A clear explanation of the gospel is changing lives at First Church.
Jessica Bryan did something last year that made her nervous. Very nervous.
She recorded a video testimony to be shown in Sunday worship at her church, First Reformed in DeMotte, Indiana.
Bryan has only been attending the church for a year, but it’s become so critical to her that she now ranks it immediately after her family in terms of importance. So when she was asked to record a testimony for the “I love my church” series, she mustered up the courage and went for it.
“My video—I was so scared to do that, and nervous and anxious, and to sit in the service while 700 people watched it,” she says. “But my nervousness was worth it. Two people I know of have given their life to Christ, in part because of that video.”
In the video, Bryan tells about driving down the road when her three-year-old son asked who lived in the sky. Bryan, who had become a Christian at age 12, told him God lived in the sky. His response was a watershed moment for her.
“He said, ‘No, I don’t know who that is. Giants live in the sky.’
“My heart broke because he did not know who God was. And that was my fault, 100 percent my fault, because I had been living my life not following Jesus and not teaching my kids about him, and he’s three and a half and doesn’t know. … That’s when we started going back to church.”
That was November 2015. The following January, a friend from the gym invited Bryan to First Church for her son’s dedication. “I came the following Sunday and have been coming ever since,” she says. “I was going to [a different] church in November, but I was still not following Jesus at that time. I was going basically for my kids, not for me.
“Since I started coming to First Church, I’m not coming for my kids, I’m coming for me. I’m happy that my son is learning so much—but I’m coming for me.”
Bryan says she knows God put that question in her son’s brain to wake her up to the fact she wasn’t living life to the fullest. On January 17, 2016—a day before turning 30—she rededicated her life to Christ.
If there’s anything she can do to help someone else wake up, she says, count her in.
A new approach to evangelism
Bryan’s story is indicative of the revival that’s taking place at First Reformed. She’s inviting friends to church now, sharing the YouTube video of her testimony on social media, and texting it to friends. And she’s just one of the many people at First who are bringing in visitors. Lots of them.
“Most of the time, people come because they’re invited by someone else who’s coming,” says Mark Terborg, a deacon at the church.
“Ten percent of our growth has come from various ministries that we have; 90 percent of our growth has come through people who took a personal evangelism class,” says senior pastor John Hill. “Most of the people who come to Christ here do it at a coffee table at one of the homes of our church members. We define discipleship as people who love Jesus reaching people who don’t, and seeing them love Jesus.
“It’s not about me, and it’s not about you. It’s about seeing people far from Christ being filled with Christ for the glory of God.”
After years of trying different approaches, the congregation eventually focused on communicating the simplicity of the gospel every weekend, in a way that people could understand. “We focused on removing everything that was alienating to people who have never been to church, and we immediately began to see results,” Hill says.
Immediately, the church began to see people far from God filled with life in Christ.
“We had a leadership team member who gave his life to Christ after 71 years in the church,” says Hill. “He’s bringing whole rows of people to church.”
In the past year, 63 people have made profession of faith. Nine people have been baptized. Average worship attendance has increased 50 percent, jumping even more since the congregation outgrew its facility and moved to a new building in May. (Attendance is up 252 percent since 2014.)
“The exciting part is seeing people—sinners like ourselves—come in the door and get their lives changed because of Jesus,” says Terborg. “When it keeps happening over and over, everybody gets excited. Those people get plugged into the church as a whole and in small groups, and you just see their lives changing.”
Bryan says the church embodies hospitality with its “nobody’s perfect and everybody’s welcome” approach.
At the same time, Terborg says, “Everybody’s welcome, but once you become a Christian the Holy Spirit will start to work on you and you’ll start to change.”
Choosing to fight for the church
According to Terborg, the emphasis on outreach first began years ago, around the time he and his wife began attending in 2004. “We felt God was calling our church to head in a more outreach-oriented direction.”
Even so, it was not an easy journey. Traditions needed to be negotiated, along with vision. And after steady decline, people stopped believing that the church could “win.” (Hill defines winning as changing people’s eternities by the power of a risen savior.)
Plenty of people left the congregation over the last 14 years—most of them, in fact. A church split ten years ago led to the establishment of a new congregation, Trinity Presbyterian. But in the last few years, Hill says, “God has steadily grown us.” He adds that families that have left recently have all gotten plugged in to other churches.
“We were a typical dying RCA church,” says Hill. He calls the turnaround miraculous, and credits the power of the gospel. For First Church, he says, it was a matter of making a choice. “Are we going to choose to die, or are we going to choose to live? This is the bride of Christ who is dying. God has entrusted her to us.” We need to fight for the church, he says, as we would fight for the best medical care for a dying spouse.
“It’s been the greatest joy of my life to see this church do something I didn’t even know was possible,” he says.
Watch Jessica Bryan’s video on the RCA Today app or at www.rca.org/jessicabryan.
Email email@example.com to learn how you can help your church experience similar transformation.
Pray for the Holy Spirit to move in people’s hearts in powerful ways.