Stay in touch with community to reach them, and sustain ourselves

Stay in touch with community to reach them, and sustain ourselves

Commentary | Marvin Wray

My motorcycle odyssey touring Adventist congregations was revealing

The growth rate of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America needs to keep up with the national population growth rates.

We are not holding the attention or the presence of our youth and young adult population and, as a result, the average age of our membership is approaching twice that of the population in general.

What is, isn't, and should be happening in our churches?

That's what I wanted to find out after more than 37 years of ministry in a variety of settings and responsibilities. I'm not an expert in research, but I wanted to see, hear, and feel the pulse of the church in my home region of North America.

In 2009 I took advantage of a Northern California Conference Sabbatical Policy and submitted a proposal that would allow me to travel across much of North America to visit with pastors and church leaders in order to hear their challenges, goals, and to gain a sense of the level of passion in their call to prepare a people for the soon return of Christ.

My proposal approved, I decided to make things interesting and make the nearly 12,000-mile journey of six weeks on my motorcycle. I encountered traffic, scorching heat, long and monotonous days, as well as breath-taking scenery. In all of the 11,393 actual miles I only had one day of pounding rain and one life threatening experience.

All total I visited 56 different locations and met representatives of more than 70 churches in 29 states and one province. All but one of the churches were Seventh-day Adventist congregations.

My observation: there are very few Adventist congregations that are truly growing and making inroads into the communities they serve.

Early on I coined the phrase "pockets of hope," and subsequently wrote in a book about the trip. Those churches that truly seemed poised for growth were all doing things that were creative. They were not necessarily "contemporary" in worship style, but they were uniquely reaching out to and meeting the needs of the community and finding ways to relate to people where they are.

All of them did this without "watering down" the beauty and distinctiveness of the Adventist message.

In Roswell, New Mexico, I saw a prayer ministry that brought tears to my eyes. I was embraced in a church plant outside Lincoln, Nebraska that truly warmed my heart. I heard of creative and highly organized methods to engage young adults and families in Laurel, Maryland; Las Vegas, Nevada; Toledo, Ohio; Madison, Tennessee; Kelso/Longview, Washington; Carnegie, Pennsylvania; and Aldergrove, British Columbia. I was completely drawn into a church family in Joshua, Texas.

Almost every church I visited was trying to reach people, but only a small number were really seeking to determine what the current needs and attitudes of the families around them were.

Sadly, there were also a number of churches that I perceived to be dying and one that was actually dead.

The churches in serious decline were also seriously out of touch with their surroundings. Some churches, in significant cities, simply shouted out by their physical appearance that they were not looking to the future, and I am convinced that there are many places where the current church needs to cease and a completely new start has to be made. You can well imagine that would not be an easy sell.

In far too many visits the lay leadership was absolutely in control and was not interested in new or "outside" ideas. While lay leaders should be the main force of ministry, sometimes they control rather than lead. I encountered pastors who broke down in tears when we really got into the challenges they faced in trying to initiate any level of creativity.

Part of this can be explained by the fact that pastors have been moved far too often in past years. There is now a more positive trend of keeping pastors in one place longer. It certainly is a challenge for a local church to fully trust a new leader every three to five years. However, it is strange that we can appreciate the latest technology and skills that come from a younger physician, but sometimes have problems trusting the leadership of a young pastor.

Church administrators need to be more resolute in matching the true gifts of a pastor with the true needs of a church or district. Too often we have been guilty of filling positions rather than needs. This is not to be critical of any level of church leadership. There are more than enough challenges, restrictions and expectations to make administration difficult at best.

I came back from my trip convinced that it's not the worship style or size of the church that determines effectiveness. It's about the passion of the church for the people God brings them in contact with and whether or not that church really has a grasp of the grace, mercy and unchanging love of God. He loves His children and is eager to embrace and work with them wherever they are at that moment.

There is not any one method, program or message summary that will work in all places. Church co-founder Ellen G. White once wrote: "Christ's method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, 'Follow Me.'" (Ministry of Healing p. 143)

I believe that by carefully, prayerfully, and humbly following His steps we will more effectively reach and hold the youth and young families that are not only the future, but the heartbeat of our church today.

--Marvin Wray is a Seventh-day Adventist minister and author of the book "Journeys" (2010)