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The Need for Un-Traditional Evangelism

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I am writing today from the beautiful Tampa Bay area.

Mary, an elderly lady in my Tampa First SDA Church family, told me how she became a Seventh-day Adventist in the early ’30s in British Honduras, now Belize. She was school age, when her little brother noticed a huge tent going up in town. He told their mother he wanted to go to the circus. His mother told him there was no circus, as nothing was said about a circus in the papers or radio.

Still, little brother would not relent, so mother took the family on a walk to make sure there was no circus in the tent. At the tent, the mother told the boy to go look inside. It only took a moment for him to come back out and inform the family, “We can go home now. They are just having church in there!” The mother said, “I am too tired to walk any more now. Let’s go inside and rest a while.” The family then heard the gospel message which changed their lives forever. This is how my friend Mary, now in her 90’s, became a Seventh-day Adventist Christian and married a Seventh-day Adventist pastor.

In addition to all my small group Bible studies, I also have a golf group that meets the fourth Sunday of each month. I have formed a real camaraderie with the other guys over 18 holes, searching for golf balls in the woods and creek beds. While this group does not study the Bible on the golf course, we do have some in-depth discussions sometimes, waiting for the groups in front of us to tee off. One discussion resulted in some Bible studies after the game, which led to a father and son baptism. One Sunday after a round of golf, I went with one of the guys to lunch. He had been visiting our church, and commented that he wished the other guys would have had time to join us for lunch as he is really enjoying getting to know them. Hence, our golf group is bonding us not just to woods and sand traps, but to those who need Jesus. As a result, during our discussions, people are learning more than just how to improve their swing, but also how to improve their walk with God.

Some people may complain that our approach to evangelism is becoming too worldly. They say we should not try to imitate the world to win people to Jesus. I agree to a point. But I have even heard a couple of people say, we need to go back to our roots and those old-fashioned tent meetings. Old-fashioned tent meetings? Those old-fashioned tent meetings looked like the worldly circuses of the day! And because of the circus-like tent meetings, my friend Mary spent over 50 years of ministry as an Adventist pastor’s wife.  She is also a very “traditional,” balanced, well-versed in the Bible lady.

When people say we need to go back to the old-fashioned forms of evangelism, they often forget that at the time, those were actually pretty “modern” forms of evangelism – to arrest the attention of the people in that era. So today we need to do likewise.

Let every worker in the Master’s vineyard, study, plan, devise methods, to reach the people where they are. We must do something out of the common course of things. We must arrest the attention. We must be deadly in earnest. We are on the very verge of times of trouble and perplexities that are scarcely dreamed of.–Letter 20, 1893.
From Christ’s methods of labor we may learn many valuable lessons. He did not follow merely one method; in various ways He sought to gain the attention of the multitude; and then He proclaimed to them the truths of the gospel.–Ellen White, Evangelism, Pages 122-123

Sure, there are boundaries to everything, even evangelism, but when you hear someone say that a current form of evangelism is not traditional enough, remember we have been counselled to do “something out of the common course of things.” We must try various methods to gain the attention of the multitudes who so desperately need to hear about Jesus. Back in the day, we used “old-fashioned” tent meetings because they looked like “old-fashioned” circuses, which always drew a crowd. Today old-fashioned tents and circuses no longer draw crowds, so we must find new ways to draw people to hear about Jesus in our day, just like the tent people did in their day.

You may study this week’s SS lesson here.

Setting our Course by the Stars, not the Lights of Passing Ships

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I am writing today from the beautiful Tampa Bay area.

We  ought to set our course by the stars, not the lights of every passing ship. -Omar N Bradley

Jesus does not call us to follow other Christians. He calls us to follow Him.

I was seven years old, lying awake in the middle of the night, thinking about how Jesus died for me. I decided I wanted to be baptized and follow Him. I got up and walked into my parents’ room, woke them up, and told them I wanted to be baptized. They thought that was great, but told me we could talk about it at breakfast. Looking back, I don’t know why I had to tell them in the middle of the night. It wasn’t like I was going to be baptized before breakfast.

In the decades since that night, I occasionally have experienced people trying to bribe and even bully me, both inside the church and outside the church, to compromise my beliefs. A conference publishing director once asked me to do something on Sabbath, that I did not feel was appropriate. He told me the conference president wants it done on Sabbath, so I better do it or else. In that moment I remembered two things. 1. Jesus died for me and not the conference president. I owed my life to Jesus and no one else. 2. On that night long ago, as I lay in bed thinking about Jesus’ love, I gave my heart to Jesus, and not the conference president. Of course those threats came from the publishing director. I have no way of knowing if the order actually came from the president. The president never made the actual threat. I stayed true to my convictions, and as far as I know, no threat was every carried out. Sadly, soon after, the publishing director left the church entirely. That’s what happens when you follow people instead of Jesus.

Often people get discouraged when folks in the church let them down. However, inMatthew 26:50 Jesus still called Judas “friend” when he betrayed Him. Jesus was not the least bit phased by Judas’ betrayal, because Jesus already “knew what was in each person’s heart.” John 2:25 NLT

The Bible is full of examples where people are let down by others but God still provided.

You know how hard I have worked for your father, but he has cheated me, changing my wages ten times. But God has not allowed him to do me any harm. Genesis 31:6-7 NLT

Jacob was cheated by Laban, but thanks to God no harm was done. This is why Paul said,

Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ. Colossians 3:23-24 NLT

We work for God not for people. Therefore we count on God to provide for us, and not people.

In my ministry various people have provided for me, for which I am very thankful. God has used different people at different times, but in the end it has always been God providing. I have learned to trust Jesus and not any one person or group of persons.

A while back when my verbal contract ended with a church, they gave me a generous severance. I wanted to use a portion of the money to buy a nice parting gift for the church to show my appreciation for their years of supporting my ministry. However, in the meantime, I heard about a family that had no money to pay the rest of their child’s Adventist school tuition. I decided helping them would be more practical than buying a nice gift that would collect dust in a church closet. I went to the school treasurer and paid off their school debt. Elated, the school treasurer asked if she could tell them who just paid off their debt. At first I thought sure, I would like for them to know that I care about them. But then I thought, Wait a minute. This gift actually came from God, and God is the One they need to trust in, not me! Next time God may use another person to help them. They need to know each time that God is helping them. They need to trust God and not me or anyone else. So I told the treasurer not to tell. All they needed to know was that God provided.

We are not called to follow other Christians. We are called to follow Jesus. We are not called to trust in other Christians. We are called to trust in Jesus.

You may study this week’s SS lesson here.

How do you Know if it’s a Friendly Church?

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I am writing today from the dark and stormy Tampa Bay area.

Back in the ’80s I was invited to preach in a church in Northern Oklahoma. I arrived in time for Sabbath school, and heard the Sabbath School superintendent talking about how everyone should be friendly, and if we have guests, invite them home for lunch. I thought how nice! After my sermon, as I was greeting people on their way out, the Sabbath School superintendent shook my hand, thanked me for coming and then joined her family in the car and drove away. As she walked away, I almost said, “So, am I supposed to follow you to your house?” Seems to me, we sometimes want to be known as being the friendliest church in town, without actually having to be the friendliest church in town, or being friendly at all for that matter.

I have often said that you can’t tell how friendly a church is on Sabbath morning. It is during the week that you find how friendly a church is. On Sabbath people will smile and greet you. By the way, may I throw out there, that if you are not the designated greeter, that it is even more important for you to greet others? When you are a guest and get greeted by the greeter, that is like the free space on the bingo card. Being greeted by the greeter does not make you feel extra warm and welcomed. You just perceive that as the greeter doing her job. While everyone is friendly during church, the question is how many are friendly after church? How often do you call your church members during the week? By the way, it is not your pastor’s job to be visiting everyone. It is your pastor’s job to encourage everyone to visit everyone.

Fellowship lunches are nice, but I have made some observations. I have seen entire families sitting at a table all by themselves. My reaction is, you could have sat all by yourself at home. I imagine they would like someone else to sit with. That is why they came, but no one else will sit with them. Oh sure, they will smile and wave at them, and even shake their hand when meeting in the hall, but genuine friendliness goes a lot farther than that. By the way, I realize many people drive great distances to church, and its not really practical to ask someone to your home for lunch when its a two hour drive. Therefore the church makes a nice meeting point for lunch and fellowship. But is that always the reason for having fellowship lunch? Could fellowship lunch at church be a nice way to be friendly without actually having to have someone come into your home? Could it actually be a way to be friendly while still being a bit standoffish? Do we meet people at church to avoid having them in our homes?

So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, Acts 2:46 NKJV

Here I see the early church first of all not just being friendly on Sabbath but being friendly daily. I also see them doing it in their homes and not just the church. Indeed it is not on Sabbath, but during the week when you see just how friendly a church is.

In June, I published a post about losing my mother. I was so comforted by the comments and kind words that followed. It was healing to know that I had friends around the world that cared for me everyday and not just on Sabbath.

Just a couple weeks ago I had a  rare weekday afternoon free, and the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team also had a rare weekday afternoon game, so I went to enjoy some alone time. While there I walked over to the section where I sat with my mother and father the last time they went to a game with me. Suddenly and unexpectedly a rush of sadness came over me. I went by myself to enjoy some alone time, but I am sure many of you will understand when I say, my alone time turned to loneliness and despair.  The Rays won 2-0 but as I walked out there was this huge cloud hanging over me, separating me from the sunshine of God’s love and the love of my friends. I know the sun is still there even when the clouds block it, and I know God’s love is still there even when “clouds” seem to block it.

I got in my car, feeling gloomy. I started driving towards the beaches that my mother loved so much. Then that gloomy cloud hanging over me started dropping raindrops of doubt. “You are all alone William. Look you are here all by yourself, no one cares!” Never mind the fact that I chose to go the game alone for some alone time! Never mind all the kind words people shared on SSNET and cards, calls and texts. But our emotions like to play mind games with us, and they lie to us about the reality of God’s love and the love of our friends and family. As I pulled over near the water to stop and pray, those raindrops of doubt started to pour. Now I know full well that the Bible and the Bible alone is all I need to know that I am very deeply loved. Even while my emotions were playing mind games with me, I knew not to trust my feelings and to trust the Bible. But something wonderful happened. The sunshine of God’s love broke through my metaphoric cloud. At that same moment when I thought I had myself convinced that I was all alone in the world now, my cell phone beeped and vibrated. I looked down and read this text from a friend far away.

Hey William, Just checking in to see how things are going. I was just thinking about you and wondered how you are?

In an instant I realized how stupid the gloomy cloud hanging over my head really was! I felt again what I already knew, that those raindrops of doubt were nothing more than hollow lies! God used a friend I had met years ago at church, who moved far away, to show me real friendliness, not in church Sabbath morning, but on a weekday afternoon.

You may study this week’s SS lesson here. 

PS I want to take this opportunity to thank my friend who texted me that day from Indiana, and all my friends who continue calling and texting, keeping the clouds away.

The Irony of Sympathy

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I am writing today from the beautiful Tampa Bay area.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy.Matthew 5:6-7 NKJV

I’ve been told the beatitudes are building blocks to a complete conversion. I find it interesting that after we are filled with God’s righteousness, instead of seeing ourselves as holier than others, we become merciful.

Several nights ago, as I was falling into my bed to go to sleep for the night, I heard a loud crash followed up by a boom! boom! boom! thud! I looked out my window expecting to see another fender bender on the little street outside my home. Instead I saw a broken-down fence and upside-down car on the grass. The man inside the car got out okay. Apparently he made the turn from one residential street to another a little too fast.

Years before I would have thought to myself, what an idiot! How can you have such an accident on a little street, while making a simple maneuver! However that is not what I thought this time. True, he was going too fast, but over the years I have learned the lesson not to make fun of people who make silly mistakes, because just as sure as I do, I will turn around and do something twice as crazy! Instead of making fun of him, or scolding him, the rest of the bystanders and I just made sure he was okay and had what he needed while we waited for help to arrive.

At UPS John, a seminary student, worked with me as a sorter. He was very mild-mannered and never lost it, even in the most stressfull situations. One day our belt was getting overloaded and I asked the unloaders to wait for us to clear the belt before adding any more packages. They did not listen, and more and more packages overloaded the belt. I became angry and said some things I should not have said. I caught myself and told John I felt bad for reacting that way. He assured me that this was a very stressful job, even more so when the unloaders don’t listen to you. He was right, but I marveled that even though he understood and was sympathetic, he still never lost it. He sympathized with me with his words, but he rebuked me like a slap across the face by simply living out a better example! It wasn’t what he said, it was what he did that showed me there was a better way to live.

My pastor once suggested that it is best to be “liberal” towards others and “conservative” towards ourselves. Hold yourself to a higher standard while cutting those around you a little slack.

Jesus is our perfect example in constantly forgiving all those around Him.

Here are some words to live by.Just like Peter, you don’t have to worry about forgiving your friends too many times. No one will ever sin against you more often than you sin against Jesus, and you will never need to forgive anyone as often as Jesus forgives you. I am going to throw in the oldest cliche of all time, just because it fits so perfectly here. “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” To be Christlike we must hold ourselves to a higher standard, while at the same time forgiving those around us. Jesus is the only One who ever lived a perfect life, and while He did so He sympathized with and encouraged sinners.

Often He [Jesus] met those who had drifted under Satan’s control, and who had no power to break from his snare. To such a one, discouraged, sick, tempted, and fallen, Jesus would speak words of tenderest pity, words that were needed and could be understood. Others He met who were fighting a hand-to-hand battle with the adversary of souls. These He encouraged to persevere, assuring them that they would win; for angels of God were on their side, and would give them the victory. Those whom He thus helped were convinced that here was One in whom they could trust with perfect confidence. He would not betray the secrets they poured into His sympathizing ear. –Ellen White, Desire of Ages, Pages 91-92. 

How ironic that the One who has never sinned would be the most sympathetic and understanding friend a sinner could ever have.

You may study this week’s SS lesson here.

She did so Much for me, and I Never got to Thank her

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I am writing today from the beautiful Tampa Bay area.

In evangelism workshops its almost become a cliche now,

Jesus…reached the hearts of the people by going among them as one who desired their good. ….. He met them at their daily vocations, and manifested an interest in their secular affairs.-Ellen White, The Desire of Ages, p. 151. 

But how interested are we really in other peoples own good, even when we do not profit from their prosperity? In my ministry I have been asked to speak at numerous funerals. Before the funeral I like to meet with the family in their home, to get stories and learn more about the deceased. I can know somone all my life and still be surprised what I learn after they are gone. I will be sitting in the family room, listening to selfless heroic stories about the dearly departed, and it touches my heart so deeply, I get emotional and I think to myself that I too, want to be a selfless loving person, but I joke with my friends, that by the time I walk out the door and get to my car, that emotion of being selfless and caring has already passed over.

Case in point. When I lived in Texas I had started a cleaning business on the side. Nancy was a friend of mine from church. She was a nurse and told a few doctors and nurses about my business and I was soon cleaning for them. Nancy and I would go to dinner or lunch occasionally, and I offered to pay since she was my best advertiser. She assured me she did not want anything in return. She was just happy to help me out and see me do well.

We were both in our mid 30’s, when one morning I got the shocking news that Nancy had suddenly died during the night. It was quite a shock as we had plans to got to lunch that day. When you are in your mid ’30s and your friends seem healthy, it is very unsettling to hear the friend you have lunch plans with for that day just died! Leter as I went to clean for a client Nancy gave me, the thought struck me, She did so much for me, and I never got to thank her! I realized on this earth I never would get to thank her by paying her back for her interest in my good. That’s when I told myself, to live a giving life just like her, so that when I am gone, people will say the same about me, he did so much for me, and I never got to thank him.

Only a few days later, at UPS the line I was supervising was short handed. I walked over to another line where there was a supervisior that I had helped out several times. I asked him if he could send someone from his line over to help me. He said, “no” I can’t spare anyone right now. Granted he was right, but at the same time it bugged me because I had often been in situations where I could send him help, but he never seemed to be able to help me. Frustrated I told myself to stop helping him becuase he never paid me back! Then it dawned on me, wait a minute! I told myself I wanted to help others so that when I died they could say I always helped them and they never got a chance to pay me back. But when the chance actually came I did not feel that way at all! Once again I was touched by the selfless love of a caring friend, telling myself that I wanted to be just as loving and giving, but when the rubber met the road I was back to being my same old self again.

Of course all that happened way back in my ’30s. Jesus never made past his ’30s here on earth but was still the perfect example. My friend Nancy, never made it past her ’30s but left me with an example that even in my ’50s I still struggle to immulate. After being raised in the church all my life, I often sigh and think, 50 years later, shouldn’t I be more like Jesus by now? So many people with not even half the advantages I have had are so far ahead of me. Yet the secret is not rocket science. Jesus went about seeking the good of others even in their secular affairs. Nancy did the same. The next time someone needs my help, instead of asking myself how they will thank me, I can tell msyelf, this is my opportunity to be like Jesus. If Jesus helped Nancy, He can also help me to be one who seeks the good of others, even though they may never be able to thank me.

You may study this week’s SS lesson here. 

Is the Role of the Church in the Community Just to Baptize People?

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I am writing today from the beautiful Tampa Bay area.

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…. 1 Corinthians 1:17 NKJV

Does the church have to baptize every member of the community in order to serve its purpose? Is it possible God has some people cross our paths just because they need to be loved, regardless if they join our church or not?

Years before ever becoming, or thinking about becoming a Bible Worker myself, I found myself on a church softball team, captained by the new local Bible Worker. I failed to eat breakfast before running off to play. In the middle of the game, I began to get dizzy and lightheaded. My team was up to bat when I pretty much blacked out. I was sitting right next to the Bible Worker and told him, as the batter was striking out, “I am blacking out. I can’t even see anything right now.”

His reply? He threw my mitt in my lap and said, “That’s the third out. Let’s go take the field!” Not exactly the reply I was expecting. Needless to say, I did not go out onto the field. I managed to get myself to a nearby building where I got a drink and laid down. I had heard people who had been studying with this Bible Worker say how wonderful he was. I guess already having been baptized, I was not a potential “notch on his belt,” So he was not that wonderful to me. He never even missed me when I failed to come back to the game.

At that point in my life, I was not really that familiar with the Bible Worker concept. Therefore I had never really considered becoming one, but on my way home that day, I remember thinking to myself, that if I ever did become a Bible Worker, I would not be like that one! I also told myself that if I genuinely care about people who are about to be baptized, then I would genuinely care about people who will never be baptized. Even though I was not a Bible Worker at that point, I told myself, that as a Christian as well as being theologically sound, I also want to be relationally sound. I decided to be a genuine caring friend not matter what position I ever have in church.

Ironically I did become a Bible Worker, and found myself studying with a man, in the first district I had been assigned, who finally showed up to church with his 14-year-old step-daughter. She had never been to any church. I went to the parents of teenage girls and told them this girl had never been to church before. Please have your daughters greet and befriend her. One of the mothers shrugged her shoulders and said, “But my daughters already have friends.” The father ended up getting baptized in another nearby Adventist church. We never saw his step daughter again.

Later in another district, I was studying with a war veteran who needed a ride to the veteran’s hospital one day. Wanting to connect him with members of my church, I called several retired members and asked them to give this worthy veteran a ride. One person told me they were unavailable because, “That’s the day I water my garden.” And that was the most legitimate excuse! Not only did this veteran never come to my church, but that was also the end of our Bible studies. Do you blame him?

After studying a few months with a young married couple, they became baptized and joined my church of mostly older people. One of the elders never reached out to this young couple, until finally he heard them say something in Sabbath School that was not theologically correct, so he took it upon himself to call them later in the day, to “reach out” and tell them that they were wrong! That was the only contact he had with them, and it was not long before they were out of the church. How long would you stay in a church where people only call to tell you that you are wrong?

In Texas I studied with a teenage boy, that for sake of anonymity, I will call Scott. He found a ride to church every Sabbath, as no one else in his family came to church. Shortly after his baptism he moved to Tampa Florida. We had a going-away party for him, and I wrote in his card, “Bible Workers come and go, but friends are forever.” I did not think that much about it. Eight years later I moved to Tampa Florida. I had talked with him a few times after his move. One day, shortly after moving to Tampa, I ran across his name in my address book, and the address “Tampa Florida” jumped out at me. I called the number, to find out that he was in jail. I arranged a visit. Not exactly the reunion I had planned with a former Bible student. We were glad to see each other and had a lot to talk about since our last visit. He explained to me what had been going on with him lately and how ended up in jail. Towards the end of our visit, he told me, “When I moved away, you wrote in my card, Bible Workers come and go but friends are forever. I never forgot what you wrote, and now that you have come to see me after all those years, even though I am in jail, shows me you meant what you said.” I realized even more, that being relational is just as important as being theologically sound. I realized too, that even though he had been baptized eight years ago, my work with him was not over. Scott needed a forever friend. I am glad God moved me across the country to where I could reach out to him.

As a Christian my goal goes way beyond seeing people get baptized. My goal is to see them in heaven. That means being a forever friend to those who are preparing for baptism, and to those who have already been baptized, as well as to those who I may never see get baptized.

Some people think they can’t give Bible studies, but if I can, anybody can. Even so, what a teenage girl needed in a church long ago, was not just Bible studies, but a friend. A veteran just needed a ride to the hospital. A young couple needed someone from the church, to call them just to say hello, instead of just to tell them they were wrong. A young man sitting in jail needed to know someone still cared, even though he was less than perfect.

That morning on the ballfield, I needed a friend. I needed someone who cared for me regardless if I was someone about to be baptized or not. I needed what every other person needs, and that is a forever friend. Do the people in your community know that regardless if they ever get baptized or not, that they can find forever friends at your church?

You may study this week’s Sabbath School lesson here.