Skip to content

What’s the Cost of a Soul?

I’ve heard people say, “The value of a human life is incalculable.”

No, it isn’t. We set a value on lives all the time. The valuation requires some big generalizations, is based on hard-to-pin-down factors, and differs with the context in which it’s measured. But there’s no doubt that a life has definable value.

According to the Human Life Value Calculator, right now I’m worth $266,000 to my wife in life-insurance payout. (I’d earn more than that in the time I have left, but the calculator says I’d consume more than half of it, too.) The Environmental Protection Agency says they’d spend $6.9 million per life in environmental hazard mitigation, although I have a hard time believing it. Most government-run health insurances around the world calculate you’d be worth $50,000 per year of acceptable-quality life (though the United States, with our less efficient health-care system, has a figure closer to $130,000). You could even calculate the value of the chemicals in your body — $808 for a 190 pound man, though it would cost far more than that to extract them, making me chemically a loss.

But what is the value of a soul?

When I was a young pastor my conference president asked me to invite the conference evangelist for a Revelation series. Between the conference, the evangelist’s time, and my church we probably spent about $10,000 — an enormous amount, it seemed to me, for a little church. We got two baptisms. The man we baptized was just out of jail. He began stealing again and was returned to jail. His girlfriend disappeared; we could never locate her.

Like the value of life, the value of winning a person to Christ has too many slippery factors to measure accurately. Beyond the cost of advertising, preparing for, and holding an evangelistic series, what value do you place on the influence of the church and school in the community, the preacher’s abilities and education, or previous Adventist exposure?

Still, we could make some calculations about it. But ought we to?

Ron Clouzet, the NAD Ministerial Director, kicked off the Year of Evangelism at January’s Ministerial Convention in Myrtle Beach by challenging us to baptize 100,000 people in 2009. This would be achieved by holding at least two evangelistic series, spring and autumn, in every NAD church.

The readers of this site have not, on the whole, been inclined to look kindly on public evangelism. But evangelistic campaigns do work. In some places better than others, among some demographics better than others. People like Ron Clouzet are at least trying to do something, while the critics generally don’t offer suggestions. There’s no doubt we will baptize some people from this many meetings.

The only question is, how efficiently does this process work? How much will it cost to win a soul? Is there a better way?

“I used to be a businessman before I became a pastor,” a friend wrote me recently. “I’ve wondered to myself if this is the most cost-effective way to bring people to Jesus. Admittedly, people are precious and worth whatever we spend, but can we do better?”

It is a valid question. Right now, we go mostly on anecdotal evidence. Campaigns stir up enthusiasm, and you often hear such marvelous stories about new conversions — it really is an incredible thrill when someone meets Jesus and becomes part of His family — that no one asks how much it cost. The cost/benefit is roughly calculable, but rarely is it calculated.

Others insist, because of what they’ve seen, that evangelistic meetings don’t work at all, and that’s not true, either — though most would agree they don’t work as well as they did in the first half of the 20th century, when my immigrant great-grandparents joined.

Some comparisons are clear even without precise figures. $10,000 spent on evangelism in an average NAD suburban church will yield some baptisms. Spend that same amount reaching out to Hispanics, and you’ll do quite a bit better. That’s a calculation my congregation made when we funded Hispanic evangelism instead of our own. The result is a congregation of nearly 200 Hispanic people in Worthington, which has recently earned mission church status.

Deploy that same $10,000 efficiently in some parts of Latin America or Africa, and instead of 200 you may gain a thousand or more.

So should we spend all our evangelistic money elsewhere — where the benefit to cost ratio is better? I feel selfish saying it, but when I think of the precious friends I have baptized into my church, few as they are in comparison to Africa, I wouldn’t want to be without them, even if the amount I spent on them would have won hundreds over there.

While I don’t put down evangelistic campaigns, I do accuse some evangelists — I’m thinking of the itinerant variety — of this: they’ve not been entirely honest. They take their measures at the top of the process: they count the number of baptisms. But as any pastor will tell you, the number of baptisms rarely equals the number of long-term church members. I’ve seen situations (this surely doesn’t happen all the time, of course) in which the majority of new converts disappeared within a week or two after the meetings — without lowering the evangelist’s “score”. That’s not real accountability, but it still happens too often in that profession. I believe (and here ,em>my evidence is anecdotal) that we do better keeping converts when pastors do evangelism themselves.

In any case, we ought to be reluctant to completely abandon something that works a little, unless we can suggest something that works better.

That something better, should we find it, will (I believe) have something to do with being churches whose members don’t think of themselves as a private club, accessible only to those who have run a doctrinal gauntlet. It will be Seventh-day Adventist Christians who love their church enough that they unashamedly invite friends into the church community, and treat them as part of the family. It will mean church members so kind and loving to those outside our walls that the line between inside and outside fades, and Jesus comes into focus.

We may find that institutionally threatening: for it doesn’t necessarily translate into fancy denominational offices, renowned universities or megachurches.

But it might mean more souls in the kingdom.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.