I heard the text first from my mother when I was in grade school- ”There is an open door and there are many adversaries.” The next time I heard it was in a powerful sermon that I heard from the President of what was then Oakwood College, Dr. Benjamin Reaves.
I was a young Pastor then in Memphis, Tennessee; I think it was the time that I invited President and the late Mrs. Reeves to preach at the Breath of Life Church while I was there. After church, we invited them home for Sabbath dinner. I remember two things about that dinner:
The first thing was that the entire six years I was the Pastor of the church, the hospitality team-led by one of the sweetest ladies I ever met, Sister Laura Jones (some of my successors there and I used to joke that if you could not get along with Sister Jones, you probably needed to get out of pastoral ministry)-would always cook Sabbath dinner whenever I would have preaching guests at Breath of Life (which was fairly often) and send it over to my house. I had never heard of a church doing such a thing-before or since. It was a very special church.
The second thing was that we were too poor to afford a dining room table in those days. So, when we had guests, we would dress up the kitchen table and move it into the blank space in the dining room. A short while after we hosted the Reaves, we scrapped up the money to buy a dining room table that we still have today. We moved the kitchen table back into the kitchen until we replaced it and give it away to another struggling young Pastoral couple. Such is ministerial life.
Anyway, Dr. Reeves preached a powerful sermon where Paul talked about there was an open door to do ministry-and there were many adversaries. His point has long faded in this now senior citizen memory (along with a lot of other things!), but I think he meant that there are often many opportunities to be found in adverse circumstances. In life, we are often faced with both adversity and opportunities-some times both at the same time. To a great degree, our success in this life depends on which one we place our focus-our opportunities or our adversity.
I thought about that this week as the coronavirus became a pandemic that swept across the world, growing from an inconvenience at the beginning of last week to a full-fledged disaster by the end of the week-closing businesses, shutting down entire states; virtually the entire Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States closed its offices and churches.
The coronavirus threatens to devastate the economy and if I were not a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who believes that God is STILL IN CONTROL -that none of this caught Him by surprise- I would be very afraid for our country, our church and for our family. I preached a sermon Sabbath entitled, “He Knows What He’s Doing”-and He does.
Therefore, let us look for the opportunities that are arising out of this very real adversity. Several come to mind:
- This Crisis Is An Opportunity to Up Our Technological Game in the Church: There are doors that technology opens up for us in ministry that we have not fully advantaged ourselves as a church-some of us, yes-but as a church, we have a ways to go.
This crisis-as I heard a young person say-“will drag the church kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.” Obviously, some churches are already there. But even the churches that are there-who who have things like live-streaming capacity and on-line giving-probably can use this as an opportunity to look at those things and see how they can be done better and in a way that furthers the spread of the gospel.
Take streaming, for example. What is the purpose of streaming your services? Is it just a good idea (and, it is) or, are you streaming your services to expand the kingdom of God and add people to the remnant church?
If expanding the kingdom is your purpose, then how is that being done? How many people are you reaching? Do you know if more people are streaming your service this year than last year? Is anyone keeping up with those kinds of numbers? Is there a way for non-Adventists to know how to access your streamed services? At the end of your on-line service (or somewhere) is there some way for someone who is listening and who wants to connect with your church to know how to do that?
Then-once people stream your services, what will they see? Is the picture high quality? Are you and your video people on the same page in terms of how you want your worship service to look?
Imagine two streamed services: The first shows a half-empty sanctuary, mediocre video and sound quality that picks up what the person up front is saying but not the reaction of the worshippers. Therefore, the service comes across as low energy, not very dynamic; a rather Eurocentric worship service (except for the length of the service!)
On the other hand, imagine a sanctuary that looks full (even if the way it looks is because the leadership for the church was able to talk people out of sitting in the same seats they had sat in for the past 100 years and move for the sake of mission and for a better video appearance). The video quality is excellent, as is the sound. Those listening can hear not just the person speaking or singing, but they can also hear the full reaction of those in the audience. They can feel the Spirit of God moving in that place and the service moves and flows in a timely manner.
Which service is a non-Adventist more likely to want to visit in person? The coronavirus pandemic is giving us the opportunity to ask these kinds of questions and be intentional about getting the best answers for them in ways that might not have happened prior to this.
- This Crisis Is An Opportunity to Look At How We Can Better Use Technology to Do Evangelism: Church growth experts will tell you that-generally speaking- in order to get non-members to join your church, you have to first get them to visit your church. The one thing that virtually all new members have in common (other than being new members) is that they were first, visitors.
It seems counter-intuitive (which is a fancy way of saying, “That doesn’t make sense”) to say that the coronavirus-which has closed our churches-is an opportunity to get people to visit our churches more than was being done prior to this terrible pandemic. But consider this: Might it be easier to say to a non-Adventist relative or friend, “Boy-things seem like they are going crazy in the world right now. Hey-but our Pastor did a really good job in talking about what the Bible has to say about all of this. I believe that you would enjoy it-it comes on this Saturday at 11:30 a.m., on Facebook Live (or whatever social media platform your church is using)”.
I would suggest that it might well be easier to get someone to go to church on-line than it would be to get them to go in-person. Plus, you could advertise your service on social media-it is the electronic version of the old, passing out handbills and inviting people to an evangelistic campaign.
I still believe that once people hear the gospel, that over time, the gospel sells itself to people who are seeking truth. The problem has been that, increasingly, we are not getting people in the doors of the church to hear the gospel (nor-generally speaking-are we following up on visitors, when they do come-but that is another topic for a different article).
The great irony of the coronavirus and all the disruption it is causing in the world and the church is that this pandemic may force us to use technology that will bring people to Christ-even though our doors are closed-who probably wouldn’t have come to Christ if our doors had remained open. It is a great opportunity that comes out of adversity.
Lastly (at least for Part I of this series) Not Only Does the Adversity Caused by This Pandemic Give Us A Unique Evangelistic Opportunity to Reach People Outside Our Church, But It Also Gives Us An Opportunity (perhaps our last opportunity) to Reach Our Young People. Once upon a time, I do not know if there was anyone better at reaching young people than Adventists in Regional Conferences.
I used to be a Conference Youth Director. The two things that I enjoyed the most in the 42 years that I have been been a Seventh-day Adventist minister (and the Lord has blessed us with many wonderful experiences) were being the Pastor of the Breath of Life SDA Church in Memphis, Tennessee and being the Youth Director of the South Central Conference.
My children grew up in the days when I was Youth Director. The church they attended in those days was Hillcrest. They had Bible Bowl, Youth Choir, Puppet Ministry, AYS, Pathfinders, Drill Team, Sabbath School and they attended church school. They attended Youth Congress, Youth Federation, Summer Camp and Senior Youth Retreat-on top of having family worship every evening.
Those different activities had leaders, which meant that my children had teachers, counselors, coaches-yea, an entire “village” of people, who gave of their time and resources to help raise them.
I was very proud when my son told me this year that he had volunteered to become an Assistant Basketball Coach at Greater Atlanta Adventist Academy because he wanted to “give back” what people like Drs. G. Russell Seay, Melvin Lightford, Sr., Reginald Coopwood, and Jerry Lenox had given him.
But-today, most of those activities are gone. I can tell you as a former Conference Youth Director that the old AYS formed the basis of all these activities. Many of them were run through AYS. Once AYS went away, a lot of these activities went with them.
But there still is a need-a desperate need-to minister to our youth. The Adventist Church is justifiably known for its health message. But at best, our health message increases our quality of life and the number of our years. It may delay death-it does not forever deny it.
Therefore, if Jesus does not come first, all of us old people who are in leadership will be gone and the next generation of leaders will be where we are now. But for the next generation to lead tomorrow, we have to minister to them today.
Here is where the coronavirus gives us another opportunity in adversity: In addition to having on-line church services during this season of church closures, we have to have on-line programming for children and youth. And here’s the thing: Generally speaking, people had stopped coming to AYS. But now-they don’t have to come back to AYS; through the miracle of technology, AYS (or whatever we are calling our youth-oriented programming) comes to them.
We can offer on-line youth programming; in the absence of being able to be connected to the church, young people (and their parents) will eat it up-especially, if it is good. North American Division Associate Youth Director, Elder Vandeon Griffin, is already doing this. He is providing youth-orientated, Christ-centered programming-not once a week, but every night.
Let me close Part I of this series by saying this one more time: This terrible coronavirus-which is a source of so much adversity for everyone-is also an opportunity-perhaps, a final one-to do some unique ministry. Opportunity in adversity.
We’ll talk about some more opportunities that God is making available through this adversity in about 10 days.