During my 19 years of pastoral ministry, I have noticed that countless guests come for the weekly worship services. Until last year, though, I did not consciously realize that it is during the weekly service that they are most likely to make decisions for membership or active involvement in local church life.
The church I currently serve is in Norfolk, Virginia. Many guests come each week for numerous reasons. Virginia Beach is nearby, so vacationers come from all over the world. Norfolk is home of the world's largest naval base, so military personnel are constantly coming and going.
With people perpetually moving in and out of the area, it has been quite frustrating to try to keep up with the ever-changing sea of faces in the congregation. In the face of this challenge the idea of thoughtfully-designed decision cards struck me. The use of these cards has helped me tremendously in reaching people for Christ.
In our weekly worship service, we routinely use three different types of decision-oriented cards, each with a specific purpose. By careful follow-up, we have found each type of card to be a potential source of new members for our congregation. In the past year, we have added 47 new members by baptism or profession of faith; we have also had eight rebaptisms. In the evangelistic meetings we held last October, a large percentage of those who were baptized first made their decision on a card during a Sabbath morning worship service.
The Norfolk Seventh-day Adventist Church has traditional envelope/card holders attached to the backs of the pews. Each week we place in these card holders three tithe envelopes, three guest registration cards, three prayer request cards, and three decision cards to be used at the end of the sermon.
Guest registration cards
Guest cards are generally far more effective for recording guest attendance than the traditional guest book in the church lobby. A major advantage of the in-pew card system over the book in the lobby is the opportunity to put much more information on a card, not the least of which is a legible address and phone number. In the past, we have tried to get greeters in the lobby to see that guests receive a guest card to fill out, but all too often people are missed.
We have finally determined that the most effective way to get the guest cards filled out is to hold up the card during the welcome time at the beginning of the worship service. We invite the guests to fill out this card and hand it to my wife or me at the door after the service. Those who turn in the card receive a special gift as a token of our appreciation.
When greeting people after the service, my wife and I hold an attractive basket between us with these gifts. The gifts include items like Steps to Christ, an attractive summary booklet about Adventist beliefs, Bible Answers, or other such books that are relatively inexpensive but practical for guests. We allow guests to look through the basket and pick out some thing that would be of interest to them.
The guest card does more than simply let us know who came to church. It includes age categories, children's names and ages, phone numbers, and most importantly follow-up information requests. Translated into the language of pastors, this means decisions! On this portion of the card, people fill in options such as, "I would like to know more about this local congregation" or "I would like to know more about Seventh-day Adventists."
If either of these boxes is checked, I try to pick up the phone and call the visitor within 48 hours to find out how we can be of more specific service. After the call, I may need to mail a booklet, but quite often (and better yet), I have an appointment to visit with the guest. These appointments frequently become Bible studies and eventually, baptisms.
For example, a lady recently filled out a guest card at our worship service. She had checked "I would like to know more about this local congregation." After I inquired if this was a good time to talk, I said, "I was fol lowing up on your guest registration card requesting more information about our local congregation, and was wondering how I might be able to help you." She replied, "Thank you for calling. I was just wondering what I would have to do to become a member of this church." Now we have an appointment to visit.
With each of the cards we use, the goal is to find an opportunity to talk to the person who filled out the card.
Prayer request cards
Prayer is a major focus in our worship service. During announcements at the beginning of our service, we call attention to the prayer request cards in the pew racks, and encourage everyone to fill one out. We say some thing like this: "You will notice in the rack in front of you, a blue prayer request card. Please take it out at this time. If you have a special burden for prayer, jot it down, and the elder who collects the cards later in the service has committed to have daily prayer for your specific requests throughout the coming week. If you have a praise report to share such as an answer to prayer write that on the back of the card. If you also wish to have your request shared with our intercessory prayer group which meets weekly, please check the box on the lower left hand corner of the card."
Often when guests come to a church, especially if they don't know someone in the congregation, they come with incredible pain or heartache. They may wish to remain anonymous and choose not to fill out a guest card. However, when it comes to having someone simply pray for their requests, they may be more willing to communicate and sometimes every box on the prayer request card is checked, along with complete con tact information. If the contact information is there, this is often the beginning of a trusting and valuable relationship with that person.
The elder on duty for this purpose on a given Sabbath collects these cards by standing on the floor level with the people and inviting every one to bring or send their requests to the front. We do not read the cards until after the service, but we lift them collectively to ask God's special blessing.
Immediately after the service, the elder goes to the copy machine and makes a copy of all the cards for the pastor, seals the copies in an envelope for confidentiality, then slides them under the pastor's office door. The elder also goes through the cards that are marked, "Please share with Intercessory Prayer Group," and makes a copy of only those cards for the prayer group leader.
Confidentiality is important. When people know their privacy will be respected, it's amazing how people open up even on these cards. Our elders have spent a great deal of time at elders' meetings just discussing how to react to different kinds of issues that come up on prayer request cards. The elders who receive these cards are seen as "First responders," meaning that if something needs to be done for follow-up, they need to initiate the process.
For example, if someone has a marriage that's about to fall apart, the elder calls the person who filled out the card and offers to have prayer on the phone with that person, then dis cusses possible options for counseling, etc. If elders are not sure how to fol low up, they are encouraged to call the pastor for input.
Our elders have concluded that the way prayer cards are used in the service has been one of the most effective features of our worship experience.
My decision for Christ
The most significant change in my entire ministry has been the regular use of decision cards after nearly every sermon. I have been absolutely amazed by the many responses received over the past seven months!
I preach Bible-based sermons that are oriented to living as a Christian in the everyday world. I conclude by inviting people to take the green card from the pew that says, "My Decision for Christ."
The first blank box on the card has a corresponding decision that most everyone can respond to, such as "For 10 days I will pray daily for God to bless this church in 2002." And, "I have questions about this church. Please call me."
Another option on the card is, "I would like to become a Seventh-day Adventist." For the past six months, I have had at least one decision for church membership or baptism almost every Sabbath, and most of the decisions have been unexpected. Often they have been from people I didn't even know.
Just yesterday, for the first time, we visited with a man who began attending our church a couple of months ago. A couple of weeks ago, he had filled out a decision card. He checked that he wanted to become a Seventh-day Adventist. Upon visiting, we discovered he left the church 25 years ago, and now has decided he needs to come back.
In one session we were able to review the teachings of the Church to refresh his memory, and he plans to be baptized in a couple of weeks. Because this person is quiet and not very outspoken, I can only guess how long he might have attended church, never communicating his feelings and, of course, never joining the church, because no one gave the invitation!
"Prompt, energetic, and earnest action may save an undecided soul. No one can tell how much is lost by attempting to preach without the unction of the Holy Spirit. There are souls in every congregation who are hesitating, almost persuaded to be wholly for God. The decision is being made for time and for eternity; but it is too often the case that the minister has not the spirit and power of the message of truth in his own heart, hence no direct appeals are made to those souls that are trembling in the balance. The result is that impressions are not deepened upon the hearts of the convicted ones; and they leave the meeting feeling less inclined to accept the service of Christ than when they came. They decide to wait for a more favorable opportunity; but it never comes. That godless discourse, like Cain's offering, lacked the Savior. The golden opportunity is lost, and the cases of these souls are decided. Is not too much at stake to preach in an indifferent manner, and without feeling the burden of souls?"
I have determined that if I can't conclude every sermon with a very specific appeal, then I really need to reevaluate my own soul and the message I am presenting. One of our greatest needs is to have the wisdom and unction to lead His people to make decisions to follow Him. God give us that blessing!
1 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Hagerstown. Md.: Review and Herald Pub Assn., 1892), 138, 139.