Our church has risen to new life!

The inspiring and instructive story of how a small, dying church rose to become a dynamic congregation

Daniel B. Martella is pastor of the Prove, Utah, Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Through the years millions have marveled at the lifelike appearance of the man who founded the Soviet Union. But the secret to the fine preservation of Lenin's body is a team of artists who monitor the decomposition of the corpse and replace missing or decomposed pieces with wax! In the end only 40 percent of the serenely re posing body is actually Lenin, while the remaining 60 percent is nothing more than wax.

How like my small church! I thought to myself. Caught in the vortex of a death spiral, our church had become decaying flesh and wax an Ichabod-like shadow of its former glory. Sabbath mornings bore the chill of death, as a faithful few sat with fro zen faces and vacant stares for what felt like an extended funeral.

Assessing the church

Our journey out of the dead church cemetery began one evening when I found the courage to ask our church board some hard questions: How in the world did we get this way? What is it that has pushed us to the brink of congregational extinction? Like a dam breaking loose, a torrent of pent-up frustrations rushed forth.

Fran reminded us of the families who had moved to Boise to find work in the growing software industries. Another cited the familiar litany of our limited success in influencing our strong Mormon community. Carlos noted the language barriers in reaching the growing Hispanic community. One woman wiped away tears as she remembered how the church body had been wounded by angry dissident church snipers.

As we talked we began to see that these things community demographics, membership transfers, and angry departures by dissidents were factors over which we had little or no control. They were beyond our ability to change and therefore beyond the realm of our responsibility. Only after re leasing ourselves from artificial guilt were we free to focus our energies on things we had the power to change.

We turned an important corner when Bill suggested that our church's future must be linked to our shared identity. "Who are we as a church?" he wanted to know. "What things are important to us? What are the as sets of our church? What changes do we need to make in order to embrace our opportunities for the future?"

Answers fell into place slowly in the months to come, like pieces of a puzzle, and with each piece God's vision for our future came into sharper focus. Together we defined our objectives and strategic plans for the church's future. United in our mission, we were on our way to becoming a dynamic little church with big dreams.

An outward focus

The next step in our growth caught me by surprise one afternoon when I happened to meet Ralph puffing on a health club Stairmaster. "What are you doing here?" I asked my friend. "Paying the price for my holiday indulgences," he answered, smiling. "Like the church, I've been eating too much and exercising too little." His words hit home. The church paradigm by which we operated was rich in nurture but lacking in outreach. Ralph took his ambitious resolve from the health club to the church. In his Sabbath school class and hallway conversations he began to inspire the saints with a new passion for soul winning. "There is little to attract new Adventist families to our community," he would tell them, "so we need to focus on growing new converts."

With Ralph's encouragement, we left the church "fat farm" and committed ourselves to an ambitious outreach endeavor that would culminate with evangelistic meetings. Our new plan for congregational health worked magic. Church board meetings be came focused on outreach instead of on mundane maintenance matters. We planned a parenting seminar that brought a steady stream of fresh faces to our church. Our members became experts in hallway evangelism. Church growth through friendship became the heartbeat of our congregation.

One morning I drove a group of our Community Services leaders to the regional federation meeting in a nearby city. We couldn't help noticing a number of beautiful mega-churches along the way. "Sometimes I wish we could have a church like that," Karen mused, "with a full slate of ministries and heart-stopping worship services." The others agreed. "On the other hand," Irene interjected, "trying to imitate these tall-steepled ministries is a surefire recipe for mediocrity and burnout for a small church. I think that it is better for small churches to concentrate on doing a few things well."

As we moved through the intersection, my mind slipped into a reflective gear. Irene was right. A multitude of muddled ministries disgrace a church. A few things done well would serve us better in renewing a positive church image.

When we got back to our church that afternoon Irene announced, "The first thing we're going to do is give this place a face-lift." We agreed that the peeling paint, frayed carpeting, and weeds reflected the run-down spirit of our church. With a little paint from the hardware store, some inexpensive, lightly used secondhand carpeting, and a few volunteer work bees, the church was given a whole new look without costing us a fortune. As weeks passed, church members could be heard to say, "We don't have to be embarrassed to bring our friends here any more."

Commitment to excellence

Seeing the church building newly refurbished inspired us with other possibilities. One evening at an elders' meeting, one elder nudged another and said, "Let's update the worship service. With a growing number of members and guests coming to church, we simply must make this time count." Pulling an old bulletin out of his Bible, Ralph pointed out the advantages of updating the design with some new fonts and a bit of computer clip art. Susan added, "Our congregational singing could be given new wings with a combination of classic hymns and contemporary choruses." Another elder suggested we begin a garden of prayer. Wrapping it all up, Carlos advised us to tie each worship service together with a theme that both believers and seekers could follow easily.

On my way home from the elders' meeting it occurred to me that my role in refining our essentials was to provide excellence in preaching. I pulled over to the side of the road and on the back of an envelope wrote down my credo for an effective pulpit ministry: Christ-centered grace, biblical integrity, Spirit-driven passion, practical relevance, and a commitment to Adventist basics. These are the principles that are now helping me connect with our congregation in a way that edifies believers and evangelizes seekers.

Scaling back the scope of ministry in our church and committing ourselves to excellence in the essentials has been a vital element of our church's comeback. While we will never replicate the high-octane worship services and ministries found in large churches, a warm glow of satisfaction settles over our congregation when we know that we have done our best to honor God in the basics.

Pastoral credibility

Church life on the fast track had taken its toll on my pastoral personality, so I was looking forward to a reality check at our annual ministerial conference. The keynote speaker hit a home run for me when he said, "The ability of our churches to reach their God-given potential will be in direct proportion to the spiritual integrity of our pastors. Building a bond of credibility with your congregation is one of the most basic requirements of successful pastoral ministry. If your people can't count on you, you've lost it."

During the break I wandered off by my self to consider the implications of what I had heard. Pastoral credibility begins with me, I mused. It rises out of the kind of person I am. My vital connection with God. The quality of relationship shared with my family. The consistency of my convictions as a person and pastor. My capacity to love people genuinely.

During the second session we broke into discussion groups. "What does it take to establish pastoral credibility in the church?" our facilitator asked. A colleague next to me suggested that people become comfortable with their pastor when he or she is a real person who shows honesty, sincerity, and a true concern for each member of the church. Another in the circle reminded us that ministry is more than keeping church machinery going; it is loving people radically and being there for them.

"Before we break for lunch," our facilitator said, "let's make a list of practical how-to's for building pastoral credibility." One young woman said, "You've got to be with the people. You've got to move slowly through the crowds at church and get on your knees to talk with the kids." A silver-haired pastor remarked, "You've got to per form your basic pastoral roles in a competent way. Keep your promises. Live within your budget. Meet your deadlines." Another added, "Be there when it counts: when there's a death in the family, when the kids graduate from high school, when they're in the hospital. You've got to love them through times of tragedy and triumph." Rounding off the discussion, a grinning seminarian stood to remind us that a positive attitude always makes a difference.

In the months following this "mountaintop" retreat, the challenge to show personal integrity has continued to hold my feet to the fire and my heart close to the people God has given me to love. A bond of credibility is slowly building that will hold us together as we move toward God's glorious horizon.

Celebrate success

The renewal of our church culminated at the end of the year with a praise and thanksgiving celebration. The glow of new life shone in the eyes of members old and young as they crowded into the church to rejoice in God's goodness.

After a time of exuberant singing and heartfelt prayer, members began sharing their perspectives on our journey through the year. "When so many moved away," Karen reflected, "I felt abandoned and defeated. Now I am beginning to see that those folks are a gift from our church. They are disciples we have helped develop and have given to other congregations across the country." Ralph jumped to his feet to recount the joy of seeing seven new members join the body through baptism. "This is not the same church I joined 12 years ago," an elated Fran beamed. "We are truly a family now."

As fellowship melted into worship and we lifted our praise to God for effecting a resurrection and new life in our congregation, we knew that a new day had dawned for this small church. Though the journey has been slow and sometimes painful, Spirit-inspired principles have sparked a resurgence of hope, vision, and morale.

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Daniel B. Martella is pastor of the Prove, Utah, Seventh-day Adventist Church.

September 1997

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