The American portion of worldwide Methodism's long-planned evangelism campaign, Mission to the Eighties, got off to a less than glorious start here last week, the victim in part of the cold and snow of last weekend.
Weather conditions all but wiped out the Saturday and Sunday night evangelistic services, scheduled at Constitution Hall to climax what the six sponsoring Methodist bodies had billed as "eight glorious days" of religious activity in the Washington-Baltimore area.
But weather was not the only problem; even the reasonably well attended earlier meetings produced relatively few converts. t
The six mass meetings of the crusade in this area drew a total of about 17,000 persons and produced fewer than 100 "first-time decisions" for Christ, according to church statistics.
Nevertheless, church officials are optimistic about the long-range results of the campaign. "In the long run, it will help the churches," said the Rev. Dr. Stanley G. Harrell, who served as executive secretary for the effort here. "It will help to reawaken them to the evangelistic task."
The World Methodist Council began planning nearly two years ago for an international evangelistic crusade.The Rev. D. Alan Walker, internationally known pastor and author from Sydney, Australia, was engaged to direct it.
Although the international mission was formally begun earlier this year with a 24-hour prayer vigil and an evangelistic gathering of Methodists in Fiji, the eight-day local crusade was the beginning for the United States.
Mass meetings were held in Hagerstown, Wilmington, Salisbury and Baltimore as well as Washington. Smaller training session for church leaders and a women's coffee or luncheon were held in each place.
A unique aspect of the mission was the cooperation of six Methodist-rooted denominations: Wesleyan, Free Methodist, United Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist.
For the United Methodist Church, the largest of the six groups and the second largest Protestant body in the United States, evangelism has become a bone of contention. In recent years, the top national leadership of the church has emphasized the church's involvement in social and economic issues.
A substantial faction of the church, however, has grown increasingly critical of this and has demanded that evangelism be stressed instead.
The conflict is expected to erupt at the denomination's quadriennial General Conference meeting in Indianapolis next month.
Walker, a long-time activist and ecumenist, was considered acceptable to both sides.
"The church must have a social conscience; it must not only station an ambulance at the foot of the precipice to pick up the wounded who fall, but it must try to build a fence at the top," he told a training session of clergy and lay leaders.
But at the same session he stressed the need for proclaiming the faith. "Because of the worldwide population explosion, there are more people in the world that know nothing about Jesus Christ than ever before in history," he said.
Later, he told the nearly 3,000 persons who gathered at Constitution Hall for the opening session of the mission here that "belief in God is the greatest single need in today's world."
"In a world where there are more atheists than ever in history, it is time to count the cost of a Godless world, a loveless world, a valueless world . . . with the leaders of the world accountable to nobody," he said.
Then, in tones considerably lower keyed than Billy Graham's -- to whom contemporary evangelists are inevitably compared -- he invited his listeners to turn to Christ.
"In this minute of silence," he said, "ask yourself have you committed yourself to Jesus Christ? If the answer is 'No, I don't think I have,' then do it now."
If the hundred or so who moved to the front of the auditorium in response to his call, 25 filled out the mission's quadruplicate cards as "first-time decisions," according to Harrell.
The multiple forms, Harrell explained, will help shepherd those people into some local congregation. "Now the local churches have to pick up the ball," he said.
As for the snowstorm that ruined what was planned as the rousing finish to the mission here, Harrell tried hard not to be disappointed. "The snow -- well, I feel the Lord has his own reasons and I leave that to his knowledge," he said.