My church is gearing up to have a series of evangelistic meetings and I am, as usual, both involved and ambivalent.
For the 85% of people who read my blog and don’t share my church background, I’m not sure I can explain exactly what a Seventh-day Adventist series of evangelistic meetings is like. Jason and I were talking about it with my cousin Jennifer and her husband David the other day and David said, “Are they like revival meetings?” And I said yes, but thought, Only sort of. Our evangelistic meetings were born in the era of old-fashioned American tent revival meetings and they still share lots of the characteristics of those meetings — the music, the energetic preaching, the altar calls, the shameless playing on emotions. There was a time when meetings like these were a staple of religious life and now they are largely relegated to the more obscure corners of evangelicalism, but that is the heritage behind this type of “series” or “effort” or “crusade.”
Content-wise, though, SDA evangelistic meetings go far beyond the standard Billy-Graham type confess-your-sins-and-accept-Jesus message, because the goal is not just to lead people to Jesus but also to introduce them to the doctrines of the Adventist church, which are far more logical than emotional. So along with a soft piano background of “Just As I Am” playing behind the altar call, you also get some rather detailed exposition about the meaning of the Greek word pneuma as it relates to the state of the dead, and how Constantine mandated Sunday as the day of worship — not at all standard tent-meeting fare.
It’s an odd mixture and it’s not quite like anything else in the religious world, but it’s very familiar to anyone who, like me, grew up in a traditional Adventist church. I can look back through my childhood and recall the different series of meetings, held every few years with a visiting evangelist, like milestones along my journey to adulthood. Each one brought a small influx of new converts — as a child, my biggest concern was whether they had kids my age; as a teenager that shifted to boys my age. Some stayed and became a vital part of our congregation; more slipped out the back door within a few months, when the mountaintop excitement of the crusade ended and Real Life, or sober second thought, took over.
My attitude toward this kind of evangelism has gone through many changes over the years. There have been crusades in my church that I virtually ignored because I considered that whole model of “soul-winning” hopelessly outdated. There have been crusades into which I have thrown my efforts wholeheartedly. Sometimes, in the shifty sands of midlife, I question not just the methods we use to attract people to church but even the validity of the whole get-people-in-pews project.
Often, I sit on the fence. I observe the whole thing with a faintly embarrassed cringe, recognizing that the illustrations of beasts of Revelation and all the other evangelistic paraphernalia (regularly updated, but still outdated) would be the very last thing to attract me into a church if I were a “seeker.” Yet I notice that every crusade brings to my church at least a handful of people who stay, people I like and am happy to worship with, people who seem to have been spiritually transformed by the whole experience — so I think, Well, clearly this type of evangelism does have a target audience, and if it’s hitting some of those targets, who am I to stand back and shake my head?
Evangelistic crusades are very much a hallmark of traditional or “conservative” Adventism, and I am probably the most liberal Adventist in my congregation. Yet in this particular crusade the most outspokenly conservative members of the congregation are boycotting and refusing to become involved (don’t ask me why; I don’t know) while the person who is our pastor’s right-hand woman, doing most of the organizational work of the crusade, is probably the next-most-liberal person in the church apart from me. As for me, instead of staying out in left field ignoring or criticizing the whole thing, I am pitching in with Jason and organizing the children’s program that accompanies the crusade. It’s not because all my questions have been answered and I have wholeheartedly embraced the concept of public evangelism. But I do have my reasons.
A very wise man whom I know only as Oscar the Grouch (not the one from Sesame Street — this is a poster on an internet board whom I know only by username) gave me some good advice one time about how to function in church when you hold opinions that are outside the mainstream. I cut out his tips and pasted them in the back of my Bible, and often I have to flip to the back and look at them on Sabbath mornings. One of his tips was “Where you are able, remain actively committed to what the church is doing (no-one likes someone who stands in the corner griping but never lifts a finger to help.)”
Oscar’s words of wisdom now shape my attitude towards “the crusade.” This is not “my kind of evangelism” (though saying that prompts the separate, and rather challenging, question of exactly what is my kind of evangelism). But it is something my church is doing, and there is a need to be filled — child care for those who bring kids to the meetings — that I am qualified to fill. So I am serving at my post of duty despite my doubts, playing the double roles of hardworking participant and skeptical observer, wondering as I so often do whether that makes me a hypocrite or just a faithful skeptic doing the best she can.