If you’re looking for an enjoyable walk, why not try the Overland Track in Tasmania? You’ll need some warm gear—it has been known to snow at the higher points even in summer. And some tough legs—it takes six days to walk it. But it will be worth it. Lonely Planet ranks it among the top 10 hikes in the entire world—and the highest rated in the South Pacific. But even if you don’t concur with Lonely Planet’s ranking, you would no doubt agree that Tasmania is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
However, it’s not an easy place for the Church to grow. In the entire state, you can expect to find around 600 people in an Adventist church on any given Sabbath. That’s out of a population of slightly more than 500,000.
. . . no-one likes knocking on doors—and neither do I. But we can’t sit in our bunkers and expect people to come to us. We have to go to them.
There are many reasons for the Church’s struggles. Due to limited employment and education opportunities, young people often head to the mainland. And in the Adventist community, many go to Avondale College—only to find their one true love from dusty, dry places or unbearably hot regions, and for inexplicable reasons, they decide to settle there. As a result, the Church is greying. There has also been less immigration to Tasmania; in Sydney and Melbourne some churches are growing due to immigration but that’s not happening in the Apple Isle.
That’s the environment in which Burnie Adventist church Pastor Mark Goldsmith works. It would be easy to relax, enjoy the natural beauty and babysit his church into a natural extinction. But that isn’t the way Pastor Goldsmith approaches ministry. He believes a living Christian faith is a sharing Christian faith.
Last year he began his evangelistic efforts at his other church in Devonport in the usual way—mass distribution of fliers. Ten thousand in all. But from those thousands of handbills, only six people came to his series. And none of them lasted the series. It was dismal by any standards.
Pastor Goldsmith noticed, however, that the people who came with church members because of the relationships they had, stayed. It comes down to basics: relationships are the key to evangelism, just as he found while working in Western Australia.
That’s when he started a new approach—using a very old technique. Along with his church of around 35 active members, they began knocking on doors taking a community needs survey. During the survey process, they met many people they had never talked to before. During the follow-up to the survey, they invited people to a community dinner at the church hall. The first dinner attracted 30 people; the second 27. The evenings were very casual affairs. No sermon. No commitments. Just simply people eating a delicious vegetarian meal together and getting to know each other.
At the third dinner, Pastor Goldsmith announced he was starting an Ancient Mysteries prophecy seminar. He also announced other programs the church was offering based on the survey responses—including vegetarian cooking classes, marriage enrichment, quit smoking and the Beyond DVD series. When he started the Ancient Mysteries series, 10 precious souls from the dinners attended. Two dinners = 10 attendees; 10,000 fliers = 6 attendees. Apparently relationships work.
And an added bonus? Because the dinners were held in the church hall, there was no need to hire a neutral venue. An upshot, the budget was in the range of 15 per cent of the public program—primarily the cost of the food at the dinners and nibbles at the seminars. “It pays to invest in good food and tasty nibbles rather than expensive public venues and mass distribution of fliers,” Pastor Goldsmith observes. “At the Sabbath morning service after our first Ancient Mysteries seminar, we had five of the folk attend and they really enjoyed the love and fellowship together with the message from the Bible.”
“Of course, no-one likes knocking on doors—and neither do I. But we can’t sit in our bunkers and expect people to come to us. We have to go to them. Get to know them. Meet their needs. And only then invite them to follow Jesus. That’s what our approach is all about. And, yes, the numbers aren’t spectacular. But remember, our church only has around 35 active members. It’s my hope that through this process of relationship building, we can grow the church 10 per cent per year. Not because I want growth for growth’s sake, but because I want souls brought to Jesus; the ultimate relationship.”
Pastor Goldsmith also acknowledges the dedicated Burnie church members. “It has been interesting to note that although all members are not knocking on the doors, when it comes to the community dinners, the Ancient Mysteries seminars, vegetarian cooking classes and the other community needs offered, the church pulls together and as a combined effort we are more united, and the spirit of love continues to grow,” he says. “I praise God for my active church members because without their dedication and love, we cannot grow.”
The secret of church growth
If there is one thing Adventists like to write about, it’s how to grow the Church. I know this, because we receive an extraordinary number of articles on one variation of this question or another. The problem is that most of the pieces are based on a theory, rather than practice. Now, don’t get me wrong, I can waffle on with the best of them about who should do what and how. But when thinking about tackling the knotty question of church growth, we’ve decided to focus on pieces by people who don’t think they know how to grow the Church, they are actually doing it. After all, church growth isn’t about numbers; it’s about souls. And how best to employ the time and talents entrusted to our community in spreading the good news is far too important a question to leave to armchair experts. So over the next few months, we’ll be featuring stories of men and women with runs on the board. And if you know a story we should include in our series, just send it along. No theory please. We are looking for results.
James Standish is editor of RECORD.