[May 6, 2008] Orlando, Florida, United States -- Elizabeth Lechleitner/ANN
"Don't worry," Ken Norton tells uncertain church members during his guest-preaching gigs. "I have my license." He means his driver's license, not his ministerial credential.
The 36-year-old lay evangelist might joke about his youthful looks, but he wastes no time getting down to business: what the Seventh-day Adventist Church needs, he says, are more "spiritual entrepreneurs."
Former Church Planting director for the Adventist Church in Florida, Norton now heads up the Orlando-based Lay Institute for Evangelism (LIFE), where successful evangelism doesn't depend on ministerial credentials or years in the mission field.
"Anyone anywhere can learn how to be an effective evangelist," Norton says. "We want members to be able to impact their communities for Christ in a relevant and practical, not a complicated, way."
Launched last August by the Adventist-laymen's Services and Institutions after an Oregonian Adventist entrepreneur left part of his estate for an outreach training center, LIFE combines onsite and online training which is unique among Adventist-run organizations, he says. "Plus, most of the programs are free, which is always a good thing," Norton says.
The online programs and how-to manuals are particularly useful for members in regions of the world with little access to outreach materials or guest speakers, Norton says. "Somebody from this small rural community in New Zealand wrote the other day and said they were using the online health and nutrition training to run programs in their community. So we're tapping into a need that's out there."
LIFE also offers a grown-up version of the student mission trip. Called Operation MissionLIFE, the nine-month intensive is half practical training and half frontline mission work. During the program's first half, students get Bible Worker certification, foreign language training and classes on cross-cultural ministry before demonstrating what they've learned during four-and-a-half months of field work.
"A lot of it is just word of mouth at this point. We think it'll keep growing," he says. In part, because of LIFE's do-it-yourself message: evangelism isn't confined to the pulpit, or even the so-called "mission field," Norton says. A missionary doesn't have to be someone "trudging through the jungle with a tattered picture roll, swatting mosquitoes and living in a grass hut," he adds.
Lay-driven efforts, whether they take place in Thailand or a friend's living room, are integral to the Adventist Church's success, he says. "Many church members don't realize that when Jesus said 'go and preach the gospel," it isn't just a church initiative that can be yawned at or ignored. It includes them as much as it does church leadership."
As LIFE grows, the lay organization will play an increasingly "critical role" in training young people in particular for practical ministry, says Ron Christman, secretary-treasurer for ASI. "If we're going to raise engaged, successful young people, we need to ingrain this culture of ministry in them from the very beginning," he says.
For more information on LIFE's resources, visit www.thelayinstitute.com.