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What’s the Best Way for Churches to Grow?

The most satisfying accession to the church I’ve ever experienced was with a young family with no Seventh-day Adventist connections that just showed up at church one day, and after a few months of attending came to me after services and said, “We love this church. Everyone is so nice. The worship services are a blessing. We’d like to become members.” I gave them some basic instruction (they’d gotten a good background to our central beliefs just through sermons and Sabbath School) and baptized them. It was, to me, the perfect way for someone to come into our church. I never had to give them a sales pitch. They’d found among us a happy, spiritually-fulfilling community that fed their relationship with God, and they wanted more of it. Rather than our selling them something, they simply fell in love.

That isn’t the only time that’s happened, but it’s not been the most common way for someone to become part of the Seventh-day Adventist church.

Undoubtedly a large proportion of those who join our church do so through family connections. We work hard to keep our own children —Sabbath Schools, church schools and Pathfinder clubs all contribute. Even with our best efforts, though, not everyone who grows up in the church stays in it. I wish they did.

Although we’ve traditionally held stern views about Adventists marrying outside our church, “marriage evangelism” has been a fruitful source of church members. The most conservative interpretation of our church manual says that a Seventh-day Adventist pastor shouldn’t officiate in the marriage of an Adventist to a non-Adventist, but some pastors do—and many thus joined to Seventh-day Adventist spouses also join the church. (I’d venture that more spouses join the church when pastors are willing to do the “mixed” wedding, than when they refuse.)

The primary tool in our church growth arsenal has been the public crusade. Public evangelism has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years, some of it deserved. It costs a lot of money. It doesn’t attract very many people. It has a hard-sell feeling about it. It is a one-dimensional attraction, based largely on assent to logical propositions. People won in meetings often don’t stay.

But does it work? Sure. Not as well as it used to, when an announcement of a series of evangelistic meetings would bring out everyone in a small town. Back when I was young, we were so good at evangelism that pastors of other denominations, when they saw our handbills in the mail, would warn their members not to attend. And we Adventists knew how to do meetings! Fantastic music (anyone else remember the Barron brothers?), quizzes, prizes, black-light chalk drawings—sometimes even debates with those criticizing pastors. Best of all, our evangelists were excellent Bible teachers—just listen to recordings of E.E. Cleveland in his prime.

Nowadays, meetings aren’t the attraction they once were. It’s much harder to get people’s attention. But let’s be clear: public evangelism can work. Those who criticize it often haven’t replaced it with anything better. Some churches should be doing meetings rather than what they’re doing now, which is nothing. Public evangelism has going for it that it is something we know how to do and will (at least as long as this current generation of retired folks is alive) find support for. And done well, some will join the church through evangelistic meetings.

One of the better ways to bring people into the church is individual Bible studies, another method that has declined in an age when, for a variety of reasons, people rarely interact evangelistically with friends and neighbors. When I was a child, my mother faithfully delivered Bible lessons to a neighbor woman once a week. The family eventually joined the church. I know of one congregation in Ohio where most of the families in the church can be traced to the Bible studies given by a single church member. She’ll have stars in her crown! Bible studies make up for the deficiencies of public evangelism by marrying truth with long-running personal relationships. If the teacher is a good example of the truth he or she is presenting, and helps ease the student into the church community, that’s a powerful incentive to join and stay.

The biggest problem in any kind of evangelism, it seems to me, is that it’s hard to keep new converts. A friend told me about a crusade in her church last year where 20 people were baptized, and after a couple of months none were left. I asked her why she thought they’d dropped away. Some, she thought, didn’t understand from the beginning that there was more to it than interesting teachings—they liked the ideas, but didn’t understand what it meant to be part of a church.

Of those who did start out coming to church, though, she said, “What was actually happening in the life of the church didn’t match what they heard in the meetings.” The attractive presentation of Biblical truths led them to believe they were becoming part of an exciting church community. But the congregation they joined, my friend said, was insular and critical, and (like a lot of long-established congregations) absorbed with relatively mundane matters of money, buildings, and leadership politics. The thrill that the new members had gotten from learning truth couldn’t be sustained in that setting, because the truth didn’t appear to be thrilling the church members themselves.

Which brings us back to local congregations. It’s something I’ve said so many times that I sound like a broken record, but it’s so self-evident that I’m surprised it needs to be said at all: people don’t want to be part of an unhappy, stressful, critical group. Of any kind. They won’t join, and won’t stay among, a group of people who are hurtful, bickering, defensive, or busily doing things of no particular importance—no matter how “right” they are.

Truth is as truth does. If every one of our congregations was kind, friendly, honest, and just in their dealings with others, I believe we wouldn’t have to send out a single flyer, much less twist anyone’s arm to join. If we were what one supposes a group based on the life of Jesus Christ could be, we’d have attracted millions, just as we’d have kept millions who have left.

We have met the enemy of church growth, and it is us.

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