A few years ago, I was hanging out with an older friend, and we were talking about the trustworthiness of the Bible. A Yale- and MIT-trained Jew, we focused only on the Hebrew Bible, since that is his context, but he was fairly skeptical of my confidence in its authority. Despite being Jewish, or arguably because of a certain rendition of Judaism, he leans more toward a pantheistic understanding of God, maintaining that divinity inhabits everyone and everything.

Growing a little impatient and somewhat frustrated that I wasn’t making much headway in my attempts to convince him of the Bible’s reliability, I decided to bust out an evangelistic “secret weapon” that Adventists have used since our inception in the nineteenth century: Daniel 2. I described the statue Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream—the head of gold, the chest of silver, the thighs of bronze, the legs of iron—and how they unequivocally align with the four historical kingdoms, starting with Babylon, that dominated the world from the time of Daniel. I pointed to the feet of iron mixed with clay, and how that represented divided Europe, and the rock cut out of the mountain without human hands, representing God’s kingdom, that would shatter all earthly kingdoms and nations and ultimately set up God’s eternal kingdom. It was all directly out of Adventist Evangelism 101, used thousands of times by confident and zealous evangelists.

And it was all thoroughly unconvincing.

After listening to my passionate explanation, my friend looked at me, and without a hint of sarcasm or guile, simply said, “It sounds like you’re really stretching that interpretation.”

His response was quite jarring to me. I didn’t expect him to jump into the baptistry the minute I finished my exposition, but I at least thought it would give him pause. Instead, he displayed utter ambivalence.

To make it clear, I know that’s not the end of the story. Despite what many “mission spotlight” type stories leave us impressed with, sudden come-to-Jesus’ conversions, at random coffee shops, rarely occur. Conversion is more like a slowly developing journey, with smaller accumulated insights, rather than a sudden burst of revelation that dramatically alters a person’s trajectory in an instant. Who knows as to whether my exposition of Daniel 2 might serve as just a tiny dot that one day, when combined with other small dots, turns into a beautiful painting of a Jesus-centered life.

I also remain fairly persuaded that Daniel 2 pretty accurately reflects, in broad strokes, the scope of human history from the time of Daniel to our day. I don’t say this with absolute certainty, but despite my friend’s apprehension, I still find the outline of Daniel 2 pretty impressive.

The point is, however, that I found myself using a nineteenth-century argument, and a nineteenth-century evangelistic approach, with a twenty-first-century person. This is not at all to deny that such an approach can work with many, many people in the twenty-first century. It’s simply to point out that, as one of my friends—who himself is an evangelist—once told me: “Adventist evangelism is very creative . . . for the 1950s or 1850s.”

The truth is, Adventist evangelism has, it seems to me, suffered from arrested development. Where once our denomination was a creative and risk-taking movement, willing to try new and innovative approaches in order share the gospel, we have now become conservative and stale. This is not necessarily unique to Adventism, since the natural—and, to some degree, appropriate—development of organizations is to institutionalize and conserve, providing a somewhat-appropriate conservatism that promotes stability. But the trick is to take all the positives of institutionalization and combine them with fresh approaches.

In pointing to the need for creative and innovative approaches to evangelism, I’m not even talking about anything all that crazy or revolutionary. I’m not talking about dancing bears or fog machines or strobe lights at contemporary worship services. I’m not talking about having the fanciest or most up-to-date websites, or killer social media platforms. Those things may be all well and good, and part of the answer, but, to me, it’s even more fundamental—and perhaps even more creative and scary—than that.

What I’m talking about is this: the most creative and innovate evangelistic thing we can do is to draw close to people, enter into life with them, and listen to their stories. That is truly revolutionary—though I would propose it actually works at all times and in all places. It is, in many ways, trans-cultural and effective in any historical era.

Too many of our evangelistic approaches are drawn up in laboratories or after reading books. Even methods that are deemed “innovative” are often implemented as the result of learning them from a sort of cookie-cutter, one-size-fits all evangelism template. We have, in the words of Ellen White, taught our people to become thinkers of “other men’s thoughts,” instead of teaching them to listen to the Spirit for themselves, and to listen to the stories of those they’re trying to reach with the gospel, and then sharing the gospel with them in creative and relevant ways.

This idea really hit home for me a few years ago when I spent three or four days at the General Conference headquarters, visiting a couple friends who worked there. As I just floated around the halls, occasionally popping in on various meetings, a thought suddenly occurred to me: these people, dedicated servants of God, are trying to create content that will reach people in Bangkok as well as Bangor, Laos as well as Los Angeles. How does that work?

I don’t write this to be critical of anyone at the General Conference—or anywhere else. The same could be said for content that comes out of our Divisions, Unions, and Conferences. We are extremely reliant on one-size-fits all programming that, by its very nature, cannot connect in completely relevant ways to your neighbor in Denver or Boulder the same way it does to mine in Bangor or someone else’s in Tokyo.

The truth is, as they say about politics, evangelism is local. It must be local. Only then can it be innovative and creative, in the truest sense of the word. It’s only as we enter into life with real people, who have unique stories, that we can fully understand how the gospel speaks and applies to them in unique, innovative, and beautiful ways. While the content of the gospel doesn’t change, utilizing a canned evangelistic approach, and prescribing canned evangelistic arguments, is like prescribing surgery by simply consulting with WebMD.

In other words, instead of thinking about and planning creative programs, we should think about coming alongside people—our neighbors, co-workers, and friends—and asking the Spirit to show us how to share the gospel, in both word and deed, in ways that uniquely apply to each individual.

Of course, all this challenges traditional Adventism. In my experience, Adventists typically prefer to keep people—especially non-Adventists—at arm’s length and to do our evangelism from afar. We would often rather send out a tract or post a YouTube video than to draw close to people and share life with them. We’re afraid of keeping bad company that might influence us away from the truth.

There are many reasons for this attitude and posture, but I’d propose that chief among them is our failure to fully grasp the gospel, both intellectually and emotionally. At its core, the gospel teaches us that the God of Scripture is a God of incarnation—of one who steps into our mess, meeting us where we are and embodying His truth amidst all our mess and sin. As John declared, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”—or, as The Message renders it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14).

Simply put, when we understand the radical condescension of God in the Person of Jesus—when we understand and appreciate the depths to which Christ went in order to reach and save us—we will embody such a posture in our own approach to evangelism, seeking to meet people where they are and fully communicating the gospel not only in word but also in deed.

And that is the most creative and innovative thing we can do to share the gospel.

Shawn Brace is a pastor in Bangor, Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at shawnbrace.substack.com