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Organizers of controversial evangelism conference say they seek to rejuvenate sleepy congregations
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Organizers of controversial evangelism conference say
they seek to rejuvenate sleepy congregations

By Bill Stough

Indianapolis, Ind.--"It was like walking into a room full of light," gushed an attendee at the Conference on Evangelism that took place July 31 and Aug. 1 in the Holiday Inn at the airport in Indianapolis.

Another said, "It was like walking among a room alive with the Holy Spirit."

Most in attendance similarly described the atmosphere as more exciting and even warmer and friendlier than a Feast of Tabernacles observance.

One hundred forty-five people came from 25 U.S. states and Canada. Most were laypeople, but among the crowd was a Worldwide Church of God elder, six United Church of God elders and other ordained men from smaller Churches of God.

The sponsors and presenters of the conference, Guy Swenson of Plainfield, Ind., and Bill Jacobs of Albuquerque, N.M., who were UCG elders until a few weeks before the meetings, had decided to go forward with the event in spite of opposition from the UCG. Because of their church's opposition, both men resigned from the UCG.

A letter, dated July 23, written by UCG president Roy Holladay of Cincinnati, Ohio, and council chairman Clyde Kilough of Sacramento, Calif., explained that it is not acceptable to the UCG administration for elders to act on their own in the matter of deciding how to evangelize.

All must speak with the same voice, wrote the UCG officials, and the church has been working on its own report on evangelism (see "UCG Reports to Members on Its Evangelism Efforts," The Journal, July 31).

"Still, as in any organized group, if the boss says 'no, don't do this,' then you don't do it," wrote Mr. Kilough and Mr. Holladay.

Mr. Swenson and Mr. Jacobs decided it was best to resign from the UCG rather than commit what the church said was a violation of ministerial ethics.

Mr. Swenson (who was not a UCG employee) was and still is employed as president of Management and Technology Consultants (a service for physicians), and Mr. Jacobs received a part-time salary from the UCG as a church pastor. He receives other income from working as a counselor in the Albuquerque public-school system.

A survey of the audience here showed that people attending came from a broad COG spectrum. Some attend churches (including in-house groups) of fewer than 25, some 25-50 and some 50-100, and a few attend congregations of more than 100.

God gives the growth

The first conference session, "God Gives the Growth," could have been considered the keynote address. Mr. Jacobs emphasized that God doesn't call people to churches but to Jesus. Growth occurs "all by itself" in healthy churches, he said, and does not happen in unhealthy congregations.

He compared church growth to placing children in homes. Should children live a home that is "dysfunctional"? God wants to place His children, those He calls, into healthy environments.

He cited Matthew 28:19-20 ("Go therefore and make disciples of all nations") as the commission of the spiritual church. This involves making disciples, not just "giving the warning," he said.

Those who would in some way "evangelize" must be open and up front about their Christianity, then God may choose to open certain people's minds. But God cannot open minds, Mr. Jacobs said, if His people do not inform other people of their options.

Three studies of growth

Mr. Swenson conducted the next two sessions and made similar points. He said that making disciples is the goal and reason for the spiritual Church of God, the Body of Christ, and doing so is appropriate for all Christians, not just for "some ministers."

He and Mr. Jacobs said they had done much research leading up to their conference, including three recent days of "Natural Church Development" (NCD) meetings in Chicago, Ill.

NCD is an approach to energizing congregations and denominations invented in 1989 by Christian A. Schwarz of Emmelsbuell, Germany, founder of the Institute for Natural Church Development. The NCD Web site refers to surveys of at least 20,000 congregations in at least 40 countries that have helped shape the NCD approach to inspiring congregational growth.

The Web site does not list Mr. Schwarz's personal church affiliation. The stated approach of his Web site and books is "undenominational."

Aim low

Referring to principles of natural church growth, Mr. Swenson said many Christians, especially Church of God members, seem to believe churches can grow only if they lower their standards.

Sabbath-observing churches especially can't grow, to some Sabbatarians' way of thinking, he said, because it's harder to be a Sabbath observer than to be a Sunday observer.

But, he said, that theory is turned on its head by the success of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

In their presentations, Mr. Swenson and Mr. Jacobs cited three "case studies" involving Adventists.

A young Adventist married man and woman started a "house church" in Pennsylvania to minister to their own community and so they would not have to drive 20 miles to an established congregation.

Their format was simple. It consisted of food, fellowship, a Scripture reading or message and prayer. The prayer was not just an opening and closing general prayer but specific praying spoken aloud by members of the small group.

"This environment produced a deep sense of bonding, and people liked it," Mr. Swenson said.

Within four years 49 people were regularly attending, and members of the group had to begin another house church.

The members preferred the house-church environment and didn't want to give it up for a potentially more "sterile" environment, Mr. Swenson said.

Mr. Swenson said that in 2003 Adventists baptized nearly a million people around the world. They do have problems, as all churches do, but they aren't "dying," he said, "which the Churches of God seem to be doing."

The second case study was "the South Tulsa Church Plant" of the SDA church.

(As used by the SDAs, to "plant" a church simply means to begin a new congregation.)

A Seventh-day Adventist congregation in the north part of Tulsa, Okla., had an attendance of about 200. Some members were comfortable with the status quo and weren't worried about growth because they were satisfied with their circle of church friends.

"But the mission Christ gave was to make disciples," said Mr. Swenson.

So the conference asked Bill McClendon to "plant" a new congregation in South Tulsa.

Looking for excellence

He asked several "leadership families" to help him with the project, said Mr. Swenson. They spent nine months planning and praying. They rented a building. Members invited their friends. The South Tulsa congregation started with 15 people and in four years reached an attendance of 400.

"It was a nurturing place to be," Mr. Swenson said.

The "North Tulsa church" also began to grow.

A "stagnant environment," he said, changed because of members' involvement in spreading the word about the church and because members then became "rejuvenated."

"People are looking for excellence," Mr. Swenson said, "and the best and cheapest way to grow a church is to get members to share their faith and invite others."

Mr. Swenson contrasted that approach with the traditional Church of God method that sometimes dictates that little or in some cases no effort is made to recruit new members. That approach stems from an interpretation of scriptures such as 1 Peter 2:9, which speaks of God's "calling," to mean that God will call whom He will and only whom He will apart from any human efforts.

But every Christian has the seed of growth within himself, Mr. Swenson said. God planted that seed in the form of the Holy Spirit, he said.

Mr. Swenson cited studies to make his point that historically most of the baptisms in the Worldwide Church of God were of people who came to the WCG as a result of "personal evangelism" by members of the WCG.

Such personal evangelism occurred, he said, because those members were "rebellious," determined to spread their faith even though the WCG repeatedly had told them not to try to convert others.

Whom to serve

After making his point that God expects Christians to share their faith, even to actively recruit new followers of Jesus, Mr. Swenson asked: "Is your church set up to serve the needs of the existing members or to serve the existing outside community?"

A "healthy" church, he said, is one that looks outward rather than only inward.

But a church can rejuvenate when its members are turned loose, or turn themselves loose, to fulfill the same mission Jesus gave the early church.

Texas study

The third case study involved an SDA congregation in Richardson, Texas, with 415 in attendance.

The new pastor of the group sought consensus, from elders and lay members, to wait until the debt on the congregation's building was retired.

So he and others members worked for a year to pay off the debt and ended the year with a "mortgage-burning party."

The members then looked around, at others in the Dallas area, and went to work "planting" several new congregations in the area, including one that caters to Spanish-speaking church members.

By 2003, after five years, some 1,520 were in attendance including the original congregation.

Don't proselytize?

Mr. Swenson walked through scriptures to show how he believes Jesus and His early followers conducted personal evangelism.

In John 4 Jesus waited at a well while the Samaritan woman spread the word in town. She brought almost the whole town back to hear Jesus. She, in that instance, was the evangelist.

Mr. Swenson quoted Mark 5:1-20, about Jesus' healing of the demoniac.

Jesus advised the man to tell his friends "what great things the Lord has done for you." As a result, the healed man "began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled."

"Now," Mr. Swenson asked, "if Jesus showed you you should spread the word and your church says not to, who should you listen to?"

The COGs are good at "sheep trading," said Mr. Swenson. "But we should lift our eyes to the harvest. Non-Christians need what God has given us."

Evangelism, he continued, is not a formulaic mechanism. Rather it is subjective and is "about relationships, motivation on a personal level from a heart that cares about people who need God."

He asked if members of his audience were "riding a dead horse." If so, it's time for them to change horses.

Only as a witness?

On the subject of "preaching only as a witness," Mr. Swenson told a story. He prefaced his remarks by reminding Church of God members of the old WCG approach of announcing information about the Bible that listeners, who are predestined not to be able to understand "the truth" in this day and age, might make use of 1,000 years or so later in the "second resurrection."

So "I have information to pass on to someone that he can use in 1,000 years," he said. "Then he eventually dies and does come up in the second resurrection. He stands there astonished, with spirit beings around. How useful is what he once read about 1,000 years ago when he's been through a resurrection and here are spirit beings to teach and help him?"

Turf battles

Mr. Swenson proffered another advantage of Churches of God seriously embarking on a course of encouraging personal evangelism. "Turf battles" among various churches might diminish if everyone were involved in "harvesting," which "is the mission Christ gave us."

To belong

Mr. Jacobs directed a session on helping adolescents and young adults develop a "sense of belonging" in the churches.

In attendance were 25 people from ages 13 to 25.

Mr. Jacobs also moderated a panel discussion during which the young people answered questions about what it was like to grow up in the Churches of God. Panelists were Katie Swenson, the official organizer of the conference and 18-year-old daughter of Guy and Jennifer Swenson; Christopher O'Brien of Liberty Township, Ohio; Jason Pack of Bluefield, Va.; and Stacy Seelig of Batavia, Ohio.

Mr. Jacobs led a session called "Waking the Dead" about how to rejuvenate a congregation. He showed a clip from the movie The Patriot to call his audience to action rather than the speaking of empty words.

He had the attendees break up into discussion groups to discuss specific problems that congregations can encounter.

He presented charts on "The Organizational Life Cycle," which he defined as a church's birth, growth, maturity, maintenance, decline and death.

Perhaps significantly, a typical cycle lasts 70 years. He noted that Herbert W. and Loma Armstrong began the WCG in 1934, 70 years ago.

When organizations experience decline, they try to push back the decline to the "glory days," Mr. Jacobs said.

But that tactic doesn't work. What does work is returning to the "birth days," he said, citing Revelation 2:4-5.

Mr. Jacobs said the gospel message must be relevantly presented to people whose interests are not the same as the people who attended church many years ago.

Most people, he said, are no longer interested in prophecy, even though many Churches of God still focus their ministries on preaching and publishing prognostications.

Before a church's vision can be restored, said Mr. Jacobs, somebody has to figure out what the vision is. What to do?

"Pray for help and wisdom," he advised, "and look for opportunities that God may open" for you.

Church analysis

Mr. Swenson concluded the conference with more about "natural church development," an analysis he hoped would help congregations improve their spiritual health.

Mr. Swenson and Mr. Jacobs plan to moderate discussion forums on their Web site ( and offer study materials including CDs and videotapes.

They will also put on conferences in other places as invited. (Next stop: Big Sandy, Texas; see next month's issue of The Journal.)

Contact information is available on their Web site.

See also the interview with Guy Swenson and Bill Jacobs in this issue.

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