The Visalia Seventh-day Adventist Church in California, United States, was reported to be among the fastest growing churches in the North American Division. According to Chad Stuart, in the six years he pastored that church (2008–2014), attendance grew by 133 percent. Membership had a net increase of 284 persons, with 209 of them joining through baptism or profession of faith. During this period, annual local church giving nearly doubled—from $370,000 to roughly $700,000—and the church’s annual contribution to the world church increased from $550,000 to more than $850,000. What are the factors responsible for such growth? Can such growth be replicated elsewhere? Ministry magazine wanted to find out from Chad Stuart, currently senior pastor of the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, Spencerville, Maryland, United States.
Jerry Page (JP): As pastor of the Visalia church in California you witnessed enormous all-around growth in your church—in membership, stewardship, global giving, and local member support and involvement. How would you describe this?
Chad Stuart (CS): I hesitate to speak about the growth of Visalia Church. How can I when I see the phenomenal growth around the world, in places such as Brazil, Rwanda, and other areas where the church is exploding tenfold and beyond what I’ve ever seen? Yet in spite of that hesitancy, I am happy to share some feelings that spring from my heart when I think of what God did in the Visalia Church. I believe with all my heart that Jesus who built the church can cause that church to grow beyond our expectations. Church growth can actually happen at any time in any place, and that church growth can also fail to happen even when all the best things are happening. Jesus uses prayer, strategy, focus, vision, and intentionality in powerful ways to make the difference between a stagnant church and a growing one.
JP: In your strategy for church growth, you give first priority to prayer. Can you expand on this?
CS: I cannot sufficiently emphasize the fact that at the core of what happened at Visalia is the foundation of prayer. I would love to say that this foundation was due to the deep spirituality of the pastor! The truth is, I was like most pastors: I worked first and prayed later. I gave token platitudes to prayer, and I did not really know or experience the power of prayer—until one day I met Katy. From the first day I arrived in Visalia, Katy began her gentle and friendly nagging. Nag is not a nice word, but I can’t think of a better word. She was persistent in encouraging me to focus more and more on prayer. She practically forced a prayer partner on me. She gave me books to read about prayer. But most of all she prayed that her pastor would pray more. Well, the Lord answered her prayers, and prayer—our talking with Jesus and receiving His power—became the foundation of what we did in Visalia.
JP: How did that happen?
CS: We intentionally placed prayer partners in the church. If you were going to be a leader, you were going to have a prayer partner! We had individuals that prayed every Sabbath morning before church started and another group that prayed Sabbath afternoons at our sister campus. We organized a women’s group that met Wednesday mornings, placing before God the prayer requests that came the previous week. We spent 40 days as a church praying every day at 7:14 a.m. and at 7:14 p.m. After this 40-day period, we organized prayer gatherings in the church each morning, and the church was open for people to come and pray. Every single person that was connected to our church, whether member or not, was on a list and was prayed for weekly by one of our prayer warriors. We preached about prayer regularly. We sent out more than 300 books on the subject of prayer on two separate occasions. Prayer and its power filled our church. Individually we were not the same again, and our church wasn’t the same again.
JP: Prayer can unleash God’s power to change, to transform—even to move a self-satisfied congregation into a dynamic witnessing force for the gospel of Jesus. There must be some other powerful motivating principles that also moved the Visalia congregation to take on the challenge of church growth.
CS: Yes, there are some fundamental principles, but the way we arrived at them was not by our own doing. While I was in the seminary at Andrews University, I heard a story about a doctoral student who was doing research on church growth for his dissertation. This doctoral student went to visit the pastor of the largest church in the world at the time. This Adventist doctoral student wanted to know the secret and strategies of such phenomenal growth within this church. The pastor went into his library and returned with two books, Gospel Workers and Evangelism by Ellen G. White. He told the doctoral student that most of the growth principles he employed in his ministry came from these books. When I heard that story, I was blown away! We have the secret, but ignore it . . . her! At Visalia, I took the first opportunity to read these books again, mine out the buried gems, and apply those principles of church growth to our situation.
JP: After praying for an active and growing church and earnest study of God’s revealed principles of church growth, what was the next step?
CS: When I arrived in Visalia, I was thrilled to find that the church had several individuals with a gift and a burden for various areas of ministry. It was only a matter of time to organize different forms of ministry, utilize the talents we had in the church, and reach out to the community. If a church does not have experienced members to be involved in church growth ministry, training such a group must become a pastoral priority. Meanwhile, to those churches that are unable to have a trained “staff,” I would recommend that the church should start with employing at least one prayerful, true Bible worker. “Prayerful” because Bible work is tough; rejection is more common than success. An individual truly needs to be in continual prayer to stay strong in the face of the day-in-and-day-out challenges of a Bible worker. I say “true” because many who complete Bible worker training enter the work, but in their inmost heart the real objective is to become a pastor, and the Bible work becomes a back door entry into pastoral ministry. Church growth needs those who want to be Bible workers—to keep knocking on doors, giving Bible studies, connecting with guests, and motivating other members to join them. If you can’t hire a Bible worker, get three or four members and train them and send them out as lay Bible workers. If you don’t have the budget for this, then cut another area of ministry in order to make it happen!
JP: The principles that you have enunciated so far are very good. But are there factors that the congregation itself should become aware of and involved in to attract new worshipers?
CS: Yes, several of them. One is quality in whatever we do in the church. It’s been said, “God’s people must strive to reach the very highest standard of excellence.”1 When visitors come to our church, they must see a difference. Within Adventism I have sometimes found a dearth of excellence. I don’t say this to be critical; actually yes, I do; anything less than our best effort in our service to God is unacceptable! When we come to worship, we must remember that we are in the presence of the God of the universe. We often throw worship services together at the last minute without much thought or prayer. This is not biblical! Read the last four books of the Pentateuch and it is obvious that God cares very much about the details of worship. This doesn’t mean that services need to be elaborate, but they must reflect order in preparation and excellence and humility in delivery. From the individuals playing the instruments, the song leaders, the Scripture reading, and the pastoral prayer to the sermon or the benediction—each should render glory to God and lead the worshiping community into a profound experience of the presence and blessings of God.
JP: So you were intentional about doing things well.
CS: Even little things done right make a huge difference, and a visitor will be more likely to return and potentially connect with Jesus if they experience excellence each time they attend. Take, for example, greeting the worshiper at the door. Most greeters hand a bulletin—looking somewhere else—and move on. Where is the eye contact, the smile, and the handshake so that the person who comes into the church feels that he or she is among friends and not just receiving a piece of paper from a bulletin dispenser? From the moment a guest crosses the threshold of our parking lot until the moment they leave, it should be the most excellent experience of their week. In fact, it should start with the moment they look online at our church’s Web site; that should be excellent too!
JP: Sounds like you were not afraid of change.
CS: We changed our leadership teams. No longer were they deaconesses and deacons ministering separately; now they were mixed teams of men and women working together. We changed our staff, adding a number of individuals and transitioning others. We changed the format of worship. We dropped all offering appeals and all announcements, and yet still our giving grew by leaps and bounds and more people were involved in the activities of the church. We looked at everything for the glory of God and with the guest who would be attending our church in mind. And growth was the gradual result.
JP: What did change look like?
CS: When I arrived at Visalia, the church was about 80 percent Caucasian and 20 percent Hispanic even though our community was only 48 percent Caucasian. By the time I left, we were closer to 55 percent Caucasian and forty-five percent Hispanic. Visalia church is in a very poor county, and we intentionally went about ministering to the less affluent; then we invited them to follow Christ.Prior to my arrival there had been zero evangelistic campaigns in the last ten years. In the years I was there, we had three full evangelistic campaigns and several other shorter campaigns. An open, welcoming, caring church cannot but grow
JP: When growth brings change, not everybody’s happy. Did you face opposition, and if so, how did you handle it?
CS: Change creates tension and sometimes opposition. For us, growth in and of itself was a change that brought some challenges and conflict. But a church that would rather stay the same than grow is not a church. If you’re planning for growth in a church setting, it means bringing in something new and getting rid of something old. At Visalia, there were changes in staff, music, nominating committee process, board structure, expectations of volunteers, and so on. In every change there was pushback. Some stuck, some failed, but just like in nature, that which does not change does not grow. If a pastor is unwilling to change things due to a fear of conflict, then he or she is in the wrong profession.
Too much is done in churches without a real purpose. “Why is your children’s program run that way?” “Why do you start your church service at that time?” “Why is that person the leader of that ministry?” If the answer to any of these questions is, “Because that’s the way it’s always been,” then that needs to be reexamined. Whatever we did at Visalia, there was a purpose behind it, and when those things started to lose their purpose or impact, then we became intentional about closing them down or changing them.
JP: What is one of the most satisfying achievements of Visalia’s churchgrowth program?
CS: The planting of a new church, three years after I arrived in Visalia! A year into my tenure at Visalia someone placed before me the ten-year plan of the city of Visalia. As I studied that plan I noticed that all the growth was planned for the northwest quadrant of the city, and the city’s population was projected to rise by a hundred thousand over that ten years. A handful of us in leadership thought to ourselves, Rather than having a church react after the growth, why not plant a church in that territory in anticipation of that growth? There were those who thought this planting would fragment the existing congregation. If you’re growing and your room is filling up, don’t get scared of the naysayers; act quickly and decisively and make physical room for growth! Ellen White’s counsel was, “Do not those who know the truth understand the commission of Christ? Why then do they feel no burden to add new territory to the Lord’s kingdom, to plant the standard of truth in new places?”2 And in another place she said, “Lights were to be kindled in many places, and from these lights still other lights were to be kindled.”3
So, in 2013, as the Visalia church baptized more people in that one single year than at any previous year in its hundred-year history, we planted the Ark Community Church—quite appropriately named—to provide a shelter from the storms of life for many in that part of the city. There was no money from the mother church or the local conference. Only eight persons from the mother church joined. Even though the mother church’s role in the planting was minimal, the motivation of seeing this evangelistic endeavor in their town spurred them on to greater work for Jesus. The existing congregation did what I had been taught it would do by those who had gone down that road before me: it actually grew more than it had in previous years.
One important point: from then on, we made it a point to keep before our people that the most important thing about a church is “seeking and saving the lost.” With this in mind, we spent our money, shaped our calendar, and preached the Word around this passion, and we urged it to be the passion of each person that joined our family.
JP: That’s great news. However, looking back, is there anything you would have done differently to have even better growth?
CS: First, prayer. Perhaps we should have expanded our prayer ministry more as we continued to claim God’s promises. We did increase our prayer partners fifteenfold, yet it still seemed like we were so far from where God wanted us to be. Perhaps our Visalia church would have grown more if it was the majority membership, not the minority, who were united in prayer
Second, involvement. Ironically, our growth stifled our growth. What do I mean by this? We were not equipped to absorb and train the new members in evangelizing their friends and family. In our first phase of rapid growth some sat too long without any active involvement in church life and growth and their initial enthusiasm waned. Members became content. With growth and overcrowding of the church, members no longer saw “the need,” and their evangelistic fervor began to dissipate. We didn’t make room for the new people quickly enough, and our hesitancy caused our growth to sputter. Only 33 percent of our members regularly volunteered; that is, gave an hour a month. It should be at least one hour a week to really thrive, and it should be 100 percent of the members . . . but I’d take even 50 percent.
Third, commitment. I must begin with myself as the leader. What I do or fail to do affects the corporate body—maybe not open violation of the Ten Commandments, or even the occasional misdeeds here and there, but other intrusions in my commitment: pride, for example. Holding resentment and bitterness in my heart. Neglecting personal private time with God in prayer and Bible study. Not having enough faith in the vision God has placed on my heart. Laziness. Fear. Over the six years I was in Visalia, I went through stages of struggles with all these sins. While I am not consciously aware of specific sins influencing my decisions or limiting growth, based on my knowledge of Scripture, I believe they could have limited the growth at times. A church cannot grow unless leaders grow in their relationship with and love for Jesus.
JP: If you had the opportunity to do it all over again, what would you change or do better to ensure a steadily growing church?
CS: My starting point would always be the same: prayer. To be a growing and a healthy congregation, a church must be continually looking for ways to facilitate more prayer, encourage corporate prayer, and recruit more prayer warriors. Where there is prayer, there is power.
Second, delegate. Church growth is shaky if it is solely dependent on the pastor. One of the privileges of membership is responsibility. I don’t find a single story in all of Scripture about a true disciple of Jesus that went to church once a week and then went home, had lunch, took a nap, did yard work on Sunday, went to their paying job during the week, cleaned the house Friday, and went back to church Sabbath and considered this an acceptable pattern for a follower of Jesus. This is, in fact, a denial of true Christianity. Jesus said very clearly that we are to feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, and shelter the homeless. He also said we are to go and witness. The only place most members “go” is to the church to sit, and then they start the routine of life all over again.
When I assume the pastorship of a church, I want to know exactly how many members are actually serving Jesus in a proactive, intentional way, and then I want to grow that by 10 percent or so each year, as new lives are being saved. Because no pastor is permanent, I asked myself, Have I done enough for Visalia’s growth as her pastor, and have I done enough for that growth to continue when I am gone? Far too often a church may be doing well, and then the pastor leaves and everything slows way down or even ceases completely. Attendance drops, evangelism is missing, and the church goes into maintenance mode. A growthoriented pastor must make sure that systems are in place so the church is not pastor dependent and so that it is in a position to remain strong and keep growing even after the pastor moves. The new pastor should not have to deal with a struggling or a dying church.
Third, small groups. Church growth remains strong and spiritual where there is an active Sabbath School; but we need that and more. If we’re going to get bigger, then we must simultaneously get smaller or more connected; this will only happen through small groups. The book of Acts speaks of two aspects of the early Christian Church: “house to house” gatherings and larger “temple” gatherings (Acts 2:46). Good things happen when members get together to study the Word of God, and one of those good things is church growth.
JP: Thank you, Pastor Stuart, for sharing with our readers some of your experience in church growth. Where can a pastor start in creating a mighty movement of God in his or her church?
CS: Cast a vision. We got people to serve by casting a vision, defining the ministries, and celebrating their “wins.” People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. We would have tables in the foyer so that people could sign up for various activities. We went from 8 greeters to 30 and from 6 elders to 15, many of them young adults. Our prayer warriors grew from 4 to 70 plus. We prayer-walked every street in our city of a 150,000, and we visited every single home delivering Great Hope books.
Remember, the church is the body of Christ, which means if your church is lifeless, if it isn’t functioning and growing and reaching the lost and loving on everyone, well, then it is not really the church, and it is definitely not the body of Christ. But don’t despair. Even if you are the only one in your church that is committed to seeing your church become the body of Christ, Jesus will honor your commitment and work with you to bring that desire into reality. Make a decision now to begin to change yourself and your church, and watch how God grows both!