A diversified church comes of age

A church, purposely made of all kinds of people, learns and grows into maturity

Teresa Reeve is a freelance writer and lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

All Nations Church, near Andrews University, was born out of a dream. Students, leaders, and community members in Berrien Springs, Michigan, believed in the biblical ideal of a church that welcomes and affirms all people.

A commitment to love and value one another as God's children regardless of race, age, gender, handicap, or social and economic status became its foundation principle.

The early years of the church were typical of any childhood. Watched over by the eager "parents," the church began a journey of discovery: how to operate and coordinate the different parts of the "body" and how to create a community in harmony with God's will.

The church established a twice-yearly lectureship that addressed specific aspects of the relationship between church and society. It reached out to the community in a wholistic way, serving physical, mental, and spiritual needs through activities such as cooking, computer, and Bible study classes.

As a church grows, it is normal for it to discover and face many inadequacies. This period is like adolescence, and it's always painful. Not everything worked as expected, and it was easy to get discouraged and cast blame. Because of the intentional diversity, misunderstandings arose easily, despite the best intentions.

Growing up is hard

In order to move into adulthood, the church needed to see itself more clearly and to deal with its strengths and weaknesses. It was the core of people who chose to stick with their commitment through good times and hard that formed the foundation of the mature and vital church that it is now. They clung to the vision and refused to let disappointments, personal hurts, or foreboding appearances cause them to give up.

Many of these core members worked steadily to move from self-doubt into maturity. One of the first turning points was to rebuild the midweek prayer meeting into a consistent and active entity. Before long a second major prayer group was meeting before Sabbath School to pray specifically for the church. As hopeful concern and prayer began to take effect, another group committed itself to changing the Sabbath School from a halfhearted habit to a vital force. A Pathfinder club sprang up. Members contributed time and money to spruce up the church with cleaning and fresh paint.

The community concept

The concept of community has always been important, yet the spirit of oneness had been tested by the adolescent growth struggles. By being honest about their perceptions and feelings and listening carefully, church members began to gain a new sense of understanding about their vision. It had been a purposeful practice to involve people of all ages, cultures, professional levels, and genders in leadership and platform roles. This practice, remembered and renewed, communicated the truth that the church is a family that values and believes in each member.

Another aspect of community that kept the church together was the ministry of members who cared enough to greet family and visitors with hugs and concern and to visit in their homes. Along with this, small groups began to form. A women's ministry had a monthly breakfast. The church regularly updated the phone list. A team of "callers" took responsibility for one page of the phone directory to let the members know of prayer requests, community information, and special events. Several ex citing answers to prayer, coming as a result of this "prayer chain," helped to catalyze the growth of spirit and hope in the church.

The roles of "leadership" and of "laity" interfaced in an important way for the revitalization of All Nations Church. The importance of the ministry of each member is central to its philosophy. At the same time, the inspiration, support, and encouragement of the pastor1 made it possible for these new leaders to proceed with courage and enthusiasm. Taking the responsibilities of leadership seriously, the pastor assertively upheld the Christ-centered purpose of the church.

We just want to praise the Lord

A new spirit of cooperation could be sensed among the members as a team of leaders gathered to work out a new vision statement. First, the visioning team met with the board of elders and later with the whole church.

A new sense of hope and enthusiasm was filling the church as prayer, action, and renewed vision served as channels for the power of God. Connections seminars2 trained people in discovering their spiritual gifts. The nominating committee worked from the Connections concepts, contacting members to discover how they felt God was leading them to serve. By these means, the number of people in some sort of ministry dramatically increased. At the same time, a study team explored ways to become active in evangelism.3

At the beginning of the new church year, a weekend-long special event, "New Year's Day at All Nations," brought members and leaders together. The new vision statement was formally introduced and set as a basis for goal-setting and planning. During the afternoon the new church officers prayed together and worked in small groups to study the vision statement. The officers selected eight goals for the year and assigned them to the most appropriate ministry team for implementation. (For example, one goal was to provide an activity at the church for young people every Saturday night during the winter). Before the end of the weekend, each ministry had set its own goals, made plans on how to implement them, and synchronized a calendar of events for the new church year. Accountability and affirmation were provided by progress checks on the goals after six months, and again nine months later, in the Board of Elders/Church Board meetings as well as in informal conversations between leaders.

The calendar and goals did not remain the same for long, however. Within the next few months, members began coming for ward with ideas and willingness to start innovative new ministries. Soon we had a children's choir, a youth choir, and an adult choir. A monthly men's ministry breakfast began with worship, fellowship, and ministry. A family-life ministry began, with a Family Intimacy weekend. A Handicapped Ministry and Veteran's Ministry followed suit. Sabbath School classes and small Bible study groups grew.

Recently the church implemented The Heart of the Vision, a catch-phrase to remind people what their membership in the All Nations community is all about. "God's transforming love—from His Spirit and Word; through His inclusive community, to His seeking world—whatever the risk." We see His love, when acted out in Christian community, as a powerful force that inevitably attracts those who come in contact with it to want to know and experience more.

Every church is different. But for each one, God has a vision of what He can do for its community. There is no limit to what we can do as we discover and stake our lives on His vision for us.

1. All Nations Church pastor is Dr. Walter Douglas, professor of church history at the SDA Theological Seminary, in Berrien Springs.

2. Connections is available from AdventSource in Lincoln, NE (1-800-328-1525).

3. We found the State of the Church Manual, from the North American Division Evangelism Institute, very helpful in the process

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Teresa Reeve is a freelance writer and lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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