Back in the Fold
BY ELIZABETH LECHLEITNER, Adventist News Network
s much as Mike Jones enjoys a solitary Sabbath afternoon hike in the mountains surrounding his Portland, Oregon home, he'll be the first to tell you a life without relationships is pointless, a series of meaningless motions.
The same goes for church attendance. If Seventh-day Adventists don't maintain solid, nurturing friendships with fellow members, Jones knows firsthand that leaving the church is far easier.
Jones, who himself spent 16 years outside the church, knows that too often, new and returning believers find less than friendly congregations waiting for them. Instead of brooding, in 2003 he launched Operation Reconnect, a ministry aimed at bringing back members who have left the church. A quarterly newsletter, “Getting in Touch,” reaches some 15,000 inactive and former Adventists.
Working in partnership with Adventist Church-supported Voice of Prophecy media ministry, Jones marshals relationships--not sermons--to "apostasy proof" the church.
A 2006 study by the Adventist Church's Council on Evangelism and Witness gives good reason for Jones' emphasis on church community. It reports that former Adventists often cite a lack of friends among their top reasons for leaving the church.
|SEEKING THE LOST: Mike Jones, who left the church for 16 years, now ministers to former Adventists. "Can you send your newsletter to my kid?" he often hears. [Photo: R. Dabrowski/ANN]
Jones' newsletter helped Bruce Barnett, a controller for a machine company in Washington, reconnect with his church. After serving as an elder, church treasurer and Sabbath School leader for more than a decade, Barnett and his wife divorced. In response, his fellow elders urged him to resign from church leadership. When they showed no interest in his wellbeing, he resigned his membership as well.
But Barnett continued to attend church. "I had nothing to be ashamed of, no reason to run off [to a different church]. But I felt alienated," he says. "Even good friends who tried to stay by me were pressured to stop befriending me."
Several years later, Barnett read an article Jones wrote for a local church paper. Moved by Jones' ministry for former Adventists, Barnett called him.
"[Jones] didn't wave any magic wand, but he offered his kindness, concern, and friendship," Barnett recalls.
"Hurt is a common theme among former Adventists," Jones says. "I do a lot of apologizing for the church after hearing these stories."
Jones admits that he gets few direct responses from former Adventists. "It's mostly concerned moms and dads and grandparents who submit their kids' names and addresses to us."
He thinks his job is far from over, estimating at least 1 million former Adventists live in North America. Adventist pastor Lonnie Melashenko agrees.
"At Voice of Prophecy we're very concerned about the many inactive members and are so pleased to be connected with Operation Reconnect," says Melashenko, the VOP’s director/speaker. "It doesn't get better than how Mike Jones and his wife reach out to former Adventists--not reprimanding them or making them feel guilty, but loving them back into the church."
Like many others, Jones left the church, not over ideology, but over relationships. When he divorced his wife in 1983, Jones worried negativity directed against him might reflect on the church. "There was no scandal," Jones explains. "It was just an unworkable marriage and I felt it would be best for the church if I were to leave. I assume a fair number of the brethren at the time agreed."
He says the silence that greeted him after he left certainly didn't contradict that assumption. Considering his years editing the church’s Insight magazine, teaching journalism at Adventist-owned Andrews University, and pastoring in Oregon and Alaska, Jones was surprised that the church didn't contact him. "I never heard from them. Once I was gone, I was gone."
More than a decade later, a retired Adventist minister in Oregon urged Jones to return to the church. "My first question was 'Why?' I loved the Lord, tried to harmonize my life with His principles, and was keeping the Sabbath. Why should I come back? [The pastor] said to me, 'Because the church needs you.'
"Give me a break," Jones recalls replying with a laugh.
A relationship then did what a seemingly indifferent church couldn't. After being single for 13 years, Jones met a woman named Diane. Because Diane only dated active Christians, Jones agreed to consider returning to church on the condition that Diane consider accepting the Sabbath. Less than a year later, the two married and joined the Adventist Church on profession of faith.
But their new fellow church members were far from welcoming. "Early after my wife and I started going to church again, she said, 'Those people really don't like us. It's like they don't even notice we're there.' We could have stopped going again, but instead we decided to help church members become friendlier. Some real good has come out of that initial unfriendliness," Jones says.
Along with the newsletter, Jones and his wife present weekend 'Friendliness Seminars' to teach church members "how to be nice." The Voice of Prophecy offers a video version of his seminar through their Web site.
"If even 25 percent of our members would say 'howdy' or 'hello' to three people every Sabbath morning, especially to those they don't know," Jones says, "the friendliness factor of our churches would be incredible."
"If members can learn to take an interest, reach out, invite visitors to lunch, ask how things are going, there's a lot that they can do to really change the tone of congregations in a way the church as a whole probably cannot do."
[Editor’s Note: The Voice of Prophecy maintains a “Getting in Touch” Web site, where Jones has published the stories of several people who have returned to Seventh-day Adventist church membership.