Before and after pictures are compelling. In a glimpse they communicate that something—often someone’s life—has changed.
Lost in all of the talk about evangelism and mission is the fact that, far too often, it’s been a long time since many people have actually seen God’s Spirit transform someone’s life. Yes, they’ve likely heard the stories.
They are familiar with the pastor’s clever tales about salvation and life transformation, but these stories are often about people and places they’ve never met and haven’t seen first-hand. Some of these individuals can recount their own personal story of transformation, but even these stories have accumulated dust over the years.
Many in the church haven’t had a front-row seat to observe God orchestrate powerful acts of deliverance and change.
Over time, a lack of visible transformation fosters a certain predictable apathy. We know that God can save. We know that he does bring freedom from sin. We’re aware of the hope found in Jesus.
Yet, like a certain diet or exercise regimen, mere affirmation of potency does nothing if not matched by actual practice. We may know in theory, that something, or someone, is transformative, but we all need personal examples of that change to continue to inspire our actions.
We read these stories in the journey of Israel to the promised land.
Time and again, each of the 12 tribes are mentioned, the various land allocations described, and the people accounted for. God’s deliverance wasn’t for a vague powerful group, but real-life people who experienced the power of God in a personal way.
When Moses testifies that the Israelites were cared for the in the wilderness, that they were fed miraculously by God, that their clothes didn’t wear out, and that they learned humility and dependence on God (Deut. 4-8), he’s speaking of actual people who were transformed by God’s work in their life specifically.
When the tribes settle in the land, it’s as if God is saying, “Yep, I got them too.” God saves people and he saves people who other saved people know.
The same personal transformation colors Jesus’ earthly ministry. You can imagine the friends of the woman with the issue of blood, the Demoniac, or the notorious woman at the well. Each met Jesus and everything changed.
Those who encountered a once-demon-possessed man now clothed and sitting in his right mind were surely stunned at the transformation. The promiscuous woman now begged her friends to meet this man, not one in the long line of immoral men in her life, but one who loved her enough to give her grace and truth.
Personal transformation had powerful missionary implications.
That’s seemingly what the act of baptism is meant to signify. By publicly proclaiming the Lord’s death and victorious resurrection, baptism provides a vivid picture that God’s saving mission continues to move forward. Those who enter the water do so testifying to their need for Jesus and his loving pursuit and power on display in their individual life.
Then, in the days and weeks that follow, those baptism testify to being raised to walk in newness of life by offering their lives as acts of worship—holy, acceptable, and pleasing to God. Those in their lives—family, friends, their local church, can eavesdrop on the transformation that God brings to even the most broken in this life.
Perhaps this is another compelling reason to grieve the languishing baptism numbers in many of our churches. These churches are missing out on stories of transformation. They’re having to hear of God’s saving activity by reading books, listening to podcasts, or scrolling through social media. Or, even worse, some are not even hearing these stories.
So what should we do? Here are a few quick suggestions:
- Pray for transformation. If there are not any stories right now, ask God to send a fresh move of his Spirit and produce transformation somewhere in the congregation.
- Expect God to answer. As you pray, believe that God longs to transform and save. Live with a unique attentiveness to what he is doing.
- Celebrate even the smallest signs of change. Find ways to highlight the work of God among his people. This might not mean a story of whole-life transformation at the start, but begin to draw people’s attention to change on any level.
- Take advantage of friends. There’s nothing like personal change in the church, but second-best is celebrating the change God is bringing to people in other’s churches. Find ways to highlight stories of personal transformation through blogs, sermon illustrations, social media, and the like. Make it clear to your people that change is the expectation rather than the aberration.
- Change yourself. Make it clear that change isn’t merely something you are expecting others to do, but something you are doing as well. Be careful not to make yourself the hero, but use your leadership role to demonstrate the bumbling steps you are taking to see God’s Spirit change you.
- Spend time where change is happening. If you are a leader in the church, start to allocate more time to places that are moving and changing rather than unnecessary time in places that are stagnant.
- Invest in change stories. When God changes someone’s life in your church, give that person a great amount of attention. Make it clear to the church that these stories of change are why you do what you do. Don’t outsource care and discipleship but make it your personal mission to invest where change is happening.
For us to move the needle on the evangelistic fervor in our people, we’ve simply got to make transformation normative. People have to see the power of God on display in bringing genuine change to their family, friends, coworkers, and classmates.
What inspires hope here is that this is just the type of work God longs to do and he’s really good at it.
Matt Rogers is a pastor at The Church at Cherrydale in Greenville, South Carolina. He has a Ph.D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Southeastern and an M.A. in Biblical Counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.