A few weeks ago, Miami Temple decided to try something "out of the box." Literally.
We dedicated our Sabbath service to serving our community.
Understandably, there was some initial hesitation when this idea was presented. After all, breaking from any routine is difficult to do. Personally, there was a quote from Ellen White that had been bothering me ever since I read it. This quote is what fueled my desire to make this idea a reality:
“God has not given His ministers the work of setting the churches right. No sooner is this work done, apparently, than it has to be done over again. Church members that are thus looked after and labored for become religious weaklings. If nine tenths of the effort that has been put forth for those who know the truth had been put forth for those who have never heard the truth, how much greater would have been the advancement made! God has withheld His blessings because His people have not worked in harmony with His directions.
It weakens those who know the truth for our ministers to expend on them the time and talent that should be given to the unconverted. In many of our churches in the cities the minister preaches Sabbath after Sabbath, and Sabbath after Sabbath the church members come to the house of God with no words to tell of blessings received because of blessings imparted. They have not worked during the week to carry out the instruction given them on the Sabbath. So long as church members make no effort to give to others the help given them, great spiritual feebleness must result.
The greatest help that can be given our people is to teach them to work for God, and to depend on Him, not on the ministers. Let them learn to work as Christ worked. Let them join His army of workers and do faithful service for Him.
There are times when it is fitting for our ministers to give on the Sabbath, in our churches, short discourses, full of the life and love of Christ. But the church members are not to expect a sermon every Sabbath.” – Testimonies for the Church, Vol 7. Pages 18-19, emphasis added.
If we're honest with ourselves, we have to admit that these words are just as true today as when they were written. We tend to enjoy a church service every Sabbath, without fail. In our hectic day and age, we barely have enough time for ourselves Monday through Friday, let alone for others. This means that on Sabbath, the majority of members in most churches don't have anything to share about how they impacted others for Christ during the week.
Do you know a time when most Adventists should be available to do something for the good of others? Sabbath morning.
There is another factor at work that led to our desire to take our Sabbath-to-Go. The Greater Miami area is one of the most irreligious cities in the country. I heard a statistic recently that only 5% of our city's 5.5 million population attend any religious service on a given weekend. This means that 95% of South Florida isn't coming to any church, period.
All churches need to firmly grasp the following principle before it's too late: Unchurched people will not come to church simply because the building is open.
Generally speaking, many Christians have believed a lie that if you have a nice building, offer great programs, great music, and open the doors, people will just flock in and find Jesus. Too often, we confuse a church service or the establishment of a church building as fulfillment of the Great Commission. The problem is that this isn't how discipleship happens. The New Testament church didn't grow like this, and people don't grow like this today. They grow via personal contact.
Meeting together on Sabbath is important, but what about those who would not come to us? We realized that we needed to break our routine, and go to them, if we were going to make an impact in our community and the world.
How to take your Sabbath-to-Go
If you're convicted that your church is too insular and need to take your ministry into the streets, here are some practical steps:
1. Set a date.
Everything begins here. Chose a Sabbath that is preferably around 6-8 weeks out. You will need to establish some groundwork, so give yourself some time. Also, learn from our mistake: choose a Sabbath where the offering is not for the local church budget. You could even collect an offering at the beginning, before going out to serve, to offset any potential loss.
2. Look at the assets around your community.
Gather a list of three to five non-profit organizations that are already doing great work in the community and join them; There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Jesus is already working in your community; you only need to figure out where he is working and hop on board. In our case, we decided to partner with a public elementary school near our church that we have "adopted," as well as Miami Rescue Mission (a great homeless ministry in downtown Miami) and reached out to a few other groups.
3. Look for needs in your church community.
We made a list of sick and shut-in members in our church that had not been to church in a while. We made a list, called each of these members, and asked if they would be interested in having a small group (8-12 people) from church come by on such and such date on Sabbath to pray and share some time together. This was our "Interest List."
We also decided to create groups of four that would walk around the neighborhood to deliver bags to collect personal care items for Miami Rescue Mission, as well as pray for each home in the surrounding blocks. I decided to go with this group because it would be a great way for the community to get to know me as one of the pastors that ministers right across their street – also because it was the easiest activity for my wife and I to take our toddler along. Even small children can still be involved in this event.
4. Set the teams and divide the workload among your leaders.
After a few calls inside and outside of our church, we settled on a few teams. I got leaders to be in charge of each major project. They would be the main contacts for each of the sites and be responsible for mobilizing the volunteers that signed up for, and showed up at each site. Here is where your elders, ministry leaders, and other self-starters will shine.
5. Promote the event and have members sign up.
It is important that you have sign-ups for the projects beforehand. Some organizations may need to do a background check on your volunteers, and you can't show up last minute with people. It also lets people see that this is an organized event and not one that is being made up as it goes along. At Miami Temple, I made the following poster to splash on social media:
6. Have a launch party.
On Sabbath morning, we all gathered together in the Sanctuary where I gave a short devotional, gave some instructions, and we went to the activities that we had all signed up for. Inevitably, there will be people who will show up that didn't sign up for a project for whatever reason. In their case, I had three service projects in nursing homes around the area where they could go to and minister to others there. Some people were upset because we closed church.
A possible idea you might want to incorporate (as I plan to do in the future), is to have another group be designated prayer warriors at the church. Members that might not be able to go to any site due to age or health, but might be able to form a prayer warrior team that prays for those engaged in service around the city. Really, there should be no excuses for anyone to not participate, unless they really don't want to.
7. Take pictures and video.
As long as your site gives you permission, be sure to document what each team is doing through pictures, status updates and any other means of advertising. There are always people who will think that what you're doing is a waste of time. This allows people to see that your church is doing something that actually matters to the world and is not living for itself. We used the hashtag #SabbathtoGo.
8. Celebrate the return.
This is a biblical concept. After the 70 disciples returned from their day of service, there was a lot of celebrating about what God had done through them. Jesus encouraged them in their joy and said, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from Heaven!" (Luke 10). The point is to have stories of encouragement for the entire congregation to hear. I was very nervous about how this idea would play out.
Incredibly, story after story started coming in about how church members and community members were both blessed in what they were doing and what they were seeing. In fact, there were too many stories to share in one day. So, what we've planned for Miami Temple is to have a time every Sabbath morning where we share a success story of what God did through our team effort that day.
9. Send notes of appreciation to your leaders and organizations that helped.
The success of a project like this does not rest on the shoulders of a single individual. After the projects are done, send a handwritten note of appreciation, call, text, email, or whatever to the people that were integral in this event.
10. Set a new date.
Nothing hurts a community service effort than for there to be no follow up. People can tell when they are nothing more than a project. This happens all the time at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We go to a homeless shelter or food kitchen, do a great job, take the picture, and forget about the people. We feel better about ourselves because we "did something" but we are still not a part of the community. Sabbath-to-Go should not be a program; it is a catalyst for service and a constant pipeline of community service, connection, and goodwill.
In conclusion, make outreach a part of your church DNA and you'll be the salt and light that Jesus wished for. There are too many pew warmers that are content with a show. If they don't like one church, they'll play musical chairs and go to another church. At Miami Temple, we are not interested in transfer growth, we're interested in "a revival of primitive godliness as has not been witnessed since apostolic times" that affects not only our characters, but our actions. If you're looking to break out of the box, consider taking your next Sabbath "to go"!
Nelson Fernandez is the pastor for administration and outreach at the Miami Temple Church in Florida