Demystifying Adventist Missional Church Planting: Q&A With Anthony WagenerSmith
By: Samantha Angeles Peralta
It's no secret that the Seventh-day Adventist church is slowly declining in the United States. Recent studies reveal that, in addition to this decline, Church membership is also "graying," less productive, and "surviving by the energy and resources of previous generations". In the face of these realities, missional Adventist church planters are needed in the North American Division now, more than ever before.
However, church planting is, at best, an enigma to many ministry practitioners, and, at worst, a terrifying endeavor. How does one transition from the role of congregational shepherd to visionary church planter? How does a church plant reach secular people rather than simply attracting disgruntled Adventists? And what can a pastor do if he or she is unable to plant a new church, but desires to reach the unchurched through an existing local congregation?
Dr. Anthony WagenerSmith, associate director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute, former Tampa Bay church planting coordinator and successful planter of Compass Communities Seventh-day Adventist Church and LifeSpring Adventist Church in Florida, shares his insights on these important questions.
Why do you have a heart to reach secular and postmodern-minded people? Why does doing so matter today in the Adventist church?
While the Adventist Church across the globe is challenged in reaching the major religious groups represented by the General Conference Mission Centers, in western countries the secular and postmodernindividuals are one of our obvious missional gaps. I have seen many friends grow up as Christians and now identify as secular or “nones." My interest in reaching secular people is both to connect with those I grew up with who now have left faith in Christ and those I live around and interact with on a daily basis who have no Christian upbringing or background. The traditional models of evangelistic outreach and faith assumptions no longer connect with this demographic, and it requires us to creatively think, demonstrate, and develop new discipleship models for the Adventist message.
Why did you transition from pastoring a local church community to becoming a church planter? What were some key differences between pastoring an existing church and planting a new church?
Pastoring or planting both have the same mission of disciple-making, but require different leadership functions. To apply the apostolic example of Peter and Paul, existing church leaders develop mission from within the church structures, and church planting leaders initiate mission in people groups and areas where there is no church. Since I was young, I have always thrived in developing new things from the ground up. I valued my experience pastoring existing churches, and at the same time, for me, the opportunity to plant churches with a new DNA and mission focus in areas where we have no Adventist presence has been truly life-changing.
Tell us about your experience planting Compass Communities SDA Church. What did you learn about reaching the unchurched?
The first church I planted, Compass Communities Church in southwest Florida, was in a low socio-economic community not being reached by existing churches. My wife and I recruited three families with the vision of not simply sharing our bread but sharing our lives with the working poor and homeless. After nearly four years of meeting practical needs, partnering with social service agencies, discipling through small groups, and eventually worshipping together, that church saw over 35 people baptized into engagement with the church (many new to Christianity). It is still growing many years later with strong leadership as I developed elders from the beginning to lead the church, knowing I would move on. In the Florida Conference today there are close to 100 churches being led by trained and certified local elders, called "volunteer lay pastors".
After you planted Compass Communities SDA Church, you and your wife planted LifeSpring Adventist Church, which continues to thrive today. Why did you plant this church, and what made the experience so fruitful?
After establishing the Compass Communities, the Florida Conference asked me to move to Tampa Bay to coordinate church planting, develop training and support systems, and also plant a new congregation. My wife and I felt convicted to reach unchurched young families in an affluent, high socio-economic area of Tampa that had no English-speaking Adventist church presence. In the first year, long before starting a worship gathering, we focused on three things: visioning, discipleship, and ministry. Visioning included learning about the needs of the city and God's vision for church, recruiting and networking with younger leaders, working through strategic planning, and fundraising. In the area of discipleship we trained leaders with the same materials and experiences we expect them to pass on to new people, and for ministry we focused on developing an intentional presence in both organized and organic ways. We launched LifeSpring with around 25 active leaders, and four years later it has around 200 people attending, with multiple baptisms and discipleship stories of life change by unchurched people. It also has a strong mission focus and integrates outreach-focused systems for membership, leadership, culture modification, and a vision for multiplication.
One of LifeSpring’s core values is that of authenticity. What are some ways you incorporated this value, which is so important to secular and unchurched people, into your church culture?
Authenticity includes recognizing our own weaknesses and failures. While some church people view it as weakness, secular people often find it very attractive. We seek to model it in the way the church gathers in worship, an emphasis on church as a family not a business, the language used, types of small groups being run, etc. One tangible way is through how we do baptisms. We often look to conduct the baptism in a way that highlights the individual’s call to follow Jesus in everyday life. One example is a young man who joined the church and was baptized by immersion in the bucket to a front-end loader with his hard hat on and favorite wrench in his back pocket. He invited his coworkers and we all gathered around to celebrate in the parking lot of a construction site.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned about reaching secular/postmodern people?
The biggest lesson I've learned so far is how much I have to let go of. I do not assume any biblical knowledge or moral framework in having spiritual conversations, but at the same time I have learned to be bold (not obnoxious) in communicating what the gospel of Jesus Christ really is and the areas in which it is in tension with our cultural story. If this is done in friendship and in a winsome way, seeds are planted that the Holy Spirit uses to draw a line in the sand at the right time in their life. Being sensitive and contextual in our communication is not at odds with boldly expressing the claims of the gospel on someone's life.
What advice would you give to an Adventist ministry practitioner whose church is not reaching younger generations or the unchurched, and doesn’t know how to begin doing so? What are some first steps they can take?
I would encourage them think of their ministry not in terms of what they can learn but what God can enable them to unlearn. Ask the Holy Spirit to radically change their motivations and perceptions of what a successful ministry is. Then look at the contacts on your cell phone list and if you do not have close friends who are not Christians, recognize you cannot lead by example in your congregation's mission. Start by making one meaningful friendship with someone outside the clergy or church circles, not as a mission project, but to genuinely listen to their concerns. Mentor a few key leaders, emphasize the mandate for a missional lifestyle among Christian leaders, and over time, focus on culture modification where everything is evaluated in the context of disciple-making. Pray for it, take your leaders on field trips, develop relational momentum among your leaders, embed new language intentionally, and ultimately implement new systems with discipleship-focused metrics. There is no formula, but allow God to radically reshape you as a person. This is the key, otherwise the solutions we propose end up looking strikingly similar to the problems we have.