As it often does, something very important happened recently around a dining table.
Local conference presidents within the North Pacific Union Conference (NPUC) had recently been challenged by presentations at the North American Division year-end meetings. They had been confronted anew with the reality of stagnant Adventist Church growth — not just in the Northwest, but throughout North America. This was not new information, but this time it spurred an awakening of sorts. In the midst of all the debates about church unity and policy compliance, they thought, we are not making disciples like our Master has intended. That is our main purpose and why we must find a way to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in turning the tide.
When several of them met informally a week later with John Freedman, NPUC president, and Bill McClendon, NPUC vice president, around a lunch table at Walla Walla University, the topic came to a head. And out of that discussion, the presidents agreed there would be great value if the Holy Spirit could move every part of the Northwest together in a collaborative effort for God’s kingdom.
Since then, McClendon has worked with each conference to develop an adaptive process to encourage and resource Northwest churches and members in leading people to Jesus and fellowship with His family. With the Holy Spirit working among each congregation, it could help us witness a turn of the tide and make robust church growth once again a characteristic of Northwest churches.
Called Vision 2020, this collaborative effort across each local conference throughout the NPUC is beginning to roll out with resources to churches this month. The initial cycle culminates with a series of meetings in 2020, but it will not stop there. It can be adapted by each conference or church to help members to renew their commitment, refocus their spiritual passion, relate to their communities, reclaim former members and reach new converts for Jesus. It includes a whole new set of adaptive resources from Voice of Prophecy as toolboxes churches can use to help them engage with their communities.
The following discussion with Freedman and McClendon, excerpted here, outlines the essence of the Vision 2020 initiative.
FREEDMAN: I believe the Holy Spirit has collectively awakened us to our critical need to be personally and actively engaged with God’s call in Matthew 28 and the Three Angels’ Messages of Revelation 14. Around that lunch table at WWU, it was clear that God was bringing us all to the same conclusion — that it’s high time for us to put our collective hearts together, to partner in giving the gospel of Jesus centrality in our own lives and a clear presence within our Northwest communities.
MCCLENDON: Each of our conference presidents was already realizing on their own the need for growth. Then, as we continued to talk about the challenge, the next question was: If we did something together, would there be added value to collaboration? After all the turmoil during last fall’s meetings over policies and measures of compliance, the rather ironic thing that emerged in the hearts of our presidents was unity — unity in mission. And we began to have a real sense that the Holy Spirit was leading us together toward this common purpose.
GLEANER: How does Vision 2020 support our mission to share the distinctive, Christ-centered, Seventh-day Adventist message of hope and wholeness?
FREEDMAN: It provides a plan and resources that our conferences and churches can adapt to become the gospel connector Jesus has envisioned us to be. It’s not a new priority or program, but rather a method we can all prayerfully use moving forward together. If our churches and our members are going to become healthy, growing, life-giving channels for the Lord, we all need Him to change our comfortable status quo into an active source of light and salt for our world.
MCCLENDON: Our NPUC motto, "Moving Forward Together," implies that our efforts to live out God’s intent for our lives on this earth will be most successful if we work together with Him and with each other. The strategic plans and priorities already at work within the NPUC and each of our conferences are important. They will continue forward like strings on a guitar that are individually wound yet tuned to work together in harmony. Our plans to foster young adult engagement, encourage total member involvement, and grow healthy churches and schools as we grow together in Christ — these are areas that will only be enhanced as we work together with the process of Vision 2020.
GLEANER: The main elements revealed in this process are not new ideas: renewal, refocus, relate, reclaim and reach.
FREEDMAN: But the first step embraces the most important element that overarches everything — the Holy Spirit. You can’t bring new members into God’s family without recognizing it is the Holy Spirit’s work, not ours. The Holy Spirit is not a tool that we use; we are a vessel that the Spirit uses. For our churches or members to be successful at reaching new members, we have to be praying for God to work upon the hearts of people — first ours and then our community. Ellen White says that one sign of our renewed heart is that we will have a desire to tell others about Jesus. And that is what the initial step of this process is all about — renewal.
MCCLENDON: Growth has always been part of God’s purpose. The very first command He gave to Adam and Eve was to go multiply and populate the earth. When we’re born again into His family, He says the same thing: “Go, multiply this family, make disciples.” All churches start out growing. But when they forget their mission, that growth begins to die back. In my experience, there’s very little difference between a growing church and a dying church, as far as what they do. It comes back to “why” are they doing it. Dying churches can be very busy churches — but they’re busy in ways that don’t promote organic growth. Vision 2020 is a process of revival and reformation that the Holy Spirit can use to revitalize our Northwest churches. In that way, it’s sort of like a prescription. When we don’t see good things in the fruit of our lives, we’ve got to look for a change.
FREEDMAN: A lot of our members have been in churches that have never seen growth — they don’t know what it even looks like. The initial renewal part of the Vision 2020 plan is meant to strengthen our faith in what God can do and will do in our hearts and in our communities. This is not a plan to build up our own strategies, but rather to place ourselves in a position to be filled with the Holy Spirit across all of our conferences and churches throughout the Northwest.
GLEANER: So, in this process of revitalization, if our Northwest churches and members embrace the process to renew, it also brings them an opportunity to refocus?
MCCLENDON: It’s an absolute need. Our church growth slows and stops when our experience becomes all about us — what we want, what we like. So, when we come to church, we have a great time and perhaps a wonderful worship experience because it’s what we like. It’s the key factor that causes a growing church to become satisfied with status quo. But when we refocus on God’s purpose for us — to be outwardly focused, mission-minded — that answers the question of "why is the church here." There is a reason we seek to put a baptistery in every church. Even some of our most stoic congregations sense great joy during a baptism, a reason to celebrate what God has done in a life. We inherently know that is our purpose, so it’s like a victory party. It’s easy to lose that, when the baptisms are few and far between.
FREEDMAN: None of our conference leaders are anxious to see church baptisteries collecting cobwebs, junk or storage items. They and we are praying together for renewed, refocused purpose in reaching people for Jesus. When we refocus on why God has called us into existence, our church baptisteries will be repeatedly filled with water, with transformed lives being celebrated in new birth experiences.
GLEANER: Once we have experienced a renewal and a refocus on what our purpose is, you are suggesting a third step: relate.
MCCLENDON: Yes, how do I earn the right to talk to someone about their spiritual life without first knowing them? This Vision 2020 cycle recognizes we’re in the world to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to be light and salt, as He designed us to be. As we make friends, as we show people that we love them as God’s children, it opens the door for us to also talk about spiritual things.
FREEDMAN: It really is a sense of growing our love for people. Love is not just to get people into the church. Love is God’s Spirit within us to care for people’s needs, actively engaged with our communities, following Jesus' method of mingling with people as one who desires their good.
MCCLENDON: Yet I do think we need to be intentional. The rest of Ellen White’s statement says that, after Jesus won the confidence of people in the community, He invited them to follow Him. When we remember the purpose God has placed within His church, with the intention of somehow connecting people with Jesus, it means events that we schedule — concerts, cooking classes and other things — are all done within this context. Or, to finish Ellen White’s thoughts, to mingle with people in desiring their good, but to also make that invitation for them to come, follow Jesus.
GLEANER: The fourth step in this process is to reclaim those who for various reason have left fellowship within the church.
MCCLENDON: Within each of our conferences there are many who have drifted away. They are not strangers. These are our aunts and uncles; they’re our children. This is personal stuff. But what’s exciting, and you’ll hear this from pastors who have really been mission-focused, is that when a church recommits to its mission, the Holy Spirit works in very powerful ways to bring people back. I believe when a church has found its renewed focus in mission, the Holy Spirit knows this is a place where people who have drifted away can safely be brought back into fellowship. So, the Spirit prepares their hearts to respond. There is certainly often a sense of family and home in those who return. God does live in our hearts, but He also exists powerfully in community.
FREEDMAN: Sometimes we get focused on how dysfunctional our local church might feel, but God works in spite of our dysfunction. Satan would love to have dysfunction be an excuse to keep us from trusting God’s power to do great things is not dependent on our own abilities. It might take just one person in a local church to have the faith to allow God to turn that church into a powerhouse for Him.
MCCLENDON: Yes, I believe that soul-winning is where God works the most, where He works the best. It’s the leading edge of where the kingdom of God is growing. When we participate as a church in that, it changes what we talk about, it changes how we relate to one another. I believe it is a remedy for our lukewarm condition. This is what we are praying for with each of our local conference leaders.
GLEANER: What results do you hope for?
MCCLENDON: We believe that we will see many of our local Northwest churches revitalized as they intentionally work through this Vision 2020 plan. We’ll see churches come back to life, not just because there may be more people coming, but because they have reconnected with their God-given purpose. This is a road map to be brought back to life. And once a church has worked through this cycle of renewal, refocusing, relating, reclaiming and reaching, if it’s working to revitalize their congregation, if new members are being baptized and discipled, why would they want to stop? Why on earth would they say, "Well that was fun. Let’s do something else"? This can be like a wheel that keeps rolling forward as God blesses.
GLEANER: Some of our Northwest churches have been active on this mission. Meetings in Idaho’s Treasure Valley were completed in February and illustrate how churches working together on a common mission will see God’s hand at work.
MCCLENDON: Absolutely. It’s been sort of a forerunner to this Vision 2020 initiative. They began well over a year ago to prepare and collaborate with Idaho Conference churches to refocus on mission, reach out to their communities and connect with interested people to study in preparation for Brian McMahon's meetings. Even the tiny Heyburn, Idaho, group, with six members, got involved. And guess what? They had six guests make commitments for baptism — a 100 percent growth rate!
GLEANER: The Voice of Prophecy is a key partner in this plan, providing resources for pastors and churches to use in engaging with their mission.
MCCLENDON: This is a notable shift for them, regarding their own mission. In the past, our media ministries have always been about a major personality. But now the idea that “we’re going to draw everyone’s attention to one media star” has been turned upside down. And I believe the VOP is now aligned with our philosophy here at the NPUC — and that is, the success of our corporate church is dependent on the success of ministry through the local church. The success of our mission is in challenging, empowering and equipping the local church. And we are adapting the VOP’s new model of resourcing to support this plan.
FREEDMAN: I think this is big for our conferences and churches. Our conference presidents know that every church pastor works hard to develop resources appropriate to their field. It costs money and time. These new resources from VOP will be a huge help. And most of them can be adapted locally to fit those specific needs.
GLEANER: Are these VOP resource packages expensive?
MCCLENDON: Not to our churches within the NPUC. We are subsidizing the cost in conjunction with each local conference so these resources will be available for any church who wishes to use them, for little to no cost. I suggest checking our web page at npuc.org/vision2020 and then contacting your local conference for its specific plan on obtaining the resource packages and options. We hope every church that has a heart for their community, every church that wants to bring people to Jesus, will consider becoming part of this plan.
GLEANER: If a church decides later to jump in, will they be able to?
FREEDMAN: There’s no artificial deadline or penalty for coming in midstream, so late adopters can jump right in. Even those who decide late this year to get on board will benefit. The important thing is that your church adopts this as an ongoing church mission. We hope this can help move the approach of our churches from simply event-oriented outreach to becoming excited about ongoing mission opportunities and connections every day. It’s a cultural change. Church is not a competitive sport. We should be working together, praying together, as a family. I believe God can work greater things among us when we work together for Him.
MCCLENDON: This is who we used to be, very missionary-minded. I believe if we reconnect with that, we’ll see the power of the gospel can still change lives. This is what our conference presidents and many of our Northwest pastors are praying for. And, when we all start there, praying for renewal to fall in love with Christ, be filled with His Spirit and then know His plan and purpose for us, miracles will happen. I believe when we pray earnestly that God would give us a harvest, we will see Him at work.