Adventist World editor Bill Knott recently sat down with Pastor Brett Townend (left) from Murwillumbah, North New South Wales Conference, Australia, to talk about the remarkable changes occurring in Townend’s 400-member congregation.
Your church is right now experiencing a time of renewal and revival that hundreds of other Adventist congregations are longing for. What is different now than was true 18 months ago?
There’s a new level of enthusiasm for Bible study, for one thing. Prayerfulness is the second major difference from a year and a half ago. The third thing is a renewed interest in “What can we do for our community? How can we make contact with other people so we can share the gospel?” Three major things are different—a renewed interest in Bible, prayer, and reaching out to the community.
Were there specific steps you encouraged your church to take to prepare for revival?
First, we did an honest assessment of our condition as a church, and initially everything seemed to be going quite well. But what we discovered was that there was a lack of passionate spirituality. In other words, we were going through the motions, and everything looked good (maybe keeping up appearances), but we weren’t really having a significant impact on anyone (lukewarm, I guess). So we asked, “What can we do about it?” The first thing we did as leaders—because we really didn’t know what to do—was to say, “Well, let’s get together each week, and let’s simply spend time in prayer and see where that takes us.”
Was the habit of meeting for prayer already well established in your congregation, or was this something new?
We had to build that habit. We simply announced that we would meet from 6:30 to 7:00 each Tuesday evening. We weren’t asking for a huge chunk of time, but we had a specific time picked out. We focused on two things, revival for our church, and revival for our church school. We prayed for nearly 12 months as a leadership group before we began to see noticeable results in the life of the church—and we’re still praying as they continue.
What did you gain personally from that experience?
One of the key things I learned was This is God’s church. I had been feeling a lot of pressure as a pastor to be successful, but only His presence brings success. Then I learned, Our school is God’s school. I was chair of the school council and feeling a lot of weight because of declining numbers: we needed 140 students to be viable, but finished the year with 103. As we prayed, we turned our biggest challenges over to God, and we said, “These are Yours. We want to do what You want us to do. It’s Your church and Your school. Tell us where to go and what to do.”
Your congregation now has 50 people coming out every week for Bible study, where previously there were only four or five. How did that start?
One of the best things that happened to us was a Bible reading program. I had always believed that prayer and Bible study were key elements of the Christian life, and I had been preaching and trying to encourage people in the Word. But if people aren’t reading for themselves, it’s like getting a snack on Sabbath morning and trying to live the rest of the week on that nourishment. At a seminar that several leaders attended we heard about a Bible reading program. So we asked ourselves, “What can we do between July and December to get people engaged with the Bible?” We decided, “Let’s read the New Testament.” We divided the New Testament into daily readings—usually a chapter a day, sometimes two chapters. And we gave everyone a bookmark on which were printed three questions: What is God saying to you personally through these readings? What do you think He’s saying to us as a church community? And What can we do to respond to God’s leading? Within a few weeks a show of hands indicated 70 percent of the congregation was following the Bible reading program.
Seventy percent started reading the New Testament just because you offered them a plan and some direction?
I challenged them, saying, “We’re supposed to be people of the Book; let’s stop pretending!” We’ve actually gone through three reprinting of the bookmarks, because members started giving them away to friends and family members. They came to believe we were serious about Bible study, especially when I chose to preach about what was being read in the Bible.
You took your preaching topics from that Bible reading calendar?
It was a good discipline for me as a pastor: systematically preaching the Bible moves you into topics and truths you might not usually address. I began to offer introductions to the books of Scripture from the pulpit, helping members know what to expect in the text, helping them understand, for instance, why John wrote his Gospel. The church members reacted very positively to that approach.
Second, we decided to meet on Wednesday night for soup and buns, and then divided into groups to discuss what we had been reading. Some people were anxious about how groups would form and who would lead them, so we said, “Let’s just make it simple. We’ve been reading God’s Word; let’s get together, eat together, and share His Word together.” So that’s what we did. And attendance jumped to nearly 50 people each Wednesday night.
What about the school?
In a little more than nine months, the enrollment has climbed from last year’s finish of 103 to 153, and indications are that we’ll start next year with 180. God answered our prayers and those of dedicated and committed staff.
This story gets very personal for you, for it involves your own son. Tell me about him.
My 17-year-old son is a great kid, but he had turned away from spiritual things because of very painful things that had happened in his life. When Lachlan was 14, his best friend died of cancer, even though the whole church community had prayed and prayed for him. Another boy in the same class died of cancer as well. For a 14-year-old, that’s pretty hard. Then his grandmother also was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she died as well.
He turned to sports—he’s a very good basketball player—and immersed himself in the game, even getting himself selected to the regional under-18 team. But as the basketball success piled up, he just felt really, really empty. One day he decided, “Well, Dad keeps talking about this Bible reading, and others talk about it. What have I got to lose? I’ll do it.” So he started studying the Bible just about the time we actually launched the Bible reading program. He found the Lord for himself, and his life turned around. He shared his testimony at a school chapel service, and appealed to the other kids to find the Lord as well. He told them, “I want to start a youth group as part of our church’s Wednesday night gathering; come and join me.” Twelve or 13 showed up the first night, and now the group is nearly 30—a number from non-Adventist homes and seeking baptism.
And there’s nothing more dramatic than gathering around Scripture? No games, no Christian rock concerts—
Nothing else. Soup and buns. Eating together and sharing the Word together.
And teenagers are finding that satisfying?
They’re finding it very exciting—more than satisfying. Some of them have grown really serious about seeking the Lord for themselves.
You mentioned a third component to revival: reaching out to your community.
We decided, “Let’s see if we can find some folk who really need some help.” We work with a regional respite-care facility to identify people who are unwell or physically in need. We take a team of 20 people there and, in a couple of hours, transform the place. People ask us, “Well, what’s the catch?” We tell them, “There is no catch. We believe as a church community that Jesus came to serve. We call ourselves His followers, and we’re just here to serve. And we hope you’re blessed by what we’ve done for you.” We’ve received tremendous letters of response from people we’ve served. Young people get involved and are keen to do something practical with their faith.
I have a sense that God isn’t finished with your congregation yet.
I think what God has in mind is to make us the kind of people that He wants us to be in sharing His love. Ours is a pretty secular country, but as we become a people of prayer, as we grow as students of the Word, our witness will make a practical, godly difference in the lives of our neighbors.
Read 743 times Last modified on Wednesday, 25 March 2015 03:33