Seeker Service Revisited: One congregation evaluates its 2-year-old effort

Jeff, a teenager, was phasing out of Shawnee Park Church. He was dabbling in the occult and living loose. But then he found TIME-OUT! Before long, Jeff had recommitted his life to Christ and had become a sound technician for the service. Now he's in church every Sunday—whether he's on duty or not—because he has found a way to serve Jesus, and he's excited about it.

Susan, a single mother of two children, went through a wrenching divorce a few years ago. Because the church she attended then did not help her through the pain, Susan dropped out and tried to do without church. A friend who was familiar with Susans struggles brought her to a TIME-OUT! service. Gradually Jesus found his way back into her heart. Now Susan not only attends TIME-OUT!, but also meets weekly with her discipler and is part of a music team. Recently her children started attending with her.

What is TIME-OUT!? It's a weekly service that calls people to Jesus Christ by encouraging them to hear and see and think and decide about their relationship to the Lord. The service was developed more than two years ago by the members of Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, as an evangelism event separate from the believer's worship service. (See the earlier report about TIME-OUT! in £W23,pp.6-13.)

Since TIME-OUT! began, Shawnee Park's membership has grown, and not by coincidence. According to Roger Kok, Shawnee Park's pastor, at least 83 people have become or are in the process of becoming members of the church because of their attendance at the seeker service. In addition, 43 people have transferred their membership to Shawnee Park from other churches because they wanted to be part of a congregation that is reaching out to the community and to young people.

The Shawnee Park congregation is now busy working to support this growth. About a year ago the church began a discipling program for individuals and small groups who were new to the church. Twenty-four members who have been trained as disciplers are currently working with seekers or new members. And another ten-week training class is preparing a new group of leaders to handle future discipling needs.

A Demanding Ministry

Shawnee Park is located in southeast Grand Rapids, in an upper-middle-class neighborhood surrounded by apartments and starter homes, where hundreds of professional young adults— married and single—are finding then-way toward middle age. Some of these young adults go to church; but for many, church is a thing of the past. TIME-OUT! is an effort to draw them back into the church through a new kind of service that integrates drama, contemporary Christian music, and a twenty-minute message into a thematic presentation of the person of Christ as the Lord of life and culture.

TIME-OUT! attendance, which began at 80 to 150, now ranges from 100 to 225. Of this number, 40 to 60 are members of Shawnee Park. The remainder includes a wide variety of people: teens from the community, young adults who have dropped out of traditional church life, divorced adults, families with young children, college students, and curious visitors from other churches. Every week someone new from the community is drawn to the service by the invitation of church members, TIME-OUT! attenders, or advertisements.

The service takes a lot of energy from staff and volunteers, but no one involved is complaining. A drama troupe of 120 volunteers, led by three volunteer drama directors and a five-member drama ministry team, coordinates, rehearses, and stages an eight-minute drama each Sunday. A growing number of dramas are written by members of the troupe.

TIME-OUT! also has two part-time music directors. Overseen by a five-member music team, these directors assist the service coordinator in scheduling thirteen minutes of music each week by a music group or soloist, and four to five minutes of congregational gospel singing supported by lead singers. A solid group of musicians—including those who play piano, drums, keyboard, guitars, and brass-—support the congregational singing and service transitions.

A cadre of sound technicians from the congregation have almost become professionals at controlling a complicated sound system that handles up to twelve microphones, a keyboard and music-track player, and four monitors.

A setup team manages the movement and storage of props for a stage that was enlarged last year.

A hospitality team schedules greeters and nursery attendants, and arranges for bulletin distribution and offering collections.

A publicity team places weekly ads in the newspaper, oversees occasional neighborhood mailings, distributes neighborhood signs that point the way to the service, and experiments with radio and TV ads.

In all, over three hundred Shawnee Park members volunteer their time and effort to this service in a year—some every week, others once a month, and others on occasion.

TIME-OUT! now has an annual operating budget of twenty-two thousand dollars (excluding staff costs), which is funded by faith-promise gifts and TIMEOUT! offerings. Eleven thousand is spent on advertising, eight thousand on music, fifteen hundred on drama, and fifteen hundred on follow-up activities.

The services have been designed around themes that address contemporary issues, challenges, and problems. With long-range planning that reaches up to a year into the future, the service coordinator enables the ministry teams to effectively integrate music, drama, and personal testimonies into each service's theme and message. This past year, TIME-OUT! offered the following thematic series: How to Overcome Anxiety (2), Seasons of a Spiritual Life (4), Does Christianity Make a Difference? (3), A Portrait of Jesus (6), Visual Celebration of Christianity (2), Faith Has its Reasons (4), Examining Your Friendships (4), The Ten Commandments (10), Guilt and Forgiveness (2), and Dangers in the Modern Home (5).

Stimulus for Change and Growth

TIME-OUT! and the resulting church growth continue to have an impact on Shawnee Park and its ministries. Major changes have included:

  • Service Tbne Change

We have reached agreement on service time changes so we have enough time for our growing church education programs and for TIME-OUT! setup and rehearsals between Sunday morning services. Our regular service (still characterized by traditional music and liturgy) now meets fifteen minutes earlier, at 9:15 A.M., and TIME-OUT! starts fifteen minutes later than it did at first, at 11:15 A.M.

This potentially divisive issue was graciously and supportively addressed by committees, council, and the congregation.

  • Discipling Ministry

A rapidly growing discipling ministry, mentioned earlier, now touches the hearts of forty-four seekers and new members. This assimilation effort is having a profound impact on the confidence of the church and its ability to enfold new members.

  • Long-Range Planning Committee

A long-range planning committee, appointed by the church council, has been working for about six months to establish a vision for our continuing and future ministry as well as examining Shawnee Park's facility finance, and staff needs.

  • Associate Elders

Eleven associate elders (all women) were added to enable the church to minister more effectively to its growing membership.

  • Communion Service

We added a quarterly 12:15 P.M. communion service to serve Shawnee Park members who cannot attend communion at 9:15, as well as members who attend TIME-OUT!

  • Brunches

We've held a series of brunches following TIME-OUT! services. The last one drew over sixty people.

  • New Ministries.

We added one household (cell group) for TIME-OUT! attenders and started three new music ministries, a new single-adult ministry, a young-married group ministry, and divorce-recovery seminars.

It's Worth It!

Is TIME-OUT! worth the effort? The people of Shawnee Park think it is. When the congregation first committed themselves to the TIME-OUT! service, Jackie Timmer, Shawnee Park's director of education, evangelism, and youth, predicted that the church would never be the same again. She envisioned that a transformation would take place as the church actively reached out to people who do not follow Jesus.

And she was right. The baptisms and professions of faith that have occurred, the growth of discipling groups, and the growth of new-member classes are evidence that this service continues to attract underchurched and unchurched people through its ministry. In 1992 alone, twenty-nine persons came into the church through evangelism.

TIME-OUT! also enables Shawnee Park to keep its young members involved in church life and ministry, and is bringing back to the congregation some young people and young adults who left the church in previous years. At least twenty-four young people, by their own testimony or that of their parents, remain active in church attendance and ministry today because of their involvement in TIME-OUT!

Obviously we still have some challenges to face—the greatest being the assimilation of new members into our congregation. We need at least one hundred trained disciplers to respond to our growing number of seekers, and a new curriculum or curricula that can be adapted for the wide variety of needs and levels of knowledge among new members. We also need to find new ways of meeting the needs of those who have "outgrown" TIME-OUT!, an entry-level evangelism event, but still do not feel comfortable in our regular worship service. Because the spiritual growth, liturgical interests, and fellowship needs of new members are at various stages, we may begin another worship service to bridge the gap—one that would include celebration of the sacraments.

We're also aware that we may face a whole new set of challenges in the future. If we are successful in continuing to bring in our unchurched and underchurched neighbors, friends, and coworkers, we will soon need more space and a larger staff. But those are challenges that the Shawnee Park congregation welcomes. We're convinced that the TIME-OUT! service is a successful way of calling people to follow Jesus, and we're committed to seeing it continue and grow.

Reformed Worship 31 © March 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.