Finding Them—Keeping Them
I once was lost, but now am found.
By Benjamin D. Schoun
Baptism is a spiritual highlight in the life of an individual and the larger church community.
It is a public testimony of the acceptance of Jesus Christ as personal Savior and the commitment to follow biblical truth. It is also a symbol of a new direction in life and practically means that one now is a member of the body of Christ and His church (Eph. 1:22, 23; 1 Cor. 12:13). Through the church there is ample provision for instructing, strengthening, protecting, and organizing the followers of Jesus—so that they will be ready to fulfill God’s mission. It is a lifelong commitment and is not available on a tryout basis.
How disconcerting then when we hear that members of the church, the body of Christ, drop out, become inactive, or plain disappear. Yet that’s what happens to significant numbers of our members. For the past several years as a church we have been engaged in membership audits, comparing the listed number of members to the real number of members. One division of the General Conference had to reduce its membership by 240,000 because many people had disappeared from the church and could not be found.1 We praise God when we find new people who commit themselves to Jesus Christ and the truth He has revealed in the Scriptures. Yet once people have joined the church, we urgently need ministries to keep them in the fold where the family of God fellowships with Jesus Christ and each other.
The world Seventh-day Adventist Church currently has structured its activities around the theme “Tell the World,” focusing upon three different elements: First, we want to emphasize spiritual growth, Bible study, and prayer as we reach up to God. Second, we underline our witness to the world outside of the church—reaching out. Finally, we have decided to highlight nurture and retention as we reach across to fellow members within the church. Unfortunately, too often we are guilty of neglecting this third kind of activity. This is not only a problem within the Seventh-day Adventist Church but also in the larger Christian community, as has been noted by Michael Green, well-known seminary professor and church leader: “There are few areas in the Christian church where we fail more catastrophically than in the care we give to new believers.”2
The need for nurture, or making strongly committed disciples, begins the moment a person is baptized. “People,” adds Green, “need a lot of help at this watershed of their lives when they may have entrusted themselves to Christ but are very confused about what they have done and unclear about what it will involve to live as His disciples in a world that has little time for Him. They need information. They need encouragement. They need to be drawn into the community of Christians. They need to get to know people in the church. They need help in developing a devotional life. They need to get into the habit of worshipping and to know what they are doing. They need to learn the
reason for the hope that is within them. They need to be nourished by the Word. . . . They need someone to look after them and help them over the initial hurdles. They need examples of Christian living to emulate. They need, above all, to be loved.”3
Lyle Schaller, another author researching this important area, points out that churches tend to have two circles—a membership circle and a fellowship circle. By joining the church, people automatically become part of the membership circle. But that does not mean that they are also automatically part of the fellowship circle. In the fellowship circle people know each other well, and they have a strong sense of belonging. Most of the leaders come from the fellowship circle. They refer to the church using pronouns such as “we” and “us.” Unfortunately, there are too many members who do not see themselves as part of the fellowship circle, and in some cases even the membership circle. They still feel like outsiders even though they technically are members. They tend to use pronouns such as “they” or “them.” The transition from membership to fellowship often begins with a simple invitation to participate in smaller circles in which people are more directly involved with others in study, sharing, ministry tasks, or leadership roles. Schaller’s research suggests that it is necessary to have six or seven groups or circles for each 100 members who are 13 or 14 years of age or older.4 This is an important way to assimilate new members into the church and to strengthen them and keep them.
Sometimes long-standing members get discouraged, suffer an unkind word from another member, have a conflict with a leader, face a deep personal crisis, or are overcome by temptation. They no longer attend services regularly and slowly begin to fade from active participation in the church. This should be cause for alarm and should set into motion ministry activities that aim at reclaiming these members of the “family.”
Scripture is full of examples and exhortations to seek those who have drifted away from the community of faith. The prophets are filled with appeals to the people of Israel to return to God. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning” (Joel 2:12; cf. Hosea 12:6; 14:1; Neh. 1:9; 2 Chron. 30:9).5 Jeremiah wrote: “Return, faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding” (Jer. 3:22). The entire book of Hebrews is an appeal to Jewish Christians not to fall back into unbelief. “Do not harden your hearts.” “Do not throw away your confidence.” “We do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved” (Heb. 4:7; 10:35; 10:39). Jesus told three stories that focus on the lost—the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (Luke 15:1-32). The first two emphasize the urgency of searching for the lost and reclaiming them. The third parable, of the lost son, emphasizes the enthusiasm of receiving back the lost son and the efforts made to include him in the family once again. The son deliberately left the spiritual fold of his father’s house. But he came back—and there was great rejoicing when he did! Certainly we have a biblical mandate to find and receive those who are not now walking with us.
I know the feeling of loss I sense when I hear that former church members or students I taught at the seminary are no longer part of the church family. It hurts, and I want to plead with them to return to Jesus. While recognizing their God-given freedom of choice, I am challenged to make sure they have not left the church because of lack of friendship or fellowship, or because of a misunderstanding or hurt.
Paul Tompkins, youth ministries director of the Trans-European Division, did research on young people who had become inactive in a particular church.6 He found that a critical time for young people to stay in the church or leave it was between ages 15 to 20 years. Friends are the top reason young people enjoy attending church. Some indicated that the critical and narrow-minded attitudes of older church members made them decide to leave the church. As Tompkins interacted with these youth who were no longer involved with the church, he found that 90 percent of them still considered themselves to be Christians. About 50 percent felt that they would one day return to the church of their youth. Only one third of these inactive youth had been baptized, suggesting that they had not been discipled very well during the period when they were still involved with the church. Tompkins concluded, “It is imperative that those who are inactive are followed up and not left to drift away unnoticed.”
What Can We Do?
The church’s Nurture and Retention Committee is working on ideas to help churches and church members to more effectively “reach across” to those who have become or are in the process of becoming inactive. One of the most simple but effective ways to reach across is to visit those who are not attending anymore. That was the basic strategy of one of the foremost evangelists of our denomination who focused on reaching the prodigals. Fordyce Detamore visited, and visited, and did more visiting of those who had left. His visits brought back many. It is something that does not need special training or advanced studies. It just requires a large dose of love, patience, and the capacity to listen.
Small group fellowship is a more contemporary way to cultivate interaction and friendships. These can be study groups, sharing groups, or activity groups of various kinds. Every new convert needs at least seven friendships in the church if he or she is to be well assimilated in the church. The underlying goal of small group fellowship is to develop relationships and build trust with new converts or those who are becoming or have become inactive.
Along with these relationships, people need to be involved in the life of the church. They must be given a responsibility. Their participation in a ministry of the church nurtures commitment to and identification with the church.
There are many new resources available as tools to cultivate discipleship among new members. One curriculum is called “Growing Fruitful Disciples,” prepared by the General Conference Sabbath School Department.7 Another initiative, called “Churches of Refuge,” has been launched by the Center for Youth Evangelism. It seeks to nurture safe, loving, and accepting spiritual communities that welcome young people.8 An academic course, “Discipling, Nurturing, and Reclaiming,” will be offered in many of our colleges and seminaries to help future pastors, church leaders, and members become aware of the needs, strategies, and resources in this area.9
As we begin to take note of those who have left, Ellen White has these words of exhortation and encouragement for us. “Hunt up the [prodigals], those who once knew what religion was, and give them the message of mercy. The story of Christ’s love will touch a chord in their hearts. Christ draws human beings to himself with the chord which God has let down from heaven to save the race.”10 What a privilege to catch a glimpse of the joy that fills all of heaven when one prodigal son or daughter returns.
1 Part of this number was influenced by failure to update records of people who had died. Others had moved away and joined another Adventist church by profession of faith or rebaptism, resulting in duplicate records.
2 Michael Green, Evangelism Through the Local Church: A Comprehensive Guide to All Aspects of Evangelism (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), p. 292.
3 Ibid., p. 293.
4 Lyle E. Schaller, Assimilating New Members (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), pp. 67-98.
5 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the Holy Bible, New International Version.Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
6 Paul Tompkins, “Never Give Up,” Leadership Development Journal, Trans-European Division(May 2012), summarizing conclusions from his D.Min. research; idem, “Bringing Home Our Adventist Prodigals: A Strategic Plan to Reclaim Youth in the Trans-European Division” (D.Min. project, Andrews University, 2009).
7 Visit www.growingfruitfuldisciples.com for more information.
8 Check these Web sites: www.cye.org/cor/about.html. For Europe: www.churchofrefuge.eu/. Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/CYECOR.
9 Additional resources devoted to reclaiming ministries include the following two Web sites, which are independently funded but staffed by Adventist members: www.creativeministry.org/article/67/store/reconnecting-ministries, part of CreativeMinistry, reflecting the work of Paul Richardson and others. Operation Reconnect is a Web site operated by Mike Jones. Jones went through his own experience of leaving the church and coming back. The site lists books, DVDs, a blog, and other ideas and resources, and can be found atwww.reconnectnow.org.
10 Ellen G. White, in General Conference Bulletin, Apr. 12, 1901. Ellen White used the commonly employed word “backsliders.” Today this word is considered offensive and is avoided.
Benjamin D. Schoun is a general vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and lives with his wife, Carol, in Laurel, Maryland, U.S.A.