As we launch this year of evangelism, we must confront the reality that many who once worshiped with us, now, for a variety of reasons, no longer fellowship with our church, or any other denomination. While we emphasize reaching the lost—sometimes termed our “unsaved loved ones”—we ought to remember the needs of former, missing, or inactive members—our “unloved saved ones”!
Of course, free choice mandates that each individual’s right not to worship must be respected, but many of these individuals do not participate in worship or other church activities because they have been hurt, disappointed, or disillusioned at some point along the way. In many cases, we have been the cause of fellow believers leaving active fellowship by our coldness or indifference to their needs
Why they leave. While doctrinal differences, heretical breakaway groups, or disagreements over worship styles and standards have caused some people to leave, others depart due to boredom, poor preaching, and inadequately planned services. However, the vast majority leave due simply to a lack of friendship. They have been wounded in the church. Whatever the cause for their absence, two things are certain. The back door still swings and solutions lie far more within our power as active members than we might wish to think.
In North America alone, nearly 300,000 members officially have been removed (and not because of death) from our membership in the past 20 years. That total equals 40 percent of our total membership at the beginning of these two decades—a tragedy of greatest proportions, especially when we have not maintained even basic information like a mail or telephone contact. This equals a total loss similar to that of the ten largest conferences in the division simply disappearing.
These numbers, tragic as they are, reveal only part of the story. Also, thousands of individuals are still on the membership rolls who never worship with other believers—only about 50 percent of all members actually attend weekly worship services. Granted, many are ill, elderly, or traveling. This still leaves a vast potential audience of individuals whom God loves and for whom His church ought to feel passion to love back into fellowship.
The great evangelist, Fordyce Detamore, used to emphasize the reachability of former members as his “best potentials” for bringing them to a new relationship with Jesus. So if we want to add 100,000 active members to our churches during this year, we might well start by reaching our “unloved saved ones” with renewed hope in the soon return of Jesus.
While we recognize that some who have left our fellowship would choose not to return, many have left because of interpersonal difficulties—loneliness, alienation, boredom, lack of spiritual food, criticism, rejection, etc. Thousands are waiting on the verge of the kingdom to be invited back. Among these, we can make a difference as we allow the Spirit to work in our lives. We can, and must, actively search for them, listen to them, and hopefully reclaim them into a vital relationship with Christ and His church.
You know who we need! One of the first steps in reclaiming those who were once part of our fellowship is to identify their names and mailing addresses so we can contact them. Your help is needed! Your congregants know the very ones we need. While we have the names and addresses of some of those who should be contacted, many names and addresses are unknown to the church office, even though they are individuals whom your members know personally. Never assume that the church has accurate or up-to-date information. If you know someone who should receive a gracious contact along with a no-pressure invitation to resume fellowship, please let us know.
In our last pastorate, Sharon and I intentionally concentrated on reclaiming our former and inactive members, as well as establishing contact with those we could not have known such as those who had moved to our area without initiating involvement with the church. We mailed a request to every church in our conference and to every conference in North America requesting help in identifying individuals in our metropolitan area who no longer participated in church activities. In just a few weeks, we received the names of over 200 such individuals to whom we prioritized low-key, encouraging spiritual nurture. We focused our energies and resources toward those whose lives were once united in fellowship with the Adventist Church, and within a short time, we experienced more than four dozen individuals who had returned to our church.
God loves the missing! One of the clearest lessons Jesus ever taught was our heavenly Father’s concern for those missing from the fellowship of believers. Luke 15 records three different stories that demonstrate this point—the missing sheep, the missing coin, and the missing son. Interestingly, each story tells a different path by which someone ends up among the missing, often without even realizing their situation. The sheep wandered off alone. The coin never left the premises but remained separated. The prodigal son deliberately chose to leave in rebellion and ended up alone.
While we diligently search for missing and former members and collect names and accurate addresses, remember that some, much like the story of the coin, might remain in our midst, yet alone. If you think of someone like this whom you know, why not give them a telephone call right now, and let them know they are missed. Never underestimate how much influence your personal contact might have.
And in my congregation’s weekly newsletter that we targeted to hundreds of readers beyond our active membership, I wrote the following, “If you are reading this and feel all alone, please know that our intent is stronger than our follow-through in too many cases. This is your personal invitation. We want you back to a far greater extent than we are capable of expressing. God’s love for you is even greater than our concern. Please don’t wait for someone to call you! Give us a call! Better yet, come rejoice with us in renewed fellowship!” The very next Sabbath, a family showed up at church and stated, “We understand you’re looking for us—we have not attended church in over twenty years.”
How to reclaim? Some principles for reclaiming those who are missing from fellowship are outlined in Luke 15:
Count. The good shepherd knew that one sheep was missing because he kept careful count on those who were with him. Direct your elders to work with you in spiritually nurturing every member.
Risk. The shepherd left the 99 sheep exposed to danger in the wild places as he went searching for the one who was missing. He risked the group’s security and convenience for the one most in need! Prioritize.
Labor. When the homemaker discovered her coin was missing, she worked long and diligently. Nothing of value comes easily! This parable also expresses God’s intention for all members to be represented in ministry. Jesus framed the Divine Sweeper as a woman.
Wait. Never give up! The prodigal’s father had to patiently wait until his son made the choice to start back toward home. Then he ran out to greet his prodigal. God will meet any returning soul more than half way.
Pray. You need not wait in idleness. Prayer is the key in the hand of faith that unlocks heaven’s storehouse of blessings! When I pray for missing members, I do not pray to change God’s attitude toward the lost; God changes my attitude toward the lost.
Love unconditionally. Never impose criteria on someone else in order for them to become recipients of your love. Express your love unreservedly! Accept them even as they stink from the pigpen; then love them into life-changing sanctified living.
Welcome. Joyously express your pleasure when a missing friend returns to fellowship. Make them feel wanted and welcomed! Encourage even their very first steps toward heaven. The prodigal received shoes, a ring, and a robe from his father at the moment of return.
Restore. Those who return have nothing to prove. The prodigal expected to be a servant; he was restored as an heir! The lost have nothing to prove to the church. We must prove our love and concern to those who have been wounded.
Celebrate. Make every restoration a joyous occasion. All heaven rejoices when one individual returns. We could at least host a fellowship luncheon! What better occasion to party?
Prioritizing reclamation. Mike Jones, who possesses the unique capability of thinking like a successful pastor, which he once was, and responding like a reclaimed inactive member, which he experienced for himself, states: “If the church wants to maximize its results for the Year of Evangelism, I make three suggestions. (1) Local congregations should make themselves more user-friendly, (2) evangelistic emphasis should include printing small, low-budget newspaper ads that intentionally invite inactive and former members to visit, (3) and pastors and elders should lead in planning an annual Homecoming Sabbath for those who have become inactive and missing.” Mike’s sermon, “Enduring to the End”, calculated to retain current members while encouraging the discouraged and disenchanted to return, can be viewed online at www.ministerialassociation.com and Paul Richardson’s Center for Creative Ministry presents excellent Homecoming Sabbath resources at www.creativeministry.org.
What’s next? Now that we’ve seen the potential to reconnect/reclaim/reflame inactive and former members, we must “put shoes on the process” and make a concentrated effort to reconnect relationships, reclaim fellowship, and reflame discipleship. I recommend the following process:
1. Appoint a central site for a master list of inactive and former members (The Voice of Prophecy for North America). Other divisions can institute and develop a similar plan for their territory.
2. Publish the following announcement in every church bulletin and newsletter for six consecutive weeks: Searching for former and inactive Adventists. Do you have a friend or family relative who used to be a member or active in church activities? We need their name, mail address, e-mail contact, and telephone. Each person will receive an attractively designed, sensitively written packet of materials inviting them to re-establish contact with the nearest Adventist church. Send all information to: Attention: Pastor Fred Kinsey, The Voice of Prophecy, Box 53055, Los Angeles, CA 90053 (www.vop.com/reflame).
3. Pray for the Holy Spirit to warm the heart of every individual who will receive a gracious invitation to attend worship services and to reconnect with the church of their heritage.
4. Print the following display advertisement in the “Weekend/Entertainment” section of Friday newspapers for eight consecutive weeks. For a version which you can adapt, visit www.ministerialassociation.com and click on the Reflame Logo.
5. Conduct a “Love Them Back” seminar for every church in which pastors will instruct members on how best to encourage and engage with those who will return to attendance. Mike Jones recommends that this seminar include the following practical methods:
a. Make eye contact with each visitor to your church.
b. Add a welcome smile to your eye contact.
c. Touch your visitors with warmth and welcome. A handshake or squeeze on the shoulder gives positive impact.
d. Ask questions designed to open conversation. “Do you folk live around here? (Never ask if they are “visiting,” which might easily offend someone who attends regularly and believes you should already know them.)
e. Listen to your visitors. Open-ended questions are better. “How did you come to be in this city?” or “How do you feel about our worship services?” Once you’ve asked, listen. Suture your mouth shut and you will learn much from what they share.
f. Talk to your visitors. Easy conversations such as, “Good morning, my name is Jim” will get the job done. At first, strive for a friendly relationship and nothing more.
g. Defer investigating their motive for attending or their challenges of the past. Over a period of time, they may share how they have felt wounded or became disenfranchised from the church.
h. Feed your visitors. Food and fellowship is a powerful social component and Adventists, at their best, do this very well.
i. Simplify your own life to take time to greet at least one or two individuals you don’t know every Sabbath. These connections make high impact.
6. Restrain those who reject such training from imposing their antisocial attitudes, speculative ideas, or fanciful heresies on those who visit your church.
7. Follow Jesus’ model—the only way to reach the heart and mind of seekers. “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me’“ (Ministry of Healing, 143).
8. Ask the Holy Spirit to enable you to be a loving and loveable Christian who will appropriately interact with all whom God will help us reclaim.
James A. Cress
General Conference Ministerial Association Secretary