Church's Membership Surges by the Thousands

Pastor Paul Ratsara (left) and Pastor Reginald Sibanda have seen great growth in the Adventist church in Mwenezi, Zimbabwe due to a plan to "Lift Up Christ-Tell the World." [Photos: Rajmund Dabrowski/ANN]Source: Adventist News Network

[April 30, 2007] God is able. Ask Seventh-day Adventist pastor Reginald Sibanda and he will tell you that God is truly able. Sibanda knows this because he has watched God transform the hearts and minds of thousands of people living in the district of Mwenezi, Zimbabwe in just the past two years.

When government officials told Sibanda he could not hold public evangelism meetings he went ahead and held them anyway. The police sent an undercover officer to the meetings. The result? Even he became an Adventist. A majority of the employees at one Christian hospital are now members of the Adventist church, and so are members of one police department.

When Sibanda approached local schools about having morning devotionals they told him he couldn't pray in schools. Today, several schools in Mwenezi have morning devotionals and many of the teachers and students are Adventists.

Convincing the people of Mwenezi that the love of Jesus can change their lives for the better was no easy feat. The Adventist church's membership there hadn't budged until recently. For the past two decades the numbers hovered around 273, Sibanda recalls. That was until around two years ago when the Adventist church there surged by the thousands. Today, church membership in Mwenezi stands at 21,256. Exactly 21,256, Sibanda repeats.

"Under normal circumstances it is very hard to win people for the Lord," admits Pastor Paul Ratsara, president of the Adventist church's Southern-Africa Indian Ocean region (SID). "But when you allow God to do mighty things ... many miracles can happen."

Leaders of the Adventist church in SID, which includes the country of Zimbabwe, prayed for new ways of sharing Christ's love with others. After much prayer they decided to go back to the basics: faith, prayer and Bible study, which Sibanda says are at the core of this growth.

Church leaders chose Mwenezi as the pilot district for this project they would call 'Lift Up Christ-Tell the World." In addition to faith, prayer and Bible study, the project's initiatives also include outreach, good stewardship and building churches.

"We purposely selected a district where it was hard to win souls," says Pastor Ratsara. "The selection of the district was very important so that nobody will say 'yes it worked there because it is easy.' We started with one district so that when it worked we could repeat it throughout the [region]."

Ratsara added that there was one other important element to the growth of the church in Mwenezi.

"Many times we are looking for methods, and yes they are good but most important is the messenger," Ratsara says. "When we study the book of Acts [on which the project is based] it's about the messenger. We met Pastor Reginald Sibanda who was already the district pastor of Mwenezi and who loved evangelism and who had [an] exceptional experience with the Lord."

Upon their meeting Sibanda and Ratsara found they shared a similar hope of seeing the church grow not only in size, but in its commitment to prayer, faith and Bible study.

"We saw great results in 2005," Sibanda says in an interview for Adventist News Network. "When I met Pastor Ratsara we were about 3,200. When we implemented 'Lift up Christ-Tell the World' we baptized about 5,000 more."

The 28-year-old pastor approached members of the church and explained what was involved in the project and found very supportive congregations. He talked about the elements of the project from the pulpit and when he visited church members' homes. The project was not about having huge evangelistic meetings and baptizing those who are momentarily moved.

"We trained the members on how to pray [because it was important] that they should spend some time with God," Sibanda says explaining the process. "We divided into small groups and went out into the community. The groups would select the number of days during the week when they would visit people and do Bible study. We would also find opportunities to do good to [our neighbors] before we brought up Bible study. We shared with them, visited those who were sick and attended to their daily needs."

Ratsara notes that another reason for the explosive growth in Mwenezi was the part of the project that focused on training church members and new converts to witness. "This is about involving the laypeople--not just the pastors--to win souls. Everybody is a soul winner. Everyone. Also often when someone is converted we ask them to wait before witnessing but we are removing that gap," Ratsara says. "When someone meets Christ we train him to witness about his experience."

He also believes this method of evangelism aids retention. He reports that about 92 percent of those baptized into the Adventist church in Mwenezi remain in the church. "Normally when you baptize 21,000 people maybe after six months you'd be lucky to have half of them. But growth is rapid because everyone even before baptism, is already a soul winner. And when you are involved you're not going to leave the church. This type of evangelism is about both quality and quantity."

The Mwenezi story also runs counter to what many churches believe--that age and a theology degree makes someone a better evangelist. Sibanda, who was born into an Adventist family, made the decision to be a pastor when he was 21 years old and soon after began preaching in evangelism campaigns.

"I have not gone to seminary yet," Sibanda says. "But the Lord has helped me. I've prayed, have read the Bible and [Ellen G. White's writings] and that is how I have managed to do the work so far."

Sibanda's day begins with a prayer. "I pray four hours every day," he says.

Sibanda's wife, Jacquelin, is 24 years old and is very involved in the work of the church. "She prays with me, visits with me and takes time to train the members in how to help people."

About 60 percent of the members are young people, Sibanda reports. The church in Mwenezi continues to grow. Yes, there is a major evangelistic outreach once a year, but church members continue to do Bible studies in small groups throughout the year.

"We are already working on replicating what happened in Mwenezi all over the region," says Ratsara. "We are praying that an evangelism explosion will take place all over the world."