The Bible says that great beginnings don’t just happen. Here are examples of how pastors and laity have partnered with God to do the cultivation needed to nurture new life.
GLENN M. WAGNER
Michigan Conference Communications
The very first words of the Bible are “In the beginning God …” We are reminded at the very outset of studying scripture that beginnings are a source of life and that God is the author of life itself.
One of the most important ministry lessons I ever learned about great beginnings happened over 40 years ago in February. I didn’t learn this lesson in seminary from a learned professor, and it wasn’t first imparted to me by veteran friends in the clergy. The essential importance of a “great beginning,” was shared by a veteran farm couple. The elderly farmers were also devoted members of the church, living about five miles outside of town.
The cornfields were buried in snow, chilled by the gray skies and freezing blow that hid the sun from view for days on end and kept the temperatures uncomfortably sub-zero. This married pair had raised their children and their annual crops of corn, hay, and vegetables in the fertile soil of their farm. They had graciously invited their still “newbie” pastor to a get-acquainted visit to their home.
I braved the weather and carefully drove across the ice-glazed roads to their place. They greeted me with warm smiles and a welcoming embrace at their door. I was not prepared for the surprise that greeted me inside their warm abode.
Their large and well-established farmhouse was cluttered on the inside. Available table-top, window-ledge, counter-top, floor, and shelf spaces were taken up with small starter pots filled with soil. I had to watch where I was walking to not knock them over. The main floor of the house had a small east-facing greenhouse attached to the living room that was similarly filled with pots in waiting.
I couldn’t help but ask, gesturing at the pots of dirt, “What is all of this?” I had never seen anything like it before.
The farmer’s wife responded, “Please forgive what must seem to you like a disorganized mess. There is a clear and greater purpose to our interior decorating plan. These pots all contain vegetable seeds. We plant them early in February indoors where the warmth of our home, light from windows and lamps, regular watering, and controlled conditions can give the seeds a healthy head start on the growing season. We will transplant all of these pots of what will soon become maturing plants into our garden outside in late May after the danger of a final killing frost has passed. We have learned that making this extra investment of effort to give the plants a great beginning will yield a much better harvest and an increased yield.”
This early lesson from the farm about the importance of great beginnings has proved itself to be true in multiple ministry settings. I’ve also verified it in conversations with respected pastoral colleagues.
One friend shared this witness about his rapidly growing congregation. “We decided as a church that our main priority focus for ministry was going to be the church nursery. We invested significantly to make the nursery the most attractive and functional place for ministry on Sunday and throughout the week. The director of our nursery ministry is one of the most important full-time members of our team. We evaluate our nursery with the thought, ‘Would I entrust my infant or toddler to these people and want to leave him or her in this room?’ Cleanliness, hospitality, security, grace, functionality, community, and love are all key in our nursery ministry. When we learn of a pregnancy our love for the impacted parents begins even before delivery. We offer prenatal home visits, helpful pamphlets about parenting, birthing classes, new parent support groups, and a Christian child-care co-operative with participating parents. We share information about infant baptism and work hard to make this sacrament a special service for the family involved as well as the entire church community. Helpers in the nursery are given background checks and training before they are allowed to work. We ask volunteers for commitment and regular service so children in our care are prayed for and loved and can grow comfortable with familiar care each week. We have a state-of-the-art system to communicate with parents during worship if needed. We play quiet Christian music in the nursery, gather with staff in our nursery for prayer each week before the children arrive, and read to toddlers. We want all our children to grow in a place where they are surrounded by the love of Jesus for a great beginning. We put diaper changing tables in all of our church restrooms and have children’s activity bags available at every worship service. We want to communicate to everyone that ministry with children is a high priority. We have a growing number of expectant parents who join our church and because of the relationships established in our nursery ministry, most families continue to raise their children in the church as they grow older.”
Another ministry colleague shared her “great beginnings” strategy for growing her church. She noted that the church was advantageously situated and equipped to conduct weddings. She and her congregation decided to make the ministry of launching and growing healthy marriages a top priority. The pastor developed a quality program of pre-marital counsel. The church covered costs like custodial expenses out of its church budget to make weddings more affordable. She noted, “What makes this ministry special is that our care for the wedding couple doesn’t just begin and end with the ceremony. I send out monthly letters offering spiritual encouragement for the first year of marriage. We regularly offer marriage enrichment support groups and helpful classes in things like household finances, marital communications, and time management. On the second Sunday of June every year, our 11:00 a.m.worship is a marriage vow renewal service to which even our out-of-town couples make an effort to return. That service is followed by an all-church potluck. A high percentage of couples married in this church grow relationships that matter and decide to continue to grow their marriage and their faith here with us.”
The late United Methodist Bishop Emerson Colaw* offered another proven great beginnings strategy that he called “relational evangelism.” Colaw noted that statistically, cold calling on strangers to tell them about Jesus is not a very effective nor efficient use of time or resources. Researchers know that most people come to their faith in Jesus across “natural bridges” via invitational relationships with people they already know and trust. Each of us has a circle of about 12 to 15 people who are most likely to respond to a personal invitation from us to participate in church activities. Beyond that limited reach many human beings share certain needs in common and churches that seek to meet those needs are most likely to attract outsiders into their community who share those same needs. Colaw observed that if a church has a large number of single adults and begins a group for singles, advertising via public media, and holds a large event followed by regular group meetings, about 60% of those participating would be current church members with 40% newcomers. Those guests would be more likely to transition into the church community after growing relationships in a smaller group addressed to meeting their needs. According to current research about 50.2%, 124.6 million American adults, are currently single. This is a dramatic increase from 1960 only 33% of Americans over the age of 14 were not married. Christians wondering how to impact their communities for the gospel today will wisely seek to address the needs of single adults as well as the needs of families which come in many different shapes and sizes.
I learned another valued lesson in great beginnings from the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham. Before Graham died in 2018 he had preached to 210 million people in 185 different countries around the world. During a session of his Billy Graham School of Evangelism that was held concurrently with his South Florida Crusade in 1985, I learned about his strategy for new Christians. Graham’s crusades were focused on helping persons to make a life-changing personal decision in a public way to profess their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Graham was famous for delivering a compelling “altar call” which usually resulted in thousands of new converts coming forward while George Beverly Shea led the congregation in singing the gospel hymn, “Just As I Am.” Dr. Graham revealed how much effort and cost his organization expended before every crusade and afterward to help new Christians receive a great beginning to their faith.
Members of his association would begin meeting with local crusade organizers several years in advance of any event. Billy would not go to a place to hold a crusade unless local Christian and civic leaders ecumenically came together in a commitment to work together to reach new persons with the gospel. Part of the preparations involved starting hundreds of new prayer and Bible study groups across the region. Extensive pre-crusade training was also provided for volunteer crusade counselors who would meet at the altar with new professing Christians who responded to Dr. Graham’s altar call. These hundreds of counselors would lead the new believers one on one in prayer, present them with a gift copy of the Gospel of John, and personally secure contact information and permission to immediately pass that information along to one of the local prayer groups that would already have scheduled meetings to read and pray through the gospel of John. Within 24 hours of the personal decision for Christ, the new Christian received a personal invitation to join an ongoing group with materials targeted to help him or her grow in faith. Graham shared his strong opinion that leading someone to make a decision for Christ without a plan for follow-up was spiritual malpractice.
With vaccines beginning the process of turning the tide against a deadly pandemic, forward-thinking church leaders, like February farmers with seed pots in their living room, are wisely planning for the coming day when the in-person ministry will resume with an awareness that new beginnings for congregations will occur in a very changed environment and will need to continue to include an enhanced online presence.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul addressed controversies in that community by noting the important role of each person in the process of great beginnings …
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder, I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-12.)
Planning for great beginnings can take place in the unlikeliest of circumstances, like a farmstead in February, or even a congregation during a pandemic. It has been my experience that if we prayerfully plan, wisely plant, and water with teamwork, God will help our great beginnings with a desirable yield for the harvest.
* Bishop Emerson Colaw served as a United Methodist Bishop from 1980 until his retirement in 1988. Colaw was Glenn Wagner’s childhood pastor at First United Methodist Church in Elmhurst, IL. He died in 2016.