G. R. Nash is a former Secretary of the General Conference Sabbath School Department

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." [f this axiom is true, and we are sure it is, then the best way to reclaim a backslider is to prevent him from becoming one. One of the most effective ways to prevent backsliding is to watch for absentees from the Sabbath school. When people becomes indifferent with reference to Sabbath school attendance and loses their hunger and thirst for the study of the Holy Scriptures, they are likely apostates.

It would seem that the secret to the problem of apostasy is to be found in helping the absentees. The best way to help members who are growing cold and becoming backsliders is to visit with them and encourage them spiritually at the first sign of their losing interest. Is it possible that the Sabbath school leadership has grown indifferent toward absent members? We all live and work under great pressures. Could it be that while the Sabbath school and church go forward to finish the work, endeavoring to search out the lost and bring them in at the front door of the church, that the spiritually weak and the discouraged are slipping out the back door unnoticed?

Needed: A kind word

Perhaps in the hearts of those who are slipping away from us is a longing for a friendly handshake or a kindly word. Perhaps all that is needed is a warm invitation from a burdened heart for them to return to the Sabbath school. However, many times we are too busy to miss the absentees and may actually forget them.

I am reminded of the pastor of a large Western church who, in a Sabbath school council, responded to the question of a visiting General Conference Sabbath school secretary with the affirmation that there was no absentee problem in his church. The local elder did not want to contradict his pastor so asked the question "Are you really sure that there are not a few absentees each week?" "Oh," he replied, "there may be a very few who live too far away to attend, but on the whole they are all present each week." The minister wanted to prove his point, so a survey was made by checking the church membership against the Sabbath school attendance. It was discovered that 31 percent of the church membership were absentees as far as Sabbath school and church attendance were concerned. Do you miss the absentees in your Sabbath school?

Are they just statistics?

Our consciousness is far too often merely statistical. We miss 13 percent or 23 percent or 33 percent of our church membership from the Sabbath school; we may even be startled by the revelation that in 1963 in the North American Division, 52,176 new members joined the church, but at the same time 41,346 dropped their names from the church books. We may be concerned that the relation of Sabbath school attendance to church membership stands at 81 percent when we know that the total Sabbath school membership should far exceed the church membership. But our concern is too often simply statistical, and we do not miss the individual absentee.

We miss 33 percent, but do we miss souls? The story is told of six small children who were playing in a rowboat tied up on one of the rivers in Maine. Somehow the boat was loosened, and the children drifted down the river and eventually out to sea. By the time the children were missed, darkness had fallen. Great anxiety filled the hearts of the members of the entire community. The thought of the children drifting on the cruel sea was horrifying. No one slept that night. Agonizing prayers were heard in many sections of the village. The next day a fisherman discovered and rescued the children. When word reached the people, there was a united cry of rejoicing. Are we as anxious about the missing members in our Sabbath school?

If we were as indifferent to the dangers and loss of physical life as we are at times to the loss of spiritual life, we would be considered barbarians and probably would be ostracized from good society. "Brethren and sisters in the faith, does the question arise in your hearts, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' If you claim to be children of God, you are your brother's keeper. The Lord holds the church responsible for the souls of those whom they might be the means of saving" (Ellen G. White, Historical Sketches, 291). We are the family of God, but too often the absentees of the family are treated with unconcern. Some say, "They just don't seem to be interested, so what can we do?" Any mother or father who disregarded the dangers to a drowning child would be charged with legal homicide and sentenced to imprisonment. Can we be less guilty when those about us are losing their spiritual lives and drowning in a miasma of sin?

God calls for an alarm to be sounded in His holy temple. The deep concern of His heart is indicated by His outstretched hands to those who once knew Him, whose love has diminished and whose ardor has cooled off! Where can one find a more heart-stirring appeal than that voiced through Jeremiah? "Return, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am a lord unto you, and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion; and I will give you shepherds according to My heart, who shall feed you with knowledge and understanding" (Jer. 3:14, 15, according to the Masoretic text).

The spirit of Moses must possess us

Sabbath school advisory committee resolutions on this matter are ineffective. Something more personal is needed. We must respond to the impressions of the Holy Spirit and endeavor to reclaim absentees and apostates. The spirit of Moses must take possession of us. He was willing to forfeit admittance into the kingdom if God would not redeem His backslidden people.

Some may think that new programs will bring answers to this perplexing problem. It will not. A passion for the lost is the only possible remedy. We must miss the absentees and feel in their absence a great sense of personal loss. That sense of loss will result in a special Sabbath school council or a special prayer meeting for the missing. To bring absent members back to fellowship in Sabbath school, there is no substitute for earnest prayer personal prayer and class prayer bands. Likewise, there is no substitute for visitation. When the burden of the lost rests upon us as it should, ministers will weep between the porch and the altar, and the laity and leadership will unite in manifesting the spirit of the Master, Who left the ninety and nine to search for the one missing sheep.

Labor for the absentees, one by one

It is because of our failure to miss the absentees that we are led to put forth effort toward corrective measures. These may prove helpful, but they are often ineffective. Sometimes they may even become a substitute for the only effective means of reclaiming absentees a spiritual concern and personal labor for the absentees, one by one. 

The absentees cannot be resolvedback into the Sabbath school or church. They must be rescued through the active participation of those who see their danger. They must be found and reclaimed by fellow members whose hearts are aflame with the love of God. Soulsaving by proxy has never been very successful.

The first step back to Sabbath school and church fellowship results from the assurance of having been missed. How many, even those backslidden ones we may regard as hopeless cases, sigh in their aloneness as did David: "I look to the right and watch, but there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me, no man cares for me" (Ps. 142:4, RSV).

Steps that must be taken

Step 1: Each Sabbath school council and every church board should take as an assignment from heaven the finding of the absentees and the reclaiming of the backslider.

Step 2: The leaders should put forth every effort to make each member in the Sabbath school and church conscious of the personal loss in all absentees.

Step 3: Sabbath school leaders should keep before the Sabbath school and church the spiritual loss of being absent from Sabbath school. This matter should be a subject of continuous prayer by all.

Step 4: The Sabbath school leaders and members should let all absentees know that they are sincerely loved and missed.

Step 5: Every effort should be put forth to ascertain the cause for absence. The removal of the cause should challenge all. Attendance cannot be forced. Attendance rests upon a voluntary basis and the love of the truth. The appeal to our people for faithfulness in attendance cannot be that of loyalty alone. The Sabbath school programs we conduct must also attract. Surely it is a truism that "a better Sabbath school means an increased attendance." People will attend if they feel they are getting something worthwhile.

Step 6: Last, but far from least, we should take as our overall goal for each Sabbath school session "to strengthen personal relationships with Christ Jesus." This, and this alone, can hold our people in these trying days when it is so easy to lose faith in God and go the way of the world.

G. R. Nash is a former Secretary of the General Conference Sabbath School Department.