you that there is no way, ever, that an interdenominational pastor would be invited in by a congregation to preach Adventist doctrine, and be allowed to move his meetings into the church building. Steve DeLong is a Seventh-day Adventist evangelist. Why won’t he admit it?

If all PR is good PR, these stories might even have boosted attendance for a night or two. Still, is it good for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to create the occasion for this kind of coverage? Let’s suppose DeLong baptizes a dozen precious souls and they remain in the church and become thoughtful, supportive members. Marvelous! Except that the hurtful PR generated by this pretense has inoculated thousands of others against the church!

I don’t know Steve DeLong, though I want to believe he is well-intentioned. But (again, assuming the Herald’s coverage is accurate) I don’t respect his methods. If I can’t be proud enough to be a Seventh-day Adventist to admit it—if I have to tacitly lie about who I am to get converts, even when directly questioned—then I’d better just shut up.

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

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