Reviving inactive churches

Small groups provide the answer to activating churches in growth and soul-winning.

Alberto R. Timm, PhD,is rector of the Latin-American Adventist Theological Seminary, Brasília, DF, Brazil.

Only dynamic churches can face the challenge of a changing world. A "church must be a working church if it would be a living church."1 How can an inactive church become active?

Experts in business agree that one of the most profitable investments is the human element. In church administration things are different. Ellen G. White counsels: "That which is needed now for the upbuilding of our churches is the nice work of wise laborers to discern and develop talent in the church talent that can be educated for the Master's use. There should be a well-organized plan for the employment of workers to go into all our churches, large and small, to instruct the members how to labor for the upbuilding of the church and also for unbelievers. It is training, education, that is needed."2

This article presents some principles of healthy church growth, based on the experience of a pastor who applied Ellen White's advice in his district. Although not all details of his program can work in every church, the principles involved can be helpful anywhere.

Preparing the leaders of the local church

When Pastor Jose Barbosa began his ministry at Belo Jardim ("Beautiful Garden") in the Northeast Brazil Mission, baptisms were low, and apostasies were high three out of four converts left the church shortly after joining. He deter mined to turn things around. Developing his own strategies based on having chosen three elders from the district's main church, he first spent six months instructing them in a special leadership program known as spiritual multiplication. The training consisted of a weekly 30-minute session in discipling skills followed by an hour of visitation.

After the first two months, each of the elders chose another layman to disciple, replicating the pastor's work in training them. After two more months, each of the three trainees selected another member, thus repeating the discipling process. A stream of trained people emerged from that process, in which every person involved coached at least three others. (See figure 1.)

After six months of training for the first three elders, the pastor made them leaders of three different classes in the church. Both the prebaptismal and the postbaptismal classes took place at the same time as the Sabbath school, but in different rooms. The postbaptismal group also had a missionary skills class on Sabbath afternoon.

Preparing the church for the program

Realizing that no evangelism project can be successful without the whole church's involvement, Pastor Barbosa organized the participation of all his members. Using the Sabbath school as a means to achieve his goal, he arranged the classes in geographic areas with no more than 12 members, including two teachers, one deacon, and one deaconess, and having an elder as coordinator for every three classes.

To help in the church's community outreach, each Sabbath school class divided into two groups of six members each. Both groups met Monday evenings at the teacher's home. (See figure 2.) Each member had the responsibility of bringing one non-Adventist to both the home group and the prebaptismal class. Each layperson became the spiritual tutor of the individual under his or her care.

The home groups developed in three areas: doctrinal, devotional, and witnessing. This not only evangelized the nonmembers but also strengthened and unified the Adventist believers.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays some groups met for 30 minutes of prayer and fellowship in the homes of members and nonmembers on a rotating basis. Named Friends in Search of the Holy Spirit, the groups used Revelation Seminar materials as a basis for Bible study.

Developing the process

The function of the Sabbath School classes was to attract non-Adventists to the prebaptismal class, which in turn helped the visitors achieve a true relationship with Christ and understand our basic doctrines. After their baptism, new members enrolled in both the postbaptismal and the missionary skills classes. In the postbaptismal class new members studied deeper doctrines and church organization structure, including the role of local church officers as described in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual. In the skills class they learned to share their faith. New members also became spiritual guardians of those beginning to attend the prebaptismal class. They visited them during the week and encouraged any who missed a meeting to return.

At the completion of their study in church leadership, all the members of the postbaptismal class assumed apprentice leadership positions. These assistant leaders served for six months. The result was trained future leaders. (See figure 3.)

Even though each of the three classes lasted for only three months, they continuously welcomed new members. With the increase of class members, additional classes opened, led by others trained in the spiritual multiplication system.

Extending the program to other churches

In 1985 the Belo Jardim district had about 1,000 members and only 37 baptisms—and 70 percent of new members left the church shortly after joining. With the new integrated training program, things turned around. In the following year, out of the 162 baptized, only 7 percent apostatized.

Encouraged by the results at the Belo Jardim Central church, Pastor Barbosa applied the same program in other churches of his district. With the Pitanga church entering the program in 1987, baptisms in the district rose to 265, with the apostasy rate remaining at 7 to 8 percent. In 1988 the Arcoverde church joined the program, and 301 new members were added to the district with the same high retention level. (See figure 4.)

We must look beyond the appearances of our congregations and see their possibilities. Aside from sociocultural distinctions that influence results, the principles of Barbosa's integrated church growth program can be helpful anywhere.

Among the benefits of this program are:

1. The spiritual multiplication process provides an increasing number of actively trained leaders for the church.

2. The prebaptismalclasses held at the same time as the Sabbath school give church members the opportunity of bringing nonAdventists to an adequate Bible study.

3. The organization of the Sabbath school classes in small active groups not only concurs with God's plan3 but also provides an easy way to involve the whole church in the program.

4. The postbaptismal program not only fosters a speedier integration of the new members with the rest of the church but also provides trained additional leadership needed for healthy church growth.

5. The whole program can revitalize inactive churches, solving many pastoral frustrations in reaching baptismal goals and lowering apostasy rates.

1 Ellen G. White, Christian Service (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1947), p.83.

2. ______, Testimonies for the Church (Moun tain View, California.: Pacific Press Publishing Association., 1948), vol. 9, p. 117. (Italics supplied.)

3. See Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7, pp. 21, 22.

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Alberto R. Timm, PhD,is rector of the Latin-American Adventist Theological Seminary, Brasília, DF, Brazil.

February 1992

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