Simon Liversidge has been serving as the lead pastor of the College View Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, the largest congregation in Mid-America territory, for nearly one year. OUTLOOK editor Brenda Dickerson recently sat down with him to talk about his pastoral journey, his practices, and his hopes for Adventism.
Please share a little about your growing up years and what has shaped you as a person.
Well, I had lots of different influences in my life growing up as a missionary kid. Obviously, that was what shaped me because I was never like all the other kids, for better or worse. There were parts of that experience that were hard. And there were parts of it that were good. But I was far less prone to peer pressure than a lot of my peers, I think. I saw miracles as a kid—lots of spiritual warfare, demonic possessions, those kinds of things. I think that opened me up to having a mindset to see the reality of the spiritual battles occurring in people.
My father being involved in church leadership was another factor. He was ministerial director for two unions when I was a kid. So I grew up being far less likely to do what I’m told from a hierarchical organizational perspective. I think being Australian has something to do with that, too. Anytime anyone says, “No, you can’t” we’re like, “Oh, let’s talk about that.”
Obviously, being an attorney also shaped my way of thinking about things. Being a critical thinker helped me to be prepared. That’s the one thing that being an attorney really helped me with. When you’re in a multimillion dollar litigation case, these guys are ready. They are not messing around. There’s a lot of money involved. And so they’re very prepared. And then there’s my wife and the blessing of her and having my kids. You know, it’s been an incredible blessing.
How did you meet your wife?
I met my wife at church my first week back from seminary. I was older. So I went to seminary as one of the few single people at seminary. But I was always involved in young adult ministry when I first became a pastor, and so I spent a lot of those first nine years around young adults.
So you married one of your parishioners?
I did. I had a rule: don’t date church members, and I only broke it once (laughter). My wife had a rule too. She called it the “one year rule” that you know, within one year. I think you know whether it’s not, pretty much.
So those were big influences. When I first became a pastor, I talked to my father a lot about strategy, how to run church priorities. He helped me understand that he didn’t choose between evangelism and community building, but they were intertwined in a way that was impossible to unravel. You had to have both if you wanted to grow, to be growing as a person. And part of that growth was being a person who was sharing who you were with other people.
I love people, so that was always helpful. My wife says that, I can’t say no. I tell her that I say no to lots of people. But that still leaves a lot of things I say yes to. So I love sports. I love being around people. I like competition. People always say I’m really competitive. I always tell them I’m not really competitive. I just don’t lose very often. They’re not sure what to do with that.
I’m eternally optimistic that God is bigger than stuff. My dad told me that you can’t out give God. So we’ve had to learn to trust God financially. Throughout the years, He’s always been faithful.
I love that the Bible is mystical, that God’s words are inside of the Bible. I love to share the Bible. I think my greatest spiritual gift is synthesizing. I’m good at taking lots of information and synthesizing it down. But my gift is more of the verbal gift. I write because I have to. I talk because I get to.
So how have you been able to successfully remain in ministry for over 27 years without burning out, as many other pastors have done? Are you willing to share some of your personal habits?
Well, there are a lot of things. For me, number one is my wife. She has not only put up with a lot, she has taught me a lot. She has prioritized our family, and forced me to prioritize our family even when I wouldn’t otherwise do it. And that has been a blessing, even though it’s been a battle for us all along. But it’s made a huge difference. I don’t think I would be in ministry without that continual focus that she has had.
Of course, I have to have my own devotional life with God. There’s no way around that. A devotional life is such an amazing thing because it allows you to walk that line, that balance between absolute confidence that you are called as a child of God, and you can do whatever God has called you to, and the humility that is required in order to be an effective pastor. The role of a pastor is asking for almost impossible things. You’re asking for them to be supremely self-confident, to be able to be in front of hundreds of people and invite them into what you think God has called you to do, and yet maintain absolute humility and service for the least. I mean, those two things are antithetical in our world, and yet that’s what God invites us to do. And so there’s no way to do that without God.
But I think the other thing for me that’s really helped is that I don’t let people call me “pastor” at church. And it really doesn’t have anything to do with the title. To me, it’s simply that I want to be real at church. I want to have real friendships because I think a lot of pastors don’t have real friendships.
So what’s the best thing members can do for their pastors?
I think the best thing they can do is really be a friend—invite them to lunch, invite them to coffee, invite them just to hang out. Now, pastors don’t need a lot of people like that. But we need a few. And they really make a difference.
I’d like to shift now and talk about church growth. The fastest growing churches in Mid-America, and probably North America, are among immigrant communities. What do you see as the most successful methods of evangelism and discipleship across various cultures and age groups?
Well, what’s working is that people are still looking for God. I’ve shared with my church board and my elders and my staff —I have it written on the board for our staff—and we have five what I call “non-negotiables of church life.” To me, if you do those five things, you will grow.
- So the first one is quality in worship. What I’m talking about is a worship service with quality presentation. It’s done well. It’s discrete. Excellent music and all those kinds of things. Because the reality is, in most churches, that the worship service is going to be the number one draw for new people who are looking for church.
- Number two is excellence in children’s ministries, because most of the people who will come looking are going to have kids, especially young kids. So you have to have something in place that is really effective and inviting to new people because that’s going to be your primary connection point. Over 90% of people who join church do so before the age of 18. So if you don’t get someone to become part of a church community by the age of 18, the odds are almost negligible. And yet most of our evangelistic opportunities are pointed at that small percentage–maybe 7%—which doesn’t really make sense when you’re just looking at the numbers. Plus, children are more naturally invitational than adults; they don’t have a lot of the hang ups about church. So they’re very good at inviting their friends and now we’ve got families coming to church because their kids came last week. One of the kids who always comes by himself was asked by his family what he wanted for his birthday gift. He said, “I want you all to come to church with me.” So they all came to church last week for the first time and they loved it.
- Number three is small groups. I know most people don’t believe in small groups, because it’s too much work. And they feel like it’s not effective. But for me, small groups are non-negotiable in church life for two reasons. One, it’s the most effective form of community building, of being able to connect people regularly. The other reason I think small groups are so necessary is because of the leadership opportunities. Literally, you have an unlimited number of leaders in charge for groups both in the church and the community. Pickleball, dog training, families with special needs—it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re consistently providing opportunities to connect.
- Number four is providing regular connection points for people. And that can include social events like things at church. But you have to be intentional about creating those opportunities for people to connect.
- And lastly, you have to have some form of discipleship or intentional way of moving people from being guests into active membership. You have to have the mindset that the first people we’re thinking about in this church are the new people. You have to greet them first, you have to invite them first. It has to be primary. And if it’s not, you’re not going to grow because how are you going to grow if the new people aren’t going to stay? That’s not rocket science, right? You know, when I first went to my church in LA 20 years ago, they had been in existence for a little while and had about 80 members. When I left last year, they had 470 members. And I’m not saying it was me (it wasn’t) because I’m not inviting all these people. It’s just you have to have the mindset for it and set up the structure for it to occur. It’s not complicated. But you have to be intentional.
I’m thinking that if Adventist churches were doing these five things they would not be losing those 40% of people who get baptized, that we have heard about from recent GC secretariat reports.
No. The percentage of people who leave your church who are part of a small group, from my experience of 27 years of ministry, you’re talking about less than 5%. People don’t leave once they’re in that kind of community connection. Sometimes things happen in their life, like divorce or other tragedies. But otherwise, they don’t leave.
Let’s talk for a minute about our mission. Here we are, 160 years since the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And when I think about that fact, I ask, Should we really celebrate this? Or is this mission failure? Jesus hasn’t come yet and we’re still here. How do we live in that tension?
We don’t live in that tension. It’s not our job. I don’t need to because I’m not God. I have a God who longs for everyone to come to salvation in His kingdom. That’s His desire; God is at work in us. But the timing is not human. It’s not under human control.
That idea, to me, is what gets Adventist and other people in trouble—when they think that somehow they’ve got to do everything perfectly in order for God to respond a certain way. Our responses matter to God. But God is working in each person’s life, individually, for their salvation. He is ultimately responsible for their salvation, not me. I’m called to my ministry, my life, the people God places in front of me, but I can’t even make them respond. I can pray over them, I can invite them, I can do those things. But there’s freedom; people have freedom.
And that’s the way God made us. He made us for freedom. And there’s no freedom when I think that I’ve got to get it all ready for God. The church has been very blessed in many ways as an organization, but in Western countries the church will not continue to grow without more freedom. The reality is we need all kinds of churches, all kinds of leaders, all kinds of people, all kinds of ministry, all kinds of families, all kinds of people in our churches–all of them. And if we’re willing to embrace that, then this church will continue to grow. If not, it will only continue to grow among certain populations. And that’s the discouraging part to me sometimes is that we’re limiting our target. We’re limiting our audience by that mindset, and I don’t think God would be impressed with that.
So you think God would like to see 51 flavors of Adventism?
Oh, God would love it. He would love every form or flavor of Adventism. What brings us and binds us together is Jesus. That’s it. It’s the heart of the gospel. And the gospel is what binds us together. In it, we have a church where we should have freedom to have political differences and freedom to have different beliefs about different kinds of people. And freedom for every person to be involved in church life–every person, every person, every person. And not just involved in church life, freedom for every person to be a fully fledged, fully functioning member of the body of Christ. I cannot imagine Jesus doing anything else.
I want to have influence over all the people that God has possibly given me influence over. In our church community, I would like every person to be there, I would like every person to be fully involved. They can grow into Jesus, within that context of being completely accepted as a child of God.
So how do we go about shaping the church within our sphere of influence to be something that our kids and grandkids see value in and want to be a part of?
To me, that goes back to where I started with this question of what are the non-negotiables—those five things. And part of that is that you are inviting every single person who walks into that place of opportunity to be fully involved as a functioning member of the body of Christ: every single person. That’s what God’s desire is, within that community.
I believe that people grow in their journeys with Jesus and they develop in their spiritual maturity. They’re going to make their own individual choices. But it’s not a group; it’s people, individuals. And I believe that’s the only way that churches grow. Church growth is not exponential; church growth is one at a time. And when you have people growing—a lot of people growing one at a time—then you have exponential growth. Each person has to go through this journey, and with the church community, if that church is going to be excited and full of the Holy Spirit power in their life.
As we start wrapping up, is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to comment on?
Well, I didn’t talk at all about eschatology. And I’ve never preached much through eschatology. I have found that the heart of the gospel is the heart of where eschatology becomes real, and if you’re not living in the present reality of being the child of God, then there’s really no point in worrying about what’s coming down the road. So much of the identity of Adventism has been wrapped up in eschatology— being different from other people, or being special. And the reality is that the only thing that makes anyone special is being a child of God. But it’s hard for people to let go of the idea of their specialness coming from that, rather than from being a remnant. …And that’s why we’ve seen a lot of joylessness in Adventism… I think the only real joy comes from seeing your identity as a child of God. And I think if we do that, primarily, then you can have an understanding of the hope that we have in eschatology; but I’m not sure you can have it otherwise.
What if someone came up to you and said, “I only have 30 minutes, right now, to read something from the Bible. What should it be?”
To me, Ephesians chapter 1 is where I’d start—what it means to be a child of God. This is point number one. I’ve been preaching John 5 the last few weeks, these ideas of moving from death to life, the understanding of the present reality of what it means to be part of the kingdom of God. Romans 6 was my dad’s favorite chapter. And I’ve been influenced tremendously by Romans 6 in the understanding of what it means to be an overcomer—the power that you have for overcoming through the death and resurrection life of Jesus.
Thank you, Simon, for sharing your thoughts with OUTLOOK readers. We at Mid-America Union pray God’s abundant blessings on you as you continue to lead and serve in building up God’s kingdom in the heartland of America.