Perspectives: Ethical Evangelism

Staff at Cambridge (Md.) church's FLAG camp pose with campers.

Pastor Cesar Gonzalez, a pastor in the Chesapeake Conference, recently shared his thoughts on ethical evangelism. This article doesn't necessarily represent the views of the Visitor staff.

Why don’t we talk about the ethics of how we do evangelism?

I live in the poorest county in the state of Maryland. The neediest children in the entire state live just a few blocks from my home, where I now sit comfortably writing these lines. I think of them often as I care for my own children who have warm, safe beds, plenty of clothes and abundant food. 

In an effort to help that community, I started a summer FLAG (Fun Learning About God) Camp at our church a few years ago. Our church kids showed up and had a great time, but the children that really needed the experience could not afford it—in fact, they couldn’t even travel the couple of miles from their neighborhood to my church, which—like many Seventh-day Adventist churches—is nestled in an affluent neighborhood away from the urban center in my town. 

This created a minor crisis in my ministry. How could I serve those children? We came up with a plan. I approached a local organization that had asked me to help them spend $1000 on a trip to a minor league baseball game for disadvantaged youth for help. I told them how much fun the game was, but I assured them that I could make that money go a lot further. I told them I could provide a one-week summer day camp with their help and that my church would match their donation. They gave me the $1000 plus another $500 for food. With that budget I approached Carl Rodriguez, the Chesapeake Conference youth director, and pitched the idea of a free FLAG Camp for urban kids. He loved the idea and promised me support.

We moved the camp into the neighborhood we were targeting, bought food and made all preparations. The first day we had six kids. I went into a panic. I made up flyers and stood on the sidewalk talking to anyone that would listen. They next day we had 24. The day after that we hit our capacity of 45 and had to start turning kids away. It was an incredible experience for me. But it was sad, too. I watched children as young as six or seven show up in the mornings by themselves, and as we sang our last song and said goodbye in the evening, they would wander off into the streets. Previously, I had only seen something similar while doing mission trips in Central America. 

We soon learned that these kids were hungry. Many of them were on school meal programs offered by the state, but when summer came around the assurance of three meals a day disappeared. The kids kept asking for lunch earlier and earlier, and we soon realized that for some, FLAG Camp was providing most of their food—but FLAG Camp was only one week of summer. 

The next year we expanded to two weeks. We did that for a couple of years and everybody involved felt good about themselves. We were definitely doing a good thing. But I couldn’t stop thinking about those kids and their plight the rest of the summer. I got a group of community leaders together and we decided to make a drastic jump. We would expand FLAG Camp to six weeks. This came with a very big price tag. What had been a budget of a few thousand, became tens of thousands of dollars. I had to become a fundraiser, which I have no experience in. This was also complicated by the fact that we are in the poorest county in the state, and there is simply not much money to be found. Our first year as a six-week program we had 76 kids show up the first day. Our capacity was still 45. That was last summer. 

Is it Worth It?

Since then we have struggled to keep the program going, and as I write these words we are in danger of shutting down. This has created a much bigger crisis in my ministry. What is it, exactly, that I am called to do as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Should I put so much time, effort and money into a program like this? Although I have created many relationships and bonds with kids and their families from my time working with FLAG Camp, I have not added any new members to my church from this program. Is it worth it? I struggled with this question for months. The answer seemed simple. Yes, of course it’s worth it. But the reality for an Adventist pastor is a bit more complicated. We work in an ethereal sort of economy. While other “industries” have a tangible product and the value of their workers can be easily calculated in dollars, a pastor’s only tangible “product” is baptisms. This produces a culture where pastors become TV rock stars for their thousands of baptisms and in which conferences hold worker’s meetings on public evangelism that sometimes resemble sales seminars. 

I didn’t have a problem with any of this for many years. My job is to preach the gospel. That’s it. I have been given a charge to win souls for the Kingdom. Anything outside of that is not my true calling and only a personal desire of my own heart that needs to be put into its proper place behind my sole purpose.

But then, last December, I attended a class to become a credentialed disaster responder. It was a two-day class that would prepare me to understand and contribute to FEMA disaster response in my area. It included detailed explanations on procedures and policy, but to my great surprise, we spent one whole day out of the two discussing ethics in serving disaster victims. Treating vulnerable people ethically and with respect turned out to be the most important lesson to be learned in the course study. While I sat there, I realized that in the 20 years that I had worked for the church I had never heard anything at all about ethical evangelism. As far as I can tell, the idea doesn’t exist in our culture. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are many churches out there doing wonderful things in our communities, but although Adventist Community Services works tirelessly to encourage more of this type of activity across North America, [not all churches participate]. Beyond that, community service is not taken seriously as a form of evangelism in our denomination. Moreover, like I stated before, I am not aware of any ethical review of our actual evangelistic approach. 

This sparked a series of thoughts in my mind that ended in one question: how can it be that the secular government is highly interested in the ethical treatment of the vulnerable but our Christian denomination never considers ethics in its outreach? When I started to apply the lessons I learned in class to what we employ as evangelism, certain problems started to arise. 

The Example of Christ 

First, it does not follow the example of Christ. Christian apologists often tout ethics and morality as proof of a loving God in the face of evolutionary “survival of the fittest.” It follows, as even a cursory study of the gospels shows that Jesus spent at least as much time tending to the needs of the sick and poor as he did preaching. It is Christ that changed the moral code of the planet. Shouldn’t we follow that moral code in evangelism?

Second, it is not good stewardship. Our denominational culture thinks nothing of spending tens of thousands of dollars on what ends up being junk mail for a Revelation seminar, but it sees spending the same amount of money to feed children as something outside its mission. When the rich young ruler came to Jesus to ask how he could be saved, Jesus told him to give his wealth to the poor. We are walking away from Jesus in the same manner as the rich young ruler did.  

Third, it is not inclusive. We quote the great commission as our call to evangelize the world. We spend millions of dollars annually in this effort, but our tactics are aimed squarely at the middle and upper-middle class. We fail to recognize the sheer chaos in the lives of the poor. We demand that they must come to a month’s worth of meetings before they can join the church when many of them have night jobs and difficult transportation. Furthermore, we ask them to enter our affluent socio-economic world without giving thought to how they live. Some of the main reasons that no FLAG Camp families have joined my church is because they can’t get there, and they are afraid they won’t fit in. I know that my church would bend over backwards to make them feel welcomed, but again, that’s not how Jesus operated. He went to the poor, not the other way around, but somehow, we think nothing of traveling around the world to baptize people of other cultures but won’t travel a few miles to minister to people of color in our own towns. 

Fourth, it is my opinion that it is not effective, or at least not as effective as it once was. Many of you will say, “I know so-and-so that came into the church through a Revelation seminar.” I am willing to bet that if you sit and consider carefully, you can think of more people that came to a Revelation seminar and either didn’t get baptized or got baptized and left the church shortly thereafter than those that have remained as faithful Adventists. I’ve heard these people described as “the chaff” by evangelists. I have been told that it is our job to cast the seed out on all sorts of soil and we are not to be concerned about the ones in which the seed does not sprout. Honestly, I can understand that line of thought. There are some people that will simply never listen to God’s calling, I see them daily. But I have a hard time believing that 50 percent of people that come to my church looking for God on the first night of a Revelation seminar and don’t return are simply rejecting truth. (On average, Revelation seminars will lose 50 percent of attendance on the second night.) 

Are We the Problem?

It is my suspicion that we are the problem. Our form of evangelism was developed in a time when the vast majority of the population was already Christian. It takes for granted the fact that people will have a strong understanding of the gospel and respect for the authority of the Bible. This is no longer the case, and I think it is why only one or two percent of people that receive mailings will respond. 

Additionally, it is aimed at the middle-aged. Some of the slides used in popular series are the same ones I saw as a child in the 1970s. Not only is the artwork antiquated, but to a culture that lives online this decidedly offline-approach must be revamped. Young people are accustomed to a world where they can earn college degrees and work from home, yet we ask that they come to 30 nights of meetings. Show me where Jesus or Paul or absolutely anyone in the Bible asked people to come to 30 nights of meetings before they could be baptized into the kingdom of heaven?

Because our evangelism techniques were designed for people that were already Christians, what we end up with is systemic sheep stealing rather than true evangelism. In my experience, many of the people that come to a Revelation seminar are disenfranchised from other denominations or congregations and often come with disruptive ideas and behaviors. 

Are We Preaching the Love of Jesus?

Finally, I think the reason we have such a high apostasy rate in evangelism is simple: we don’t preach the love of Jesus. We have a rationalistic argument for joining our church rather than a conversion experience simply because we assume that most people have already been converted. It may take 30 nights to convince someone that they should leave their church and join ours because we have the truth, but only a moment for the Holy Spirit to convince a heart that it needs Jesus. Is it really necessary to bash other denominations in order to evangelize? I don’t think so. In essence, our evangelism techniques are designed to make Adventists, not Christians. It relies on our methods rather than the Biblical example, yet we ask the Holy Spirit to bless anyway. This is the most unethical point of all. 

 

Recently, I was going over the story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18. As usual, I read with awe how Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal as they prayed to their god to rain fire down on their sacrifice— but then, suddenly, I saw it differently. I no longer saw myself as a compatriot of Elijah, waiting confidently to show the world the power of the Lord, but as one of the prophets of Baal jumping around in a panic, hoping for a miracle from a god that wasn’t listening. Are we waiting for the Holy Spirit power that Jesus promised in Acts 1:8 or are we wandering around on our own? 

I wholeheartedly believe that it is time we take evangelism seriously, giving it the ethical review it deserves and aligning it with Biblical principles. The reason I think we’ve not done this already is because programs and systems are the easier and well-known path. It’s hard to be Christlike and Spirit filled in all we do. It’s much easier to rely on what we have made ourselves. If every Adventist pastor had to go through a Mt. Carmel moment, how would we fare? I’m starting to think that every non-believer we meet is a Mt. Carmel test, and our systems and programs are letting us down. 

I leave you with this well-known quote from the book of Amos 5 from the Message Bible: 

“I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.

I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?

Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

 

 

 

 

At the recent Transformational Evangelism conference, pastors from across the Columbia Union Conference gathered to grapple with several questions: What are the best methods to share the message? Whose job is it to evangelize? What is the missing element in many evangelism efforts? And is it really evangelism if you don’t make an appeal?

Read more here and watch presentations from the conference below: