“Sam Butler, 22, was afraid. Afraid “Righteousness and Peace” would collide like mortal enemies. That on or about Oct. 15, “Hope for the Homeland” would give way to a “Cry in the Night.”
You see, Butler had a good thing going in Grand Rhonde, Ore. Several non-Adventist visitors had begun attending his “Hope for the Homeland” DVD series, and it looked like baptisms were coming due.
But, then again, so was Sam’s young, pregnant wife, Ana. Though she kept busy, providing special music for the meetings and helping in other ways, her condition was all too apparent. A blessed event was due at any time—ANY DAY!
“My greatest fear was that she would deliver that baby before the series was through,” says her lay-evangelist husband.
“We kept praying and watching. And, wouldn’t you know, we finished the series on Sunday night, Oct. 20. The very next morning, she went into labor, and Crystal was born that evening!”
All righteousness had been fulfilled. And there was peace.
Righteousness and Peace
For the Butlers, the 18-meeting series in the local high school gymnasium was the first set of evangelistic meetings they’d conducted in years. Along with at least 150 other Northwestern Adventist churches, Butler and the Grand Rhonde Church were hosting a series of evangelistic meetings, in the wake of the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Technically, everything went well, this time,” says Butler. As local personal ministries director and a graduate of short courses in evangelism at Black Hills Outreach center, Butler was comfortable with the preaching assignment.
“My greatest fear, actually, was my wife’s condition, that we’d be having a baby before we finished the series,” he blushes.
“The DVD programs themselves were nicely put together, concise, to the point. They held the people’s interest. As a result, we have one decision for baptism and two strong interests in further Bible study.”
But Butler has done a lot of thinking in the month since the series ended, and he’s determined to do the series again—with improvements.
Hope Beyond 2000
The series began well. On Wednesday, Sept. 11, the church hosted a moving tribute to local police and firefighting personnel. A local Adventist member who works for the school district helped Butler secure use of the local school gymnasium for the program and evangelism to follow.
“Our own members strongly supported both the Sept. 11 ‘Hope for the Homeland’ tribute and the evangelistic series, itself, beginning Friday, Sept. 13,” Butler says.
“Young, old, and in-between, they really pitched in and helped. I received wonderful support. We mailed out brochures and invited our friends—we worked hard. But I can say that the only consistent visitors we had were people we already knew and had invited personally.”
Born in Africa to self-supporting missionary parents Dan and Ellen Butler, Sam Butler can’t resist comparing his first series in the United States to preaching he has done or heard in third-world countries.
“In Honduras, I preached a series two years ago, and there was a lot more enthusiasm, overall,” he remembers. “We didn’t have to mail out brochures; the people did the inviting, and when it came time for the meetings, the singing was spirited and the praying was earnest.
“Compared to Honduras, people here in the United States are rushed and preoccupied, and their attention spans are shorter. It’s harder to capture and hold their attention.
“In Honduras, a lot of the families were unemployed, so attending a series of meetings like mine was a break from the monotony. But, despite what has happened to our economy since Sept. 11, 2001, we still live in a country of busy, pressured, stressed people. And that’s going to affect how we plan our next series of meetings, here.”
Perhaps no other “Hope for the Homeland” series ran neck-to-neck competition with Mother Nature quite the way Butler’s did.
But many faced stiff competition from North American human nature.
Reports from throughout the Northwest show that Sept. 11 tributes were well attended and met with resounding success.
But not many series of evangelistic meetings lived up to the ample promise of the original tributes, and Butler believes he knows why.
“Actually, because of Crystal’s birth, I probably haven’t given as much thought as I would otherwise have given to the aftermath of our series,” he says. “But I’ve given some thought. Definitely. And here are some things we’ll do differently, next time.”
Anecdotal and Relational
While he does plan to use the same DVD-style illustrations next time, he intends to include more anecdotes and personal experiences in the presentational mix.
“Though the presentations were concise and rarely lasted beyond 45 minutes each, any time we went more than a few minutes between stories or anecdotes, some members of the audience would begin to nod off. Then, when another story came along, they’d wake up and listen. Jesus used a story-based approach to preaching. I can still use the DVD illustrations—they are very well done—but I can build more stories into the presentations, and I think that will make them more effective.”
Butler also believes that the secret to attracting visitors to future series will be through personal invitations.
“We spent a lot of money on mailing out brochures for this series,” he says. “We could have used the same money and hired a Bible worker to visit and study with the visitors, during the series. In Honduras, when I did the series there, the members themselves invited the people. I think the same thing can begin to happen here, if we intentionally begin making more friends in the community. Here, we tried to make this one series into a seed-sowing, nurturing, and reaping service, all in one. In he future, we’re going to confine our meetings to reaping. The seed-sowing and nurturing will have gone before!”
In the aftermath of his series, Butler reflects that perhaps Adventism, as a whole in America, needs to learn the lessons of patience.
“Our members are very efficient, and we live in a fast-paced society,” he reflects. “I have a frame of reference, as a missionary. And it may be that our church’s emphasis on the nearness of Christ’s return has actually helped create a membership that is prone to impatience, that lacks the natural ‘long haul’ mentality of some other groups.
“While it’s a strength that our members want to get things done efficiently and as quickly as possible, we may be forced to back off from our natural instincts and work longer with people, before expecting to baptize them,” he says.
“There may be some that we’ll have to work with for decades, before they join us. Others may be ready right away. We need to cast the net widely, and then work with the people individually. When I was studying evangelism, one thing they told me was that if a preacher doesn’t ‘get the decision’ during the evangelistic meetings themselves, the people may never make the decision to join the church.
“I disagree with that view, especially in a case like mine where I am a local person who can continue to visit and study with these people. There’s no real need to rush people into decision-making, only to have them just-as-quickly leave us.
“I believe in calling for decisions, don’t get me wrong! I called for some kind of decision almost every, single night of our meetings. But I believe some of our visitors, frankly, need more time.”
Though his series brought only one decision for baptism, Butler is by no means discouraged. Now that his wife and healthy young daughter are home, he’s making definite plans for future evangelism.
While memory of the meetings remains strong, he’s working with local members and their pastor to begin a plan of personal outreach in the area, friendship evangelism in the community, in preparation for the next set of meetings.
Across the Nation
Across the nation, a similar conviction seems to be taking hold. For years, evangelists, pastors, and personal ministries leaders have known that those who attend meetings at the personal invitation of members are the most likely to make firm commitments to the Lord.
And, according to prominent public evangelists such as Mark Finley, author of the recent mass-distributed missionary book of the year, “Satisfied: How God Can Meet Your Deepest Needs,” trends in American society make personal, relational outreach more important today than, say 20 or 30 years ago.
While in the past, aggressive promotion and advertising of prophetic themes has been able to stimulate interest in high-profile evangelism, Finley says it’s becoming harder and harder to attract and hold audiences in this way.
His new book “Satisfied,” now available in Adventist Book centers, talks more about people-problems than world problems, more about the future of the family than the future of the planet, more about personal fulfillment than the fulfillment of the 2,300-day prophecy of Daniel 8.
While the good-old prophetic message of Adventist pioneers must continue to go forward with power, the needs of today’s society call for a more relational, personal approach to seed-sowing than has been used in the past.
Making the transition may take effort and practice. But in this Butler and Finley agree: There’s nothing wrong with the Adventist message; nothing wrong with the prophecies of Christ’s soon return; nothing wrong with the commission to “go, therefore, and preach the gospel.”
The Kiss of Peace
In a sped-up land of impatience and competition, Butler believes one of the strongest messages for our time is the message of peace. Not just peace among nations, but peace in the hearts of stress-filled, anxious people.
Only when righteousness (the central message of a soon-coming Savior) is intimately matched with a message of personal hope and peace can the two come together in a compelling marriage of life-changing force.
Every day, daughter Crystal reminds him how high-tech message-delivery and high-touch, personal ministry, must interact to present a full picture of Jesus to the world.
Butler is eager to preach again. But he’s determined to do it differently, next time.
“I want my church members to be ready. They did a wonderful, supportive job this time. But they weren’t prepared, yet, to bring a lot of friends and acquaintances to our meetings.”
He pauses, reflecting. “The message is good. The DVD illustrations are great. What we need is to bring friendship-preparation into the mix.”
When that happens, he says, a message of righteousness and commitment will have met its counterpart of friendship and peace. They will kiss. And there will be joy in heaven, and on earth, goodwill toward preaching men and women of faith.