How can the local Adventist church grow? How can it increase in effectiveness and relevance? How can your local Adventist church become the best version of itself that it can be?
In last weeks post, I talked about the reasons why the local SDA church can't copy the Megachurch. Both theological and practical considerations prevent us from being able to incorporate those models into our local church structure. So while Adventist Megachurches exist (and I'm not knocking them) this system is not viable for the Adventist local church the world around.
But what is a viable system? Does any exist? The answer is yes. But before I get there, here are two points you need to consider before taking your local Adventist church to the next level.
1. The local Adventist church is led by volunteers. Unlike Megachurches that can afford a paid staff, our churches are led by everyday folk who have busy lives. So if you are going to optimize your church, the process cannot involve adding more activities to their already busy lives. Instead, we have to tap into what they are already doing and find ways to do it better. This is why I promote "Church Optimization" rather than "Church Growth". Church Optimization is about "optimizing" what is already there. In other words, the goal is to find whats already happening and restructure it to work better. At no point are you seeking to add more programs, more activities and more meetings to busy peoples lives. Instead, you are optimizing everything they are already involved in - Sabbath School, Prayer Meeting, Worship Service etc. - to function at its best. And the way to optimize something is by finding ways to do it simpler and increase its effectiveness. If you aim for simpler but not more effective your ministry can die. If you aim for more effective but not simpler, your volunteers can die. You have to balance both simplicity and effectiveness. In doing so, not only do you make your volunteers life easier, you also make their work more meaningful. Its the classic "work smarter, not harder" scenario.
So how can you make this happen? I will link you to a free resource at the end of the post, but for now there are two amazing books I recommend. While not written by Adventists, what they propose is very much in harmony with the SDA style of church governance. With a bit of contextualising, these principles can definitely help your church grow. The first is "Simple Church" by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, and the second is "Slow Church" by Christopher Smith and John Pattison.
2. Most local Adventist churches are financially tight. While there are some who are blessed because they can rent out their facilities for some extra cash-flow, many struggle to even cover the cost of upkeep. As a result, any strategy for forward movement needs to function effectively within the church's means. And the best way to do this is to put all your energy and focus onto what gives people the most value. Programs, events and resources may be nice but what people value the most in a church is its culture. Is it intimate? Relational? Loving? Do the members live for one another? Support each other?
In my experience with the Natural Church Development surveys, Adventist churches always score low on the relationship side of things. We don't care for each other like we should. We don't love one another as Jesus called us to. And the funny thing is, it is this radical interpersonal love that Jesus said would prove to the world that we are his disciples. In other words, Adventism will never (let me emphasize "never" with as much force as possible) prove that it is the people of God by preaching distinctive doctrines. Not once did Jesus promise that people would know we are his disciples by our doctrinal formulation, arguments or apologetics. He said this would be accomplished by one thing - our love for one another. The funny thing is that loving one another will put zero strain on your church's purse and in fact, may even lead to more donations.
So what can you do to foster these relationships. There is only one way. You have to create memories. You will never have an intimate church if all you guys do is gather once a week for worship. You have to create memories. That's how bonds are made. Its when we have experiences with people that we have with no one else that we grow closer together. And you can't create memories by staying huddled in the walls of your church. Valuable memories are the ones that involve deep emotions such as laughter, joy and warmness. They are the kinds of memories you could never reproduce anywhere else. Go camping together. Serve the poor together. Schedule Sabbath afternoon walks, trips to the beach or lake. Have birthday parties at the church for members, especially the older ones (multiple ones a year, not just one). Visit one another. Provide for one another. Ever wonder why the early church had a financial fund to help "members only"? It wasn't because they didn't care about non-members. It's because they were creating a family and looking out for the needs of one another. Most importantly, seek for an experience where you, as a church, can serve someone in need or stand for a meaningful cause in your community. Few things bond people together like service. Some of these things may cost money, but people can pay a fee so it doesn't have to drain the church funds. The point is, make memories!
3. The final point has to do with Adventist theology. The point of Adventist theology is not Adventism. Its point is God's character. Our entire theological system is really just a story about the heart of God. And we need to get back to telling that story. Our beliefs are not there to put others down, they are there to lift Jesus up. They are not there to prove we are right, they are there to show he is the way. They are not there to massage our corporate ego, they are there to lead us closer to his heart.
If your church lacks this theological richness, it will struggle even with the first two points in this post. Unhealthy theology will never be able to accommodate a healthy church culture. Only a good picture of God can set the foundation for a culture that reflects that picture. This is a process that places no extra demand on your leaders or your bank account. However, its also the most difficult. It requires tons of prayer, preaching, teaching and nurturing. You, as the influencer, need to build strong relationships first before diving into this. But once its accomplished, the sky is the limit. Now, if your church is high jacked by fanatical leadership then the problem is more difficult (click here if that's you, and listen to episode 2). But most of the time, its just people whose trust you need to earn.
Healthy theology, coupled with the first two points, will not only create a healthier church but will also help your church to grow. But growth is not simply numerical. You will grow in influence, grow in relevance, grow in authenticity, grow in spirituality and grow in love. The natural result of this is numerical growth. But the focus is never on numbers. Those take care of themselves when the church is, in itself, a vibrant community of faith and hope.
These three points are not the end all of this conversation. They are simply considerations for those who are planning on moving forward and optimizing their local churches. But once these elements have been taken into account, its time to take step one and start moving forward. I break down how to do this in a free, 7-day video course you can get by email. All you have to do is subscribe here. The 7-day video course looks at the structure of the local SDA church and teaches a simple, volunteer friendly, financially viable and relationship focused process that will optimize your local Adventist church and make it the best version of itself that it can be. Check it out, and let me know what you think!
1. Which of these three points do you find to be the greatest obstacle in your local Adventist church?
2. If you attend a local Adventist church that is thriving, share some wisdom on how you guys have gotten there!