Note: This is a guest post from my good friend, Jared Thurmon, who, in addition to being an entrepreneur, serves as the new Strategic Partnership Liaison for the Adventist Review.
Ever heard the expression “Numbers don’t lie”?
I put that line in the same file as “…but names will never hurt me”.
The truth is that numbers can tell more than one story. Take Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Both are “followed” by tens of thousands on Twitter, but only 60% of their Twitter followers are believed to represent real people. On the social media surface, it may seem they are winning the popularity battles because they enjoy the highest number of followers.
But if we judge the success of a movement or a cause only by the numbers, we may not discover the whole story.
Speaking of numbers, Seventh-day Adventists are a people founded on numbers. We were founded on the belief that Daniel’s prophecy of 2300 days/years would end about this time of year – October 22, 1844.
If you have belonged to this movement for even a year, you know many important numbers—7, 12, 70, 490, 1260, 1290, 1335, 2300.
Seventh-day Adventists are known for other numbers as well. One of us is running for president – Ben Carson. We live longer than the rest of North Americans—an average of 10 years. We are the largest not-for-profit Protestant healthcare provider in the U.S. We are the most diverse religious group in America. Last but not least, we have been known in recent years as the fastest growing denomination in the United States. Two people join the Adventist Church every minute. Each day, Pentecost-worthy numbers—3000+–join God’s last-day remnant.
It would be convenient to end here, with a “Well done, good and faithful servant,” but honesty prevents it.
From October 8-13, the Seventh-day Adventist Church held its Annual Council. Leaders from around the world met to discuss plans and share ideas for the next year. During this event, newly-gathered research data and statistics were shared by Dr. David Trim, director of Archives, Statistics, and Research (ASTR).
It’s hard to see these numbers as other than grim.
Remember that actual number of “real” followers of Trump and Clinton – 60%? It appears as that the retention rate of the church for the last 50 years is almost exactly the same.
Based on the chart below, supplied by the General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics and Research, in 2014, the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church added 1.28 million new members during the calendar year through baptism and profession of faith. At the same time those “lost” by being dropped from membership or registered as “missing” through standard church processes or division-wide memberships audits (a process that is still on-going in most divisions) totaled 950,000. That equates to a net gain of only 330,000 members in 2014, a 1.7% net growth rate.
Numbers like these should lead us to say, “Houston, we have a problem.”
If baptized members are the metric of “success” on which we focus, we will almost inevitably lower the standard of what constitutes readiness for baptism—and thus count those inadequately prepared persons as new members. This is natural enough: If your boss is pressuring you to meet the “quota” at work, you do what it takes to meet the quota. If incentives and opportunities for professional advancement in ministry and larger responsibilities are based—even informally–on numbers of baptisms, then why wouldn’t a gifted ministry professional reach for celebrities, musicians, and media coverage that could help achieve those results?
It isn’t cynicism that notes the reality of these pressures and the systems that develop because of them. Speaking honestly about the potential for misuse of a system should never be interpreted as faithlessness. Leadership expert Max de Pree has reminded us, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”
Why would a minister or layperson work diligently to ensure that a baptismal candidate agrees with nearly 30 unique beliefs—knowing that at least a few of these will step on their toes and infringe on their lifestyle—if the metric is not discipleship, but baptismal count?
This circumstance isn’t far-fetched. Here’s a testimony:
JT took $10,000 to the mission field to build a church. He preached for three weeks, laboring to convince individuals who believed in thousands of other gods that the One god JT was there to tell them about was worthy of all their trust and devotion.
But JT told them more about “truth” than the one who called Himself the Truth. Both are vitally important, but the order in which they are presented is even more important. Accurately representing Jesus—the Truth—often requires acting as He did—loving as He did—and not only echoing His teaching.
The reality came home as I (JT) met with 70 sincere individuals baptized as Seventh-day Adventists after patiently listening to my preaching for three weeks. When some of the newly baptized revealed that they still were holding on to their symbolic representations of their many gods, and would adhere to old practices to appease Vishnu, I was confused—and shaken. (Insert jaw drop)
What went wrong? It may be that I didn’t adequately introduce them to the One from whom all truth comes. I introduced 28 compelling beliefs and lifestyle changes, and I naively expected them to be ready to make a complete spiritual U-turn after three short weeks. Years later, I was told that the church structure I had put my hard-earned money into building was now a barn. I had sought success, measured by persons responding through baptism to my preaching. Perhaps I should have built them a barn or a business, helping them by demonstrating love applied to their life circumstances. When they experienced success in meeting basic life needs, they would have been more ready to hear what I was preaching. They would have had their own reasons to build their own church building, and almost certainly valued it more.
I didn’t know Christ’s metric.
I think the metrics of success are key to determining if we are doing the will of Jesus, or as Picasso observed, on the road to sterility.
I believe with all my heart—and my wallet–in the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I still believe that the Church’s best days are just ahead of us. But it’s time to reconsider what lasting success as defined by Jesus will look like.
Does public evangelism have a part to play in the proclamation of the everlasting gospel? Both Scripture and experience resoundingly say “Yes!” Millions of men and women are won—lastingly—to Jesus Christ through a process that includes public preaching and public responding. The apostle Paul preached powerfully in the cities of Asia to large crowds of interested hearers with Spirit-blessed results. Scripture teaches us to believe that the Holy Spirit is present and working with people before we ever mingle with them, befriend them, or act kindly toward them. God may prepare people for our witness in a variety of ways. The Spirit is not limited to any one method of witness. But is numerical success through public evangelism the metric we should be emphasizing at this moment in the progress of God’s remnant church?
The answer—respectfully, but clearly—is “No.”
We can do this simply and effectively by applying a new metric to measure mission success.
What if, instead of stressing out pastors and conference workers with numbers of baptisms, we changed the metric? What if we asked, not “How many did you baptize?” but “How engaged are your members in outreach, community service, health seminars, Bible studies, practicing pure religion to orphans, the hungry, the discouraged, and the imprisoned?
It’s called user engagement.
As an entrepreneur, marketer and Adventist “brand evangelist”, I’ve been digging into what makes for a successful social media strategy. The answer from the data is unmistakable: It’s not the number of likes or followers, but user engagement! How engaged are your followers with your organization? Do they actively share the information you are sharing with them? Do they engage when you share new information with them? Do they bring new followers to you?
Counting total “followers” is a hollow metric, for it cannot measure the depth of engagement that is crucial for any successful business, cause or movement. When a “follower” is engaged enough to invite someone they care about to share the experience with them, you have the first and most obvious metric of loyalty and true mission success.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has some truly valuable assets. We have an understanding of Bible prophecy more comprehensive and biblically-reasoned than any other faith. We understand more about the great controversy between Christ and Satan and all of the angels than many do. We have a message of health and wholeness that is poised to bless the world in both community health and improved personal lifestyle practices. We are increasingly good at marketing our message through attractive and well designed media—handbills, billboards, TV, radio, websites, podcasts, and apps.
How well are we succeeding at the mission Jesus has given us? The numbers recently shared with church leaders illustrate a stark reality that has been trending for decades.
WWJM: What Would Jesus Measure?
Fortunately, we don’t have to guess at which metric Christ would use—and does use. In fact, He tells us in both Matthew 25 and Isaiah 58—and in many other passages of Scripture—the exact metric He will use in the judgment.
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’” (Matt 25:34-36).
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Why would we be measuring anything different?
“Those whom Christ commends in the judgment may have known little of theology, but they have cherished His principles. Through the influence of the divine Spirit they have been a blessing to those about them. Even among the heathen are those who have cherished the spirit of kindness; before the words of life had fallen upon their ears, they have befriended the missionaries, even ministering to them at the peril of their own lives. Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God” (Desire of Ages p. 638).
Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “Follow Me.” (The Ministry of Healing p. 143)
Both “Christ’s method” and “Christ’s metric” must somehow connect people with people. If we really thought our product and mission was to share information with the world to usher in the endtime, we would likely sell all assets and buy global airtime to give one sermon, believing we had fulfilled our calling. Sharing high-quality information about Jesus and His teachings can never be a substitute for introducing men and women around the globe to a Saviour who seeks a personal relationship with them over time. While warning the world of the soon coming of Jesus will always be a part of the mission, we have not achieved success or responded to Christ’s metric by merely warning seven billion human beings. Will people know us for our warmth or our warning?
Do we think the gospel is a 70-minute sermon rather than a 70-year life?
If sharing information was the mission and simply hearing the metric, Jesus could have preached the Sermon on the Mount, leaving a high-water mark on ethical content, and an implicit call to decide about His claims. But the reality brought to life in the Gospels is that He spent time—amazing amounts of time—mingling with men as one who desired their good.
Apple and the Evangelist
Mark Kawano, formerly Apple’s User Experience Evangelist, recently shared some common Myths about Apple. One of those was particularly profound.
Myth #1 – Apple has the best ___________!
Business leaders commonly believe that to achieve success, you must employ the best people. There’s pragmatic wisdom here, but Mark Kawano’s interview revealed that this wasn’t the “secret sauce” of Apple. The secret, he said, was in the corporate culture and organizational structure, specifically the embedded focus on design in every division of the company. Every employee had a common goal in mind as each thought about their particular piece of the project. This common goal? The end design and user experience with the product are supreme.
What can we learn from Apple in relation to sharing the gospel?
While the church will always seek to employ more talented and consecrated preachers, evangelists and witnesses on every level, human talent won’t be the secret of mission success. Shouldn’t we better measure the manner in which the gospel is received—the user experience? If the goal is to find, develop and mature men and women as faithful disciples of Jesus who become engaged in the same mission that reached them, shouldn’t we ask better questions about both Christ’s methods and His metrics?
Did the world need an iPhone?
Did the world want an iPhone?
When asked why he didn’t put more resources into market research, Steve Jobs would say that “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
People didn’t need a smartphone until they saw how much better their life could be if they had Apple’s product in their lives.
Today do people need the gospel?
Do they think they need it?
In fact, some think they have seen the product of the everlasting gospel and they don’t want it.
So how do we take our product to the world in light of this? Though we aren’t accustomed to taking gospel pointers from Steve Jobs, one of his is pertinent: “Show it to them.”
Consider these statements from a century-old volume, The Ministry of Healing:
The world needs today what it needed nineteen hundred years ago—a revelation of Christ… it is only through the grace of Christ that the work of restoration, physical, mental, and spiritual, can be accomplished. (The Ministry of Healing p. 143)
So how do we share Christ—and specifically the grace of Christ that leads to a total transformation—with the world? There is—there can be—only one successful method. It was demonstrated in the life of Christ, and in the succinct phrasing of Ellen White’s The Ministry of Healing, it is known as “Christ’s Method Alone.”
We begin to assess mission success in a new way. We adopt a different standard to determine whether disciples—as individuals or as the Body of Christ—are, in fact, following the One they have pledged to follow. We ask new questions of a church that needs new energy and focus: “How much is this church?—How much is this pastor?—How much are these members engaged with the method announced by Jesus?”.
This is the new metric. This is #ChristsMetricAlone.
This is the secret sauce of faithful Adventism and biblical Christianity.
“Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 143).
#1 – This is the only way to have long term, enduring effects on a person’s life. This was His method to reach people with the good news of the kingdom of God, and it will be the method of all who claim His name.
“The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good.”
#2 – Jesus mingled with broken men and women as a friend, companion, brother, teacher, mentor, and healer. Mingling can’t be done by proxy, by email, or via an app, television, radio or satellite. Jesus was making it clear to all who shared His presence that He cared for them at that moment, not contingent on a behavior change—that He desired the best “good” for them.
“He showed His sympathy for them.”
#3 – When Jesus shared His time and attention with a new friend, His heart of sympathy for them was obvious . You can’t show sympathy for someone unless you listen to their situation and discover areas in which they are seeking help or support. Once you listen, Christ-like compassion causes you to sympathize with their needs—even if those needs differ from the purposes you initially have to share a message of truth with them.
“He ministered to their needs.”
#4 – When we have both heard and listened—when we have allowed the needs of the other to become central to our interaction with them—we bend our efforts to actually bring the support, encouragement, or assistance that they need. We may initially understand their need as the thing we have in our hand—the book, the Bible study, the sermon—but Christ-like other-centeredness causes us to take their prompts and enter by the door that they have opened. This is where as followers of Jesus we learn to lay down our lives and take up the crosses others bear.. This is where we learn to bear the burdens of the weak, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
“He won their confidence.”
#5 – If the relationship has been growing through the method Christ employed, you will have won the confidence and laid the foundation for a relationship. You will have truly helped them with something they consider important, and thus actually ministered to them. The other now believes that you have their best interests at heart, that you have put them and their interests before your own. This is profound—the stuff that moves the world! They will need to know what motivates you to do this.
…Then He bade them, “Follow Me.” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 143)
#6 – If you have discovered joy in following Jesus, it will be natural to tell another broken sinner where you have found healing and salvation. You aren’t winning them to you, or adding to the trophies in some Witnessing Hall of Fame. You are sharing the unmistakable delight that always moves you to both praise and gratitude.
“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
It is this love, this grace from Christ that allows you to invite a new disciple to share the journey with you. “Come, follow Him,” you say to them. “Come, walk with me, as I follow Him.” Your commitment to walk and talk and pray with one just starting on the journey is the tangible relationship they can see as they build a friendship with the Lord they cannot see.
“There is need of coming close to the people by personal effort. If less time were given to sermonizing, and more time were spent in personal ministry, greater results would be seen. The poor are to be relieved, the sick cared for, the sorrowing and the bereaved comforted, the ignorant instructed, the inexperienced counseled. We are to weep with those that weep, and rejoice with those that rejoice. Accompanied by the power of persuasion, the power of prayer, the power of the love of God, this work will not, cannot, be without fruit” (The Ministry of Healing, 143).
“When we love the world as He has loved it, then for us His mission is accomplished. We are fitted for heaven; for we have heaven in our hearts” (Desire of Ages, 641)
Jesus offers us both a method and metric for assessing our discipleship. If we insist on being disciples according to our own preferences and markers, we will miss the footprints that we claim to be following. Tens of thousands—millions—who could be following Jesus will end up wandering on desolate paths that lead to sadness and destruction.
If we choose other ways to go about what we insist is His mission, we are on a path of our own choosing, not on the path He trod—and we will continue to lament the losses that the Spirit never intended.
If we measure other things—even good things—more than we measure obedience to “Christ’s method alone,” we are simply inventing games at which we think we can win.
It’s time we aligned our discipleship with #ChristsMetricAlone.
I would love to continue the discussion – Twitter: @thurmon or firstname.lastname@example.org