Move away from the Simple Life….

This morning in my devotions, I read through a few chapters of Proverbs as part of my reading in the LIFE Journal. And Solomon makes the case that living without wisdom is the life of the simpleton. But his rallying cry is to grow in wisdom and really begin to live! 

I loved this. I realize that as a person, I’ve had a better life because I’ve learned wisdom relationally, financially, socially, spiritually and in many other ways. It’s one of the reasons I went to college. It’s one of the reasons I took advanced studies and got my doctorate. 

As a pastor, I realize I must leave off the simpleton mindset too. What is that, you ask? It’s that the pastor must be in charge of everything, that the pastor must do everything. It’s lack of planning, flying by the seat of my pants, and it’s not paying attention to the big picture and how to get there. 

To really live life as a pastor, I’ve found, is to make my members part of the team. It’s okay for them to even lead pieces of that team. To create systems so that we know we have success in whatever we do every time we do it. So, in Evangelism, I’ve tried to create systems so we don’t have to recreate the wheel every time we do a seminar. As a pastor, I’ve tried to create those systems to help me write sermons, to prepare for board meetings, to do training events, and to build, support and train teams.

Solomon promises that when we live in wisdom, we truly have life. I’m living the dream right now and I love it! So, let’s get out of the simple life….and truly live!

The Goal isn’t Wet People, but Disciples of Jesus

Evangelism is great, but the goal isn’t to get people baptized. The goal, rather, is to bring new people into the process of full devotion to Christ and His cause. Once people are baptized because they’ve accepted the gospel message, can we turn them into definitely devoted disciples?

The church must have a discipleship plan. Discipleship is defined by these three levels: (Thanks to my associate Chad Carlton for this fundamental definition)

  1. Learning to be like Jesus – this involves learning about Jesus, learning to follow Him in obedience, being an apprentice, following the lamb wherever He goes (Revelation 14)
  2. In Loving Community – part of discipleship is being in community, in a small group, taking care of each other, support, accountability, learning together, serving together and helping others together.
  3. Leading Others to do the Same – you really aren’t a disciple until you have helped someone else become a disciple. Influencing, sharing, teaching, inviting, leading, discipling, or any combination of those terms. 

Discipleship is a full-blown commitment to Jesus – Learning to be like Him, Loving in community, and Leading others to follow Him too. The goal isn’t a bunch of wet people (as awesome as baptisms are). The goal is to go into all the world and make disciples. 

“Jesus came and told his disciples, ‘I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭28:18-20‬ ‭NLT‬‬

So where are you on that path? That’s the trick. It’s a life-long process for all disciples. You have to always learn, always be in a loving community and always leading others. Not on that path yet, still seeking? That’s okay, come along and begin learning with us.

Adventist Churches Grow Differently

I’ve read the articles. I’ve read the books. I’ve seen what other churches do. Yet, I was surprised when it wasn’t working for us. If we build it, they don’t come…. Much of the non-Adventist mentality on church growth is built around inviting people to come on Sunday mornings – come back to church, come to church for the first time, etc.

However, when we send out fliers to invite them to our Saturday morning services, people don’t flock in – if at all. Why not?

No one wakes up on a Saturday morning and says, “Wow Honey, we haven’t been to church in (years/months), why don’t we go today?” But they do that on Sunday mornings. Our theology demands that we grow differently. Why?

  1. We aren’t asking people to come for 1 hour a week, we’re asking them to give a 24 hour period. This requires more thinking than “Let’s go visit this week.”
  2. When we ask people to come on Saturday mornings, we are going against the grain of society. Everything good happens on Saturday mornings. The best ball games, the best cartoons, the best garage sales, the best shopping, little league games, etc. We are asking them to give up their Saturday and come to church. It’s different than the rest of society.
  3. Our theology demands that we teach them, so they will accept. It’s so against the grain of society that it takes some instruction. So we do evangelism. Why? Because Adventist Churches grow differently.

On March 17, 2011, printed an article that showed that Seventh-day Adventists are the fastest growing church in the USA. Yet, people aren’t flocking to our churches from the community. Most Adventist churches grow because they do evangelism. Adventist Churches grow differently.

Our evangelism is what drives our growth around North America. There are pockets here and there that don’t do evangelism and are still growing, but by-and-large, most churches grow because of their evangelism.

Because of our beliefs – what happens when we die, the second coming, the Sabbath, etc. It also takes time to process what we teach. You can’t really do this in a short time, but you need a few weeks to process things, so that it will make a life change for you.

When I was 12, my parents hauled my brother and I to an evangelistic seminar. The first week at church, my dad didn’t go. I wanted to stay home with him and watch the game. I was not happy. By the time the seminar was over, we had all had time to process the truth we learned and it was time to make a life-lasting-change in our family. We were ready. It took time to process it all.

God’s Party – The Fun of Evangelism

People (church members) often get really excited at opening night of an evangelistic series. The crowd, the new speaker, the backdrop, and all the busyness of getting people registered, greeted, announced, etc. The excitement is truly there. And for many people, the excitement wears off rather quickly because they stop coming.

But for me, the most exciting time of evangelism is in the final week. That’s when people begin making decisions for following Christ. That’s when life-change really begins to happen. When a person makes a decision to follow Jesus, they are making a decision to change where they’ve been and enter into a new life. It changes the community, one person at a time. 

That’s where we are right now. Lyle Albrecht has been going now for 3 weeks. We are in the final week. Yesterday, I saw a friend of mine make a decision for Christ. He’s going to get baptized. He’s going to follow Him all the way. I told him, “Don’t worry about the baptism, I only hold people under until ALL their sins are washed away!” “Oh no! I’ll be under there for an hour!” He said. The good news is, all that is washed away immediately. And God throws a party.

God’s party. That’s why I like the last week better than the first week. The first week is all about the looks-Lou’s. The last week is all about lives being transformed. The fun of evangelism happens when people commit their lives to Jesus. Yes, evangelism is a lot of work. Yes, it’s hard work. But getting ready for any party is hard work. But I don’t do it for the hard work. I do the hard work for the party at the end! God’s party.

How Do We Keep Them?

Many people have asked, how we manage to keep people after they come in through an evangelistic seminar. The answer I give is a plan we’ve developed through much trial and error. But it hinges two key things: 1) building friendships and 2) confirming what they’ve learned.

1) FRIENDSHIPS: It’s been reported that when new people come to church, they need to make 7 close, personal friends within the first year if they are to stay. So, we’ve tried to capitalize on that in many ways. This is what we do.

  • We assign each person a spiritual mentor (usually a husband and wife team, but not always), who visits them, delivers gifts from the church, invites them over for food, and spiritually mentors them by answering basic questions about church, the Bible, and prays with them.
  • We get them into a small group where they will make close friendships. We usually start 2-3 small groups after every seminar filled mainly with new people and few people who can help guide them.
  • We have social events that get people together to play, where friendships can be made
  • Plenty of potluck a during and after the seminar doesn’t hurt either

2) CONFIRMING: In an evangelistic seminar, we cover a lot of ground in a few short weeks, so we do some things to go over again the information that they’ve learned. This is what we do.

  • We begin a Bible Marking class immediately after the seminar where people are encouraged to open their Bibles, ask questions, Mark their Bibles in a chain reference fashion so they can find it themselves and share it with others. This class lasts 12-15 weeks.
  • We utilize our newly started small groups to also teach some of the same information. Some think that’s overkill. Yet, the new people are excited about what they’ve just learned and cannot seem to get enough. But we aren’t rigid about this, the groups can study other things. However, we do find that the groups that study some aspect of Bible prophecy tend to keep going longer.
  • Our mentors pass out materials on a schedule that will help people. We give books like “Desire of Ages,” “Great Controversy,” or a variety of books that will help them grow spiritually or doctrinally. Both are important at this stage. Books that are passed out, magazines, DVDs, etc. can be handed out every few weeks that gives the mentors an excuse to go visit and gives them something to talk about.
  • We also challenge people with a specific area of discipleship that fits with the new people in our sermon series immediately following an evangelistic seminar.

What we’ve found, is that if we can get people over a three month hurdle (12 weeks) that they are more prone to stay. So the big thrust of this is within that time frame, but it lingers beyond – the friends, the socials, the small groups. With these in mind, our 1 year retention rate hovers around 85-90% and our long-term retention rate hovers around 65-70%.

No One’s Even Here Now! Really?

I remember when a friend of mine stated matter-of-factly one day, “Well, no one’s even here from our evangelistic series in _____.” I knew otherwise and I said, “Sure there are, what about Ron, Jim, Mary?” 

“Really, They were part of that group?” He reacted. I went on and listed about 10 more names and was just getting started. When he stood there slack-jawed in amazement. His final words were, “I thought they’d been here longer than that!”

For years, I couldn’t imagine why people couldn’t see it like I did. It’s another myth, people leave within a year after being baptized. As a pastor, I knew otherwise. But why couldn’t other people see it? Thus began a journey of mine to document the retention of people. As the pastor, I knew otherwise. In the course of that documentation, I found out two things I wasn’t expecting.

First let me tell you what I already knew. My spreadsheet has been verified by two people with national numbers. My numbers spread over two churches, but before I began documenting, I can take you back to two other churches with the same numbers. My experience is in the small church district, the contemporary church plant that grew large, and now in the very large church. The numbers come in that our retention is about 70%. True story. The NAD average for evangelism is the same, as confirmed in seperate conversations with Russell Burrill and Ron Clouzet, they see the similar numbers.

But let me tell you the two unexpected things I did discover when I began keeping track of retention: 1) We did lose people, but not whom you would expect and 2) The new people who stayed were perceived by the members to be here longer because of their huge involvement levels.

Yes, we did lose people. But the people we primarily lost were not the newly baptized. The people we really lost within a year after the baptism, were people who were already members, but we’re on the fringe. In other words, people left, who were barely hanging on already. This, I believe, has to do with the capacity of the church discipleship ministry. We bring in new people and take care of them, but in the course of that, some people realize they aren’t being taken care of and leave. Often times, they have been long-time members. I found, until we patched some of the discipleship mechanisms, that we always lost people after evangelism – but they were primarily “old” members who had been there for awhile. The patch? Small groups, social interaction and visitation (another blog post someday)

Yet the perception and even surprise of the old members that Ron, Jim or Mary weren’t part of that evangelistic series was strange to me. What I realized, and began to decipher was that those people got so involved in the life of the church, most people couldn’t imagine church even functioning without them. Therefore, they must have been here much longer, because the church was certainly functioning before that seminar…. 

New people do stay. New people get involved because they love the church and are excited about helping it move forward. But for us to see the growth we need, we must have a strong discipleship mentality in the church. Discipleship is not just evangelism follow-up either (ahh… I see another post coming)….