Small churches can grow

If you are the pastor of a church of less than one hundred members and have concluded that your church is doomed to stay small, read this article, It will convince you that small churches can grow.

James L. Stevens is assistant to the president of the Ohio Conference.

Most Seventh-day Adventist churches in the United States today number less than one hundred members.

Thus many small church pastors face the dilemma of trying to build up their church without the resources and personnel that are available in a large-church situation. No wonder this leads to frustration and even to thoughts that small churches can't grow. Significant growth can occur on a continuing basis in small churches, but only if three factors are present: a dynamic and enthusiastic pastor; a systematic plan for accomplishing the mission of the church through measurable goals and objectives; and a trained, organized, and working laity.

The first ingredient for achieving growth in a small-church setting is a dynamic and enthusiastic pastor. He is the one who sets the climate for growth in his district.

In the small church most of the members have never seen significant growth. One church I pastored had not had a single baptism in four years! They did not even have their own church building, although Adventists had been in the community since about 1900. Naturally, the people really did not believe anything could happen, because it never had. But growth can take place even in such situations. Under the blessings of God church membership doubled in twenty-two months from 30 to 62 members. Giving more than doubled, and a brand-new building was built. In the small-church setting—even more than in a larger church—there must be a positive climate if the church is to grow. The members of the church need to gain confidence that through the power of the Holy Spirit you can lead them in the way that God wants the church to go. This requires a dynamic and enthusiastic pastor.

One of the first things a pastor needs to know as he begins to work evangelistically in a small-church district is what has happened in that particular church in the past. There are two ways to find out: ask the members, and then do a statistical study. Both are important, but the latter is more objective and accurate. By studying the church's history for the past five years, the trends and growth in many areas become apparent. Here are some suggestions: Determine the number of public evangelistic meetings and their approximate cost and net result. Determine the pattern of church growth over the past five years—the number of baptisms, deaths, apostasies, and transfers in and out. Get the tithe and mission giving for that same period of time. Do a demographic study of the local area; this will provide valuable information in working with the community. Put all this material on a graph and present it to the congregation when you meet for your first planning session.

A good statistical analysis of the community and church will sometimes give you more information and knowledge than can people who have lived there for many years. When I was an evangelist people at one church told me that virtually no one was left as church members in good standing from the last two crusades held there. This was hard to believe, so I asked the clerk for a list of those who had been baptized in those meetings and checked their current status with the pastor. About two thirds of the seventy people baptized in the two meetings were still active members. Statistics are often more accurate than opinions.

In building up a small church you must be prepared to provide a great deal of the initial thrust yourself. First, you must have a general plan of attack as you go to work to build up the church. God has called you to do a special work in the area where you are working, and if He has called you, then enter into that work with all the energy and zeal you can muster. If you have no direction or mission, then how can you possibly lead out in the work of saving souls for God's kingdom? If you do not know how to win souls or how to train others to win souls, then learn. Go to someone who does know and get both the textbook and on-the-job experience. This is a must. Soul winning cannot be learned by merely reading a book; it must also come through experience.

Set the example. The first time I preached in one church of thirty members, I brought some Voice of Prophecy and Faith for Today interest leads. After church I took a layman with me to see how to enroll people in Bible studies. He had never actually seen this done before. We enrolled a woman, and about ten weeks later she was baptized. She had had no previous contact with the Seventh-day Adventist Church besides working through a Bible study from Faith for Today. I had the layman tell publicly what happened. This did a great deal to motivate other laymen to give Bible studies and to get involved in winning souls.

One reason a small church tends to remain small is that it usually focuses on the negative. An aggressive pastor must always focus on the positive. There are always plenty of negative things to talk about, but you must focus on the positive. A pastor must create revival and enthusiasm in the church. Not all churches have a true spirit of revival, but most want this. It takes consecrated leadership for this to occur. The leader himself must be so burning with the fire of the Holy Spirit that others catch fire from just being around him. A workman on a new church we were building handed me the cord to his saw, asking me to plug it in. "Actually," he grinned, "your church members tell me you're so charged up that you could just grab the end of this cord and I could probably cut right through this two-by-ten. " We need zeal and enthusiasm in our work.

Here are some things that have worked for me in creating a spirit of revival and enthusiasm in small churches:

1. Preaching. Preach soul-stirring, revival sermons every week. Feed the church spiritually.

2. Find work for everyone possible in the church. This gets their minds off them selves and the internal problems of the church, and onto the souls perishing for the light of the truth.

3. Write positive newsletters on a monthly basis. This will do a great deal to set the climate for small-church evangelism.

4. Have your lawmen share their experiences each week. Those actively witnessing can do much to encourage and strengthen others in the church to do the same. Ellen White has said that if we will set the people to work and let them tell on Sabbath what they have done, then we won't need a sermon every week. I have practiced this hi my churches on occasion, and the testimony service has been a soul-stirring, spiritual feast for the people.

One of the best ways to build up a small church is through personal evangelism. Therefore one of the primary objectives of any pastor should be to give Bible studies. You can't get Bible studies started? One of the best ways to do this is to visit every one of your members. Find out whether they have any friends or relatives who are not Seventh-day Adventists. These are the best people to work with in giving Bible studies and the best prospects for baptism. Many Seventh-day Adventists have spouses, relatives, and children who should be enrolled in Bible studies. Make this a priority. You will be able to find out about backsliders who are also good interests.

If a small-church pastor is going to see his church grow he must visit—especially members and Bible-study interests. Invite a local elder to spend the entire day visiting with you. Some have taken time off from their jobs to go with me and see exactly what a pastor does! They enjoy it tremendously, and it shows them that a pastor does more than just sit at a desk all day. Visiting is the key to every aspect of the church. Visit! Visit! Visit! As you visit church members you can learn their goals and objectives for their church. This will give you ideas for the church planning session.

As soon as you get someone ready for baptism have a baptism. Announce it in advance. Make it an important event. Have the friends and relatives tell how they have had a part in his or her conversion. Always point to the church members as the key figures in bringing this person into the church—never to the evangelist or yourself. Point out how God is using the laymen of the church, and give Him the glory. Talk only of success. Success breeds more success.

Finally, Ingathering should be made short and soul-winning, instead of the hassle it is in many churches. Here's how. First, start Ingathering early. Begin business Ingathering in September, before the United Way drive begins. You will find this the best time for businessmen to give. Do house-to-house Ingathering in late September and October. Ingathering will be over by November 1. Set both a financial goal and a literature-distribution goal during Ingathering. And enclose in each Ingathering paper a free Bible-study enrollment card that comes back to your local church office. You'll have baptisms resulting directly from these requests.

When you reach your financial and literature goal, celebrate! Plan a large victory banquet. This is a good time to set objectives and make plans for the next year. During the Ingathering campaign make charts to keep people informed of the progress both in funds and in Bible-study card distributions. This is a motivational factor. Ingathering can be positive and enthusiastic if it is organized properly.

I believe that before a small church can grow it must see revival and enthusiasm. This will come only if the pastor and the church leadership create the atmosphere for it to happen. We must teach our people to expect great things. Ellen White wrote something very similar in Christ's Object Lessons: "You need not go to the ends of the earth for wisdom, for God is near. It is not the capabilities you now possess or ever will have that will give you success. It is that which the Lord can do for you. We need to have far less confidence in what man can do and far more confidence in what God can do for every believing soul. He longs for you to reach after Him by faith. He longs to have you expect great things from Him. He longs to give you understanding in temporal as well as in spiritual matters. He can sharpen the intellect. He can give tact and skill. Put your talents into the work, ask God for wisdom, and it will be given you."—Page 146.

Besides an enthusiastic pastor, the second factor that stimulates small-church growth is a systematic plan for growth through measurable goals and objectives for the coming year. It is of utmost importance that the majority of the church members be behind the program of the church, and the only way to assure this is to let them set the program! Many churches and pastors have never seriously sat down and thought about the mission of their own local church or considered its goals and objectives. In the small church it is imperative to have this kind of planning session to decide what is realistic and what you really want to do in the community. It is imperative that the leadership (the pastor and elders) arrange a forum for verbalizing the dreams of the members. Then translate these dreams into mission, goals, and objectives.

Have a goal-setting meeting before the beginning of each year. Publicize it well in advance and have it at a time when as many people as possible can be there to express their ideas and opinions. Formulate a mission statement that will define what your church is actually trying to do in the local community.

Set specific goals for the church. Make these simple, measurable, and attainable. For example, "To win more souls this year" is not a measurable goal. A better statement would be, "To increase our member ship by 25 members." Print these goals and objectives in a monthly newsletter. A newsletter is a must for the growing church. Especially is it necessary in a small-church district. In the newsletter list the goals and objectives and then keep the membership informed of how things are progressing. As a pastor, you must have a plan. You must enter your church with zeal and enthusiasm and expect great things. God has promised it, and He can and will deliver.

In the small church a third key factor, once you have created a spirit of enthusiasm and have set goals and objectives for the coming year, is to organize, train, and set the laity to work. Only by training the laity and equipping them to do personal evangelism on a one-to-one basis can you see significant results in a small church. Remember, it takes all the departments of the church cooperating for the church to be victorious. Soul winning must permeate every aspect of the program. When it does, no one can stop the advancement of the gospel.

In the small church the pastor must organize the church so that when a nonmember visits, he will get the feeling that this church is vibrant and alive. This may even involve something as simple as how the offering is collected. A haphazard, unorganized service says something about your church. From the time a person walks into a church until he leaves he is observing how you conduct the service. The church service must appear smooth so that nonmembers will be properly and favorably impressed. Also the church building should be well maintained. What a person sees and hears as he enters the church on Sabbath morning is very important in small-church evangelism.

Now let's look at some specific things that you can do to interest people and bring them into a small Seventh-day Adventist church. First, form a list of people who are interested in the Adventist message. A successful salesman works hard to get a good list of prospective customers, those most likely to be interested in the product he has to sell. Seventh-day Adventists must find and study with the people who are most interested in our message if we are to achieve results. Here is where many pastors fail and why many small churches do not grow. They spend their time, which is limited, on those who are least likely to make a decision for Christ. So locate every potential interest in your area. Make an announcement in church that you want to know of everyone in town who might be interested in our message. Have the members write down names, then take these names and have someone put them on the Rolodex interest-file forms that are available through your conference Ministerial Association.

Send for all the names you can secure from the Adventist media programs and other sources. This is a must. Send all the zip codes in your district to It Is Written, Voice of Prophecy, and Faith for Today, and ask for computer listings of names in your area. These can be transferred immediately to your interest file. The Home Health Education Service in your conference will send you the names of all paid-out customers in your area if you ask. Review and Herald and Pacific Press will send you the names of the persons who are receiving Signs, These Times, and Message. Gather all the interests from former evangelistic meetings and get the names of non-Adventist visitors who have registered in the guest book in your church on Sabbath morning. Secure all the names that have been helped by your local Community Services center, cooking classes, Five-Day Plans, et cetera. Don't forget The Quiet Hour, Amazing Facts, and Hour of Prophecy. Gather every single name that you can get for your interest file.

Next, organize and cultivate the interest file. You should have so many interests that you will have to organize the file to concentrate on the best ones. I have found a good way to cultivate interests is to mail letters identifying myself as a Bible-school director and including a. post card that allows the recipient to request Bible studies. I do not offer a free Bible, because too many people will be interested only in the Bible. I offer them only the opportunity to get a free set of Bible-study guides. Get a bulk-mailing permit so you can make these mailings at the least expense. Each time put an address-correction request on the envelopes, and it will update your mailing list. Once a person has requested Bible studies, simply go to the home, enroll him in the course, and visit each week to review the studies calling for decisions with each lesson.

Having an interest file alone will not add a bit of success to your soul winning. It will not produce decisions for Christ. The names on the cards are potential Adventists, but they need to be visited if they are to become a part of the church. In order to follow up all the names, you will need the help of your laymen. Ask your members publicly and privately to help in this task. Offer to train them. Take your laymen along with you and let them observe as you give Bible studies. Many will find it is easy for them, and they will soon begin to give studies. It is often profitable to use a witnessing class to train members in some means of leading souls to accept Jesus. There are many manuals and training classes that can be used. The Lay Bible Instructor's Manual by Don Gray is ideal, as is the Witnessing Manual produced by the General Conference.

One of the greatest reasons small churches don't grow is that the members get discouraged when they try to give Bible studies and nothing happens. The reason nothing happens is that they do not know how to give Bible studies and get decisions. Ellen White says, "Many would be willing to work if they were taught how to begin. They need to be instructed and encouraged. Every church should be a training school for Christian workers. Its members should be taught how to give Bible readings, how to conduct and teach Sabbath school classes, how best to help the poor and to care for the sick, how to work for the unconverted. . . . There should not only be teaching, but actual work under experienced instructors. Let the teachers lead the way in working among the people, and others, uniting with them, will learn from their example. One example is worth more than many precepts."—The Ministry of Healing, p. 149.

Begin with a short class on a weekly basis for those who wish to learn how to give Bible studies; then take them out and show them how to lead a person to accept Jesus Christ and how to present the doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Another important factor in winning souls in a small church is a strong pastor's Bible class. Many pastors fail to achieve results because they try to preach in every church every week without doing anything in the Sabbath school program. A pastor's Bible class is an effective tool that can win souls, and it is one of the most successful ways of establishing a regular church and Sabbath school attendance pattern for baptismal interests. As you visit with people to whom you are giving Bible studies, invite them to this special class. You will find this a good way to get people to church. If you are in a multichurch district train an enthusiastic, vibrant lay man to teach the pastor's class in churches where you cannot do so.

Last, a small-church pastor must remember that occasionally he needs a public evangelist to help him bind off the interest he has created and to help him develop more interest. In a small-church setting, the conference evangelist will probably not experience as many baptisms as he will if he holds a meeting in a church of 700 members, but most evangelists are willing to hold a series of meetings in a small church if they know the pastor is working hard and giving everything he has to building up that church. The public evangelist can also help the small-church pastor learn how to gain decisions.

Small churches can grow. They can achieve significant baptismal results. But they will grow only if the pastor exhibits enthusiasm and zeal for bringing souls into the church; only if the church sees its mission and sets goals and objectives to reach it; and only if the laity are trained and organized to do personal and public evangelism. Small churches can grow. In fact, it these ingredients are present, then your small church may well grow to be a large church!


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James L. Stevens is assistant to the president of the Ohio Conference.

April 1982

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