If departures from the church continue at the present rate, there will soon be more ex-Christians than Christians. Sinners use this fact to question the power of God. “Cannot Christ keep His own?” they ask. The answer is that He can. However, He has committed to the church the awesome responsibility of partnership in this divine undertaking. Each individual minister has a Godgiven responsibility in this matter. To us comes the command, having the force of the Ten Commandments, “Close that door! Block the exits! Stem the tide of apostasy!”
Of universal concern to the Christian church is the fact that not all of its adherents are true. Those who leave the faith are termed apostates, and so they are. Haunting the conscience of the conscientious clergyman, however, is the disturbing question: “How might I have saved them?” Compounding his perplexity is the fact that the apostasy rate is not diminishing. On the contrary, it has exploded. Its chilling draft threatens the total health of the church. This depressing exodus of the sinful and disillusioned gives significance to the title of this article, “Close That Door” (the back door, that is).
Who is to blame?
It is regrettable but true that the majority of apostates leave the church after more than 10 years’ membership. That they would leave at all is a sobering thought. Just who is to blame for this state of things? The evangelists? To be sure, they are far from perfect and would be the first to admit that if they knew of a better method of reaching souls, they would adopt it. But is it fair to hold men responsible for souls when they move to another field and are probably hundreds of miles from the scene? “But if they are genuine, they will stick” is expert philosophy, but it has little basis in fact.
Why are ministers counseled to “feed the flock of God”? Why urge men to visit and counsel the church membership? The answer is clear. No farmer would plant a crop and leave it unattended on the assumption that the good will survive. No, newborn babes in the kingdom don’t just “stick.” What father reading this article would dare leave his newborn offspring unattended on the assumption that “if he’s any good, he’ll survive”?
Well, then, who is to blame? The pastor? He is charged with the responsibility of holding what he has and adding thereto. The best pastor admits his need and longs for better answers. Let us face it: He is no superman. But it would take a superman to do all that his job demands of him. There is a growing conviction in some quarters that he is not supposed to do it all. But what of the old slogan: “A leader must lead”? The answer is simple: “The leader who leads out in everything will be a dead leader.”
Some suggest a wider distribution of responsibility among qualified laypeople. With this the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy agree. Any promotion that would make a machine man out of a God-called soulwinner is a gimmick. The pastor is an evangelist; his church is an evangelistic center. The winning of souls must claim his first attention. Leave other things to others.
But who is to blame for the apostasy rate? The church organization? For years I have dealt with administrators, and I have yet to meet one who claims infallibility. Unfortunately, there are imperfections wherever the hand of man touches the “gospel plow.” But how else would you direct and promote a world operation? Insistence on performance of duty is not an infringement of freedom; rather, it ensures the same. How else, except through administrative organization, can the cohesive strength of the whole be realized? Administrators are expected to promote and inspire. In implementing the program, the pastor has broad freedom. With this attitude we may properly conclude that those who blame the program would, in the absence of this excuse, blame the weather. While the buck is passed and blame is spread, the back door stands ajar and the exodus of the apostates continues.
Are we in a rut?
Part of the trouble stems from the disease of doing the usual things in the usual way. At a recent evangelistic council, I had the privilege of hearing a minister who had concentrated on making the midweek prayer service unusually interesting. His countenance shone with excitement as he spoke of the hundreds who gathered for the weekly service. Another man told of how he transformed his Sunday night service from a “dry bone” for the saints to a feast for the general public.
During certain campaign seasons, some pastors bombard the saints with a hail of promotion, leaving little room for the preaching of the cross. Others plan behind the scenes and promote the event through home visitation and committees, thus relieving the Sabbath service of burdensome detail. Is not this the better way? Routine and repetition breed apostasy. Is there not a crying need for fresh music and refreshing sermons? The pulpit is no place for the “same old soup, heated up a bit.” Spirit-filled preaching that casts old truth in a new light will pack the pews again. The virus of conformity threatens our lives. The germ of life is being stifled by routine. Suffocating saints plead for a fresh breath of air. And we who guard the exits must let them live.
Closing the door
We do not have to accept the church apostasy rate. Large-scale apostasy is not inevitable. The number of defecting saints may be reduced, but how?
1 The evangelist should integrate the pastor into the evangelistic program. This makes for an easy transition when the evangelist leaves the area.
2 The pastor should guard the souls added to the flock with the same zeal as if he had been the one who brought them in. In Lynchburg, Virginia, where an evangelist raised up a new church and left for other fields, the pastor frequently refers to the evangelist. This does much to endear him to the congregation.
3 New converts should be tactfully integrated into the financial program of the church. While tithe and freewill offerings are basic to Christian development, time and tact should provide the atmosphere for growth in the other graces.
4 Visitation units should be set up with the sole purpose of systematic contact with new converts. A recent convert told me how let down he felt after his baptism when the constant prebaptismal visitation ceased. He stated that he needed it more after baptism than before. This is our Achilles’ heel. Closing this gap will staunch the flow of apostates.
5 Some form of specific responsibility should be assigned to new converts shortly after baptism. Some of these people have previously borne responsibility. Nothing holds a convert like a good job. An active layman is less likely to backslide.
6 One minister conducted a weekly Bible class on Friday nights at his church. To make it interesting, he had a varied program that included a true-false test, a Bible drill, special music, and attendance awards; on each night, he focused on a church doctrine. This not only grounded the new converts but attracted visitors.
7 Finally, nothing can close the door of apostasy more effectively than Christ-centered Bible preaching. It should be remembered that a sermon text is merely an avenue to Christ. Every sermon should be about Him; anything else is a lecture. The minister should be less concerned with adjusting his message to meet the minds of the classes than revealing Christ to the masses. Christ will draw.
To close the door against those who, through weakness, fear, or disillusionment, would plunge into the abyss requires the best in all of us. Lamentation will not profit, nor blame save the day. Immediate, resolute action alone will avail. A soul won and then lost is worse than a soul never gained. Nor should the apostasy rate dampen the ardor of those who win the lost. Just because some converts leave is no reason to stop baptizing; rather, this fact lends urgency to increased productivity. Nor should we subscribe to this negative philosophy: “If we only saved what we have, it would equal the total baptisms in any given year.” The times demand that we save what we have plus increase baptisms. Would you put a song on the lips of angels and bring joy to the heart of God? Then close the door of the church to apostasy, and the morning stars will sing together, and all the sons of God will shout for joy.
E. E. Cleveland
Retired Associate Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference