Prayer:

The key to church growth

Nelson Mercado, MMin, pastors the Nashville First Seventh-day Adventist Church, Nashville, Tennessee, United States.

The 2019 statistics have emerged for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. At the end of year 2019, there was a total of 163,745 organized congregations. We had a total of 1,321,047 accessions but, after taking into consideration deaths, transfers, missing, and adjusted out, we had only a 142,058 net gain.1

These numbers are certainly grim, but they get worse. Stephen Ross compiled the world’s population statistics at the beginning of 2014. His findings revealed that the world population was estimated to be 7,171,061,698, with world birth to death ratios of 360,000 births versus 151,600 deaths per day. Therefore, every day we fall behind in reaching the whole world with the gospel by 208,400 people.2

So, how will we reach the whole world? Since the church belongs to God, as church leaders we should seek Him in prayer to find the methods that will work with our churches. , and it has to start with church leaders. What do I mean?

My experience

I have been pastoring for eight years and have conducted eight evangelistic campaigns. Prayer was obviously an important component as people gave their lives to Jesus. But as a new pastor and evangelist, my first two campaigns were conducted without emphasizing prayer by the church. To be sure, I prayed; but I didn’t have the church members actively praying. The results were minimal.

I observed other pastors come to the same territory and experience fruitfulness and this led me on a path of soul-searching and study on the subject of evangelism. I had the privilege of witnessing how some pastors and evangelists made prayer by the membership intentional and central their campaigns. I decided to try it. I created teams of church members whose sole campaign function was to pray for the convicting presence of the Holy Spirit on our campaign. These teams were also in charge of the campaign prayer each night. I did this in the United States and repeated the pattern in Europe (Moldova), Central America (Guatemala), the Caribbean (Cuba), and South America (two campaigns in Colombia). In each of these campaigns, God blessed us with great fruitfulness, and I had the privilege of entering into the pool and baptizing the candidates myself.

Church growth in the early church

While some may argue that today’s world is much different and more difficult, the best example we could follow in the area of church growth is that of the early church. The task assigned to them was no less easy. The apostles were commissioned to be Christ’s global witnesses (Acts 1:8). The apostles were subsequently arrested for preaching the gospel of Jesus. The apostles were then charged by the high priest with disobeying an order to cease and desist. “ ‘Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!’ ” (Acts 5:28, NKJV). Missions strategist Ed Silvoso asks, “How much time elapsed between Acts 1:8 and Acts 5:28? Just a few weeks! In a matter of weeks, the Church went from the Upper Room to every living room in Jerusalem.”3

How was it possible for 12 ordinary persons to reach an entire city with the gospel in a matter of weeks? Acts tells what they did. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. . . . And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42–47). While four elements are mentioned in verse 42, “only one . . . reaches beyond the group: prayer. . . .

“. . . This kind of prayer—is the key to the successful fulfillment of the Great Commission, then and now.”4

Churches do not just need methods to grow, they need power: God’s power. The disciples prayed, and God gave them the Holy Spirit, who empowered them to witness, resulting in church growth. “The early church did not grow because of programs or talents; they grew because of prayer and the Holy Spirit.”5 Will He not do the same today if the church prays as the apostles did?

Prayer, the Holy Spirit, and church growth

Joseph Kidder sees prayer as part of his “big four” of church growth principles (effective and empowering leadership, passionate and authentic spirituality, committed and active laity, and God-exalting worship).6 He maintains that we must prioritize spirituality, highlighting Ellen White’s passion for revival: “A revival need be expected only in answer to prayer. While the people are so destitute of God’s Holy Spirit, they cannot appreciate the preaching of the Word, but when the Spirit’s power touches their hearts, then the discourses given will not be without effect.”7

Silvoso says that “revival must have as its focus the glory of God and, as its result, the evangelization of the lost. . . .

“. . . A revival that fails to bring the lost to Jesus is a self-serving revival, centered on man’s needs and wants, and not on God’s glory.”8 Thus, revival and evangelization of the lost go hand in hand. A revival will result in church growth. Therefore, we can conclude that church growth needs to be expected only in answer to prayer.

Yet, it seems that it is much easier for church pastors and leaders to rely on step-by-step methods than to depend on prayer. As a church leader, I know that it is easy to feel that dedicating time to prayer will take away from the time needed to implement methods. This is a sad reality. In 1994, Thom S. Rainer reflected, “Pastors, church leaders, let us get painfully honest with each other and with God. Most of us have so many demands on our lives that prayer takes a back seat to everything else. Recent studies have shown that the average American pastor spends from fifteen to twenty-two minutes daily in prayer. And one of four pastors spends less than ten minutes daily in prayer.”9

If the absence of the Holy Spirit makes the gospel ministry powerless, then how shall we be possessed of the Holy Spirit? Here’s where prayer—as a basic, fundamental link with God whereby we ask God, and He gives—becomes crucial to experience the power of God and the Holy Spirit. That power can move the mountains, and church growth becomes the work of the Holy Spirit—and not ours to worry over. That is why I believe prayer is so important when it comes to church growth.

Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, but He did not give Him to the church so that Christians would feel excitement and prove that they were Christians. He gave the Holy Spirit to the church to empower them for the task at hand. Church growth expert Russell Burrill agrees with this when he says, “In this initial endowment of the Holy Spirit, we discover its purpose: empowerment for the accomplishment of the mission. The Holy Spirit is poured out for action—for the accomplishment of the task of Christ. . . . That’s why we cannot finish the work without the Holy Spirit. The spirit cannot be poured out unless there are people willing to be filled with power, enabling them to share Christ with the world around them.”10

While Burrill emphasizes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a result of prayer and that the Spirit was given for the purpose of ministry, he also points out that prayer is an essential church growth principle, the others being creating a culture of evangelism, natural church development, and reaching friends for Jesus, church visitors, and discipleship.11

Pentecost and church growth

The events at Pentecost can teach us all we need to know about church growth. Former church administrator Jay Gallimore stated, “While we may discover many church growth principles, when it comes to spiritual growth that really works, Pentecost leaves us with three nonnegotiables: prayer, repentance, and the Holy Spirit.”12 These three are the ingredients for revival and, consequently, for church growth to take place.

It cannot be overemphasized that revival and reformation lead to church growth. Therefore, if pastors and leaders want to see their churches growing, they need to start by getting on their knees and asking God for the Holy Spirit, and God will add to the church those who will be saved. Prayer is the key to success in church growth.

In his book User Friendly Churches,13 George Barna studied some rapidly growing churches in America. He found that prayer was key to such rapid growth. He found four areas in which prayer was emphasized:

  1. The congregation was exposed to biblical teaching about the role of prayer in the Christian life. This was done from the pulpit as well as other church forums.
  2. Church leaders (staff and laity) modeled prayer as normal and significant behavior in all aspects of their Christian life. Large segments of time were devoted to prayer despite busy schedules.
  3. These churches had learned to celebrate the fruits of prayer. They learned that prayer really is effective as they heard about many answered prayers.
  4. The congregation was held accountable for prayer. The prayer life of members and leaders was regularly presented to the church.

As mentioned at the outset, the membership in the Adventist Church is declining relative to population growth. Jay Gallimore mused, “While pastors are getting doctorates in church growth, churches are scrambling to find pastors who will make them grow.”14 The issue is not education or even church growth; it is simply increasing our dependence upon the Holy Spirit—shifting our emphasis from finding methods in books to seeking God in prayer.

The role of church growth methods

It may seem a bit simplistic and perhaps naïve to say, “Just pray, and the churches will grow.” Leaders must have a vision and a plan tied to prayer. “As we pray to God for a vision for our churches, He will miraculously open our eyes to possibilities.”15 Unless the plan comes from God through prayer, our plans, regardless of how good, will never receive the blessing and the success needed. Joshua never may have designed the plan he executed to capture Jericho. The strategy came from God; therefore, he could expect God’s blessing on that strategy.

Speaking about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, Ellen White says: “For the daily baptism of the Spirit every worker should offer his petition to God. Companies of Christian workers should gather to ask for special help, for heavenly wisdom, that they may know how to plan and execute wisely.”16

From this, we can conclude that Christian workers must not only have plans but also must seek heavenly wisdom to know which way to proceed. “Unless the members of God’s church today have a living connection with the Source of all spiritual growth, they will not be ready for the time of reaping.”17 Church methods have their place and are important—but only as an answer to prayer.

Unprecedented

God knows what our communities need and, when we seek Him in prayer, He will direct us to the method that He knows will work in our community. Ellen White stated, “Let me tell you that the Lord will work in this last work in a manner very much out of the common order of things, and in a way that will be contrary to any human planning. . . . The workers will be surprised by the simple means that He will use to bring about and perfect His work of righteousness.”18

Unprecedented for us—but not for God. Scripture has already given us models: the early church and, certainly, the life of Jesus. The method is simple: pray, and the Holy Spirit will be given. He will then guide us into methods that will help our churches grow because ultimately, it is God who adds to the church daily those that are being saved.

  1. See “Advance Release of Membership Statistics by Division for 2019,” 2020 Annual Statistical Report, vol. 2 (Silver Spring, MD: Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2020).
  2. Stephen Ross, “The Harvest Fields: Statistics 2014,” Wholesome Words, accessed June 23, 2014, http://www.wholesomewords.org/missions/greatc.html.
  3. Ed Silvoso, That None Should Perish: How to Reach Entire Cities for Christ Through Prayer Evangelism (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1994), 60.
  4. Silvoso, 64.
  5. S. Joseph Kidder, “Reflections on the Future of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America: The Long View of Church Growth (Part 2 of 2),” Ministry, February 2011, 14.
  6. S. Joseph Kidder, The Big Four: Secrets to a Thriving Church Family (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2011), 13.
  7. Kidder, “Reflections,” 14. See Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 1 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 121.
  8. Silvoso, That None Should Perish, 70.
  9. Thom S. Rainer, Eating the Elephant: Bite-Sized Steps to Achieve Long-Term Growth in Your Church (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1994), 23.
  10. Russell Burrill, Revolution in the Church: Unleashing the Awesome Power of Lay Ministry (Fallbrook, CA: Hart Research Center), 16.
  11. Russell Burrill, How to Grow an Adventist Church (Fallbrook, CA: Hart Books), 17–107.
  12. Jay Gallimore, “Church Growth—Its Missing Power,” Ministry, December 1986, 12.
  13. George Barna, User Friendly Churches (Ventura, CA: Regal Books), 116–119.
  14. Gallimore, “Church Growth,” 12.
  15. Thom S. Rainer, The Book of Church Growth (N.p.: B & H Publishing Group, 1993), 178.
  16. Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 50; emphasis added.
  17. White, 55.
  18. Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923), 300.
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