What shall it profit a man if he reaches the whole world, yet neglects his neighbor living next door? – Someone
I have not done an official survey, but my guess is that if you were to ask Seventh-day Adventists living in North America if they were friends with their neighbors, something like 90% of them would say they weren’t.
Think about it. Are you friends with your neighbors? Had them over for dinner? Been to their house for a party?
Of course, there is a decreased “neighborliness” in society in general, Adventist or not, but this shouldn’t get us off the hook—the Christians that we are.
After all, have you read the second great commandment lately? We sometimes fly by its individual parts in an attempt to appreciate the sum total. How did Jesus put it? “You,” He announced to the questioning lawyer, “shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, emphasis added).
We might notice the “love” part, though fall infinitely short of practicing it; but what about the “neighbor” part? Might there be a literal interpretation of “neighbor” that we have overlooked?
Seventh-day Adventists have been given a monumental task: we have been called to spread the three angels’ messages “to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Revelation 14:7). We believe that when “this gospel of the kingdom [shall] be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations . . . then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
And we’ve organized ourselves around this task, pumping millions of dollars into reaching the world with this gospel. History demonstrates this. From its inception, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been at the cutting edge of mass media, producing magazines and journals that go around the world, radio programs that reach millions (including those in dark corners of the globe), and satellite television channels that anyone can find while sitting in their living room or grass hut. And now, with the proliferation of the internet, we’re producing a great variety of top-shelf content that can hurdle borders and reach billions.
This is all well and good—and needed. We should utilize every resource at our disposal to reach as many as we can. However, there are a few drawbacks to such an emphasis.
To begin with, we have perhaps assumed that our primary task is to get the information about the gospel and three angels’ messages to the whole world. When we read that “this gospel” must be “preached in all the world,” we assume it means we simply need to blitzkrieg the airwaves with intellectual statements about the gospel—and then, once people encounter that information, they have thus fully encountered the gospel, are now accountable to it, and our task is done.
I’m not so sure this is what the verse means or what our task is, however. In fact, lately I’ve been wondering about whether people have fully encountered “the truth” if it has not been embodied in someone. Human beings are not disembodied minds; thus, if I merely encounter an intellectual idea but have not encountered it in an embodied form, I’ve not encountered it in its totality—and therefore have not rejected it in its totality if I don’t embrace its intellectual presentation of it.
When Jesus spoke of “truth,” He pointed to Himself and said “I am . . . the truth” (John 14:6). Truth is personal, and our task is not complete if we merely proclaim truth but do not demonstrate it—and all the worse if we proclaim it but contradict it through our demonstration.
Ellen White was pretty clear about this. Speaking about our mission in these last days, she declared that “the last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of His character of love. The children of God are to manifest His glory. In their own life and character they are to reveal what the grace of God has done for them” (Christ’s Object Lessons, pg. 415). Notice! The last “message of mercy” that is to go to the world is not simply words we proclaim but a “revelation of His character of love.” We are to “manifest His glory” and through our lives and characters to “reveal what the grace of God has done for” us.
This can’t be done via a satellite series or a Facebook post—as wonderful as those are. A “revelation” is something that is seen and encountered. People need to not only hear the truth in order to be accountable to it; they also need to see it.
Such an idea is further bolstered by another thought from Ellen White. “Hanging upon the cross,” she writes, “Christ was the gospel” (6BC, pg. 1113). The gospel is a Person—and if it is to truly saturate the whole world, it can’t be disembodied; it must be lived out. Yes, of course—it will also be proclaimed, but not apart from demonstration.
Which leads to the second drawback: this whole thing about our neighbors. We pump millions of dollars into mass media to reach the world, but often to the neglect the world right next door to us. We will fly thousands of miles to put on a series of meetings in the developing world, but drive right by the very people God has placed us next to—when all the while what He’s really eager for us to do is to demonstrate the gospel to those in our spheres, not simply have it proclaimed by proxy.
It’s understandable in many ways. When Evangelist X is preaching his heart out to thousands of people over the airwaves—and I can even watch him from the comfort of my own couch via the online feed—what need do I have to get my hands dirty and do the hard work of getting to know and investing in my neighbors? He’s got it covered!
At the same time, we as Seventh-day Adventists believe we have a message of urgency. We don’t have time to sit around and make friends with people. The end is coming soon. And who has the patience to go through the hard work of investing in people? Instead, just hand them a tract and move on to the next target!
But it’s not that simple. After all, have you ever read what Ellen White says about our responsibility to our neighbors? It’s pretty exhaustive!
Notice, for example, what she writes in that missional classic, Ministry of Healing: “We should feel it our special duty to work for those living in our neighborhood,” she insists. “Study how you can best help those who take no interest in religious things. As you visit your friends and neighbors, show an interest in their spiritual as well as in their temporal welfare. . . . Invite your neighbors to your home, and read with them from the precious Bible and from books that explain its truths. . . . Church members should educate themselves to do this work” (pg. 152).
Even more directly, she proclaims, “Upon every converted soul rests the responsibility of laboring for the salvation of men. It is your privilege to visit your neighbors and become light-bearers to your community. This personal effort will accomplish a precious work, and will meet the approbation of Heaven” (Review and Herald, March 13, 1888).
Again, she quite critically extols, “It is not for you to sit and listen to discourse after discourse, feeling content to do nothing, making no use of the word you hear, and often criticizing the ministers. Go to work, helping on the right hand and on the left. Visit your neighbors in a friendly way, and become acquainted with them. Use every favorable opportunity, in co-operation with the heavenly agencies, to draw them under Christ’s banner. . . . The Lord has a work for everyone to do” (Review and Herald, May 13, 1902).
Poignantly, she declares, “There are many who should be working for the Master. My brother, my sister, what are you doing for Christ? Are you seeking to be a blessing to others? . . . Are you putting forth earnest efforts to win others to the Savior? Are your hearts filled with a determination to work for your neighbors? Visit those who live near you, and by sympathy and kindness reach their hearts” (Review and Herald, December 1, 1910).
Lastly, she shares this sobering warning: “There are many who need the ministration of loving Christian hearts. Many have gone down to ruin who might have been saved if their neighbors, common men and women, had put forth personal effort for them. Many are waiting to be personally addressed. In the very family, the neighborhood, the town, where we live, there is work for us to do as missionaries for Christ. If we are Christians, this work will be our delight. No sooner is one converted than there is born within him a desire to make known to others what a precious friend he has found in Jesus. The saving and sanctifying truth cannot be shut up in his heart” (The Desire of Ages, pg. 141).
The evidence is abundantly clear: our primary mission, after our own families, is to reach out and bless our neighbors, and introduce them to Christ.
Ironically, while we as Seventh-day Adventists have long buried this counsel and focused on mass evangelism where only a few professionals do the witnessing while the rest sit passively, there is a whole movement within the wider Christian world that has recognized the need to return to this primitive and authentic form of mission. Just peruse Amazon and you’ll notice such book titles as The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door and Next Door As It Is In Heaven: Living Out God’s Kingdom in Your Neighborhood.
Sadly, as so often seems to be the case with much of our mission, Adventism has become the tail and not the head—despite having this counsel long before anyone else did.
But it need not always be the case. We truly have a global mission; however, that global mission will only be accomplished when we take seriously the command to love our neighbors as ourselves—which means truly investing in and blessing them—and reach the world one house at a time. Only then we will witness exponential growth. There is truly no other way to do it—no other way for the whole world to encounter the “revelation of God’s character of love.”
So instead of focusing on mass evangelism, perhaps it’s time to focus our best energies on mini-evangelism, one person at a time.