Atlanta, home of the fastest growing Adventist church in the U.S.

Business-minded pastor mobilizes members for ministry
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Atlanta, Georgia/USA, 19.06.2010 / ANN/APD

A Seventh-day Adventist church in Atlanta (Georgia/USA) is growing quickly in a country where the rest of the denomination is growing slowly.

While young adults are absent from many of the country's congregations, the Atlanta Berean Adventist Church has attracted and mobilized them, along with other members, to conduct community outreach and traditional evangelism.

The 3,800-member church last year gained the most members of any church in the United States. It could earn the same distinction this year -- last month, television news network CNN filmed a baptism at the church while 110 people became members following a revival series.

As tens of thousands of Adventist Church members gather later this month in Atlanta for the church's 11-day World Session, Berean's senior pastor, Carlton P. Byrd, says he can't wait for them to arrive and see the state of the church there.

"They're going to find that Adventists in Atlanta are serious," Byrd says. "Evangelism is alive and well."

Business of ministry

Byrd is business-minded. In addition to his theology doctorate, he also earned a master's degree in business administration and held corporate internships before entering ministry, the profession of his father and grandfather. Even as an undergraduate student he pursued both theology and business; the duel major helped him become a more effective leader, he says.

"Make no mistake, pastors are spiritual leaders," Byrd says, "but the reality is the spiritual leadership that we must apply is situated in an organization."

The 107-year-old church, responsible for more than 30 spin-off congregations over the years, now actively caters to young professionals and young families. While Byrd's leadership is distinctly his own style, it's supported by the philosophy of the congregation that selected him as senior pastor in 2006 at age 34. He now seeks out young adults and other professionals, urging them to get involved in worship and ministry to all ages.

Denominational leaders say he and other ministers who focus on community and member involvement are what drive healthy, growing churches.

Atlanta Berean offers a monthly breast cancer survivor support group, holds annual Black History Achievement Awards, and last year received a multi-million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build a 50-bed senior citizen facility.

Additionally, the church's community focus brings in national gospel recording artists to draw a crowd for its traditional evangelism campaigns, while block parties for local neighborhoods can bring out 1,000 people for food and entertainment.

The congregation and several like it stand out as Adventist Church membership growth in the United States has plateaued in recent years, church leaders say. A 2009 evangelism push brought membership up to slightly more than 1.1 million. Still, the age of members is increasing in the nation of 310 million people, and home of its birthplace 150 years ago. The median age in the U.S. is 36.8 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while the median age of Adventists in the country is about 51, according to church figures.

"We're struggling a bit to grow in North America and we know that," says Carolyn R. Forrest, associate secretary of the Adventist Church in North America. "We've got to do some things differently."

Growing a church

Some evidence has suggested that key growth factors are getting members involved and reaching out.

"Unfortunately the majority of our pastors are not very empowering or good at getting people involved," says Monte Sahlin, a researcher for the church in the state of Ohio, who has conducted hundreds of local church assessments for the Adventist Church in North America.

Sahlin's research says church growth means keeping distinct Adventist identities and doctrines, but changing to accept potential new members who are different than themselves. Many churches, he says, lack interest in growing. But for those who are, many have a long-range strategy for community involvement.

For Byrd at Atlanta Berean, that ministry is his full-time job. "I wasn't called to just pastor the church," he says. "I'm to pastor the community."

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