It takes way longer than three weeks, but it works much better.
By Christy K Robinson
Remember when the pastor said, while trying to whip up excitement about personal evangelism, “Shepherds don’t make sheep; sheep make sheep,” and you cringed because you didn’t want to witness door to door, or spread tracts at the park or on car windshields—and you were not about to enlarge the church by giving birth to numerous children? Remember the time when a little booklet about the state of the dead appeared on your doorstep, titled “Our Glorious Dead,” and you were embarrassed that your neighbors received the same piece? Remember the pressure to bring someone to church to hear the sermon, or don’t come at all? (That one didn’t work very well.)
I worked for an independent nonprofit that specialized first in radio and TV ministry, then concentrated more heavily on short-term evangelism. They sent volunteer teams around the world to preach in villages and towns, and baptized people at the end of about three weeks. The volunteers raised their own funds for travel and the expenses of nightly meetings, but the sermons were not their own. They pledged to use only the words and materials of the scripts they were provided. It was exciting to see scores or hundreds of the attendees come forward to request baptism. Whether we were on scene or supporting back at headquarters, we were part of it.
But we saw some things that disturbed us. The people who were baptized at the end of the meetings weren’t the same ones who had attended our meetings. They’d been in baptismal studies for months with local pastors, and the ones who came to the meetings wouldn’t be baptized until they had taken months of classes themselves. There were claims that 5,000 or 20,000 people had been baptized, but the numbers included people who were already members, being rebaptized. We didn’t know if “our” converts had been allowed to be baptized without completing training in the 28 Fundamental Beliefs.
In some campaigns, along with the nightly sermons, our organization conducted dental or eye clinics, or construction projects like chapels or school building additions. At the close of meetings, our people went home and local churches were to tend and nourish their new brothers and sisters. But when we went back to villages where we’d constructed chapels 10 years before, the buildings were disused and falling apart. No one remained to worship or learn or pass the torch.
When we heard reports from sister ministries of 20,000 and 50,000 baptisms after their efforts, it put me in mind of Vladimir, prince of Novgorod and Kiev, who in 988 marched his people into the Dnieper River at the point of a spear, and called them Christians. (Vladimir was canonized for his evangelism outreach.) How many of those cold, wet pagans embraced Christianity?
But do those masses of converts stay in the church? In 2013, the General Conference hosted a global summit on the subject of membership loss, recognizing that the world church had lost a third of its members in the last 50 years, but the rate of loss had accelerated to 43 percent in this century.
There are at least two problems with declining church membership: fewer new accessions, and member retention.
Researcher Monte Sahlin (who is also the executive director of Adventist Today) believes that people don’t leave because of doctrines or church practices, but because the church doesn’t meet their personal needs when they’re going through tough times like prolonged unemployment, domestic conflict, or health crises.
For the people who do leave because of doctrine or toxic situations, there’s a large online support network of those with similar experiences, in addition to the fellowship and services (and service opportunities) available in community, non-denominational, and mainline churches.
As a professional church musician, I’ve observed the workings of other denominations as well as mine for more than 30 years, from the piano and organ benches, as a teacher and elder, and in committee or church board meetings.
At first, having enjoyed services at university churches for years, I was a snob about the intellectual content of the other, the first-day church, sermons, which could be boiled down to “God loves you and saved you. Go forth and love your neighbor as God has loved you.” Not for them the distinctions between the covenants, sanctification and justification, or the various eras, empires, and beasts. They’ve never known a time when they feared they’d been lost, or believed that despite all their efforts, they’d never attain heaven. They believed their pastor, and lived and loved as they were loved.
They’d have monthly or weekly Communion services. These Protestant churches initiated backyard fruit harvests that boosted the Catholic food bank; they collected shoebox gifts for homeless and domestic abuse shelters; they prepared food served to street people three times a day; they made meals and quilts and they babysat for people recovering from surgery. They arose before dawn on Saturdays to distribute food boxes to hundreds of needy families a month. They blessed others and were blessed by these works of the Spirit. They would merge choirs with nearby churches for Christmas and Easter without worrying that they’d lose a sheep to another fold, and carpooled members and friends to arenas for women or youth ministry rallies. They didn’t forget their own members’ social needs, either: there were weekly vintage movies, evening Bible study, Tuesday prayer groups, busing the seniors to a museum or sporting event or flea market. They had an interchurch drama group, parents’ night out (while directing the kids in crafts), twelve-step groups and divorce recovery. And there was a committee to learn how best to include gay members in worship services or support them when they’d been rejected by family or community. They never held evangelistic efforts or revivals. Instead, they planted a new church with some of their members.
Meanwhile, on Saturdays, I watched people write out checks for ADRA or Community Services projects and seal them in envelopes; teach Sabbath School for 20 years without a break; prepare a weekly luncheon for visitors; move chairs and tables and dust mop the fellowship hall; direct the choir or play keyboards, and many other nuts-and-bolts jobs that helped the local church and wore them out, so they needed an afternoon nap to recover. I remember parents keeping their children in Christian school by working evenings as custodians and handymen. The members worked hard and donated a lot of money to keep their church property lovely. They regularly invited neighbors and relatives to attend services with them.
They often invested in expensive Revelation Seminars driven by guest speakers, in an attempt to bring in new converts. The seminars were sometimes preceded by vegetarian cooking or smoking cessation classes. Most of the baptisms were church members who were rededicating their lives to the Lord.
As we went over the membership records, name by name, we found that half the names weren’t attending services even once a year. We sent them letters and the elders visited them. A few were content to stay on the books; others said they could be dropped. Even the dropped names went onto colored cards so they could be later invited to a Revelation Seminar or be visited by a Bible worker. While they’d been members, they had been taught that all other churches were apostate, and if you turned from the Light of our distinctive beliefs, you’d be lost. So they didn’t usually join another fellowship. They just stopped anything to do with church.
As a member of the church staff, I was upset to learn that the Conference set goals for baptisms and tithes/offerings, and the pastor could be dinged for not meeting the goals.
I now accompany the choir at a community church that’s grown to two large services (300-350 people each) in only a few months. The choir grew from an octet to more than 30 and they had to enlarge the stage, with standing room only. The board is considering adding a third service or moving to a larger space in the business park. The pastor’s sermon last week was about evangelism. I sat up straighter in my chair. “What? This place holds doctrine seminars?”
He talked about some of the outreach going with church members: a fundraising golf tournament for families of seriously ill children, preparing and serving food to street people, and other initiatives. “Um, what about the framework of teachers, preachers, support personnel, and audiovisual equipment you need for evangelism?” I wondered.
And then, as if he couldn’t discern my puzzled thoughts, he spoke about a book called Finding Your Way Back to God, which reports a research study done in Thailand. Half of the 12 “business as mission” organizations had a goal of converting people as they worked in the community, and the other half of the missionary businesses focused on creating jobs and small businesses, and benefiting the Thai economy.
The latter group, the blessers, made more money, hired more Thai employees, and—surprise!—had a 48 times greater conversion rate than the converters.
What made the difference? The blessers practiced the acronym BLESS:
Begin with prayer.
They determined to evangelize by seeking God’s direction to the place and the people he had in mind. They listened to the joys, sorrows, and needs of the people they targeted. They ate (fellowshipped, practiced hospitality, etc.) together, as Jesus did with the tax collectors, prostitutes, and everyday neighbors. They served one another in ways that built personal relationships and partnerships. And finally, after getting to know these people as close friends, they could tell the story of what Jesus has done in their lives.
As the pastor finished, he thanked the congregation for their sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s leading, and charged them to go forth and bless. It sounded a lot like those simple sermons I’ve heard every Sunday for 35 years.
More on blessers and converters:
5 Habits of Highly Missional People
BLESS Missional Practices as Sideways Step into Evangelism
Five Simple Practices for Putting Your Church on Mission
Finding Your Way Back to God, by Dave Ferguson and Jon Ferguson
Christy K Robinson is a self-employed editor, author, music teacher, and church keyboardist. She is the author of the five-star reviewed books: We Shall Be Changed(2010), Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013), Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014), The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014), Effigy Hunter (2015), Anne Hutchinson, American Founding Mother (coming in 2017)