Three months came and went with no baptisms at the Richardson Seventh-day Adventist Church near Dallas, Texas.
The absence might have gone unnoticed at any other church. But it was agonizingly obvious to the Richardson congregation, which fills its baptistery with water on the fourth Sabbath of every month whether or not someone will get baptized.
Puzzled church members began to ask what was going on.
“We came to the conclusion that we had added good things to the church but had forgotten to focus on the essential things: sowing, growing, and reaping,” said the church’s senior pastor, Dan Serns. “When we did that, we started baptizing again.”
Why would a church fill its baptistery if no one was ready for baptism?
The answer underscores the crucial role that Richardson and other local Adventist churches play in fulfilling the Adventist world church’s ambitious goal to encourage each of its 18.5 million members to actively share Jesus as part of a new initiative called Total Member Involvement.
Ted N.C. Wilson, president of the General Conference, the administrative body of the Adventist world church, identified Total Member Involvement as a church priority after his re-election at the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas.
The General Conference, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, is supporting the effort with programs such as the 10 Days of Prayer, held in January, while the church’s 13 world divisions, including the North American Division, have additional programs. Unions and conferences also have been charged with finding ways to motivate members to get involved.
But the main driver of Total Member Involvement is at the grassroots level: the local congregation, church leaders said.
“Total Member Involvement finds its full force at the local church,” Wilson said in an interview. “Regardless of whether you are a lay member, pastor, or church administrator, we are all local church members and need to become completely involved with God’s advent message to the world. I challenge every church member to take seriously their membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and do something for Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The idea of getting every believer involved in soul-winning is not new — the concept is part of God’s plan of redemption — and some local Adventist churches, such as Richardson, have been active for years.But the General Conference hopes that the renewed emphasis will encourage all levels of the church, and especially local churches and their members, to find ways to participate.
The Richardson church took the unusual step to start regularly filling its baptistery shortly after Serns became pastor six years ago. Serns hoped to continually keep congregants focused on what he described as the three main callings of Seventh-day Adventists: the mission (to share the Adventist message to all the world in this generation), the message (the three angels’ messages of Jesus’ soon coming in Revelation 14), and the motives (to fulfill the Great Commission to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in Matthew 28).
“It’s a great reminder to us,” Serns said of the filled baptistery. “Also, the more that people see baptisms, the more they are willing to be baptized if they are ready.”
At least one person has been baptized every month over 72 months, with the exception of eight times, he said.
Today the church baptizes 40 to 60 people a year, pushing its capacity to the limit. Two services are held every Sabbath to accommodate the 625 to 725 people who show up for the 375 seats.
Richardson recently planted its ninth church, a remarkable achievement for a church that only planted its first church in 2000, 35 years after opening. The first church plant came under Richardson’s previous pastor, Tom L. Evans, who is credited with breathing new life into the congregation. Evans now helps plant churches across North America as the associate director for the North American Division Evangelism Institute.
“Pastor Tom Evans did a lot to get his members involved in planting new churches. Pastor Serns has taken the church to a new level of member involvement,” said Larry R. Moore, president of the Southwestern Union Conference, which oversees about 660 churches and companies in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. “I would like to see more churches get their members involved in work and witnessing.”
The Richardson church believes that the key to getting members involved is to put them on the path before they are baptized.
Everybody who becomes a member is required to attend a two-hour new member orientation the night before baptism. The meeting, Serns said, focuses on three things: up-reach (a review of the Adventist Church’s 28 fundamental beliefs and how to share them), in-reach (how to plug into the church’s small groups and ministries), and out-reach (each new member is invited to make a prayer list of seven people who they want to see baptized in the next six months).
On baptism day, each new member, surrounded by family and friends, shares a brief testimony about how God brought him or her to this place in life.
“We want to hear their stories,” Serns said. “I am convinced that we’ve got to hear our stories more. It will bond the congregation.”
Anyone who cannot attend the new member orientation or share a testimony is rescheduled for baptism.
“We want people to come in strong because in the last days we need everyone to be strong,” Serns said.
Richardson sees small groups as a way to keep members strong. Any church member can start a group. All that is needed are two other members and the support of a church board “mentor,” as the church refers to its board members. The church has Sabbath School groups, Bible study groups, mission groups, and even a basketball group.
Buford Griffith Jr., executive secretary of the Southwestern Union Conference, said he was especially impressed with the Sabbath School groups, which he has discussed with Serns.
“Pastor Serns has developed a very involved Sabbath School program that has resulted in a large number of small groups,” Griffith said. “It is a perfect way of discipling new members while keeping those already in the church actively and enthusiastically sharing their faith.”
But Richardson does not limit Total Member Involvement to members. It has several positions that every person who attends the church is invited to hold, including GLOW missionary.
“There is nothing like GLOW tracts to start a conversation,” said Serns, who also trains fellow pastors as evangelism coordinator for the Texas Conference, one of five conferences within the Southwestern Union Conference. “Through GLOW tracts I have had more opportunities to pray for people.”
One church member, Janita, got a surprise when she decided to give the religious tracts to every worker at a local mall’s food court during a slow period, Serns said.
A female worker glanced at the tract, saw it was about God, and burst into tears.
“I need to speak to you,” she said.
The woman explained that she had prayed desperately the night before about her drug addiction and her fear that social services would take away her children.
Today, the woman is a member of the Richardson church and gives away GLOW tracts.
Serns encourages people to share GLOW even if they are scared, saying they can engage in “chicken witnessing” such as leaving tracts in empty public restrooms or even in boots at a shoe store. One GLOW missionary, saddened to see a store aggressively selling alcohol during the holidays, ended up pairing tracts with dozens of bottles of wine.
Richardson keeps stacks of 100-pack bundles of GLOW tracts in the church lobby, inviting people to take them in exchange for their name, phone number, and the title of the tract. The church distributed 75,000 tracts last year.
Another position that the Richardson offers members and non-members alike is baptism coach.
A year ago, a 24-year-old man named Cory approached Serns after the sermon to announce that he wanted to get baptized.
“In the old days, I would have said, ‘Let’s get together and figure out when we can get together,’ and then the person would lose interest,” Serns said. “Now I tell everyone that they can be a baptism coach. We have people who are baptized with the person they were coaching.”
When Cory voiced his desire for baptism, Serns immediately asked, “Who can be your baptism coach?”
Cory pointed at a small, shy woman in the lobby and said, “My grandma, Clara.”
The grandmother was overjoyed at the news that Cory wanted to be baptized but asked what she needed to do as his baptism coach.
“It’s very simple,” Serns told her and led her and Cory to a rack of baptism study guides. The Richardson church uses an Amazing Facts series with 14 lessons.
Serns gave the first two lessons to Cory and told him to complete two lessons a week. He advised the grandmother to stay ahead of Cory and asked her if she knew anyone on the church board who could help if she had questions. The two settled on a name.
Serns then gave two more lessons to Cory and asked him to look for someone who might want to study with him.
Finally, Serns told Cory that he should plan on getting baptized on the fourth Sabbath a couple months later.
Sure enough, Cory was baptized as planned. When he shared his short testimony with the church, his grandmother and her elderly friends stood proudly around him. This, Serns said, is total member involvement.
“They stick with him like glue to make sure he stays in church,” he said.
This article appeared in the February issue of Southwestern Union Record.