BERLIN, Md. --"Our first year, we grew like wildfire," said Daryl McCready, pastor of SonRise Church in Berlin, Md., near the Ocean City resort area.
God was answering prayer.
McCready and 14 others began praying in January 2002 that God would give them a passion for the non-Christians in their community. In the ensuing six years, nearly 260 people have made professions of faith in Christ.
The church exploded in membership to 170 people, with 75 percent of the growth resulting from unchurched people becoming Christians.
"It was nearly all conversion growth," McCready said. "And it's because our church plant team prayed for 10 months that God would burden us for people who don't know Christ."
Believing that "evangelism is more caught that taught," McCready is an advocate of relationship evangelism: "When you're transformed by an omnipotent God, it stirs your soul. You've got to tell somebody. It's just natural."
For new believers at SonRise, those somebodies include neighbors, friends and relatives.
"The converts we'd prayed about for 10 months were coming to Christ and experiencing something they'd never experienced before. And they couldn't be silent about it," McCready said, recounting that one couple's newfound faith subsequently helped stir 17 relatives to Christ.
"Evangelism is why we exist. That, and for the glory of God," McCready said. "It's to God's glory when lost people understand His love for them and why He created them.
"If God didn't intend for us to be about His Great Commission and sharing the Gospel, then I believe He would just take us home," the pastor added. "We'll have an eternity to praise and worship God. But evangelism is why we're on the earth. We're to be beaming lights of witness for His greatness."
Among the ways SonRise embraces relationship evangelism are its "Taste and See" events to which members invite unchurched people to gatherings where the main agenda is to "have fun," McCready said.
These include a Valentine's banquet complete with a catered meal of shrimp, prime rib and crab dip as well as entertainment; summertime barbeques; and a fall festival as an alternative to Halloween at which hot dogs and chili are served and drawings are held for free prizes such as video game systems.
"Sometimes, unchurched people need to see that we're not aliens, and that we have something they don't -- and that's peace," McCready said. "People are drawn to that. They ask, 'Why are you like that?'"
Noting that SonRise members spare no expense when attempting to reach others with the kindness of Christ, McCready said, "One of our core values is that we never put our hand out to the community. We never ask them for anything. All our events are free as we just try to befriend people."
Classifying itself as a "café church," SonRise offers a free continental breakfast on Sundays. According to the church's website, SonRise's worship services "are casual and upbeat. We have a live band and worship with music like you hear on the radio. Pastor Daryl preaches using humor, media and the arts to illustrate what the Bible has to say about current issues and how to apply it to our lives today."
That approach, infused with evangelism, attracts about 300 people total to SonRise's two Sunday meetings.
The commitment to evangelism so pervades SonRise that it has planted two other churches. The first, called The Gathering Tree, about 15 miles from SonRise, was launched in October 2006 with about 35 SonRise members. It has grown to 100 in average attendance. The second church plant, which ministers to Hispanic people, began last May and now averages 60 in attendance.
"We are passionate about church planting because we believe it is one of the most effective means of evangelism," McCready said. "Church plants are more flexible and are focused on who is not there yet -- unlike many existing churches that are focused more on who is already there and what they like."
McCready suspects that churches which aren't passionate about evangelism "seem to fizzle because they forget the place where God found them."
"We tend to forget that we were wretched sinners and that our lives stunk before Jesus came and made the difference," he said. "We get too comfortable in the blessings of God. This is why I always tell our people, 'Remember where you came from.'"
SonRise Church leader Andy Brown got a stark reminder of where he came from when he saw an oily haired man with a scraggly beard on the side of the road holding a sign saying, "Will work for food."
Brown said he had passed the man earlier in the day and wanted to stop, but traffic was too bad. Later, while running an errand and seeing the man again, Brown stopped and offered the man some food.
Himself a former street person, Brown had lost his family, job, home, everything to alcoholism. So Brown wasn't intimidated by the skull-and-crossbones "doo rag" bandana the wannabe bike wore. He welcomed the man into his truck, offered him the food and a place to stay in Brown's own home.
Brown didn't say much about his faith or church until the weekend, when he told the man, named Paul, "Around here, we go to church on Sunday."
Paul told Brown that he and God had made a deal many years ago in which Paul told God: "I won't go to Your house, and You don't come to mine." Paul also expressed disapproval of churches where members frown on visitors who don't dress like church people.
Brown told Paul that the deal he made was one-sided, and that God would never agree to such. Nonetheless, Brown didn't pressure Paul about church attendance.
Meanwhile, a woman in the church who was losing her hair from cancer treatments told a few of her closest church friends that she would shave her head in a few days and would be coming to church the next Sunday wearing a bandana on her head.
Unbeknownst to the balding woman, an e-mail was circulated to church members which asked all who would to wear a bandana the next Sunday in support of the cancer victim.
Brown found it nothing short of miraculous that later in the same week Paul decided to attend church the next Sunday, all the while insisting that he wouldn't change his appearance for anyone.
"You can't imagine the look on Paul's face when we pulled in the parking lot and there were dozens of people walking around with doo rags on their heads," Brown said.
"Did you plan this?" Paul asked, though recalled Brown had completely forgotten about the woman's e-mail.
"I'm 43 years old, and this is the first church I got inside the doors," Brown quoted Paul as saying. Paul said he'd tried to attend other churches, but "I took a look at the people and decided not to go."
"Doo Rag Day" at SonRise church was the beginning of Paul's salvation, Brown said.
"It's amazing the extent God will go to in order to reach one person," said McCready, who believes God blesses a church that obeys Him through evangelism.
Like Jesus Christ, "Our mission is to seek and to save that which is lost," McCready said. "And we're in the center of God's will when we do that -- if we don't compromise the truth."