by Gordon H. Swanson
How can we close the gap between the first sowing of the seed in a new town and the establishment of a church? That was the question that plagued us during our first two terms of service.
How can we close the gap between the first sowing of the seed in a new town and the establishment of a church? That was the question that plagued us during our first two terms of service. Missionaries are often experts in sowing the seed; we found it difficult to reap the harvest. Tent evangelism was our answer. Here is a way of teaching the truth progressively over a long enough period of time so men can make an intelligent decision in large enough numbers to see a church established almost at the outset. We have followed this technique in seven towns now.
Take Tanauan, the capital of Batangas Province, thirty miles south of Manila. When the Far Eastern Gospel Crusade language school moved to this town of 35,000 people, we were the first resident missionaries. Four years my wife and I, along with the language students, did extensive seed sowing throughout the area. We saw no results. We held small Bible classes in our homes, but there was not one open profession of faith.
Finally we felt it was God’s time for the harvest. We held a six-week tent campaign. This was followed up lay two weeks of classes for converts. These babies did not yet have the qualities of elders and deacons, but they elected a temporary committee. We began a Sunday school with new converts teaching the classes. My wife and I taught them during the week; they taught on Sunday. This forced them to the forefront. They wanted a preacher; they called a young student from Far Eastern Bible Institute and Seminary to come down weekends. They leased a piece of ground and put up a small chapel. Within seven months after the tent meetings closed, a church was established.
WHY DOES IT WORK?
First, we thought it met a special need in the Orient. Second, we adapted certain tested patterns of evangelism to our own particular needs. The people of the Philippines have a measure of truth, but religion without power. Therefore the spiritual climate of the Philippines is open to the Gospel, but
the closely knit family and group ties make it almost impossible for an individual to make a decision. Our desire was to bring a number of souls to birth at one time. This would spread out persecution, instead of concentrating it on isolated individuals. It would provide the inspiration and nucleus for a church at once. It would take advantage of the natural desire to identify with a group. When a new convert becomes isolated from his former friends, he can become very dependent upon the missionary. A cross-section of the community finding Christ at one time would mean he could identify with other Christians apart from the missionary himself.
LET’S TALK ABOUT TECHNIQUE
We found a tent has advantages over renting a building be cause the meeting place is then in the hands of the teaching group. The people are our guests in our meeting and therefore are more orderly and quiet. Also, there is no previous cannotation to the building, such as a hall or theater, that would lead to an atmosphere unconducive to reverence.
We have tried to sow the seed over a broad area so we can sense where the wind of the Spirit is blowing, then discern the town and the time where He wants to establish a church. We start to prepare the ground by distributing tracts house to house several times. This means you become known in the town and trusted. It may take months. Seed sowing requires patience, but this preparation pays bountiful harvest.
We also alert our prayer constituency at home, so complete concentration of prayer forces may be focused on the town. We have found that once an aggressive attempt is made to open a witness in a new town, Satan will stop at nothing to block the Word of God. Literally hundreds of people have prayed for a town by name for months and even years before we have entered.
The situation in each town determines our strategy. Where there is opposition we work quietly in Bible classes with people who will open their homes. In othercases, we start outdoor meetings in various sections of the town or neighboring villages to create interest. We are careful to teach only the Word of God and never attack other religions. The town is ready when there are persons who are saying, "Their teachings are good," even though they may not be ready to commit themselves to the Gospel. At this stage we try to determine a location for the tent and secure permission to hold meetings. We look for a location that is on the right side of the tracks; prominent enough to be noticed, yet far enough away from traffic and noise to avoid distraction.
Having a tent that will hold 500 people in a small town is quite an event. Consequently we can be assured of an almost captive audience. If we go into the town cold, it is especially important that the campaign be long enough to give them an intelligent understanding of the Gospel. We consider a month a minimum, six weeks is good.
WHERE CAN WE GET SPEAKERS?
We have found some of the best results are not from big name evangelists – names mean nothing to unsaved people or from older workers who have set preaching habits. We use young pastors, workers, and even church elders who are willing to take their place as members of a team and preach according to the suggested overall plan. This way we can take turns in helping, and not take any one of them away from his responsibilities for an extended period of time. On several occasions churches from other towns have sent their own lay people, along with rice and food for them, as their contribution to the campaign. These lay people are an essential part of the team, not only on the platform but as personal workers. Welding this group together as workers is the key to the success of the campaign. God has done as much for us as a team as He has for the town. At least one couple has gone into full-time church planting work through such an experience.
THE CLIMATE OF THE CAMPAIGN
Since our goal is to establish a church here, from the outset we look for converts from every level of society. The preparation must have provided a climate that makes it conducive for people of every walk of life to take part, and the campaign itself must be carried on in dignity. The level on which you work depends upon the size and social structure of the town. Our towns are 10,000 to 30,000 people. We use a large tent, a public address system, lights, musical instruments, and visual aids.
Fifteen minutes before the meeting we play martial music over outside amplifiers. We use the National Anthem, secular marches, and "Stand Up For Jesus" just before the meeting is about to begin. Once it starts, we use only the amplifiers inside the tent so people must come in to hear. All lights are turned off inside the tent except on the platform so people can slip in unobserved. This also cuts down distraction and draws attention to the speaker.
Filipinos love to sing. We make large song sheets out of white cloth and suspend them above the platform so everyone can follow along. Books are unnecessary and every eye is on the song leader. They memorize easily. Throughout the day we hear groups of children singing these Gospel songs as they play in the streets. It is some of the best advertising we could have!
You have to adjust to the culture of the country and to local habits. The Filipino people are a happy lot. We try to keep order, but we do not allow ourselves to get annoyed when people go in and out of the meeting. It is a Filipino custom to chew tobacco or betelnut, so they go outside to spit. We try to keep a fast moving program to avoid distraction. Even so, there may be some confusion and disorder, but we do not tolerate blasphemy in the meetings. Once when a man blasted out against the speaker, he was quietly and soberly rebuked. The next day the man was hit by a car and killed. The effect was almost electric through the town.
If in the opening meetings of the campaign onlychildren and young people come, the prestige people of the town won’t attend. Therefore we often conduct children’s meetings first, to make room for the adults and avoid some of the confusion and distraction.
We strive to capitalize on the Filipinos’ love for music by getting the best solos, duets, choir, and instrumental numbers we can find. The song service includes personal testimonies and a question and answer period. This is most interesting. Many times people wait breathlessly when some delicate question comes up. We promise to answer any question that is written and given to us the day before. None will be answered from the floor. I recall a young Bible school student answering the question, "Is it sin to worship idols?" He said, "What does the Bible call worship? What does the Bible call sin? What does the Bible call idols?" You could sense the acceptance of the authority of the Word of God by the crowd.
DO WE EVER HAVE OPPOSITION?
We often face opposition. Consequently, we keep the program flexible. For example, when people cause disturbances or throw stones, we immediately switch to a rousing song to settle the crowd down. If you have won the affection and esteem of the town you may find, as we did in Marinduque, the chief of police is a part of the tent team! Whenever the tent got noisy he stopped the meeting with a blast from his whistle. His personal presence not only helped us, but him he found Christ the last night.
We use audio-visual materials even for the main Bible message. The purpose is to relax the defense mechanism of the hearers and produce inducement for sustained listening. Usually no part of the program lasts longer than fifteen minutes, with a change in voice taking place each time. This accounts for our needing a team instead of one evangelist, but it also requires discipline. In spite of all the visual aids, we never use them as entertainment. They are correlated into one message impact for that night.
We often use super-sized flannel graph or scene-o-felt. Chalk drawings are breath-taking preparation for the message which follows, with rotating colored lights focused on the drawing. Even an amateur artist with some preparation and good equipment can make an impressive presentation. Can you imagine the gasp that comes from the audience when Sodom and Gormorrah burst into flames with the use of black light? Then, the preacher speaks on "Remember Lot’s Wife."
The secret of success is not in the media used but the message, which is not only biblical but often deeply doctrinal.
Perhaps you could say we use evangelistic teaching rather than preaching to help hearers obtain the knowledge necessary to make a meaningful decision. This is always a systematic presentation of Bible truths. In a six-week campaign, during the opening two weeks we present basic truth that cannot be contested: the facts of God, creation, sin, and redemption, using Old Testament heroes. Each night we include corresponding teachings from the life of Christ. The second two weeks we present truth to bring consciousness of sin, and understanding of what Christ offers in salvation, and how to appropriate it. We use a series of ten nights on the Ten
Commandments along with messages on grace and faith. The third two weeks we try to show Christ as the answer to life’s problems and the urgency of receiving Him.
Usually no invitation is given until there is visible evidence of God’s working in the hearts o£ the hearers. Sometimes we wait more than a month for this. The Philippines is great fishing country. Consequently, we have learned in fishing for souls to draw the net slowly to allow many people time to realize their personal need rather than to ask for decisions one at a time. Our approach is to draw the net slowly enough so those who are ready to accept Christ will, but the rest of the town will not have to reject Him. When we leave the town there will be adivision because of the Gospel. We know this is going to happen and we are happy when it does. But we want to keep the hearts and the homes of the people open, so that the new Christians themselves will be able to reach them.
The call for decision is not high-pressured. We don’t ask for any hand-showing in front of non-Christian neighbors. Rather, anyone who wants to be saved is asked to stay after the others have gone home. Those who are ready to accept Christ can slip into one of the new convert classes that run for fifteen minutes each night. First timers are taken to the front of the tent on one side and personally counselled; those who have accepted the Lord on previous nights on the other side. Each time a new one joins the second group he is asked to give a testimony. This can be very simple – only one sentence. The contagiousness of this within the group was expressed by one dear old lady who came to my wife and said, "They told me my salvation would not be real until I told someone else, so I am telling you. I did accept Christ."
During this time there is no attempt to ask new converts to take a public stand. . We have seen too many public presentations of new converts who a month later couldn’t be found for follow-up. We want fall-out cured before it becomes conspicuous. We never ask them to identify themselves publicly before they have done it privately. Consequently, they come forward and find numbers of their neighbors and friends have taken this same stand. The decisiveness of their decision helps develop this group consciousness; they are a select group who have made a profession of faith.
However, by the time the meetings are over we want the town to have a clear testimony of all of those who have accepted Christ. On the closing night we turn on all of the lights in the tent. We tell the public we want them to see those who have personally accepted Christ and are ready to declare Him before this community. Only converts who have counted the cost will take such a stand. If they do, you have a proven corps for the church from the outset.
HOW TO CONSERVE RESULTS
Once the campaign is over we capitalize immediately upon the interest that has been created in the town. We hold Bible classes each night if possible for two or three weeks immediately following the campaign. These can be held in the tent if there is no other place; however, we place the responsibility upon converts for finding a meeting place, because the tent is going on to the next campaign shortly. Here is another advantage of using a tent rather than a rented hall.
Follow-up meetings we have found draw other believers and unbelievers as well as the new converts. We normally use a book study of the Bible during these classes to start them handling the Word for themselves. Picture this group reading Paul’s letter to his new church in Corinth. How applicable to some of the problems they are going to face. "Some of you will say I am of Alanso (the evangelist) because he is eloquent. Some of you will say I am of Chavis (a believer before the campaign) because he is from this place. Some of you will say I am of Swanson, because he is an Americans and American’s are very rich!"
No matter what form the Bible study takes we keep it formal, take roll, mimeograph lesson sheets they can take home, give examinations, and award certificates at the close of the classes. Apart from the instruction, the fact that they meet as a group immediately gives them a feeling of belonging to each other. They begin to think of their mutual needs, joint responsibilities, a church building, a pastor, who will conduct meetings and so forth. There is a feeling of interdependence from the outset rather than dependence upon a missionary or worker.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTERWARDS?
Let’s talk about Tanauan again. The first four years we lived there we had to originate all activity. Contrast with that conditions after the campaign. For the next year and a half there were not enough hours in the day to follow up all of the contacts the believers wanted us to visit. Perhaps the most encouraging incident came at the time of our furlough. New Christians asked us what we were going to do when we returned to the Philippines. We said we would probably go to another town and start again. "No," they said, "we want you to come back and work with us." We objected because they now had a pastor, a church, and were functioning without a foreign missionary. They answered, "We want you to bring a tent so we can have one of our own here in Tanauan. While you are on furlough we will sow the seed in the whole northern section of this province. When you return you can reap the harvest."
This is exactly what has happened. We brought back a tent when we returned last year. While we were gone the Christians from Tanauan reached out in three other towns surrounding this provincial capital. Right now we are in a campaign in a town of 24,000 people. The Tanauan Christians have covered the town four times with tracts. They have sown the seed; we look to God now for a harvest.
We began tent evangelism with a view toward producing the church. It is now our privilege to work with this church in tent evangelism to produce others. Our conclusion? Converts from evangelistic campaigns are conserved only if the campaign itself involves them in further evangelistic responsibility. Try it!
EMQ, Jan. 1965, pp. 39-46. Copyright © 1965 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.