“The Evangelism Mandate”
Historical and Present Distinctives of the Bible Fellowship Church
Address to the Ninety-Third Annual Conference
October 12, 1976
By Daniel Ziegler
We are gathered this week for the Ninety-third Annual Conference, which is actually the ninety-seventh yearly gathering of the denomination. Before 1830, conferences were held semi-annually there having been 43 of them beginning in 1858. Our present numbering of the Annual Conference dates from the 1883 General Conference, at which the Mennonite Brethren in Christ name was adopted.
The earliest history of the denomination is shrouded in obscurity. Year-books, containing the proceedings of the Annual Conferences and the statistical and financial records of the churches, were not published before 1896.
That evangelism was a distinctive of the Church from its start might be inferred from the fact that we originated in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, when the Holy Spirit moved in saving power all over this land. This is borne out by the fact that the fledgling group chose the name Evangelical Mennonite.
The Discipline of 1905 contained a brief historical sketch on the "Origin of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ." It begins, "Through the direction of God and the instrumentality of the Holy Ghost, a number of ministers of the Mennonite Church were brought to realize and deeply feel the responsibility weighing upon them, as the ambassadors for Christ, and were from time to time seriously impressed with convictions that greater and more earnest efforts should be put forth to promote the glory of God and build up His Zion on earth, by extending the borders of the Church, and practically carrying out the principles of Christianity." (Doctrine and Discipline, 1905, page 5)
Among the invaluable fragments of the history of these very early days, are some historical sketches that C. H. Brunner incorporated into the Yearbook from time to time during the 39 years that he served as its editor. The earliest leaders were among his relatives and his contemporaries. In 1917 he wrote, "About the year 1856 or 1857 a little company of Christians...belonging to a Church located near Zionsville, Pa., were put out of church because they persisted in holding prayer meetings contrary to the orders of the bishop."
"This little band continued prayer meetings in their homes, built a church in 1858, held revival meetings in different places upon which churches sprung up here and there." (1917 Yearbook, pages 57-58)
In the 1921 Yearbook, Brother Brunner expanded a bit: "A few years later several of these families ... by the permission of the bishops, commenced to hold prayer meetings in their homes. These were greatly blessed of God. Next year the bishops, however, revoked this privilege.
"But the converting power of the grace of God had begun to operate in the community. The prayer meetings were continued, resulting in the formation of a new body ... called the Evangelical Mennonites." (1921 Yearbook, page 34)
In 1865 four of the brethren were appointed to draw up a Church Discipline. That work by William Gehman, David Henning, Eusebius Hickey and Joseph L. Romig, was published in 1867. They recounted the start of the group as follows:
"Through the convincing grace of God and the direction of several converted and pious Mennonite Preachers called of God and a number of their members, they united themselves in the year of our Lord 1853 in order to pray with and for one another. Their number increased - many that attended the meetings became awakened and deeply convicted of their sinful condition and found peace in the wounds of Jesus.
"In order to carry on this work properly they appointed Sabbath afternoon and evening to be spent with one another in prayer and religious exercises, prayer meetings once a week, family worship to be held in every family as also protracted meetings for a time, where the Word was preached every evening in purity and power.
"The number of those who attended increased and such who received the Word felt sorrow and repentance for their sins, were born again, willing to lay down a true confession before God and men and were baptized, were added to the society." (Church Discipline, 1867, page 34.)
While it is clear that evangelism was the major distinctive of the church at its start, the early brethren did not write articles or statements about it. Then, as until very recently, they assumed evangelism as being biblically urgent in its incumbency on all regenerated people. The evangelistic mission of the Church has never been as clearly or explicitly articulated among us as it is in the article adopted last year, which will be considered in its second reading by this Conference. (1975 Yearbook, pages 18-20) Assuming as I do that we all agree that the Bible teaches the importance and urgency of evangelism, I do not propose to treat the biblical data in this message.
It is my thesis that a commitment to evangelism has always been a distinctive of our Church in principle. There have been two periods, however, when our practice of evangelism has lagged behind our declared belief. I should like to develop this by examining four characteristics of a genuine commitment to the evangelistic task—both in theory and practice.
1. A Commitment to Evangelism Means Preaching the Gospel with Urgency.
Among the biblical data, this urgency is most explicitly declared by the Apostle Paul. The Gospel is a precious treasure entrusted to us to be delivered to lost men. We who have received it from God are under obligation, not only to Him but to those for whom it has been entrusted to us. The Gospel is a deposit which is to be guarded and delivered.
Because life on earth in time is tenuous and tentative for both the lost person who needs to hear and the believer who must deliver that message, the Gospel is doubly urgent.
The urgency is compounded again by the fact of the Lord's return, which may be very soon. These three elements of urgency—the obligation we have to deliver a precious treasure entrusted to us, the brevity and fragility of mortal life and the coming again of the Lord Jesus—are amply and frequently demonstrated in our statements throughout our history. Brother Robert Johnson will develop the last of these on Thursday morning. Now, when this urgency is truly owned there will be a practical urgency in doing the work of evangelism. Where and when the Gospel is widely proclaimed with urgent persistence, there will, I believe, be response which will eventuate in the growth of the Church.
2. A Commitment to Evangelism Means Taking the Gospel to the People, Outside of the Walls of the Church Building
We begin now to consider the means of evangelism. The first was the home prayer meeting in which, as we have seen, people were converted. That this continued to be true in times of evangelistic warmth and activity is confirmed by W. G. Gehman's report to the 1923 Annual Conference, that "Cottage prayer meetings are well attended and are the means of some souls being saved." (1923 Yearbook, page 38)
Some of the other means of evangelism in the early days are mentioned in Article II under "General Rules" in the 1905 Discipline, titled "Special or Protracted Meetings." "In Addition to the regular appointments for public worship we make special efforts in the way of protracted meetings for the awakening and conversion of sinners and sanctification of believers. We believe these to be the most efficient means available to this end, when entered into in the spirit of faith. In addition to these we encourage the opening of new missions in halls or other places in the various cities and towns where the Gospel may be preached every night in the year. We also recommend the holding of street, grove, tabernacle and camp meetings." (Doctrine and Discipline, 1905, page 34)
Protracted meetings were usually held at one location for many successive evenings. Perhaps the fact that the early fathers viewed them as "the most efficient means available to (the) end" of the conversion of sinners accounts for its longevity among us. In 1904, Brother Brunner reported to Conference, "We have two young men at each mission, and they hold services every evening in the halls and open air every evening during the year if possible, and in the daytime they visit from house to house." He went on to observe, "This is not an easy work ... Our work will never be large, as the workers, in course of time enter into the regular ministry of the church." (1904 Yearbook, pages 6-7) In 1922, W. G. Gehman reported, "The missions throughout are well attended, considering the fact that services were held almost nightly throughout the whole year. The results are commensurate with the sacrifices made." (1922 Yearbook, page 36) The beginning of the mission in Staten Island, in 1935-36, was by the same method—meetings every night in the hall at 479 Richmond Avenue in Port Richmond.
Camp meetings were used as a means of taking the Gospel to the people. In 1903, in an address to the Ministerial Convention, R. Bergstresser stated, "A camp meeting should be conducted by the Presiding Elder or one appointed by him who is very spiritual and should be for no other purpose than for the salvation of souls." (1903 Yearbook, page 41) The first camp meetings were held at Chestnut Hill, near Coopersburg, with several thousands in attendance at some of the meetings. Best known and most frequently used camp meeting locations were Mizpah Grove in Allentown and Edgewood Grove in Shamokin. Some of the other locations, for the purpose of bringing the Gospel to the people, were Weissport, Watnutport, Wescoesville, Waldheim, Macungie, Mohnsville, Neffsville, Northampton, Sunbury, Spring City, Rittersville, Royersford, Catasauqua, Quakertown, Hellertown, Harrisburg, Easton, Reading, and Annandale, New Jersey. Some of these led to the founding of new churches.
The 1896 Annual Conference, in typical Pennsylvania Dutch fashion, passed a resolution that "the Presiding Elder shall be allowed to hold camp meetings wherever he sees fit—providing he sees that the expenses will be paid—as in former years." (1896 Yearbook, page 13)
Another way that the Gospel was to be taken to the lost was by means of pastoral visitation. Perhaps this was what the same 1896 Conference had in mind when it appropriated $80.00 for the Quakertown mission, "on condition that he moves to the field (Pastor George A. Campbell lived in Pleasant Valley) and devotes his spare time to Evangelistic work."(1896 Yearbook, page 14) In 1900, the Committee on Examination of Travelling Elders reported to the Conference, "We examined all the travelling elders and found no charges against them, with the exception of three, who were too careless in visiting." (1900 Yearbook, page 6)
Tabernacle meetings were a very effective means of evangelism. These tent meetings were a staple in evangelism until very recent years. The reports of the Presiding Elders regularly noted their locations and successes. The first 40 Yearbooks mention at least 38 locations where tent meetings were conducted. | Some of these locations may surprise you, such as, Salfordville, Souderton, East Mauch Chunk, Pottstown, Bath, Pen Argyl, Phoenixville, Vernfield, East Greenville, Palmerton, New Mahoning, Girardville in Pennsylvania and Newark, Broadway, Greenville, Netcong, Phillipsburg and Trenton in New Jersey. Presiding Elder H. B. Musselman reported to General Conference in 1904 that the statistics from Pennsylvania were not complete "on account of the tabernacle work being so successful just at this time, we thought it was too early to hold our Annual Conference before General Conference." (1904 General Conference Journal, page 6)
Literature distribution was one of the premier means of evangelism. In an 1899 essay for the Ministerial Convention, W. G. Gehman stated that the home missionary "should be courageous, full of faith and the Holy Ghost, and very active. He should preach and teach and shine and scatter literature, always praying for himself and the work. He should always be doing good." (1899 Yearbook, page 8) In 1922. Brother Gehman reported, "Much literature has been disposed of (sold and given away by the Gospel Herald Society) in spite of financial stringency. The selling of Bibles and Testaments, and other spiritual books, the Gospel Herald, Daily Food Wall Rolls, and wall mottoes is a good missionary work and seed-sowing among us..." (1922 Yearbook, page 36) That year the Heralds "disposed of" over 94,000 Gospel Herald magazines, and in 1919, 111,588 Gospel Heralds were sold. As you may know, this was, in part, what launched the Union Gospel Press in Cleveland, Ohio, which was born out of the Mennonite Brethen in Christ Church under the leadership of W. B. Musselman, who remained in fellowship with the Church until his death in 1938.
In addition to helping the Church to reach new people and sowing the Gospel seed broadly, the literature sales helped the workers to subsist. Brother Gehman, in 1928, said of the start of the mission in Newark, New Jersey, "The brethren toil nobly in colportage work and this with the offerings makes the mission practically self-supporting from the start." (1928 Yearbook, page 44)
In the May 15, 1922 edition of the Eastern Gospel Banner, H. B. Musselman wrote about "Open-Air Preaching":
"How much time and energy is wasted in preaching the Gospel to those who do not need it, and to empty benches, while the multitudes for whom God intends it, hear it not. Buildings and halls are not the only places to preach God's Word in. What multitudes of sinners never are reached through these channels! 'The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which is lost.' If we would be in the succession of our Blessed Master, we also must go and seek them, and for this we must go where they are found. Jesus reached the individual as well as the multitudes at the sea-shore and by the way-side.
"The people will not come into our church' is a common saying, and why should we largely expect them to do so? Our commission is to 'GO' and to ‘GO OUT' and more, to 'GO OUT QUICKLY!'
"The writer of this article, while serving his last appointed charge, was privileged to hold nightly services for eighteen successive months, with regular open-air several times each week, with most blessed results. It is not for us to say when and how our brethren should carry the Gospel Message to the thirsty whosoevers, but we know no better methods than to meet the wayfarer in the highways and byways, and in the crowded residential parts of the towns and villages. There are thousands who never enter a building to hear the Word of God, and who can be thus reached... Let us not neglect the open-air work, in these days when the churches are in many instances filled only with empty benches."
Brother Musselman ended his article with a quote from John Wesley, "The want of field-preaching has been the cause of deadness here. I do not find any great increase in the work of God without it." (Eastern Gospel Banner, May 15, 1922, p. 148 (4))
In 1901, C. H. Brunner reported that "Large crowds are easily gathered in open air to hear the Gospel, and many get saved and filled with the Spirit." (1901 Yearbook, page 12) In 1905, W. B. Musselman reported that the Gospel Worker Society had conducted 3,200 open air meetings "during fairs or shows often, in various towns." (1904 Yearbook, page 13) W. G. Gehman reported in 1905, "Open air meetings are held at each place on this district and are attended regularly by a number of outside people. These have been the means of bringing some people into the church." (1915 Yearbook, page 52) Brother Gehman's statement at the 1922 Conference seems to indicate some diminution in the use of the open air meeting: "Where open air meetings could be held the results were glorious." (1922 Yearbook, page 36) Three years later, H. B. Musselman reported, "Open air meetings have been held, but on account of traffic conditions, they have been hindered at different places." (1925 Yearbook, page 42) In 1931, Brother Gehman wrote, "Easton and Wissinoming and West Philadelphia still hold open air meetings in spite of the crowded streets, with excellent results." (1931 Yearbook, pages 34-35)
I grew up in the Hatfield church. When I was a child the church was very small and was despised by the community who derisively called it "Little Heaven." People said we were "holy rollers." I vividly recall our open-air meetings. One evening each week we would hold forth in "beautiful downtown Hatfield", with little apparent response. Another evening each week we would go somewhere else for an open air meeting. One of these places was the village of Sumneytown, which was reputed to be a particularly wicked community. As I recall, it had several bar rooms, but no church of any type. We were not kindly received by the natives. One night some half-drunken men threatened to overturn our cars, and approached them to make their promise good. One woman, a believer, from Sumneytown, used to join with the group. Her husband was a rank unbeliever, who violently objected to having his wife join the hated Christians. One night he forbade her to go to the meeting. Reiterating his warning, he menacingly stood his shotgun beside the door as he left to go down to the tavern. The sister defied his warning and attended the meeting, from which she could look across the street and see her husband on the porch of the hotel. Perhaps through fear of him, she was stricken with a heart attack during the meeting. Two or three of the women of our church sat with her through that night until she breathed her last and went into the presence of the Lord Jesus.
You approach Sumneytown from the south by descending a long hill. It was while coming over the crest of that hill and down into the village that I learned, through hearing my parents sing it each week, "There'll be no dark valley when Jesus comes."
Later on, in my teen years, we went to the various farmers' markets in the area—Gilbertsville, Quakertown, Pottstown, Keystone and others, where we gave out tracts and spoke our testimonies over a portable P.A. system. We would gather to roll "tract bombs", covered with colored cellophane, to throw out of the bus when we went to a youth rally somewhere or to visit one of our home missions in Trenton, Glendale, Queens or Roxboro, Philadelphia. Later still we took our Sunday evening services out of doors each summer to Memorial Park in nearby Lansdale, where we presented a good musical program and our pastor, William A. Heffner, would preach clear evangelistic messages. Attendances at the park were excellent and souls were saved. These overt, forthright evangelistic endeavors put some spiritual backbone into the Hatfield young people of that era and were probably a factor in seeing a large percentage of them go into missionary and pastoral service.
About the time that the open air meeting began to decline as a primary outreach in the usage of many churches, another effective means came along. The first mention of radio as a vehicle for evangelism came at the 1927 or 1928 Annual Conference. H. B. Musselman reported that "the word preached over the radio has brought in a great response and the thousands of tisteners-in are eagerly awaiting the messages sent forth over station WCBA." (1928 Yearbook, page 42) That station was, for a time, housed at Mizpah Grove. In 1929, Brother Musselman reported, “The radio services at the Camp Meetings brought forth a good response, and were listened to by thousands. The regular broadcasting over station WCBA continues to increase in fruitfulness and is to our mind a great channel in reaching the many thousands with a message from God's Word." (1929 Yearbook, page 34)
Bethel Church in Allentown was popularly known as "the Radio Church." W. G. Gehman also reported in 1929, "The leaders of the Harrisburg, Pa. and Newark, N.J. missions render programs by radio regularly with quite direct results." (1929 Yearbook, page 37) E. J. Rutman, while he served at both Harrisburg and Lebanon, was one of the pioneer radio preachers. The 1933 Yearbook reported "as many as 3,682 letters have been received from one program." (1933 Yearbook, page 36)
In 1930, H. B. Musselman made his longest statement, in a report to Conference about the radio ministry. "The Radio messages which are being broadcast, at quite a sacrifice, reaching the thousands everywhere in both rural and city homes, and practically covering a large portion of the district, have not been without good fruitage. It appears to us that this is a latter-day means of reaching the many who could doubtless not be brought in touch with the glorious Gospel otherwise. We know of no less expensive or of a more successful way to reach the many needy in all communities to serve as an 'Evangelist,' where such help may be needed ... Various pastors, with others of the laity, have come to a practical realization and appreciation of the sharing of such helpfulness and blessing." (1930 Yearbook, page 44)
Through the years, the home department and cradle roll were used as an evangelistic outreach by many of the Sunday Schools, which is demonstrated in the high enrollment of these in some churches.
Many of our churches today are taking the Gospel to the people. Paradise with its summer Sunday evenings at a camper park; Hatfield with its back yard Bible clubs; Mt. Carmel with its evangelistic home Bible studies; Howell with its outdoor meetings on the farm all summer; Staten Island with its Evangelism Explosion visitation program; Ephrata with its busses; Bert Baker with his unique door-to-door visitation evangelism ministry in Newark; and others are doing the work of outreach evangelism today, where the people are.
3. A Commitment to Evangelism Means Planting New Churches.
"The work of Foreign Missions depends upon the work at home. Both of these are real, active, hard work; no play. If the interest in the foreign work wanes and lags it is because the interest in the Home work is not what it should be. The basis of the work of the church is, beginning at Jerusalem—at home, then Judea – the neighborhood, then Samaria— non-heathen localities without the true life-giving Gospel, then the uttermost parts of the world. This is not human suggestion but the divine plan given to the Church by the Holy Spirit." (1935 Yearbook, pages 55-56) Those words were not written by a promoter of church extension in the homeland. They were contained in the report of the Board of Foreign Missions to the 1935 Annual Conference, and were certainly written by the secretary of that Board, C. H. Brunner.
In that-report. Brother Brunner referred to the first of the two periods when the practice of evangelism lagged behind—the years approaching the turn of the century. "During the first part of this period, for quite a number of years, there was not very much accomplished as very few had any interest in Foreign Missionary work and even very little knowledge of the conditions in non-Christian lands and because of this there was strong opposition to any forward movement in this direction.
"So, therefore, our Church came into contact with influences that aroused a consciousness of the need of a deeper spiritual experience and life at home; we also came into contact with influences that presented the conditions and needs of unevangelized countries and peoples.
"This started a new impetus for an advance movement in Home Mission work leading on to a great interest in Foreign work. The Church has, however, not forgotten the great needs of the Home Work." (1935 Yearbook, pages 55-56)
Brother Brunner did not state what these influences were. The minutes of the 1900 Annual Conference state that. following the report of the Foreign MissionBoard, "The Lord touched hearts, and a real glory-cloud of the missionary spirit hovered over the Conference." (1900 Yearbook, page 12)
One of those "influences" might have been Eusebius Hershey, a pioneer itinerant home missionary of the Church who in 1890 went to Liberia at age 67 as the Church's first foreign missionary where he contracted malaria and died six months after his arrival. In 1897 Mr. and Mrs. H. L. Weiss were sent to Chile and Calvin F. Snyder to China.
In an article, "The Church and Missions" in the 1930 Yearbook, C. H. Brunner observed that it was
"through the stimulus of a number of the younger ministers of the Conference, (that) the Church as a whole became very much interested in both the home and foreign end of the work. The Church felt that the time had come to not only strengthen the stakes but lengthen the cords also. Young men applied for work. The Church began to take new interest in their prayers and offerings for the extension of the work.
"This money was used, we believe, conscientiously and economically for the opening and sustaining of new missions and in assisting weak and struggling missions in the Church....God has been giving the increase in workers, missions and converts so that everyone can feel that Missionary work is a safe and paying investment." (1930 Yearbook, page 37)
Among those younger ministers whom the Lord used to bring our Church out of its early evangelistic and missionary doldrums were W. B. Musselman, C. H. Brunner, H. B. Musselman and W. G. Gehman. The mantle of leadership fell on them between 1891 and 1902, to coincide with the turn of the century. Two new missionary societies were born to forward the work of evangelism in the homeland—the Gospel Worker Society under W. B. Musselman in 1895. which evolved into a women's society within a few years and the Gospel Herald Society founded by C. H. Brunner in 1900—the forerunner of our present Church Extension Department. The Herald Society would reach its greatest achievements under the leadership of W. G. Gehman. He and H. B. Musselman served as Presiding Elders for 36 and 42 years, respectively—most of the time concurrently.
The formation and functioning of the two societies seemed to create considerable tension within the group as they charted new courses and broke new ground. But the Church stayed together, weathered the storms and grew with great vigor and vitality.
Some of the reports in 1904 and 1905 show the growth of that period. "With very few exceptions the reports showed an increase in members, finances and spirituality. The Lord worked marvelously on nearly every charge in saving souls throughout the year, some of them notable characters in wickedness. The success in open air work is grand. The Missionary offerings were large." (1904 Yearbook, page 13) H. B. Musselman reported, "God manifests His power in summer as well as in winter in saving souls even on small charges.” (1904 Yearbook, page 13) W. B. Musselman reported for the Gospel Worker Society, "We had more converts this year than any previous year... open air meetings were held in 40 of 50 different towns, besides where we have halls..." (1904 Yearbook, page 14) The next year he again reported, "They had more conversions during the summer than ever before. The workers are beginning to know that the work depends on them.” (1905 Yearbook, page 13)
New communities were entered for the purpose of founding new churches. Often a pastor was assigned to a town by the Stationing Committee as though there were a church already there when there was none—he was to start it.
To remain true to its evangelism distinctive today, the Bible Fellowship Church must renew its commitment and redouble its efforts in opening new churches by the grace of God and the power of the Gospel.
4. A Commitment to Evangelism Eventuates in Local Church and Denominational Growth
There was an awareness that as the Church did the work of evangelism, God was adding to her—the Church was growing. In a 1921 "Retrospect", Brother Brunner noted that
"This Annual Conference may well be called one of the milestones in the onward march of the Pennsylvania Conference, as is seen by the reports contained in this Year Book as well as by the testimonies of those who had the privilege and pleasure to be present. Such peace and harmony prevailed from the beginning to the end so that, to say the least, we never had a better one.
"This caused us to look backward and see where we came from." (1921 Yearbook, page 32)
That look back over a quarter of a century showed a membership growth from 720 to 2,183, "an increase of over 200%." (1921 Yearbook, page 35) Offerings for foreign missions over the same period went from $591 in 1896 to $18,157, an increase of more than 30-fold, bearing out the contention that "the home work is parent to the foreign work.” (1921 Yearbook, page 58 – Report of the Foreign Mission Board)
The next Yearbook, 1922, contained a striking church growth graph, showing the dramatic increases in membership, Sunday School statistics and offerings in the greatest quarter century of growth in our history. That momentum carried on into the next quarter century, bringing another 100% increase till 1947, after which it ran out of steam and stagnated for the next 25 years.
Starting in 1904 as the smallest of the three larger Conferences in the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church, Pennsylvania by far outstripped Ontario and Indiana-Ohio in growth in the subsequent 24 years:
Ind. – Ohio
In the last quadrennium, Pennsylvania baptized 923 new believers, 125 more than the total of the other two.
Everek R. Storms of the Ontario Conference of the United Missionary Church wrote his History of the United Missionary Church in 1958 six years after the denominational ties had been severed. He wrote, "Under the leadership of these four men (named above) the Pennsylvania District grew....Churches were built in new centers, many of them in cities where the opportunities for advancement were unlimited. During the thirty-five years, 1912-1947, the number of appointments increased only slightly, from twenty-nine to thirty-seven, but the church membership more than doubled rising beyond the four thousand mark. One reason for this was the fact that three-quarters of the churches were located in cities of over fifteen thousand population, and only one-fifth were in rural districts or small villages." (Storms, History)
The growth went on both in and out of revivals. In 1925, "Revivals have been going on throughout the whole Conference, reviving not only the hearts of God's people, but also bringing salvation and healing to many." (1925 Yearbook, page 47 – Report of the Foreign Mission Board) In 1933, "No spasmodic revivals were noted, but souls have been blessedly saved, throughout the entire year on the various pastorates." (1933 Yearbook, page 31 – Report of H. B. Musselman)
In the midst of the reaping of that growth period, the denomination expressed its concern that man-made rules not be erected to block newly converted babes in Christ from membership in His Church. In 1903 an appeal was directed to the General Conference as follows:
"WHEREAS. We, as a Conference, see the inconsistency of denying young converts the privilege of becoming members of the church as long as they are not fully enlightened in reference to the evils of Secret Societies and life insurance, yet acknowledging their conversion, therefore
RESOLVED, That we recommend the General Conference to modify these rules.” (1903 Yearbook, page 25)
We have just begun to emerge from a period of non-growth, the causes of which are difficult to discern and beyond the purview of this study. Professor C. Peter Wagner, addressing the 1972 Ministerial Convention, observed that it was not difficult to construct a growth graph for the Bible Fellowship Church in recent years.— All that one needed was a piece of paper and a straight edge. The past six years have seen us moving out of that long night of non-growth:
Increases have been accelerating. The 1975 percentage of growth increase was 4.11. If the acceleration were to cease (which we should not expect) and we were to grow at the uniform rate of 4.11% per year for the next decade, our total membership in 1985 would be 7,646. The growth rate would have been 50% for the decade, which would surpass all parts of the twentieth century except that exceptional first quarter. To be true to our evangelistic distinctive we ought so to pray and work in the Gospel of God's grace that that 50% decadal growth rate is substantially surpassed.
Permit me in closing to make some specific practical suggestions to the churches as to how evangelistic concern and commitment might manifest itself among us today.
(1) Each church should clearly define a primary target area for evangelistic saturation. This area should not be too large for the church explicitly and completely to present the Gospel to each home and/or each person in the area within a given time-span, say one or two years. Definite plans must then be made and carried out to completely cover the area. When that has been completed, the target area may then be enlarged.
(2) Each church should deliberately, explicitly and thoroughly select, train and send forth leaders in congregational evangelism. These leaders will, in turn, model evangelism for the rest of the congregation and involve and train others to share with them in this top priority work of the church. Boards of Elders should look for people with gifts suited to the work of evangelism, recruit them and thrust them forth to reap. One of the churches which I served as pastor made the mistake of taking a man who had been rather recently converted, had gifts suited to evangelism and was, in fact doing the work of evangelism, and making him Sunday School Superintendent, despite the fact that he had shown no gift of administration. The result was that he was immobilized from his evangelistic work and was a disaster as a superintendent. Such tragedies should be avoided.
(3) Each church should seek a responsive group or groups of people on whom it may focus its evangelistic ministry. Such groups may be racial, ethnic, economic, special-interest, employment-oriented, or any other basis on which people identify together. The Sinking Spring and Hatfield Churches have had thrilling and fruitful ministry to the deaf. Mount Carmel has a beautiful and burgeoning ministry to special children (brain-damaged and retarded) and their families.
During the 1950's, God gave a very precious unique evangelistic opportunity to the Hatfield church, which was wasted because of a lack of understanding. During the ministry of Pastor H. K. Kratz in Hatfield, there was an unusual move of God's Spirit to bring a number of Italian-Americans from several families to Himself and to the church in Hatfield, some as members and some as adherents. These new Christians, most of them youths, had an unusual zeal for the Lord and a clear-cut believable testimony of their conversion by God's grace. They were eager to win others and were very active in outreach. They were especially concerned to reach their families and friends, many of whom lived in the Italo-American "ghetto" that centered on Fifth Street in the neighboring town of Lansdale.
These young Christians became more and more concerned to reach their loved ones and more and more important to have their church do more to help them do so. As the time for Annual Conference approached, they asked to meet with my father, who was the Delegate, to discuss the possibility of the church calling a younger, "more evangelistic" pastor, who might lead them out in reaching the lost. Brother Kratz had just a year or two till he would retire. Dad insisted that it would be utterly wrong to turn this dear old man of God out of his pastorate so near the end of his long career in the Christian ministry; it would break his heart. Dad counseled them to remain patient and loyal. Rather, they became impatient and more insistent. Dad insisted that they submit to those who were more mature and "over them in the Lord." They would not, and withdrew from the church to form a new church in Lansdale. That particular group of Italo-American Christians was subsequently dispersed. The church they started has evolved into a fast-growing but somewhat aberrent congregation, some of whose effects on the area have been pernicious.
Had that situation been handled differently, there might today have been a thriving Bible Fellowship Church in Lansdale, made up largely of Italian-American with a wholesome relationship to her sister church in Hatfield. My father was right in insisting that you don't hurt or destroy an aged servant of the Lord. He was right in stressing the Christian duty to submit to those whom the Lord has chosen to be spiritual leaders over us. But oh, that he had been able to find a way to propose a plan by which they could have realized their desire to reach their lost loved ones in Lansdale with the Gospel within the framework of the Bible Fellowship Church. May our God help us to avoid such mistakes in the future and to bring such seeds of new churches to fruition.
(4) Each church should regard every person who confesses Christ or comes to the church as a bridge to the winning of a family. We should seek forthrightly and graciously to present the Good News to the whole family, that all of them might be saved and a Christian home established.
(5) Each church might select a near-by community as a target for the future establishment of a daughter church. An area that is without a Gospel preaching church that is unlikely to be reached evangelistically to a saturation point by the church where it is would make an ideal target. The time for forming the daughter church may be indefinite or far-off, but prayer should be begun for the area and "back burner" thinking about it should be instituted.
The Fleetwood church is currently seeing the fulfilment of such a vision in the formation of a new congregation in near-by 0ley.
(6) Each pastor might select a more remote target area for an evangelistic home Bible study. The community ought to be far enough away that people who confess Christ there not be expected perpetually or even indefinitely to come to his church. The aim should be to see the nucleus of a new church form in the target community. It would be well to select an area where an evangelical church is needed and could be expected to form as a real possibility. He might focus prayer on the area and learn all he can about it before he attempts to get the study started.
The new congregation in Poughquag started as a home Bible study. This approach holds good prospect of forming a new church by bringing a nucleus together in a home Bible study. The existence of such a nucleus will speed the process and lower the cost of the formation of a new church.
Evangelism has been a distinctive of the Bible Fellowship Church from early days. It continues to be so today. It must be a distinctive not only in theory and word but in practice and deed. Evangelism is accomplished, souls are saved and the church grows when the lost are faced with the Good News of Jesus lovingly, forthrightly, persistently, urgently and purposefully where they are and when those who believe are brought under the Lordship of Jesus into His fold—the Church.
The Doctrine and Discipline of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. Berlin, Ont: H. L. Hallman, Printer, 1905.
Church Discipline. Printed by A. E. Dambly, Skippackville PA, 1867.
History of the United Missionary Church. By Everek R. Storms. Elkhart, IN: Bethel Publishing Company, 1958.