Seeker-Sensitive Church Loyal to ConferenceCOLLEEN MOORE
Today Magazine Archives :Jul/Aug 1998 news
By all accounts the Mountain View Seventh-day Adventist Church in Las Vegas, Nevada, is unique. Most obviously, it?s a contemporary church with programs deliberately designed to be attractive to the unchurched. Less obviously, it?s a completely conference-loyal church returning increasing amounts of tithes and offerings to the Nevada-Utah Conference.
Most surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Mountain View is not a new church. Established in 1933, it has been the "mother church" to four other churches in Las Vegas which swarmed from Mountain View and started new congregations. In spite of its establishment, however, its format has changed drastically.
During the past ten to twelve years the members of Mountain View have gradually changed their worship services. One by one certain traditions began to disappear. First they stopped ushering the worshippers out, allowing them instead to leave the sanctuary when they wished. Then they instituted a small praise service at the beginning of church. Eventually no elders sat in front during the service.
Seven years ago the church was ready for a completely new format. With the help of Darrold Retzer, then the president of the Nevada-Utah Conference, they began a search for a new pastor who could help them become a contemporary, dedicated congregation with a burden for the unchurched community. More than a year later they found the answer to their prayers in the person of David Gemmell.
Dave had most recently been with Kay Kuzma?s Family Matters in Georgia. At the time Mountain View contacted him, he was also considering taking a church in Asheville, NC. He chose Las Vegas partly because the demographics were ideal for building the kind of church which he and the congregation envisioned. Las Vegas is a city of change. Many new people move into the area, a fact that keeps the community from becoming stagnant.
Before he arrived, Gemmell asked for the church to send him the names of the seven most influential members of the congregation, which then numbered about 430 with an attendance of 150. After he received the names, Gemmell contacted each one and asked if he or she would be willing to give one hour per week for ministry. Those seven became the pastoral advisors.
"We have no decision-making power," says David Sandquist, one of the seven, "but each week we meet with the pastor to pray for the needs of the congregation and to keep each other accountable." For the first three years, those seven replaced the board of elders. This year, however, the church reinstated a board of elders.
During the first year and a half after Gemmel?s arrival, the church worked on refining its mission statement. The result, "Transforming the unchurched into mature disciples of Jesus Christ," became the standard by which the members evaluate every prospective program and outreach opportunity.
Several of the congregational leaders have attended Willow Creek leadership seminars, and the church services are shaped by many of the ideas these people have brought back with them. Mountain View currently has two church services every Sabbath. The first service, called "Vintage," meets at 9:00 A.M. and is more traditional than the 11:30 A.M. service. For example, the worship team leads praise singing at both services, but at 9:00 they do not use percussion. Similarly, they do not do drama at the first service.
"New Wine" is the name of the second service. It features praise singers and a band, drama and other special presentations, and occasionally a Garden of Prayer. It is growing so fast that the church is considering having a third service.
The church now has about 650 members with about 500 attending each week. Every week about one-third of the congregation is composed of "seekers," unchurched people who are looking for spiritual significance. Gemmel structures his sermons so that they center on either Jesus or the love of God.
"The services are designed so that any week a seeker could visit and could find God," Sandquist says.
The Mountain View Church produced its own Net ?96 and ?97 instead of using the satellite transmission. This year it will use the satellite downlink of Net ?98, but the staff will show it in the multi-purpose room instead of in the sanctuary.
When seekers want to be baptized, they study the beliefs of Adventism. They are baptized into Christ and into the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
In answer to the question, "How do you stay in the good graces of the conference?", Sandquist replied that the church is intentional about staying within the denominational structure. Baptisms are up, tithe is up, offerings are up, and Gemmel is on the conference executive committee. These facts are sweet to the small Nevada-Utah Conference.
"The conference hasn?t looked twice because their tithe is up," Sandquist quipped.
He acknowledges that he can see how local giving versus conference giving could become a divisive issue in seeker-sensitive churches. He says the Mountain View church has a great local need that the church?s budget cannot meet.
"We need more staff," he says, "but there?s no conference budget for more. Volunteers pick up some of the slack, but it?s not enough. We raise half of one pastor?s salary, but that?s all we?ve been able to manage. We have bought lights and sound equipment, but we have many growing needs without the money to fund them."
Sandquist admits that changing from a traditional format to a contemporary one probably could not happen in many places. He also states that Mountain View is perhaps one of only a few Adventist churches that have changed from a traditional to a contemporary format without starting a separate service or a whole new congregation. During the transition, he admits, several members did move to other churches in town. But the majority stayed, and there have been enough new people moving in to keep the attendance up.
"Las Vegas is a great seeker town," he says; "many people are moving in; we have good demographics to try this."
Mountain View is not the only church benefiting from the Las Vegas demographics. Two other churches in town?Central Christian and its daughter church, Canyon Ridge?offer Willow Creek-modeled worship services. Central Christian, founded in 1962, is non-denominational and has undergone transformation since its senior pastor Gene Appel arrived in 1985. Today it has five services per weekend, two on Saturday night and three on Sunday, with a total of 3,500 people attending each week. Canyon Ridge migrated from Central Christian five years ago. Today it has a membership of approximately 785. Every Sunday it has four services, three in the morning and one at night, and between 2,200 to 2,500 people attend every weekend.
Mountain View offers regular "seeker events" such as an annual Christmas cantata; it also offers small groups and various ministry outlets, including helping to produce the weekly services.
The staff and ministry leaders have developed a ten-year growth plan, and a seven-step program structures the members? involvement in the church. The seven steps are: 1. Building a relationship and sharing a witness; 2. Attending a seeker event; 3. Making a decision for the Lord; 4. Structuring a "believer service"?a service in which fellow believers can participate as opposed to a "seeker service" which is less interactive and offers more anonymity; 5. Joining a small group; 6. Discovering your niche?getting involved in ministry; 7. Stewardship.
"We?re committed to providing a place where people can find God," Sandquist says. Even though their style and methods may be controversial to some, however, the church is also committed to one other thing. As Sandquist puts it, "We want to be Adventist."