None comes close
Even in the populous Latin American region, no congregation comes close to the Kingston CGI's figure of 220 average attendance (which does not account for our total attendance).
The largest of the ex-WCG groups, the United Church of God, according to a report by Kingsley Mather at the May general conference of elders in Cincinnati, Ohio, operates in nine Caribbean countries with an average attendance of 259 persons, far fewer than the figure for the four CGI congregations in Jamaica.
In terms of baptisms, the CGI's growth has been equally impressive. Between 2003 and today (just five and one-half years) CGI Jamaica has baptized 77 persons, with seven this year so far and others in counseling for baptism at the Feast of Tabernacles.
Striking and really sadly dramatizing how the work of God has generally declined since the apostasy of the WCG is a look at the baptismal figures printed on the front page of the January 2008 issue of United News, published by the United Church of God.
The paper reported baptisms in 26 countries, with only two countries showing double-digit figures outside of the United States: Chile 13 and Australia 19.
Most of the countries reported figures as low as one and three. In the United Kingdom there were only three baptisms, in Germany two, in Canada nine and in South Africa three.
It was not gratifying, though instructive, to note that of the 26 UCG countries that reported baptisms (in some countries, including UCG Jamaica, there was no baptism), only one outside of the United States had more baptisms in 2007 than the Jamaican CGI's 16: the continent of Australia, which reported 19.
The CGI Jamaica model
How does the Jamaican CGI do it? How does it manage to move against the global trend of stagnation within the Churches of God? What can others learn from CGI Jamaica, and is a model developing?
A response we sometimes get from North American brethren is that our growth is thanks to the fact that we are a poor third-world country, and people in poor nations gravitate to religion more than people in industrialized countries.
Apart from the fact that Jamaicans are strongly influenced by American cultural values and that we are a middle-income, not a strictly poor, country--and the fact that it is harder to survive without working on the Sabbath here because there is no social security--there is another telling fact: The other COGs in Jamaica, the UCG, Living Church of God and Restored Church of God, are exhibiting the same North American rate of growth in the COGs.
Recent high attendance for the LCG and UCG were 78 and 98 respectively. The RCG was about 10. CGI Jamaica's was 465.
The COGs' DNA
Although the CGI in this country started in 1982 with five people, the church lost a third of its membership in 1996 to the group that eventually morphed into the UCG, leaving us with about 70 persons.
So it has not been smooth sailing, nor have we been spared division, which, unfortunately, has become a part of the COGs' DNA.
But CGI Jamaica has weathered all of that, chalking up its impressive record and now boasting the largest non-WCG-derived COG congregation in the world--apart from the congregations affiliated with the various Church of God (Seventh Day) groups, such as the one headquartered in Denver, Colo.
Besides, while most of the membership of the other Jamaican COGs consists of former members of other ex-WCG groups, most of our members represent new converts to the Church of God.
Emphasis on evangelism
Why the phenomenal growth in the Jamaican CGI?
First, we have a strong emphasis on evangelism and not just the media evangelism that built the work in the WCG in the early years in the United States that has to be supplemented in today's fragmented world of media.
Campaigns, campaigns, campaigns
CGI Jamaica has successfully used the campaign format to build church membership, strategically using wedge issues to pull people from what it considers false Christianity.
Take 2008 as an example. In January the church kicked off its series of campaigns at a Sabbath service with a public lecture on the issue of the Sabbath titled "Should You Keep the Sabbath?"
(Incidentally, the church holds its campaigns during regular services, which means that the membership is out in full force. Hence visitors feel a sense of being part of something that is already successful and going somewhere.)
At our first campaign in January we had 52 visitors, including two former WCG ministers.
We had a follow-up on the same subject the following Sabbath, and then the Sabbath after that we did a presentation on the holy days, showing that it is inconsistent for Sabbatarians to keep the weekly Sabbath and not the holy days. It was titled "Questions for Sabbath-Keepers." This is called niche marketing.
At this campaign a record 103 visitors turned up, with total attendance of 307.
The lectures themselves usually last up to one hour and 40 minutes, with everyone paying rapt attention.
Then we had a campaign in March on the subject of the Trinity that drew 58 visitors, with total attendance of 287 persons.
We broke for the spring holy-day season, but our campaign was to resume at the end of July, when we were to address the topic "Why No One Will Go to Heaven."
Then we were to follow up in the first week of August with "Why Ever-Burning Hell Is False."
The second week of August we were to move out of Kingston to our Spanish Town church, where we were to hold five campaigns on the topics of the Sabbath, the holy days, "Is This the Only Day of Salvation?," "Where Will the Millennium Be Spent?" and the Trinity.
Our campaigns are advertised in the most widely circulating newspapers. But we do something else: We involve the members. Members are given invitation tracts that they distribute on the streets and to friends.
Living and breathing
A major feature of the CGI Jamaican model is the active participation of members.
Members are encouraged to personally preach the gospel and tell others about the Truth, rather than hiding their light as we erroneously hid it in the past and some corporate COG churches still do today.
Members give out tracts and actively promote the faith. The gospel was not given just to the ministry while others paid and prayed. It is the work of all the church. This mind-set is integral to the Jamaican CGI model and helps account for its dynamism while other parts of the body, unfortunately, are declining.
CGI Jamaica lives and breathes evangelism. An amazing thing happened in 2006. As a result of a campaign showing why the holy days are binding and why Christians who don't keep them are breaking God's law, one Sabbatarian leader heard my presentation and was convinced.
He took my tape, went on the Internet and procured UCG and LCG literature. Using that information, along with my tapes, he taught the feast days to his congregation.
Those members contacted me to ask me to give a presentation on the holy days there. I did, and the entire church broke from its former association and is now affiliated with the CGI, having accepted our other fundamental beliefs.
That congregation, based in the old capital of Spanish Town (the Spanish inhabited Jamaica before the British), averages about 65 in attendance.
To people directly
This shows why today we must eyeball people with the gospel rather than lazily and uncreatively depending on just the Internet and traditional media to get the Word out.
We must use those media, of course, and the CGI does, but we must take the gospel to people directly to answer their questions.
That brings us to an important point: At all our campaigns we have a question-and-answer session. Visitors are free to ask any question of the presenter--and they do so, without being censored or having to write them down and submit them ahead of time.
We allow hard questioning and give people adequate time to express their points of view.
In fact, for the last campaign on the subject of the Sabbath, a graduate of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., challenged me strongly after my two presentations.
I threw out a challenge for him to come to our Monday-evening study and make a full one-hour presentation showing us why the Sabbath was abolished and why we are wrong.
He was pleasantly stunned. In fact, we not only allowed him to speak without any interruption for more than an hour, but we invited him back the next week to speak again and show the brethren why we were deceived by "the legalist Armstrong" that Sabbath-keeping was essential!
This is something else about the CGI Jamaican model: We are genuinely open. Many evangelical and Seventh-day Adventist leaders express amazement at this policy, noting that there is no forum like ours in their own churches.
We have a Bible study every Monday, a main feature of which is that we invite outsiders to make presentations to us to show us why a particular doctrine taught by Herbert Armstrong is wrong. (Every first Monday there is a prayer and testimony meeting.)
Since we started the Monday-night studies in 1993 we have invited large numbers from Seventh-day Adventist, Seventh Day Baptist, sacred-names, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslim, Bahia, mystical, Pentecostal, evangelical and mainstream-Christian groups to speak to us on a variety of issues.
They have opposed Sabbath-keeping, holy-day-keeping, women not being pastors, our position on tongues (we reject gibberish), binitarianism, etc.
We have invited presenters to oppose and critique all the distinctive doctrines taught by the COG movement.
We then make a response and have the members ask questions of the presenters. We have not lost our members through this process, proving indeed that the truth shall set us free.
Gavin and Dennis invited
We would allow Ambassador Watch webmaster Gavin Rumney and former-minister-turned-Bible-skeptic Dennis Diehl to present if they would come! (This is an open invitation.)
We have not brought just novices. We have asked professors of theology from the evangelical seminary and men with doctorates to come to oppose "Armstrongism." The brethren usually end up being more strengthened in the faith.
We strongly oppose and reject the mind control, the authoritarian, overbearing tactics that have been used in the COG over the years that have stultified the growth of our brethren and rendered them incompetent to give a reason for the hope that is within them.
We have consciously and deliberately strategized against this evil practice in our history. (Sadly, some of the corporate churches still practice these methods, not realizing they are growth-inhibiting and spiritually destructive.)
Calling our bluff
We have even had COG members come to debate us. One member from the United States, Everett Leisure, who publishes ads in The Journal and who read about our fascinating and unusual Monday-night open studies, decided to call our bluff.
He said he had some unorthodox views on the law and asked whether I would welcome a visit from him to present his views to the brethren.
I said yes.
Well, he jumped on a plane (from California) at his own expense and came to Jamaica just to present to our Monday-night study. We gave him 90 minutes for his presentation and then scheduled more time than usual for interaction.
He had a lovely visit and was well received. He even told us Herbert W. Armstrong was wrong to preach against polygamy because he thinks it is okay for our African brothers to have several wives.
But we loved him just the same and would welcome him back.
CGI members in seminary
We not only invite seminary professors to specifically refute doctrines taught by the CGI, exposing our people to views other than our own; we go further and encourage members to go to evangelical seminaries.
Several of them have gone for degrees at the main evangelical seminar. Recently ordained CGI minister George Ramocan has a master's degree from the Graduate School of Theology, and deacon Paul O'Connor has his first degree in theology from the Jamaica Theological Seminary. One female member graduates this summer, and another is enrolled at the seminary.
Our church finds ways to involve both men and women. We have an apologetics group headed by a woman, Sandra-Mae Robinson, who for many years won the Herbert W. Armstrong Speaking Competition, held every year at the Feast to honor Mr. Armstrong and give a prize to the person who best defends a truth that he restored.
The winner must contend with the best arguments put forward by scholars who oppose the doctrine. Participants are judged particularly on how much research they do in the writings of those who oppose the doctrine taught by Mr. Armstrong.
The apologetics group puts on seminars during which particular doctrines are defended and where exegesis and apologetics are taught. Group members aim eventually to have a Web site where scholarly papers can be published.
Praising and worshiping
The church services have a strong praise-and-worship element, with lively songs in addition to the Dwight Armstrong favorites and other hymns. (Balance characterizes CGI Jamaica.)
We have an inspiring music ministry with many talented special singers.
And we have a plethora of ministries: for youth, Sabbath school, couples, singles, social welfare, visiting, music. We encourage the brethren to develop and display their talents.
Sermonettes by young people are not just reserved for "Youth Sabbath." Some of our finest speakers are young people. (The church has a heavy youth population, again contrary to the general COG phenomenon.)
Talk about speaking, we believe we have some of the best speakers in the entire COG movement. (Garner Ted Armstrong himself commented in 1987 that the preaching here was among the best he had ever heard and "you guys would be a hit in America.")
This is a major factor in our growth: Our preaching is gripping, informative and inspiring. Services, never dull, exhibit the right combination of uplifting, invigorating music and powerful, moving preaching.
Our church emphasizes the distinctive truths of the Church of God. We are strong on doctrine, as we are on love and practical living. Balance, indeed, is the watchword of CGI Jamaica, and this is a major factor in our phenomenal success.
We have a close and nurturing relationship with our head office, in Tyler, Texas, and get loving and wise oversight from our regional director, Bill Watson of Bath, Ohio, presenter on the CGI's Armor of God television program.
Centralized with leeway
We believe in centralized church government but give members a great deal of power.
In our Monday-night meetings any member who disagrees with anything the pastor preaches is free to present before the entire church and make his case as to why the minister was wrong.
Some members have taken up this challenge and have contested ideas that others have preached from the pulpit. (Yes, they have survived to tell the story!)
In our open sessions on Monday nights members openly disagree with me as pastor and are encouraged to criticize any idea they feel is not biblical. Even fundamental doctrines can be open for debate by members.
I once had a member who rejects the view that man will become God debate me on this issue.
In his presentation he said the doctrine was blasphemous and unbiblical, though for the rest of us this truth is fundamental.
He was not, believe me, disfellowshipped! (He eventually left without pressure.)
A member of the UCG who regularly attends our Monday-night meeting debated me for two weeks on the subject of justifiable reasons to leave a Church of God congregation.
(He is a former member of the CGI who left in 1996 with Herchial Fisher, who today pastors the local UCG congregation. Mr. Fisher, a godly and converted man, has deep love for all his former brethren at the CGI.)
Flesh and spirit
The Journal has been of great help to the Jamaican CGI over the years by familiarizing our work to especially our North American brethren.
Many have expressed interest in us as a result.
This year some people who are booked for the UCG Feast site here say they will stop by to see us in the flesh (and experience our spirit, of course!).
Our doors are always open to all the people of God. Please pray for us that we remain humble and yielded to God Almighty and keep our eyes on Him and on no man.
For more information about the Church of God International, visit www.cgi.org or write firstname.lastname@example.org.