My wife and I had the privilege of attending an evangelism conference sponsored by the Southern Union this past November in Collegedale, TN. In attendance were over 200 pastors, evangelists, conference leaders, and a few laymen, like ourselves.
For two and a half days we sat at the feet of both young and old veterans from the front lines of evangelism as they told their stories and shared soul-winning wisdom gleaned from watching, doing and sometimes failing in the work. Soul-winning can be very discouraging at times, especially if your church has lost the vision and passion for evangelism. Every meeting we attended was designed to reignite that vision and passion and to instill courage in all of us to return to our various mission fields with the unconquerable faith, determination and boldness of Caleb, who amidst cowardice, fear and unbelief declared: “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it” Numbers 13:30.
The first seminar I attended was “This Works!” given by father and son pastors, Dan and Dustin Serns, from the Texas and Washington Conferences, respectively. Dustin opened the seminar with a story of taking a new church where there had been no baptisms for years. He accepted his dad’s challenge to announce on his very first Sabbath behind the pulpit that they would be having a baptism every month. So picture this! He and his elders, in demonstration of their faith, all gathered in the baptismal tank (empty of course) and prayed that God would give them souls every month. And He did! Two the first month! And when there was no baptism scheduled the third month, Pastor Serns put on his baptismal robe, entered the baptistry intentionally filled, and gave his entire sermon from that watery grave. This set the stage for a very effective appeal to the members to reach more souls and for others in the congregation to make their decision for baptism. And they did! Praise the Lord! The tank was not empty another month after that.
So maybe we should all take a Sabbath, get the elders into the baptistry with our pastors, surrounded by the general church body, and exercise some living faith in our God, as did Dustin Serns and his church.
Ever been challenged to get members to come out for Sabbath afternoon evangelism training or training on any other day or time for that matter? Ever been challenged to keep them awake if they do come? Pastor Dan Serns offered a great solution. The answer was simple. When are members most inclined to be at church, giving their undivided and best attention? Pastor Serns figured that out and would plan his training as three minute segments just before his sermon. How hard is this! For most of us, this may be our best and only option for keeping evangelism before our local churches.
For our Tuesday morning plenary, we were treated to Pastor Brian Wangler’s amazing testimony of taking a church 18 months after his conversion and sobriety. He had no formal pastoral training except to administer communion to shut-ins. It was initially just a speaking appointment at a church he had no idea they were planning to close. There were only five members, including two who hadn’t been there in six months but who decided they ought to show up in support of Brian. This, however, was all soon to change. God decided to use Brian despite his lack of formal training and experience. Brian’s genuine love for the Lord and his willingness to be used by Him proved to be all God needed to not only keep the doors of the church from closing, but to grow the church as well. Through simple faith, hard work, and trial and error, God used Brian to build a thriving congregation and in turn build a powerful worker for His Kingdom. Now a full-time ordained pastor, Brian has gone on to But Brian wasn’t just talking to me. As we would learn in our next seminar, appropriately titled “Revive or Die: How to Turn Around a Dying Church,” over 70% of Adventist churches in the U.S. are on the decline. So, unfortunately, most of us are in the same boat. The good news is, however, our churches are not destined to extinction. Prophetic revelation tells us otherwise as the love of God propels us forward to change the status quo and fulfill the gospel commission.
My wife and I were so encouraged by this last seminar as Pastor Bill McClendon shared the story of his success in reviving a dying church in the affluent suburbs of Baltimore, MD. Years earlier, Bill had been called to plant a new church in Tulsa, OK, which became the epitome of sustainable, healthy church growth for the denomination. Watching the downward trend of most Adventist churches in America, he often wondered if existing, unhealthy, dysfunction, and even dying churches could be brought back to life? He would have his chance to prove God in this when he was called two and a half years ago to take on just such a church.
We were on the edge of our seats, listening eagerly for the answers that could help us turn our church around. I think the take home for me was this. Pastor Bill recogniz-ed and affirmed in the few remaining church members their sincere desire to be a healthy, growing, and evangel-istic church. All they needed was some encouragement, instruction, and the good, strong leadership of their new pastor. By the grace of God, he was determined not to let them down. His very first meeting with the church board set the tone for things to come. They made a commitment that night to do whatever was necessary to become the church God wanted them to be. They never lost that vision; and thus by faith, sacrifice and a lot of hard work, God transformed their dying church into a thriving faith community once again.
With our final keynote address, we were again reminded of the sober realities of what once was a mighty movement of God for the salvation of the world and the ushering in of the great second advent. But we weren’t left to despair over what might have been. Our speaker, retired pastor Henry Wright, gave us food for thought as he opened the Scriptures to us and presented the cure for what ails us, both as pastors and laity.
Did you know that in each account in the Gospels of Jesus commissioning His disciples to evangelize the world, He found them in much the same state as He finds us today? Some doubted (Matt.28:17). They struggled with unbelief and hardness of heart (Mk. 16:14). They were afraid (Lk. 24:37). They were fishing for fish rather than fishing for men (Jn. 21:3). They seemed to be no more ready for commissioning than we are at times, and yet He commissioned them anyway. With this Pastor Wright brought home the powerful lesson that evangel-ism is in itself redemptive for those who practice it. We are indeed saved to serve and saved by serving.
I leave you with this final thought I gleaned from Pastor Samuel Neves, Associate Director of Communication for the General Conference. His presentations on how to effectively share our message in this digital age were inspiring and thought provoking. Part of his job is looking for ways to effectively market the Seventh-day Adventist Church to the communities we serve world-wide. It’s called branding; and every brand needs a slogan to communicate the reason why it exists. The General Conference recently adopted this one. I don’t think it could be said any better.
“We can help you understand the Bible to find
freedom, healing and hope in Jesus.”
This is why we are here. This is evangelism. Let us be about our Father’s business. Amen.
-Steve Peden, Project Director