Goers and Doers: Church Celebrates Burst of Baptisms amid Intentional Approach
By Mark Butzow
From wondering if their church would survive to frequent baptisms and talk of planting churches, it has been an eventful few years at First Church of God in Vandalia, Illinois. It’s also the story of a fresh start for their thirty-seven-year-old pastor after COVID shook things up.
In part because of COVID, Illinois Church of God leaders decided to sell Camp Warren near Mount Zion, which state youth ministry director Zach Schaeffer had been leading. He is still the state youth minister, but the camp’s closure meant he found himself downsized just as Vandalia First Church of God came to need an interim pastor. It was his childhood church, and Schaeffer began as interim pastor on Easter Sunday 2020, right after most churches closed or went virtual. He was still living out of town, conducting online-only services from his home for several months.
Schaeffer served as interim for the rest of 2020. His relationship with the elders and the congregation was good, so Schaeffer prayed over the opportunity to stay, and he became the pastor at the start of 2021.
“When I got there, the church was very much in trouble, with [only] about 30 members,” he says. “Their last consistent pastor left in 2014, and things were really in flux from 2014 to 2021.”
Attendance has grown from 30 to about 130 since then, with a noticeable spike in the last eight months. The Vandalia First Church of God story could be a prescription for other churches.
“The elders and I decided, with COVID disrupting everything and with me coming in, that it was a perfect time to start over,” he said. “Our focus became what Jesus died for and wants us to be.”
The next 18 months saw a concerted effort to be a church of individual disciples, not just churchgoers. That started with a 40-week sermon series (no, that is not a typo) on the Book of Acts and the creation of several small discipleship groups. “Our people came to realize they weren’t all in, they were just churchgoers.”
“God’s calling us to be off the fence, he wants us to be all in. How can we be like the early church where they were adding members daily?” Schaeffer says the members embraced being a church that is multiplying outside of the walls. “People are attracted to the Spirit’s movement, attracted to the idea that there’s got to be more than just going to church.”
First Church of God also added a weekly prayer time that had a starting time but no ending time. “We spend as much time in prayer as people need and the Spirit leads. We’re letting the Spirit speak and gaining aptitude to hear the Spirit’s speaking and know the Spirit’s voice.”
Members are provided a reading plan for use throughout each week and asked to ponder “How did God speak to us this week?” Schaeffer says the congregation began to elevate, lift up, and encourage each other more. “This intimate approach has made big changes, especially in men, to be better parents.” Learning to be vulnerable is opening up to change, the pastor adds.
These efforts bore fruit about 18 months after their start when First Church of God saw a burst of baptisms starting last October, in many cases a younger person and their parent or parents coming to Christ or someone returning after a childhood in a church environment. The church has conducted 23 baptisms in these past 8 months and Pastor Schaeffer says, “We have at least four more baptisms on tap for Mother’s Day Sunday. Praise God!”
“A lot of them are people who grew up going to church and later on, life happens, and they fell away. As families have come here, we have worked hard to provide for their needs. And we’re asking parents to enter into a discipleship process so they can go home and be the primary disciple-maker for their children.”
The excitement is palpable, and the church envisions being able to plant new churches in the future. “We have three or four people who feel called to full-time vocational ministry, who are exploring what God is calling them to do. We hope to raise up the next generation to eventually send them out as future youth pastors and children’s ministry leaders.”
The elders and pastor are happy with the growth, but do not take credit for it.
“I’m glad God has decided to show off here. As people surrender, he is faithful and will bless you beyond measure. Through his work, great and mighty things will happen throughout his kingdom.”
Mark Butzow operates Mark My Words Ink, a freelance writing and editing service, and is a former journalism instructor, broadcast journalist, newspaper reporter, and copy editor. He lives in Madison County, Indiana, with his wife, a first-grade teacher at Liberty Christian School in Anderson.
Learn more about the Church of God movement at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.
Feature (top) photo: Vibrant congregational worship at Vandalia.