In my last article on disciples keeping disciples, I concluded that members are more likely to stay in the church once they attain the level of sharing stories with one another because they will have friends with whom to share their joys and sorrows. The next critical step toward making everyone family and friends—which is the foundational key to keeping them in the church—is “being there.”
I define “being there” as being physically present in times of need. Here is an example: Suzy and her husband attended church only occasionally, even though the church always tried to keep in touch with them. One day Suzy’s husband was taken to the hospital with symptoms of chest pain, which turned out to be a heart attack. We, as pastors and members of the congregation, visited Suzy and her husband several times over the three weeks he was in the hospital. But on one Saturday, even as the church was at worship, news came that he succumbed to his ailment. The head elder and I rushed to the hospital to support Suzy and her family at the time of loss, and afterwards we provided for a decent burial in our church cemetery.
This is an example of the ministry of presence—being there in a time of need. The following words from the Journal of Jewish Spiritual Care sum up a ministry of presence:
Words do not have to be said—giving a bottle of water to a thirsty person speaks volumes about not being forgotten. Maintaining a calm presence at the bedside does not remove fear; it lessens isolation. To be with a person at a time of need is to honor the survivor’s humanity, the inherent dignity endowed by the Creator. Teaching others how to be present, and how to listen to those in distress is a divine-like intervention that spreads the safety net of care and concern.1
FOCUS ON THE DISENGAGED
Even though a certain percentage of members disengage from church, no longer attending and showing total disinterestedness in its mission, it is the duty of the church to minister to them in spite of their stance. Jesus was the model, mingling with sinners and tax collectors who were disengaged from the mainline “church” activities of their time. Jesus died for us even though we were disengaged. The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) is a good example of being there to help in spite of hatred and animosity. The Bible admonishes us to comfort each other and edify one another (1 Thess 5:11). I believe this admonition applies not only to those in regular standing, but also to the disengaged and disinterested. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn,” (Rom 12:15) includes mourning with those who are disengaged. This is the ministry of presence.2
MINISTRY OF VISITATION
The ministry of visitation is an old practice. In modern times many substitutions have been introduced, such as text message ministry, praying over the phone, and even prayer walks. These are good because people are sometimes too busy to have a pastor or a group come by for a visit. But in spite of technological advancements, the ministry of presence is a valuable way to forge connections and build relationships. An African proverb says, “You don’t know someone until you have stepped in her or his home.”3 “Knowing” means something deeper than just a social visit; it carries along with it the idea of being a family together, demonstrating true care. Even the disengaged—who probably have agendas other than church on the day of worship—feel cared for when they see Christ’s disciple at their home.
Being there with anyone, either disengaged or engaged, promotes a feeling of inclusiveness—despite the disengaged having disconnected themselves from the church. Sitting with someone who is sick, attending an event unexpectedly, and sharing in their suffering, both in person and place, can bring them to the neutral ground of inclusion. Meeting people on their own ground as one acquainted with their problems and challenges4 can help them adapt to the church culture of inclusion.
STRATEGIES FOR “BEING THERE”
- Create a prayer hotline. Pastors and elders rotate the responsibility for the phone on a weekly basis. Distribute the number to church members and even those in the community so they may call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in times of need or crisis.
- Create a text, WhatsApp, or email group so church members can be there for one another in times of need.
- Attempt to be the first responders in times of crisis.
- Be physically present as much as possible.
- Take food when a disengaged or engaged member is experiencing serious illness or has lost a loved one. Food can be a way to connect with others.
- Spend time with others; time spent is friendship gained.
This is an opportunity to put our arms around the ones who are disinterested in the church. Through our deeds, we say to them that we love them and want to include them. The disengaged will appreciate our care and come back; the engaged will stay on.
1 Myrna Matsa, “Jewish Theology of Disaster and Recovery,” Journal of Jewish Spiritual Care 10, no. 1 (2010): 20–31.
2 Ibid., 20–31.
3 Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow (New York: Gallup, 2008), 266.
4 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1898), 254.
Paulasir Abraham, PhD, DMiss, is an associate pastor at the Southern Asia Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, MD, USA.