“You are going to be the Associate Pastor for the Arlington, Falls Church, and Manassas Spanish Churches, in Northern Virginia. Although you will serve all three, your main responsibility will be at the Manassas Spanish Church.” Those were the marching orders from my Hispanic Coordinator, Pastor Ruben Ramos, right after my return from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary.
On my first Sabbath, there were 38 people in attendance. It was Summer, and the people were very loving with me, yet the service and the atmosphere in general felt cold. I preached the best sermon I had, but did not hear a whole lot of amens, or affirmations. I could not tell what it was but, something was wrong.
It is unfortunate, yet it is true that many pastors in North America will, at some point in their ministry, pastor a church that has either plateaued, or is declining, or in some cases, is dying. There are stories of church growth, church planting, and church multiplication across our territory, but there are also plenty of anecdotes, backed up by data which sadly reveal the fragility of church life.
The lifespan of a church in North America is similar to the lifespan of human beings, somewhere between 80 to 100 years. While we recognize there are churches that will plateau, decline, and someday die, we must be clear there are also churches which manage to live, thrive, and reproduce way beyond their life expectancy. And just like we love to see our grandparents and parents live long and stay healthy, we want to see churches which stay healthy, relevant to the mission, and serve their communities for many years.
After the service, I asked to meet with the four elders, whom I had just been introduced to for the first time, earlier that morning. I asked them, two questions. The first question was: “How are you doing?” Their collective answer was: “We are tired, Pastor. The church is not doing well. Many have stopped attending. We are dwindling! If we don’t do something we are not going anywhere!” So, I asked my second question: “What can we do to make it better?” “Pastor, we are divided. We need to have communion. We are discouraged. Could we plan a communion?”
We agreed we would have communion the following Sabbath. Since members were now gone, we organized a team and divided the responsibilities to contact the members and invite them for communion service. This was our first team-building session. Carlos Alfaro, the Head Elder of the church and a very humble man, stayed back with me after the meeting, and with tears in his eyes said: “Pastor Jose, this is a tough church, we have been through a lot, and you are a young man, but I am here to work together.” After that he invited me to his house for a delicious lunch prepared by his wife.
Eight months later, the Potomac Conference leadership asked me to serve as Senior Pastor at an English Church. On the farewell Sabbath, my last day in Manassas, there were over 120 people in attendance, 40 new people had been baptized, and about 40 more reclaimed during the eight months. What had happened? The church had been revitalized! I just didn’t know it at the time, perhaps revitalization was not a thing back then.
Let me quickly share with you the lessons I learned from my first Church Revitalization experience:
1. Prayer Works: On my third Sabbath, I preached about prayer and told the church I needed people to pray for me and with me. I gave out a card and asked those who would commit to intentionally pray for the next 3 months, to fill it out. I got 17 cards back. Seventeen committed prayer partners began praying. Mercedes Rodriguez, one of the elders started a prayer group in the church.
2. Visitation Works: During our second Elders meeting we discussed how Elders do not exist just for the sake of performing platform duty, but they can also be an extension of the Pastor in the church and community at large. At our second meeting our elders’ team became the pastoral team, and on the following Sabbath’s bulletin, the pastoral team, pastor and elders, were listed in the bulletin with contact info. We also talked about the role of deacons and deaconesses, looked at their Biblical role, and agreed that visiting our active and missing members was vital.
We met together, looked through the Church Directory, and assigned each elder to care for a group of families and individuals. Visitation of each one of our families and members began right away. I went out with a different elder every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to visit. Each Elder committed an evening a week for visitation. We learned not to visit alone, so they always took a deacon and deaconess with them, when they were not visiting with me. We started with the active members, and once we were done visiting the active members, we visited the missing members.
Our visits were very simple. We tried not to stay for more than 25 minutes, although we often noticed they wanted us to stay longer and just about everyone offered us food. During the visit, we asked (1) How are you and your family doing? (2) How can the church help you? (3) What can the church do better? (4) How would you like to get engaged in some type of ministry? After that, we read one Bible verse, prayed for the family or individual and left.
At times it was challenging to arrange a visit due to the busy schedule of the working families in the church. Most had more than one job, plus children, but we still offered the visit. Very few did not take us up on our offer. The majority of the visits took place in the homes, between 5 PM and 9 PM, with morning and early afternoon exceptions in the case of retired, older, or unemployed members. Some visits happened at the work place during a break, a restaurant over a meal, the hospital for those who were not well, and at the church, before or after a service.
Visitation provided the opportunity to meet family members, spouses, children, who did not attend church, and make friends with them. It also created a great bond with the elders and deacons. All of a sudden, we were on the same page and had a cohesive missional team! As word spread that we visited and prayed with people, community neighbors began contacting us to request visits in the homes of non-Adventists, as well as in hospitals to talk with people and pray for the sick. As we found out about needs, members in the church offered some assistance and support to those in need, and although not wealthy and unable to take care of all the needs, people around us could feel the love.
3. Teaching Works: We began a series on the parables of Jesus and their practical application to our daily lives on Wednesday nights. A grace-oriented sermon series was introduced for Sabbaths. Preached on the Anchors of our Faith, our beliefs, and how they were given by God to bless our lives. On the back of the church bulletin, initially produced weekly by me, there was a detachable connect card, which among other things, included a space for sermon topic suggestions. I paid attention to a large number of them, not all, but many.
4. Prioritizing Children and Youth Works: We requested help from a few members, who seemed to have a gift to expand our children’s programs and launched a small group at a home on Friday nights for youth, led by the two active young adults we had, Jose Luis and Rosalia. We planned outings on Saturday nights. The local pizza hut and bowling allies got some business from us during those eight months. Our Bible study small group grew to around thirty in attendance. Youth and young adults were now participating in the worship services, we did take a few hits from a nearby independent ministry school for using a screen and an overhead projector, but now our church was growing, our members were engaged, and our youth were coming back, so no one had much time for criticism.
The Potomac Conference organized a Youth Congress at Camp Blue Ridge, the cost was $45.00 per person. Our church board met and voted to pay the whole way for every young person and their friends who wanted to go to the Congress. Thirty-five, including some whom had never been to church before, signed up. The total attendance for the event was 310, our small little church had 35 of those 310. Our youth felt special and very motivated and so did their young adult leaders. We invested around $2,000.00 in sponsoring our youth to attend that Congress, it was so worth it. They loved it and you should’ve heard the parents talk about how much they enjoyed being a part of a church that loved their kids.
5. Inviting People to Make Decisions to Accept Jesus and Join the Church Works: The first baptism came a few weeks after my first Sabbath, a couple decided to be baptized. Lazaro and Sandra were my first baptisms, we baptized them on a Wednesday night in the church’s basement. It is interesting to see how the baptism of one inspires others. Any time people made decisions to accept Jesus and join our church, we baptized them. We did not wait to have evangelistic meetings or special days to baptize people who made decisions. Every decision was celebrated, taken seriously, followed-up, and acted upon. During my last month there, we had a special Easter Week of Evangelism, we spent $200.00 at Office Depot copying the flyers. Asked members to bring their family, friends, and colleagues. I preached every night about the passion week, Jesus’ death, and resurrection, made appeals every night, and on the last Sabbath, baptized 16 in one shot.
That is what we did! God blessed, and the church was revitalized!
Now, I am not so naive as to suggest this is the silver bullet for Church Revitalization. This was just what worked for me in that particular situation. Perhaps some of these lessons, if contextualized to your setting, could bless your Church Revitalization journey.
Feel free to share this blog with your colleagues and with your church. I would love to hear about your Church Revitalization story.
Pastor Jose Cortes Jr., is an Associate Director of the Ministerial Association and leads Evangelism, Church Planting, and Adventist/Global Mission for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.