I am hesitant to write about the growth of our church, The Visalia Seventh-day Adventist Church, for fear that it is arrogant or presumptuous to assume anyone would want to know what is happening here in Visalia, California. There is also the recognition that Jesus ultimately brings the growth and to try and label that growth through any other means is foolishness.
In regards to the first concern I read many blogs, many books, many articles from non-Adventists about why their churches are growing, and I learn from these materials. Within our own denomination there is very little material relating to this topic. (There are a few books, like “The Big Four” by Dr. Joseph Kidder which I would highly recommend, but that is one of few). I believe this reality is unfortunate because there is a danger when we only read non-Adventist church growth materials: We may be tempted to say, “we have to be just like this,” Which I have found in our subculture just does not work. Or we can go to the other extreme and say, “we can’t do any of this,” and thus we never try.
In regards to the second concern I believe with all my heart that Jesus brings the growth of a church and that church growth can actually happen at any time in any place and that church growth can also fail to happen even when all the best things are happening. That said, I see how Jesus uses strategy, focus, vision, intentionality in powerful ways to make a difference for the growth of His Kingdom.
So this blog is an attempt to talk about Church Growth from an Adventist perspective with the recognition that even what I share is not possible unless Jesus brings the harvest!
This in fact will be a three part blog. Today I will look at some of the things that have put our church in a position to grow over the last five years. Tomorrow I will look at why I believe our church hasn’t grown more over the last five years. Then in part 3 on Wednesday I will share with you some of the things we are going to focus on moving forward to further place ourselves in a position to grow.
So what are the credentials of this church that make me believe we are in a position to talk about church growth? I will give you a quick laundry list.
- This is not a scientific statement and I have no idea the veracity of this statement but I have been told by a number of individuals within the Pacific Union Conference that our church is one of the fastest if not the fastest growing (Caucasian–more on this later) English speaking churches in this Union.
- In the last five years our attendance has grown 133%
- Our membership has had a net increase of 243 individuals after you take away transfers out and deaths.
- Some have assumed that this growth has been primarily transfer growth, this would be an inaccurate assumption: Transfers In: 165 Baptisms & Professions of Faith: 180 (we’ve baptized more than that but more on this later as well).
- Our Giving to the world church has increased since 2008 from $550,000 annually to over $800,000; Our local giving over those same years increased from roughly $370,000 to this year we will go over $600,000 in local giving.
So those are the statistics, for what they’re worth. And now to the focus of this blog post.
What have we done here in Visalia, CA to put ourselves in the position for God to bless and grow this church?
Prayer. I could not start this section without stating that very clearly, so let me say it again. I attribute what has happened at Visalia to the foundation of prayer that has been and is being built. I would love to say that this foundation was due to the deep spirituality of the pastor! 🙂 The truth is I was like I am sure many pastors are, I worked first and prayed later. I gave token platitudes to prayer, but I did not really emphasize prayer. I had however a lady in this church, Katy, that from the first day I arrived in Visalia did some friendly nagging (I know nag is not a nice word, but I can’t think of a better word). She was persistent in encouraging me to focus more on prayer. She practically forced a prayer partner on me. She gave me books to read about prayer. But most of all she prayed that her pastor would pray more. Well, the Lord answered her prayers and prayer–our communication with Jesus & receiving His power has become the foundation of what we do in Visalia. How has this looked? We’ve been intentional about placing prayer partners with our key leaders. We have folk that pray every morning before church starts and another group that prays Sabbath afternoon at our sister campus The Ark before their services begin. We have a ladies group that prays Wednesday mornings together for the prayer requests that come in each Sabbath. Recently we spent 40 days as a church praying every morning at 7:14 a.m. & every evening at 7:14 p.m.. As we came out of those 40 days we decided to continue with our prayer gatherings in the morning and so every single morning our church is open for folk to gather together to pray. Every single person that is connected to our church whether member or not is on a list and is prayed for weekly by one of our 70+ prayer warriors. We preach about prayer regularly. We’ve sent out more than 300+ books on two separate occasions focused on prayer (“Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire” by Jim Cymbala & “Draw the Circle” by Mark Batterson). In other words we’ve made prayer foundational to what we do & we try to keep this before our people!
Ellen G. White’s strategy for church growth. Specifically the books, “Gospel Workers” & “Evangelism” have been books that I constantly go back to to discover principles on reaching people for Jesus! I heard the story when I was in Seminary and you may have heard it too: There was an Adventist doctoral student from Fuller Theological Seminary that was doing some research and he went to visit Pastor Paul Yonggi Cho (formerly David Yungi Cho) in South Korea. Cho is the founding pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church the largest church in the world with close to 1 million members. While this doctoral student was discussing with Pastor Cho the phenomenal growth of his church, Pastor Cho discovered that the student was a Seventh-day Adventist, he dismissed himself went back into his personal office and returned with two books in hand, the books were “Gospel Workers” & “Evangelism” by Ellen G. White. He told the student that he should be familiar with the principles of church growth applied at Yoido Full Gospel Church as they were taught by Ellen White. (On a side note I’ve always wondered how Pastor Cho came upon these books, this past summer a pastor I work with here in Central California Conference that is from South Korea informed me that Pastor Cho for a short time attended our Adventist University in Korea, which is surely where he came across those books). I recalled this story I had learned years ago and I began to thoroughly go through these books & to apply the principles that I learn in them. The methods don’t always work, it was a different culture that she wrote in, but the principles still are from God and still will bless your church. Something else I discovered as I went through these books is that I see the principles of the “Purpose Driven Church” by Rick Warren (a book I read and have been blessed by) in Mrs. White’s writings. This should teach us something; we should be careful not to condemn everything outside our own walls…we may find ourselves condemning the very things Jesus affirmed through our prophet over a hundred years ago. If our churches aren’t growing shouldn’t it make us sit-up and take notice that the largest church in the world is using principles from our prophet to grow & that the number one church growth book in our nation, “The Purpose Driven Church” is also writing about those very same principles Mrs. White wrote about so long ago. Why then are we not digging into these two books to learn more? That is something we have done and it is blessing our church!
Staff. I was blessed when I arrived here in Visalia to immediately be surrounded by gifted individuals that were doing a tremendous job in their particular areas of ministry. We have since had some transitions, yet we as a church have made an intentional effort to continue to staff our church with a tremendous group of individuals and we do all that we can to allow them to thrive in their particular ministry areas. Now I know this is a more challenging task for most churches since they are not in a position to have “staff.” So for those churches that are unable to have “staff” I would recommend at least one specific team member that you hire. And that would be a prayerful “true” Bible Worker. I say prayerful because Bible Working is tough work, rejection is more common than success, and thus an individual truly needs to be in continual prayer to have real success in their endeavors. I say “true” because there are a lot of individuals that have gone through Bible Worker training but their real objective is to be the next David Asscherick, Nathan Renner, or Taj Pacleb. All great guys, all friends of mine, all tremendous soul winners. But for a Bible Worker in your church you don’t want copy cats of these men. You want someone that wants to be a Bible Worker! They are individuals that want to be out there knocking on doors, giving one on one Bible studies, connecting with all your guests, pestering your members to go on studies with them. There are a number of churches here within my own conference that baptize one or less than one on a consistent year by year basis. To all those churches I would say, “hire a Bible worker.” Cut whatever else you need to in your budget and hire a Bible Worker. Most Bible Workers are willing to work for $1500 a month plus a roof over their heads and some help with gas. A lot of conferences will help churches that are wanting to make this step as well. If I were to move to another church and I was the lone pastor the first hire I would make is a Bible Worker!
Quality. A fourth area I see that has put us in a position for such positive growth is that we are intentional about doing things well. We don’t always do things well, but it is not because we don’t try. I believe within Adventism there is a dearth of excellence or worse yet, there is a dearth even at the attempt of excellence. I don’t say this to be critical…yes I do…I think it is shameful that we are worshiping the God of the universe Sabbath after Sabbath and so many throw together worship services at the last minute without much thought or prayer. This is NOT Biblical! Read the Old Testament particularly the last four books of the Pentateuch and it is obvious that God cares very much about the details of worship! This doesn’t mean that services need to be elaborate, but the first time someone plays a hymn or sings a song shouldn’t be Sabbath morning as they are standing in front of the congregation. The person that is praying shouldn’t be an elder that happened to be early for church that Sabbath and was thus dragged up to fill in the role. And pastors we should NEVER wing it! Okay, I’ll get off my soap box. I am really passionate about this though and I believe that little things done right or at least an attempt at doing right make a huge difference.
It’s Not About Visalia Only! I mentioned above that we had baptized more than the 180 that are on our record books. The “more” that we have baptized have been individuals that have come to accept Jesus through the ministries of the Visalia Seventh-day Adventist Church or by studying with one of our team or one of our members, but have chosen to be members at another Seventh-day Adventist Church for whatever reason. There have been more than a dozen folk that would fit into this category. I praise the Lord for this! Because we don’t want our growth to be only about us. My hearts desire is to see the Gospel to be spread far and wide and for all our Adventist churches to grow. Having this attitude has allowed us to say goodbye with grace to other members when they feel that God is calling them to serve in another church. Having this attitude has given us the opportunity to encourage our team and our Elders that are gifted in speaking to share their skills at other churches. Having this attitude has helped us to think valley wide when planning ministries. I believe having this attitude has opened the door for Jesus to bless us even more, because Jesus isn’t worried about just Visalia SDA growing, He cares about His Kingdom growing by whomever, wherever and He blesses those that feel and practice the same!
Demographics. We have also grown because our church has started to look more like our community. Our community is only 50% Caucasian in such an environment it would be foolish and unChristian to attempt to remain homogenous. I am firmly committed to the idea that a church that fails to look like its community will fail to grow.
A willingness to change and endure the resulting conflict. In the last five years there have been a number of changes. Staff changes, adding a service, adding an entirely new campus. Changes in music. Changes in nominating committee process. Changes in the board structure. Changes in expectations of volunteers. Lots and lots of changes. Some have stuck, some have failed but in every change there has been push back. Just like in nature that which does not change, does not grow. In fact growth in and of itself is a change which has brought some challenges and conflict. A church that would rather stay the same than grow is not a church it is a country club, and last time I checked country clubs were not the body of Christ! Conflict is inevitable, I believe if our goal is to avoid conflict then growth is nearly impossible.
Intentionality. Doing things with purpose. Too much is done in churches without a true purpose. “Why is your children’s program run that way?” “Why do you start your church service at that time?” “Why is that person the leader of that ministry?” “Why do you have Pathfinders?” If the answer to any of these questions is, “because that is the way it has always been.” Then that is not intentionality. To be intentional is to have a reason for everything that you do. We have greeters trainings and elders retreats. We have a stewardship system that functions from week to week in a specific way for a specific purpose. Family Night. Friday Night Vespers. Whatever we do, there is a purpose behind it and when those things start to lose their purpose/impact, then we become “intentional” about closing them down or changing them. Most of us think through our lives with a lot more intentionality than we do our work for Jesus, even though our work for Jesus is the most important task we have on this earth.
Everything is evangelism! Finally, we have made it a point to keep before our people that the most important thing about a church is, “seeking and saving the lost.” We spend our money with this in mind. We shape our calendar with this in mind. We preach this. We urge this reality in the life of each person that joins our family. If you spend, work, and talk reaching people for Jesus, well then you’ll be more likely to reach people for Jesus.
As I was writing this blog I began to realize this list could go on and on (you may feel it already did:) ). We could talk about our Children’s Ministries, our local Adventist schools, our hospitality ministries, health ministries, etc.. But rather than get into specifics I wanted to focus on some things all churches no matter how big or small could do to help reach more people for Jesus’ family.
Tomorrow I will focus on some reasons why we didn’t grow more over the last five years.
I hope you’ll join me!