“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isa. 52:7).
They lived in a small house, a very small house—not very well built, with a corrugated tin roof, a standard Australian dwelling in the mid-twentieth century. The house lay at the end of the road that led to the train station, but beyond the train station. In fact, it lay just beyond the huge piles of coal that were necessary for trains to run. The road seemed to end at the station, but there was, in fact, a dirt track that went past the station—easy to miss, leading only to this small, not very well-built house.
Agnes, her husband, Ted, and the youngest of their eight children lived in the house beyond the station.1 Agnes’s husband worked on the railroad, which is how they came to have that house. He was gone much of the time, serving as a fireman, as they then called it, on steam-powered locomotives. The fireman shoveled coal into the fire of the engine, which is how they came to live beyond the coal piles, at the end of the road past the station.
Elsewhere in the small town of Muswellbrook lived one of Agnes’s daughters, Pam, who was married and the mother of a little boy. Still, Agnes felt isolated in the house beyond the station. Pam was almost the only person to visit her. Indeed, Agnes reflected at times, her home was never even visited by traveling salesmen, which was unusual in Australia in the early 1950s, when many vendors went door to door selling goods.
Agnes attended her local Presbyterian church’s women’s group. One Sunday the women were agog about the news that two groups of radical, heretical, so-called Christians were now active in their neighborhood. Jehovah’s Witnesses had come to Muswellbrook. But even worse, so had Seventh-day Adventists. The women were full of tales of how these people might knock on your door. Agnes thought, Maybe there’s a blessing to living at the far end of the road, past the station.
Adventists in Town!
Jehovah’s Witnesses never came to Agnes’s door. One day, though, when Pam and her own son were visiting, there was a knock at the door. No one ever knocked on the door of that house! Not even Agnes’s and Pam’s Presbyterian pastor had ever visited. Agnes thought, Is it a mistake? Both women’s next thought was It must be bad news about Ted, because only railroad employees would come and knock at the door: only they know we’re here.
Full of fear, Agnes opened the door to a short young man wearing a blue suit that didn’t fit him as well as it might and wasn’t new; but it was well pressed and the man in it was neat and tidy. Agnes, in her surprise, blurted out: “Who are you?” He was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor.
Agnes was inclined to say, “You know, I’m a Presbyterian. I have my own church. I have no need of your strange doctrines.” But it was so extraordinary that someone had come to the house and knocked on the door that instead she said, “Come in.”
Agnes offered the man a cup of tea because that was what one did in Australia in that era. The man politely declined and asked for a glass of water instead. Then he began to talk with Agnes and Pam about their families, their husbands; about Agnes’s other adult children; about both women’s hopes and fears. The man began to talk with them about a hope that went beyond the things of this world, which could surmount all their fears. When he had to leave, Pam was ready to consider opening the Bible with him, and she did. For the next few months she studied the Bible with him.
Agnes was more hesitant. But after Pam shared what she had learned in the Bible studies, Agnes joined. Readers can probably guess where this story is going. Agnes, Ted, Pam, three of her siblings, and (eventually) Pam’s children were all baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Distinctively Adventist Outreach
I have two reasons for sharing this story. First, that pastor was my father, John Trim. The second reason is that it prompts some thoughts about how people come into the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
In Adventism, public evangelists are our celebrities, and that has been true for most of our history. From Merritt E. Cornell to Mark Finley, H.M.S. Richards to C. D. Brooks, John Loughborough to John Carter, evangelists are near-legendary figures: our “rock stars.” Because of their remarkable skills, public evangelism has been a huge blessing to the movement, and continues to be in many parts of the world.
Sometimes we find ourselves assuming that it was through major evangelistic campaigns that this denomination came into being. Actually, though, that isn’t how our earliest pioneers laid the foundations. To be sure, by the 1860s John Loughborough and Merritt Cornell were pitching big tents for evangelistic meetings and the “big tent” became our signature.
But if we trace all the way to the early 1850s, we discover that the foundations of this movement were laid by people such as Joseph Bates, James White, John Byington, and others, traveling on the train, stopping in small towns, and studying the Scriptures with individuals and families.
Our early “evangelists,” on entering a new town, would inquire, “Is there anyone here who believes in the second coming of Jesus?” (code for “had been a Millerite”). Alternately, they might ask, “Is anyone here a zealous Bible student?” If so, they knocked on their doors, and, if welcomed, studied the Bible with them. This movement didn’t originally rely on major public evangelistic efforts. Instead, we went to people’s homes and studied with them in person.
The Limits of Public Evangelism
This isn’t just a point of historical fact; it’s important for the church today. In large parts of the world public evangelism is impossible because of restrictive laws. At least 2 billion people in the world will never have the opportunity to attend a prophecy seminar or a large evangelistic meeting—unless their governments miraculously change their policies. In Europe, and increasingly in North America and parts of Latin America, public evangelism is no longer the most effective method of reaching out to people.
It doesn’t matter how well promoted a campaign is; how significant the financial and logistical support; how good the graphics; how powerful the preaching; How Spirit-infused and prayerful those who organize, support, and undertake it: most people don’t attend public meetings unless they have some previous connection with the hosting group.
In Europe this has been the story for many years. Recent research by members of the Southern Adventist University School of Religion, however, reveals that even in the United States public evangelism reaches only an ever-narrowing section of the population.2
When public efforts evoke embarrassment or indifference, there is a danger of giving up on outreach. If evangelism is only public evangelism, then it becomes too easy to say, “Well, since evangelism doesn’t work, we’ll just focus inward. What else is there to do?”
Evangelism Is More Than Public Evangelism
But there is another form of evangelism: meeting people, including by knocking on their doors, becoming friends with them, and studying the Bible with them. That’s what my father did. I don’t wish to make him into a perfect man. He wasn’t, though I can truly say that I have never met a more Christian man. Among his limitations—at least for that era and his calling—was that he didn’t have a gift for public evangelism.
His first job, after graduating from Avondale College’s ministerial training course, was working on a major evangelistic campaign led by George Burnside, whose name even today is well known in Australia and New Zealand. Burnside’s extraordinarily powerful evangelistic preaching built up the church remarkably in those countries in the 1940s and 1950s.
Having been an assistant to Burnside, my father was then given local churches to pastor. He ran his own evangelistic meetings but met with little success. My father later said that he just didn’t enjoy it, though he tried hard.
My father was shy by nature, and he sometimes felt uncomfortable when engaging in public evangelism. What he liked most was studying the Bible with people and teaching his church members to conduct Bible studies. He learned that there were ways to break down barriers so that people would be willing to study the Bible with him—more willing, too, to subsequently come to Adventist evangelistic meetings. He discovered that he could use radio and newspapers to make Adventism seem as it really is: friendly and Christ-centered, not something to be feared or avoided.
He also had a passion for health outreach and temperance. He realized that teaching people how to overcome addictions to tobacco and alcohol meant that they would trust him. In the 1970s he realized that teaching people how to control their blood pressure and their stress levels, how to exercise, and how to cook healthfully all created an open door for Adventism. Teaching about healthful living in the here and now could open the way to teaching about living eternally.
My father was using Christ’s method of ministry—one that takes its name from Ellen White’s profound observation: “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.’”3
My father effectively used Christ’s methods in three countries, pioneering community health outreach in New Zealand and India, and helping to develop it in Australia. He used media in innovative ways to promote the church in Australia and New Zealand.
But my father seemed always to have known that it’s not enough to communicate well, or to make Adventism seem as friendly as possible, or to help people make healthy choices that lower their stress and prevent admission into our wonderful Adventist hospitals. All those things are what Jesus would do if He were here. In fact, it’s what Jesus did when He was here; and it’s what He would have us do now.
But there’s the last part of the quotation in The Ministry of Healing: after Jesus mingled with people, sympathized with them, and met their needs, then He bade them, “Follow Me.” We too, at some point, must bid people to follow the Master.
My father was conscious of the “bidding work.” He wanted to improve people’s lives and thus make the Adventist Church appealing to them. But he also wanted those he helped to follow Jesus; so whenever possible he sought to study the Scriptures with them.
A text so familiar to Adventists articulates Christ’s words to John, and to us: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20). Christ is at the door knocking; we, His followers, have to be at doors knocking as well.
Total Member Involvement
Here’s my final reason for sharing this story. Many of us don’t have the spiritual gift of evangelists. We can’t all preach to thousands; that’s a rare spiritual gift. If evangelism is only public evangelism, conducted by professional clergy (often professional evangelists), it can never result in total member involvement.
If we have other spiritual gifts, however, we shouldn’t therefore conclude that we don’t have an active part to play in the great Second Advent movement—that we aren’t wanted or needed in sharing the gospel.
Three years ago I was visiting my father, who was in a nursing home suffering from advanced Parkinson’s. My mother told me, “There’s a woman here whom your dad and I knew when we began our ministry.” We put my father in a wheelchair and I wheeled him down to another floor, where my mother greeted an elderly woman. It was Pam! One of her daughters was visiting, along with a granddaughter.
Pam told me the story that began this article. Then with tears in her eyes she quoted this text to me: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.” She said, “David, we praise God every day for your father, because he went past the station, past the coal dumps, and knocked on our door. Our whole family will be saved because of that.”
My father shared that he had been tempted not to call at Agnes’s home. It was late afternoon in the hot Australian summer, and he was tired. However, he said, “I had promised the Lord I would go to every house”; so he went to the last house at the end of the road.
Our spiritual gifts may lead us to different work than knocking on doors. But the key point is that there is work for every disciple of Jesus to do in sharing the good news of our Lord and Deliverer. It is for us to find what our part is and do it, just as John Trim did in Muswellbrook, 65 years ago.
“I stand at the door and knock.”
1 Names have been changed for this article.
2 Alan Parker, “Does Evangelism Still Work?” Ministry, August 2017.
3 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 143.
David Trim is director of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research for the General Conference,