SAT ACROSS THE TABLE FROM A HEALTHcare professional who had agreed to meet with me to tell his story about growing up Adventist. After small talk I asked him, "You grew up Adventist. What was that like?"
"I know a lot about Adventism," he said. "My great-great-grandparents are James and Ellen White. I know all the stories. I can debate anyone on theology. I was actively involved in church until a few years ago when my marriage broke up, and I felt as if the church my family started was not my family when I needed it most."
As I've interviewed hundreds of inactive members such as the one just mentioned, their reasons are varied for why they leave. The common denominator in the majority of stories is exclusion-either by people or by theology. They felt on the outside of a group of people who obviously were part of the inside group. Others felt as though there was little willingness to accommodate variations on theology and standards. More could be said about the reasons for leaving. But what is clear from the interviews conducted is what congregations are doing right in welcoming back those who have left! Below are eight ways I have seen churches be effective in reconnecting with inactive members:
Provide Effective Leadership
The attitude of the pastor sets the tone for the entire congregation. If he or she thinks inactive members are important, then the members will often see them that way as well. Leadership is critical to an effective reconnecting ministry. If the environment isn't a positive one for such an important ministry, then please don't start inviting people to reconnect and risk their getting hurt again.
Leaders, think of reconnecting ministries as retention ministries. Our Adventist educators understand this concept. They realize that they cannot rely solely on the influx of freshman students each year to keep their school full. They need to do all they can to make sure freshmen come back as sophomores, juniors, and seniors. If that happens effectively, theirs is a thriving educational setting. Sadly, our congregations have not been giving enough attention to retention initiatives. They've been holding evangelistic meetings, delighted with the "freshmen" that have been baptized. But they've paid little attention to the fact that the "sophomores, juniors, and seniors" are leaving out the back door in droves, rarely to return.
Notice Predictable Leaving Patterns
What if half of the people who attend your church all of a sudden stood up during worship service one Sabbath and walked out the door? You might ask others around you, "Where are they going? Why are they leaving? Did we do something to prompt their leaving?" Unfortunately, this is not how the leaving happens. It is often one, two, or three persons at a time. And often they don't leave suddenly.
Special attention must be paid to the signals members give that they are disengaging from your church in the first place (see sidebar for details). It's much easier to keep a connection while they are there than when they are gone.
Teach Listening Skills
We were given two ears and one mouth for a reason. Ideally, we should listen far more than we talk. Listening to inactive members with no stones in our hands is a wonderful gift to give them. When someone is angrily telling you about all the hypocrites in the church, it's very tempting to insist, "Not every person is as horrible as you've just portrayed." When someone is shy about telling his or her story, it takes good listening skills to draw out the details so that person feels heard from the heart more than the head. These skills aren't something people do naturally. Listening skills classes are taught to church members on a regular basis in highly effective reconnecting congregations.
Meet Away From Church
Some of the best reconnecting happens away from the church building. In many cases the building holds bad memories: that's where his grandma's funeral was . . . that's where her first wedding happened, and the subsequent divorce is still painful . . . that's where their child who died used to sing for Sabbath school. Meeting away from the building reduces a potential barrier to reconnecting.
One of the reasons they left in the first place is that the regulars just "sat around and talked about the Christian life" instead of actually living it. Doing fun activities is attractive to nonattending members. By providing a menu of activities away from the church as places to reconnect, you increase the chances that they will want to spend time with you again. So start sporting events, car rallies, book clubs, hobby groups, home or car repair teams for those in need, etc. Don't get stuck on the idea that they have to attend church for you to be reconnected.
Make Good First Impressions
The phone rang. It was her son on the other end. "Mom, my gift to you on Mother's Day this coming weekend is to go with you to church." She was delighted. She went and bought a new dress. It was a bright sunny Sabbath when she met him in the parking lot at church. They walked to the doors of the church and opened them wide as they walked into the lobby. At that moment these words could be heard across the lobby loud enough for everyone to hear: "Well, well, well, our little black sheep is home." Inappropriate words on several levels, this greeting, I'm afraid, is the disastrous experience of too many inactive members who work up their courage to reconnect with the church.
We cannot assume that greeters know how to greet effectively. Some are very gifted, and we need to learn from them how to make people feel welcome. But there are too many horror stories of greetings gone awry in our churches. The good news is that those churches who are training their official greeters are seeing positive changes. And congregations that are creating a culture in which every person is a greeter find that a larger number of inactive members are attending again.
Create Safety Zones
On most Sabbaths she was spiritually single. But this Sabbath her husband joined her for Sabbath school and church. They both came to the class specifically designed for those who were reconnecting. Somewhere during the course of conversation he raised his hand and said, "This conversation reminds me of my academy experience. One night while all the guys were sleeping in the dorm, the dean and the resident hall assistants (RAs) burst into my room. The RAs pinned me to the floor while the dean cut off my long hair. This was in the 1970s when long feathered-back hair was central to our identity. I vowed at that moment that if the rules were more important than the relationship, I was out of the church the day I graduated from that 'military school.'" Since our class is specifically designed to process people's pain and provide a safe place in which people can bring their triumphs and troubles, doubts and dysfunctions, we did just that with this man's story. He didn't come back the next week, but he was there about a month later. Once again, in the middle of conversation on another topic, he told his story again. This pattern repeated itself for months, and our class listened attentively each time because we realized this was blocking him from feeling close to God and the church. We won't forget the happy day when as he launched into his story he abruptly stopped and said, "I've told you guys this story before. I'm over that now." This was precisely why we started that class.
I recommend that you start one of these classes in your congregation as well. A traditional study class teacher may not be well suited for such "disruptions" to the flow of the presentation and learning. Don't try to conform all your classes to adopt this format. But if you have a space where you can start one, that is the place where astute greeters can bring returning members if they choose to honor you with their presence.
Include, Include, Include
There are many reasons that people quit attending the Adventist Church. You may want to judge whether their reasons are valid, but that does little good in creating a connection again. I have found that a large number of people who left did so because they did not feel included by the pastor and core leadership of the congregation. The "friendship factor" in our churches needs to increase significantly. Include missing members who return within the first six weeks after they worship with you. Invite them to join teams who serve church members or people in the community. Introduce them to at least six people with whom they can identify because they share similar life experiences. Eat with them. Get to know them. Notice when they are standing or sitting on the sidelines, and go to them. Don't compel them to join you. If you do this, you have a better than 50/50 chance of keeping them in fellowship once they return. If not, you can count on them leaving again, and feeling even more bitter because they got burned twice.
Set Realistic Goals
It would be ideal if every person in every congregation were involving inactive members. I'm praying for that day. Until that time, it is important to set realistic goals and expectations for what you can accomplish in your church regarding reconnecting ministries.
Some missing members will return and become active. Some will repel you with anger and indifference. Still others will become active, but not in your church. And a whole spectrum of responses in between these three options will take place. Are you ready? The more you are ready to let the Spirit set the reconnection pace, the more relaxed you will be, which will make you more authentic to your inactive friends.
Waiting for the Moment
She had grown up Adventist, but slipped away as many young adults do. One Sabbath she could not resist the prompting of the Spirit to reconnect with her local congregation. She got dressed and drove to the church. She found a place to park, and shut off the engine, but she couldn't bring herself to open the door and go into the sanctuary.
Bad memories from the past came flooding into her mind and heart. The evil one was working overtime at that moment. She didn't feel worthy, and so she sat in her car praying and reading her Bible. Feeling better, she drove home without darkening the door of the church that Sabbath. Weeks went by before she returned to the church. Once again she could not bring herself to go in. This happened several more times before she got up the courage to come into the sanctuary of the church where she faithfully attends now.
I'm wondering how many people who grew up Adventist but who no longer attend actively are sitting in your church parking lot on Sabbath? Could it be that more of them are ready to come back than there are congregations to receive them?
How will your church respond?
Paul Richardson is the coordinator of reconnecting ministries for Seventh-day Adventist churches in North America, and is the executive director of the Center for Creative Ministry in Lincoln, Nebraska.