| LEFT THE ADVENTIST CHURCH IN 1983 following a divorce. I’d been the editor of Insight, served as a pastor for five years, and had written three books. At the time I left, I was doing departmental work in the Southwestern Union Conference Ministerial Association.
From the perspective of someone who left the church and then came back, the purpose of this article is to share some ideas on how to reconnect with and perhaps reclaim some who have become inactive or who have left church membership completely.
In my case, I submitted a letter of resignation to my local church. I had no major doctrinal differences with the church—but ministers aren’t supposed to get divorces, and I was embarrassed. So I decided to step aside and return later. I didn’t expect to be gone for 16 years, however.
After turning in my resignation, I never heard from anyone at my local church. One of my sons called me a few months later to tell me I was no longer a member. When I asked him how he knew that, he told me he’d just read about it in the church bulletin.
After returning to membership about eight years ago, I learned I hadn’t been alone in leaving. Denominational statistics show that more than 1.6 million members worldwide were dropped from membership or were missing between 2002 and 2006.1 Some church leaders believe that number could be much higher. Each of the first two pastors of the church that my wife Diane and I joined after returning to membership also left the church, which was a bit disconcerting. Here are some recent statistics for you to mull:
• The ratio of new members who join the Adventist Church to the number who leave is 100 to 24.2
• Worldwide between 2002 and 2006, l,684,303 Adventists dropped out or went missing.3 This breaks down to an average of 6,478 who slipped away every week during this five-year period.
• Forty to 50 percent of our teenagers in North America become inactive by age 25. In his book Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church, Roger Dudley writes: “It seems reasonable to believe that at least 40 percent to 50 percent of Seventh-day Adventist teenagers in North America are essentially leaving the church by their middle 20s. This figure may well be higher.”4
As you can see, we’re hemorrhaging. So how do we reach those who’ve left? How do we stop the bleeding? Here are a few thoughts for your consideration:
Leave the former member on your church mailing list. I no longer heard from my church again once I was no longer a member. Because my name was removed from the church books, I also stopped receiving the union paper and the Adventist Review. So let me ask you, If we want to reclaim inactive and former members, does it make sense to cut off all communication with them?
Several years ago, the Adventist Review ran an article I wrote about my return to church membership. A few months later, I heard from someone I knew back in the sixties who has been out of the church for nearly 50 years. It turns out he still received the Review, saw the story, and made contact with me. So keep the inactive and former members on your mailing list.
Watch for inactive members on Sabbath mornings when they visit. During my years away from church, I used to visit local churches several times a year—and so do other inactive and former members. Frankly, I was usually lost in church once I got by the greeters. I can recall only one time when a pastor encountered and spoke with me.
Diane and I were invited once to speak at a small church whose leaders told us they had a plan in place to reach former members. After the sermon, I chatted with a man in the lobby and learned he was a former member who hadn’t attended church in 23 years. I asked him how many of the members had greeted him. He said, “None.” During the afternoon meeting I told the group about him, and they were shocked. They also confirmed what he had told me—not one of them had connected with him.
So let’s watch for these people. We tend to think of inactive or former members as being “out in the world” when, in reality, they may be sitting in church only a few feet away from us. And keep in mind that they don’t arrive wearing “backslider” signs, and they may arrive late and leave early.
The church I used to pastor in Anchorage, Alaska, reclaimed a large number of inactive and former members largely because the church leaders joined me in greeting and talking with people in the lobby. We focused on getting acquainted with everyone who darkened our door. Did you notice I said it was the “church leaders” who were engaged in this ministry? That’s an important point to remember.
Pray for but don’t nag your family member who has dropped out. Several years ago I discovered I was trying to do the Holy Spirit’s work with my oldest son, who had been inactive for more than 20 years. How do I know I was doing that? Because I learned through a family member that he was frustrated when I’d come to visit because “all Dad can do is talk about religion.” I did, in fact, give him a bad time because his boys were growing up with little spiritual nurture. But I decided to clean up my act. The next time I visited I didn’t say a word about God or church. I mainly asked questions about his favorite hobbies, which are coaching basketball and football. A few weeks later, my daughter-in-law e-mailed my wife and told her that Mike Jr. was talking about coming back to church. About a year later he was rebaptized, along with two of his sons.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t encourage inactive members to consider coming back. Recently I talked with a businessman in my home church about his time out of the church. “I was out for about 20 years,” he told me. “I just got busy and drifted out. If anyone had invited me to return during those years, I believe I would have,” he said.
Consider anointing the former member who becomes ill. My friend Don Gray tells the story of anointing his brother Burt, who had been out of the church for 43 years, in part because of a drinking problem. Don stayed in touch with Burt throughout the years, but was unable to reach him spiritually until Burt was in the last stages of cirrhosis of the liver.
Don’s first hospital visit found Burt in a coma with four tubes coming out of his body, his skin the color of a pumpkin. A few days later, when Burt was able to hold a conversation, Don asked him if he’d like to be anointed. He agreed, and the day after the anointing, Don found him sitting up and alert. Not long after that wondrous event, Don rebaptized him, and Burt rejoined the church and lived for another nine years.
Several years ago, Diane and I anointed one of my sons and his wife whose marriage was in trouble. The result was amazing. They got better right away. They still talk about that event as a time when God touched their lives.
Apologize for the church when a former member feels wounded. You and I never know for sure how accurate their “church-done-me-wrong” story is. But we can tell them we’re sorry for their pain. I often tell the inactive or former member, “I’m really sorry for your pain, and on behalf of our church I’d like to ask for your forgiveness.”
Most people tell me it wasn’t me, it was the church that caused their problem. And I always tell them, “I understand, but I’d still like to apologize on behalf of the church for whatever happened or didn’t happen.” Then I ask if they would be willing to forgive me.
Very few turn me down. And when they say yes, I quickly pray with them, thanking God for the forgiving spirit the person has just exercised. I also pray that the Holy Spirit will make their decision a reality and bring great healing into their lives. Believe me, these are always healing moments.
Consider prayer warrior Roger Morneau’s protocol for the inactive. Morneau, author of the books Incredible Answers to Prayer, More Incredible Answers to Prayer, and others, developed the following plan to reclaim inactive and former members:5
a. Read Matthew 27:24-54 daily, then plead the merits of Jesus’ shed blood on behalf of the inactive person and pray that their sins will be blotted out.
b. Pray for the Holy Spirit to minister the graces of redemption for them and fight their spiritual battles, even though they haven’t asked for this kind of help.
c. Ask the Holy Spirit to re-create their spiritual faculties, looking to the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:2) to do this miraculous work.
d. Pray this way daily, recognizing that the person you’re praying for has the power of choice, but that the Holy Spirit now can work with added power in the person’s life.
e. Give thanks daily for what God is doing in the life of the person you’re praying for, whether you see any results or not.
Remember to claim God’s promises on behalf of the inactive or former member. Then let God do what God does best. There’s an example in Jeremiah 3:22 in which God promises: “I will heal your backslidings” (KJV). In wonderful ways God seems to be reconnecting with inactive and former members more and more often lately.
One formerly inactive member told me that several years ago, as she was sitting alone on her couch, a voice said to her, “Vickie, you must go back to church. Take your family and go.” She did, and today she is a Sabbath school leader in her church.
Colin McClay had been out of the church for 35 years. He had gone through a divorce and had been casually thinking about God and maybe attending church sometime, but he had taken no immediate action. On July 5, 2002, however, he heard a voice speak to him while he was showering. “The voice was so powerful,” he said, “that at first I thought someone was in my apartment.”
What did the voice say? Simply this: “Go to church tomorrow.” He did. Some months after his baptism, Colin wrote to me from Tampa, Florida: “Since deciding to recommit my life to Jesus and follow Him, I am experiencing the greatest joy I have ever known.”
In my case, I don’t know who may have been praying for me for so many years, and I never heard any voice speaking to me. But God has a thousand ways to reach people that many of us have never thought of. For me, it was an unlikely way indeed—when I met a special woman named Diane and asked her out. She responded by telling me she dated only Christian men and asked me if I was a Christian.
I told her I was a Christian, but that I was not active in a church. She said she wouldn’t date a guy who wouldn’t attend church with her. I told her I was willing to negotiate church attendance. That was the beginning of my return to church, and a beautiful relationship that culminated in marriage.6
Listen, listen, listen. If an inactive or former member honors you by sharing their possibly painful story, suture your mouth shut and listen. Don’t defend the church. Just listen empathetically. Remember that Job’s friends really did comfort Job—until they started to talk.
Never give up. Roger Morneau tells of praying for a young man named Robert for three years before Robert was ready to turn his life around.7
Was someone praying for me during the 16 years I was away from church? I may not know the answer to that question until I reach heaven. But if there was, I will be eternally grateful.
Don’t stop praying, and never give up. After all, God doesn’t.
1Office of Archives & Statistics, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
4Roger L. Dudley, Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church, p. 35.
5Roger Morneau, When You Need Incredible Answers to Prayer, chapter 9.
6The rest of the story is in my new book, Sometimes I Don’t Feel Like Praying! See page 23 in this issue for a review of the book.
7Roger Morneau, Incredible Answers to Prayer, p. 75.
Mike Jones lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Diane. He wrote his new book, Sometimes I Don’t Feel Like Praying!, with inactive and former church members in mind. Until recently, he directed Voice of Prophecy’s outreach to former members.