by Danny Bell

by Danny Bell,  April 29, 2014

I was around when the first BMX bicycles came on the scene. There was nothing really different except that they had these really cool-looking front forks, more rounded like a motorcycle, which enabled boys to dream, getting closer to the feeling of being on a real motorcycle. My parents couldn’t afford a new BMX, so I set about making my own rounded forks by welding pipe onto my old bike's goose neck.

I remember how awesome they looked when finished but looks weren’t enough – they had to be tested. A large ramp was constructed, and a risky young boy headed flat out for it. I seemed to be in moto-cross heaven as I soared through the air like the guys on TV – then I landed. The forks snapped on contact with the ground and I was hurtled face first into the dirt. Winded and dazed I remember lying in agony, thinking, "This is not how I imagined it." It wasn’t motocross anymore but a pipe dream that had a very real and painful end.

I continued to dream, however, along with thousands of other boys as bicycles became more and more like motorcycles, evolving with cantilever suspensions and telescopic forks! But no matter how much they looked the part, the cold reality was that they were still only bicycles.  We didn’t care, though; we were having catharsis – the feeling of being on a motorcycle even though we weren’t.  It fed our fantasies of what a motorcycle must be like, and it felt good while we were doing it – except for the crashes and burns.

When thinking back on these experiences, I see similarities with how we do church and wonder if we have the same impulses, particularly with our model of traditional evangelism. Are our methods about making us feel good rather than serious attempts to reach the masses? We may add fancy new forks or a crossbar but isn’t it just the same old bicycle?

Western culture has moved on from where it was 50 years ago, challenging our styles of evangelism and expected results.  Isn’t it time to seriously rethink our methods, realizing that while it makes us feel good, it is nowhere near the thing we make it out to be?  In our enthusiasm to get results, are we ignoring the obvious and engaging in nothing more than a cathartic experience?

In another article I discussed how we use a lot of resources and effort with minimal results because our axe or approach is blunt.1  We know that large public campaigns are not having the impact they once had. Opening nights see large numbers of strangers attend until they realize they are in a mass Bible study. It is not uncommon to lose up to two-thirds of an audience in the opening week.  When it starts sounding like church, non-Christians will walk.
In my own country, McCrindle Research showed that Australians are OK with Jesus because 64% checked the Christianity box in the last census, but only 20% indicate church attendance, leading many researchers to believe the weak link is how church is marketed.2  Spirituality is alive and well in Australia but it doesn’t translate into church attendance. They like our product but not the retail outlet.  Here, then, is an opportunity to rethink our strategy and make the changes needed to get leverage with the public.

Our large message-based programs will always be part of an overall evangelistic strategy for the church. The challenge in a culture that shuns religion and bows out when things get churchy, however, is how to best get the Gospel message to the public while getting bang for our buck.

The public message-based programs come with the idea that they are reaping programs. They usually come after there have been some local church contacts made from smaller-based ministries leading up to the event. In reality this is not what usually happens, because most public programs kick off with a majority of the audience being strangers, never hearing of Adventists or our message until opening night.  In most cases, the programs are well-resourced but the outcomes can fluctuate wildly, with mass losses and few baptisms on the back of a heavy price tag.3  There are many excuses made to justify the huge spending with meagre results but this isn’t good stewardship and leaves us open to Jesus’ condemnation, You cross land and sea to make one convert” (Matt 25:15), and what an expensive crossing it was!

Why not spend the large sums normally spent on advertising, hall hire and glossy brochures on the smaller grass roots friendship-type ministries? Doing this, we would see changes in attendance and retention at message-based programs.  Instead of a church having one or two grass roots ministries – it could have as many as twenty or more. The contacts from these multiple smaller ministries would be on friendly terms with our churches, and friends don’t walk out en masse from public programs – strangers do.  

If we pour the large evangelistic allocations for traditional programs into smaller serving ministries, the effect will be a breakdown of prejudice, endearing the church to its community.  In this way we will always have at the ready a constant sizeable number of contacts with whom we have built up trust. When we hold a prophecy program, it can be held in-house, no outlay for halls or expensive marketing. Best of all, there will be no massive losses after opening night. All attendees invited from the smaller ministries know who we are and what we stand for – no scary surprises.
Another benefit of the multiple ministry approach is that there will be more avenues for church members to use their talents, so less obligatory effort is required as people find their niche and love what they do. The sky is the limit when it comes to ideas about how to engage the community. There are plenty of churches doing this around the world already from Men’s Sheds, Love laundries and Booze buses – all reaching across a broad spectrum of people and cultures.

My grandmother said it best:
God’s workmen must labor to be many-sided men; that is, to have a breadth of character, not to be one-idea men, stereotyped in one manner of working, getting into a groove, and unable to see and sense that their words and their advocacy of truth must vary with the class of people they are among, and the circumstances that they have to meet.—Letter 12, 1887.

Have we gotten into an unhealthy groove? Are we having catharsis instead of wanting maximum impact to reach souls? Our big digital spectacular programs may make us feel warm and fuzzy, but the hundreds who don’t come back after opening night may not have the same feeling when they discover the experience didn’t match the glossy brochure.  Should we even run large traditional programs unless there has been substantial groundwork done by the local church? – are we wasting God's money? Also, why do we persist in focusing on only the narrow slice of the community our programs seem to attract? Let's face it; most of our programs attract mostly intellectuals, women, children and old people. The vast majority of blue collar types throw the advertisements in the bin.

The bicycle we have relied on in the past has ridden well and many souls were saved, but have we been attentive to the changing terrain where we live? Are we using a penny-farthing4 on a track that requires a BMX? And here is something else to think about; when we have a chance to influence a stranger for God and we fail, rarely do we get a second bite of the cherry. Many of these walkers will be harder to reach and more resistant to approaches from Christians next time around.  Are we creating the very environment that is hurting us and our program attendance?
People don’t care what you know unless they know that you care. We must re-think our methods to suit the emerging mindset in our communities. Australia, and indeed western society, is a difficult field but engaging in activities for the sake of making us feel good is no substitute for the real thing – trust me, there is only pain at the end of that ramp.

1"Chopping With Blunt Axes," (South Pacific) Record, March, 2011, p.14.
2Spirituality and Christianity in Australia Today, McCrindle Research, April 5, 2012.
3Some reports show more than $20,000 being spent per local church.
4A penny-farthing is a bicycle with a large front wheel and a much smaller rear wheel.