Change your church culture with baby steps
by Dan Serns and Jacob Serns
Dan: Celebrating changed lives
During our church worship service, I always had a Celebrating Changed Lives feature. In it, I interviewed those joining the church that month through baptism, profession of faith, and transfer.
“I had a really tough life growing up and got onto drugs early,” Melinda said. “Because I needed money for drugs, I became a prostitute. That’s when I became really hard-hearted.” Her two teenaged daughters standing beside her nodded their heads. “But there was this lady who was always so nice to me when I was mean to her, and I couldn’t figure out why. She kept inviting me to a women’s Bible-study group and told me some of them had had a really tough life too. When I finally came with her, I knew I had found a spiritual home. Now everything is changing in our life. Our words. Our music. Our pictures. What we watch.”
“Praise the Lord!” I said. “And all three of you are telling the world today that you belong to Jesus and are uniting with His final movement! We are not perfect people, but we want to let the world know that Jesus loves them, that He’s coming again soon, that He has a good plan for their lives, and that it’s time to take Him seriously. Welcome to the family!”
Not all our Celebrating Changed Lives interviews were so dramatic. But all of them showed how God is at work transforming lives. Some testimonies have featured victories in Sabbath work issues, relationships healed, decisions for baptism, and stories about returning from a mission trip or spiritual retreat. Other times, we have interviewed longtime members about a turning point in their lives.
If you want an evangelistic culture in your church, one of the simplest ways is to add brief (one to three minutes) interviews to your worship service. “And they [believers] overcame him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb [Jesus] and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death” (Rev. 12:11, NKJV; emphasis added).
Jacob: Baptismal Celebration Sabbaths
“Would it be OK if I said a prayer for you right now?” I almost surprised myself with my own question to Verna, the older woman cutting my hair. After wandering through the usual small talk, the conversation gradually drifted toward more spiritual things. She told me that she was going through a tough time, and seeing the tears forming in her eyes, I felt compelled to ask if I could pray for her. “Yes!” she blurted out. After we prayed, exchanged contact info, and went our separate ways, months passed.
Then one day, I felt impressed to text her and ask if she wanted Bible studies. I had no clue whether she would even remember who I was, but I asked. When she accepted, we began a Bible-study journey that eventually led her to a crossroads of choosing either to follow Jesus or to continue working on the Sabbath cutting hair. Her boss was relentless in pushing for her to work Sabbaths. I remember Verna breaking down and crying on many occasions as we talked about God’s faithfulness to those who choose to be faithful to Him. On one occasion, I mentioned that our church had a Baptismal Celebration Sabbath scheduled in just three weeks. I told her I was praying God would give her the strength to be baptized then.
A week later, Verna stood her ground and refused to show up to work on Sabbath, even though her boss had scheduled her for that day. Instead, she chose to worship with her church family. Two weeks later, at her baptism, she shared her powerful testimony of faith. Because we are a newly planted church, renting a building with no baptistry, I baptized her in the bed of a pickup truck just outside the church entrance.
I can’t help wondering what would have happened if we had not scheduled a Baptismal Celebration Sabbath date in advance by faith. After all, at the time, we had no one ready for baptism, let alone a baptistry!
It can seem like a crazy idea to schedule a baptism before having any candidates ready, but Jesus tells us that the harvest is plentiful (Luke 10:2). One of the most effective baby steps a pastor can take toward adding to the church daily (Acts 2:47) is to regularly schedule Baptismal Celebration Sabbaths. Our Savior pursues lost sheep with reckless abandon! Those seeking a place where God is actively working will then see a church committed to the harvest. Those needing a nudge of encouragement will find the motivation they need. God’s mighty works will excite church members and leaders, and they will be more likely to take an active role in bringing others to a public commitment to Christ!
Take a step of faith and schedule a Baptismal Celebration Sabbath at your church soon, whether or not you know of anyone ready. Some pastors may choose to schedule Baptismal Celebration Sabbaths monthly, quarterly, or at some other interval that works best in their situation. Even in the worst-case scenario, if no one ends up being ready when the date arrives, you will be shifting the focus of your church to the harvest fields.
Jacob: Baptism coaches
“No, Jacob! Not my shrimp!” Harold whined in a shrill, half-joking tone. I was seven weeks into an eight-week Bible study preparing him for baptism, and the lesson on a healthy lifestyle threatened to thwart what had been a joyous journey in getting to know Jesus. Harold had nodded agreeably when the lesson covered abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and pork, but it was obvious that we had struck a nerve when dealing with one of his favorite foods.
I smiled back at the man I now considered a good friend and gently replied, “It’s not me, Harold. I’m not trying to take anything from you. But God is telling you in His Word that you’ll be better off without this in your life.” He silently stared at me with a look I can best describe as horror. I saw him wrestling with what to him surely seemed to be a monstrous decision. Who would it be? Jesus, or his shrimp?
After what felt like several minutes, Harold lifted his head and looked at me with determination in his eyes. “I guess,” he said quietly, “if Jesus wants me to give up my shrimp . . . then I guess . . . I guess I’ll have to give up shrimp.”
“Let’s go, Harold!” I shouted, jarring him from his somber expression, “You got this, brother! Jesus will give you the power to let shrimp go completely!”
Harold and I completed our Bible-study plan, and I had the privilege of seeing him baptized and watching him grow into a mighty worker for God’s kingdom!
Preparing someone for baptism does not have to be complicated or take forever. In fact, you will often find more people ready to prepare for baptism if your church has a clear and simple plan. Our congregation uses the first 14 lessons of the Amazing Facts Bible Study Guides. They are straightforward, visually appealing, and include a quiz with a decision question on the last page. Any time a person expresses any interest in baptism, I immediately do everything I can to partner them with a baptismal coach who gives the person lessons 1 and 2. (All 14 lessons are easily accessible in our church lobby.) The individual completes the lessons on their own and meets with the baptismal coach the next week. The baptismal coach goes over the quiz on each lesson together with the person, answers any questions they might have, and hands them lessons 3 and 4. The process continues and takes a total of eight weeks. By the end, both the baptismal coach and interested person are stronger in their walks with God, and the candidate is ready for the pastor to meet with them and clear them for baptism!
Every minister wants their members to experience the same joy that we have had in bringing people to Jesus and seeing Him transform lives. By utilizing a clear plan, such as the eight-week Bible-study plan, we can rapidly multiply the number of church members involved in real discipleship. More participation in mission will lead to more excitement and more lives transformed! Jesus told all His followers to make disciples.
Jacob: New Member Orientation class
Our New Member Orientation class happens on the Friday night before a New Member (or Baptism) Celebration Sabbath. We want to give those joining our church a strong start, including members transferring from another church. The meeting has four 30-minute segments: Our Stories, Our Beliefs, Our Hopes, Our Worldwide Movement.
Our Stories is a chance to highlight the testimony of each person joining by asking them, “How has God brought you to this place in your life?” Celebrating what God is doing invigorates all those in the class, and we also have each new member share a two-minute version of it during our church worship service.
Our Beliefs gives people a chance to review the 28 fundamental doctrines of the Adventist Church, or as we like to call them: the 28 fundamental ways of following Jesus. We encourage participants to pick out a favorite belief or two and to ask for clarification on a belief they would like to be able to explain better to a stranger.
Our Hopes involve the four hopes that we have for every new member in their first six months:
- That they have a regular personal Bible reading plan, strengthened by a Sabbath School class
- That they join or start a ministry group, serving in a way they enjoy
- That they have the joy of leading someone else to Jesus and seeing them baptized
- That they make at least seven good friends in their new church family
Our Worldwide Movement segment helps new members see the big picture of the Adventist Church around the globe. We highlight aspects such as the Adventist educational system, hospital systems, and publishing centers and show how each member can be involved in the worldwide movement, even in our local context.
Building culture happens one conversation, one meeting, one person at a time. New Member Orientation classes provide an opportunity to accelerate a cultural shift by giving new members a strong start.
Dan: Start groups easily
Five minutes before I was to preach, Amanda, one of our young adults, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Pastor, we need a young adult choir.” In my early pastoring days, I would have replied with “Make a proposal for the church board” or “Come see me about it sometime.” But in time, I had learned the power of groups when they are put together in a simple, biblical way.
Turning and smiling at her, I said, “Why do you think God gave you that idea instead of me?”
“But what do I do?”
“You need to make sure of the four connections. Do this with me,” I whispered. I said “God” as I held my hand up as if grasping the hand of the Almighty. She did what I did. “Partners,” I continued as I extended my arms out to either side as if giving shoulder hugs to those beside me. She followed. “Mentor.” I cupped my hand to one ear as if listening carefully to someone. Again, she imitated my actions. “Flock,” I added as I extended both hands forward and down as if serving someone.” Amanda did the same.
“What does that mean?”
“First, make sure you are connected with God. You can’t do true ministry without that. If you’ve become disconnected, it only takes two minutes to get reconnected by saying, ‘Lord, I’m a great sinner, but You are a greater Savior. Take me, cleanse me, use me to bless others in spite of my flaws.’ ”
“Next, find a couple of friends who like your ministry idea. Sit down together and brainstorm what you want to do, then when, how, and where to do it. Remember, our church has a lot of musical talent, so most of your ministry will be outside the four walls of the church building, maybe parks, nursing homes, street corners, et cetera. Plan all that with your partners.”
“I can already think of some friends who will do this with me.”
“Great! Third, find any member of the church board to be your mentor. Your mentor doesn’t do your ministry for you or even with you. But they listen to your plans, make suggestions, connect you with helpful people, touch base with you from time to time, and report to the church board what God is doing through your lives and ministry. Choose one you can relate to best and ask them if they’ll be your mentor for this ministry.
“Finally, go after your flock, the people you are ministering to, and lead them to Jesus! How does that sound?”
“Great! We’ll go for it!” Smiling and giving her a thumbs up, I got up to preach.
To start or grow an evangelistic culture in a church family, we need to provide an easy way to form groups. No long proposals, detailed budgets, lengthy committee meetings. Just a simple four connections approach.
“So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them” (Rom. 12:5, 6, NKJV).
Jesus is coming again soon! Do not allow yourself to get distracted by the critics, cynics, skeptics, or scoffers. Keep your eyes on Him. Fill your mind with His Word. Activate those in the church who are most receptive. And let the Holy Spirit start a fire that blazes through your whole community and beyond until Jesus breaks through the sky and declares, “ ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord’ ” (Matt. 25:23, NKJV).