Revised and updated 10-13-09
The baptismal service was incredible—more than 30 people baptized into the local church where I had started my pastoral ministry just the year before. Another seventeen joined the Spanish church. The evangelistic meetings had gone exceptionally well, and now we were enjoying the harvest. Over the next few months I visited the new members again and again. Some we saw often at church but others seemed to vanish overnight.
A year and a half later someone asked the inevitable question at church board: “Why did we spend all that money on evangelism and hardly any of the new people come anymore?” The tone of voice indicated it was less of a question and more of a determination to not do any more public evangelism. What had gone wrong? Had the evangelist not done his work properly? Had I failed as a pastor? Was the church not fulfilling its responsibilities?
Through a careful analysis, we discovered that half of those baptized were still attending regularly. Ironically, we discovered that was true of all members, not just those who had been baptized during the evangelistic series.
During the twenty plus years since that experience I have discovered three ideas for integrating new members into the church. If I had known these things early in my ministry I am convinced there would be more Adventist members and possibly even more churches in the places where I’ve pastored.
Share these ideas with your pastor, your church board and other church leaders and your Sabbath School class. As they are implemented you should see a dramatic increase in the number of new members who become strong spiritual leaders over the next few years.
Idea # 1- Before baptism, be very clear on what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist and how the church will help them in their walk with Jesus.
I baptized Richard during that large baptismal service. He attended church a few weeks, then seemed to disappear. Several times I had stopped by his house and left a note but there was no response. A year later I was in a grocery store and saw him with his family. I wondered if I should say hello or if he might be embarrassed to see me. Then our eyes met. “Hey pastor!” he yelled down the aisle as shoppers turned to look. “It’s great to see you! Where have you been?” he called. I was silently wondering the same thing. He rounded up his family. “Hey everybody, let me introduce you to my pastor.” I greeted each one. “Pastor, it is so good to see you. I hope to see you again soon.” With that he went back to shopping.
It dawned on me that Richard had a totally different idea of what it meant to be a member of the Seventh-day Adventist church than I did. After all, he had grown up in a church where many members attended only three times in a lifetime—when they were hatched, matched and dispatched! I realized that I needed to clarify with people what it means to be baptized and join the Adventist church before the baptism so we were both on the same page.
When someone is about to join the Adventist church they are usually more receptive to spiritual influences than at many other times in their lives. This is the time to talk with them about what baptism means and what comes after baptism.
Now, as someone is being cleared for baptism and church membership I meet with them, an elder and two church members of the same gender who will mentor them over the next six months. We talk about what a wonderful decision this is, how baptism is a commitment of them to Jesus and Jesus to them and how it is also a commitment of them to the church and the church to them all of their life until Jesus returns. Then I ask them these three questions. “Have you come to the place in your life where you can you say—
- “I have accepted Jesus as my Savior and Lord. I know He has given me sins forgiven and a home in heaven and He’s willing to give me victory each day of my life (1st John 1:9; 2:1; 2:25).
- “I understand that the Bible is different from any other book ever written—it is God’s voice speaking to me. I’m willing to ask the Holy Spirit to change my life to match all the teachings of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16).
- “I realize that in these last days God is raising up a movement called the remnant church for the purpose of taking the gospel into all the world and encouraging each other in holy living. It keeps all the commandments of God. It arose as a result of prophecy, teaches and preaches prophecy and has a prophet in it. And I want to be a part of this movement (Revelation 12:17; 19:10; 14:6-12).”
If they aren’t yet clear on any of these three points we go back and do more in-depth Bible study. If they are clear on each of these points we review step by step each of the parts of the baptismal vow and set the date for their baptism.
Then I or the elder tell them, “As a church family we are thrilled to welcome you. We have four hopes for you in your first six months as a member. Here they are: During your first six months as a new member we hope you—
- “Make at least seven good friends in the church. Your two mentors here will help introduce you to lots of people.
- “Develop a regular time, place and plan for personal Bible study and prayer each day that is reinforced by a Sabbath School class. We have a “New Members and Visitors Class” that meets at church every Sabbath morning from 9:30–10:30 where you can come and bring your friends. (Someone who has been an Adventist five years or less is often the best teacher, since they know and understand what new members are going through and are passionate about how Bible truth transforms lives. They encourage study at home and then class review of various Bible study guides such as Amazing Facts, Discover, etc. They also have a short time for fellowship and world missions. We don’t lose as many new members when we assign them to a Sabbath School class for their first six months.)
- “Discover a ministry you enjoy. There are many ways you can use your God-given talents to build up God’s work. Your mentors will help you try out different ministries until you find one that fits you, or we can help you start one with a friend. Some people like to help feed the homeless, others tutor at our church school, while others join our rafting or motorcycle outreach. There are lots of options.
- “Have the privilege of leading someone to Jesus, seeing them accept all the Bible truths and unite with this movement through baptism, just like you are about to do. Your mentors will help you with this, too. Are you willing to open your home for an hour a week for a Bible study group? You can invite your friends and your mentors can bring a few people from the church. Together you can study the Bible. This is a great way to let your relatives and friends learn about your new faith in the comfort of your home. Would you like that?” About 90% of the time they say “yes” and we set up a day and time for that to happen. We even provide the resources to the mentors at that time.
Then we continue. “At your baptism you will have a chance to share briefly how you decided to be baptized and join the Adventist church. Doing this will build your confidence in Jesus and help you become more bold in talking to other people about Him in the future. At your baptism which of these ways of sharing would you prefer—
- You talk for 2–4 minutes
- You write something down and read it
- You write something and have someone else read it
- I ask you some simple questions about how God brought you to this decision
- We do a video interview to be shown at your baptism.”
When we started this plan for assimilating new members some church members were afraid it would scare people away from being baptized or joining our church. It has had the opposite effect. People preparing for baptism now have a bigger and clearer picture of what is ahead and how significant this event is. By sharing our hopes for them, they see we love them and want them to succeed in their new walk with God. And they know where to put their efforts.
We’ve found that new members get excited to learn that baptism isn’t the end of their experience but the doorway into a vibrant walk with Jesus and fellowship in His church. They begin taking their own initiatives to accomplish these four hopes.
Idea # 2- At the baptism, have the new member(s) share their testimony. (See above for five ways this could be done.)
A testimony shared at the time of the baptism accomplishes several valuable things—
- It strengthens the new believer as they identify what God is already doing in their life. According to Revelation 12:11 it is actually a part of the salvation process.
- When the congregation hears what God is doing in the new believer’s life it opens their hearts to welcome the new believer into their homes and lives.
- The testimony reminds everyone present that church membership is based on spiritual convictions rather than social relationships.
- Unbelievers who might be present see that God can transform lives.
Wally was a homeless man we met in the park on Sabbath afternoons. Over time he surrendered his life to Jesus, became sober and tobacco free, moved into a small apartment and decided to be baptized and join the Adventist church. The Sabbath of his baptism Wally stood before the congregation and said, “I’ve done a lot of wrong things in my life. I’ve broken every one of the Ten Commandments. I’ve served time in prison. But today all my past will be washed away. Jesus has been so good to me. I tried to find my family back in Colorado and tell them about it but it’s been twenty-two years, and I couldn’t find them. So I guess all of you are my family now,” he said as he motioned to the congregation. When we heard Wally’s testimony we all decided to do all we could to help him succeed in his new faith.
John was preparing for baptism. Everything seemed ready until I told him about the brief testimony he would share at his baptism. He said he was nervous up front, but the interview idea sounded alright. That evening I received a phone call from the Adventist mother of John’s fiancé. She sounded upset. “How can you expect him to say something when he’s very shy? That’s not right! Now he might not even get baptized.” I listened and explained that John was an adult and could talk to me about it if he wanted to. I also explained that this was a chance for John to grow stronger in his faith and bond with his new church family. The testimony/interview went well a few weeks later, and within a year, John and his new bride became greeters on Sabbath morning at church.
Another lady was terrified about giving a testimony so we recorded it privately then played it for the church at her baptism. Within a year she became the church secretary!
It was the Sabbath of Mary’s rebaptism. She stood before the congregation and said, “I’m like the Mary in the Bible. I’ve made lots of mistakes and hurt a lot of people. I’m very, very sorry. I’ve done all I can to make things right but only God will ever be able to heal all the damage I’ve done. Now I have a chance to have a new start. I’ll need all your prayers and encouragement. But I’m determined to live for Jesus. If you see me getting off track, please come talk to me.” During a rebaptism some in the audience might be tempted to be critical of the past mistakes of the person being rebaptized. But a heart-felt testimony after a serious attempt to make things right helps the congregation see that God’s grace is greater than our failures.
When we have a large baptism we sometimes spread out the testimonies over the next few weeks or months and enjoy hearing them each week during the worship service.
In time we discovered that it was valuable to have people transferring into our church share their testimony at the time of the vote of transfer. I remember interviewing an elderly couple just before the church vote. “Did both of you grow up in the Adventist church?” I asked. “Oh, no” the husband replied. “It wasn’t until I was fifty years old that I ever read the Bible. Then one day I received an invitation in the mail to attend some Bible prophecy meetings. Wow did I learn some things! At the end of the meetings we were both baptized. That was twenty years ago. Now we’ve moved to this area because our son lives here. We hope he comes here and learns what we learned.” I turned to the congregation and asked, “Would you be willing to pray for this couple and their son and his family?” We took a moment for people to pray two by two, and then we voted them into membership.
Idea # 3- After the baptism, the mentors begin their ministry immediately.
That week they have their first Bible study in the home of the new member. They bring a friend or two from the church so the friendship process can begin developing. The new member continues to invite relatives and friends. The faithfulness of the mentors is a continuing witness to the new member. Opportunities to try out various ministries become available. And the weekly Bible studies in their own home give the new member a wonderful opportunity to learn how to share Bible truths with others.
If there is a reason the new member cannot open their home for a Bible study once a week then the mentors make contact during the week each week for the next six months to try to do something together. When one mentor is out of town the other still makes contact. Sometimes the person who will be a mentor is a steady, faithful church member who isn’t heavily involved with other church activities. He doesn’t need to have a lot in common with the new believer, just a willingness to make new friends for Jesus and His church. This is a great way to involve many more people in ministry. The Head Deacon or Deaconess can learn to recruit members to serve as mentors.
And remember, not everyone you thought you lost after baptism is really lost. A few months after that infamous church board meeting comment I saw a new face in church. After the service I went up to the young man in his late twenties and said, “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Pastor Dan Serns.”
“Pastor, don’t you remember me? You baptized me! I’m Luis.” He had been in the large baptism a year and a half before.
“Luis, I’m so sorry. You’ve grown a mustache and cut your hair. Last year we went by your home three or four times and never found you there. I wondered what happened to you.”
“That’s alright, pastor. Lots of my friends don’t recognize me since I got back. You see, after my baptism I quit my job because of Sabbath work problems. But when I couldn’t find work here I went to Chicago to live with my brother. I found a wonderful Seventh-day Adventist church there and my brother and his family started going. They’re getting ready to be baptized, too. I’ve come back home because I have a job here now. Sorry I didn’t let you know what was happening in my life, but it sure is good to be back with my church family.”
As more new believers take their place in the Advent Movement, not just in the pews, the numbers will swell, and more and more people will be activated for God’s work locally and around the world. Just like in a marathon, not everyone who starts the race finishes it. But new members are much more likely to succeed when they see that all the tools for a successful race have been provided, that they won’t run alone, and when they understand the value of what is at the finish line.
Dan Serns loves pastoring, soul winning, church planting, going on mission trips and spending time with his family. He is currently Ministerial Director of the North Pacific Union Conference in Vancouver, Washington.