How, in a challenging time, do you lead a thriving Adventist congregation?
The Ear begins now a periodic exploration of this question through conversation with several Adventist pastors, some at “institutional” churches and some that are doing well without the advantage of an Adventist university, hospital or organizational headquarters close by. The focus will be on both leadership and preaching, and begins today with a leader whose church was once a conference headquarters congregation but has for a long time operated without that kind of built-in support.
Jonathan Henderson leads the Grand Advent Seventh-day Adventist Church on Grand Avenue, near Lake Merritt, in downtown Oakland, California. The congregation is ethnically diverse in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, with a strong percentage of young adults who are professionals and are beginning families. Church membership is 420, and Henderson estimates that about three-quarters of these attend “regularly.”
A graduate of Pacific Union College. he came to the Grand Advent Church at 26 — average attendance then was around 25 — and has been senior pastor for 11 years. He was ordained to the ministry five years ago. Although he did not attend the Seminary at Andrews University, he is now pursuing a master’s degree. He says that he “fell in love” with the church when he preached there as a PUC student.
Henderson and his wife are “proud parents to an 18-year-old foster daughter.” They also have 18-month-old twins “separated by birth”: one is Nathan, and the second is his adopted two-days-younger sister Nya.
Here is some of his perspective on preaching and leading an Adventist congregation today:
Question: You lead an Adventist congregation. What is it that, as a leader, you hope to achieve?
Answer: Growth. I want to see my church grow in membership, character, presence and influence. Our city should be a better city because our church exists. People, marriages, schools and businesses should be healthier and more successful because of the character and influence our church. And the more members you can lead, the more lives you can impact.
Question: Thoughtful members really appreciate a compelling — ideally, an insightful — sermon. If there were one key to rising above mediocrity in preaching, what do you think it is?
Answer: Find the emotional anchor in the sermon/story. We too often are satisfied with only passing along information in attempt to stimulate the intellect. I believe when you reach people at their core emotionally, it is profound for them intellectually as well. No one has a hard time remembering the parts of movies and books that made them laugh or cry; in fact it is for those very moments that people re-watch movies or reread stories.
Question: What is the most important factor in your own sermon preparation? How does it relate to both the substance and the delivery of your sermons?
Answer: I must feel the sermon. There is no sermon I preach that I cannot relate to on some level. I use my imagination to place my feet in the sandals of Moses or Peter in order to feel their fears, anger and redemption. Once I’m anchored into the emotion of the story, I know how it must be delivered.
Question: Your congregation has many members. How is it possible for you to connect with your members so they actually see you as a pastor and not simply as a Sabbath morning preacher?
Answer: Pastoring is about presence. Beyond the typical counseling sessions with members, I attempt to greet everyone in the church coming in or going out on Sabbath. I take advantage of being at church socials, and visit at least one family a week. If you’re in the hospital, I’m there, and if you’re really sick, you’ll hear from me. Lastly, social media, including quick text messages, are easy ways for your members to interact with you outside of the Sabbath service.
Question: How do you pay attention both to evangelism and also to the care and keeping of your current members?
Answer: They are one and the same for me. Effective pastoral care, including meaningful and impactful sermons, should bring people to Christ. An engaging worship service, visually and musically; a friendly congregation whose members remain connected outside the four walls of the sanctuary; and a church in service to its community — all these are the best witnesses of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I see no point in cramming your best preaching, music, and outreach efforts into two weeks of “evangelism” when this can/should be your church experience every week.