Recently I had the privilege of visiting two large churches, each of which has a membership of over five hundred. I had visited these same churches five years before. Each had a fine church building, and I remembered that on my former visits each church was well filled. Both had within the last eighteen months enjoyed an evangelistic effort, and about one hundred fifty new members had been added to each. When I planned my visit to the first church I thought I had better arrange to arrive quite early,—on the supposition that the church would be packed, in view of the recent large addition to the membership. But, to my great surprise, I found that the attendance was considerably less than it had been on my previous visit five years before.
The pastor was not present in either place at the time of my visit, but I inquired of the pastor's assistant regarding the cause of the small attendance. He replied that the attendance was normal. I then inquired how this could be when one hundred fifty new members had recently been added. He said that in his opinion the trouble was that very little pastoral work was being done. The members were scarcely ever visited, and they could drop out without apparent notice on the part of pastor or people. When I visited the other church I found a like condition.
To me, this was a heartbreaking thing—a situation about which something ought to be done. I do not see much advantage in spending large sums to bring in one hundred fifty new members, while at the same time we lose two hundred. We should hold what we have. The motto of the British Empire—"What we have, we hold"—would be a good motto for us, too.
Our losses are appalling. At the General Conference session, it was reported that during the last six years 65,210 members had been added to our churches. We felt that we could greatly rejoice over this. But the other side of the picture was presented, and we learned that during that same period we had lost 23,815 members from apostasy alone. These figures were a terrible shock to me, and I assume that you are similarly affected. We have discussed this matter in days gone by, and have been deeply stirred over the situation, but I think the time has come for us to be stirred into definite action.
In the parable of the lost sheep, how did the shepherd discover he had lost a sheep? I venture to say that there is not a man here who could distinguish between two flocks of sheep, one having 99 and the other 100. He would have to count them. The shepherd counted the sheep as they went into the fold to determine if all the sheep were there. Thus he found that one was missing. We too shall have to count the sheep more carefully and more regularly, for it is a tragedy of the first order to be losing so many of our members. I cannot believe it is necessary.
This leads to the inevitable question, How can we check these losses? I have jotted down three suggestions which may be helpful. You may have others to contribute. In the first place, the evangelist should assure himself that every candidate for baptism is converted to God. We know that a man may accept this truth intellectually, may receive baptism and unite with the church, and yet not know what it means to be born again. It is a matter of prime importance that the evangelist teach his converts how to pray and to exercise faith in the promises of God. He should lead them to God and be assured of their conversion. There is no point in accepting the denominational doctrines if we do not accept the most important of all fundamental doctrines, "Ye must be born again."
A second help is suggested by the practice of one evangelist who is eminently successful in holding his converts. He requires each new member to become a member of the Sabbath school, and of some missionary band in the church. In the first quarter of this year, 1936, while the net membership gain in North America was 1,000, the net gain in the Sabbath school was only 100. That is not a very good showing. The faithful Sabbath school members, experience proves, are not the ones who drift away and apostatize. I think every evangelist and pastor should be impressed with the importance of seeing that new believers definitely become members of the Sabbath school.
In the worldly churches, the Sunday school is considered to be for the children and a few elderly ladies who come along to encourage the pastor by attending the Bible class. For this reason, the rank and file of the church members in those churches do not go to Sunday school. We need to correct that impression on the part of those who join us from other churches, and cause them to realize that it is very important that every church member should be a member of the Sabbath school. If we laid more stress upon this, I think it would help greatly in holding our people.
Then, third, I believe we ought to place the Review and Herald in the home of every believer in the conference. There is a way of doing that. I have engaged in a campaign to put the Review into the home of every believer in the conference, and I know it can be done. Some who are too poor to subscribe can be helped by those who can afford to help.
I do not know that I ought to say more upon this point, but I do feel keenly about it. The situation in those two churches to which I have alluded may not be true generally of our churches, and yet there are altogether too many churches where the membership is drifting away and out of our reach. We must do more pastoral work. Our people should be visited. There are some who are surprised beyond measure when the pastor comes to see them. Brethren, when a member fails in attendance at Sabbath school and church, he should be visited by the pastor or church elder, and the reason for his absence learned.
It may be sickness that causes the absence, or it may be that a divergent movement is sending that brother some of its literature, and he is muddled in regard to his thinking. We should count the sheep regularly if we expect to keep them. We must not go on disregarding these matters any longer. When we bring in 65,000 people, I think we ought to hold at least 60,000, and not lose 35 percent of them.
I think all church elders and pastors ought to be charged with the responsibility of saving their flocks and safeguarding them from the influences that are drawing them away from God. We shall be stressing this through the columns of the Ministry and the Reviev and I hope, dear fellow workers, that you will take these important matters home with you and impress them upon your workers, church elders, and Sabbath school superintendents.
We must count the flock more often, and make sure we are not losing our members through our own carelessness and failure to watch. The Lord has laid that responsibility directly upon us. He has made us guardians of the flocks. What shall we answer when we are called to account for the large numbers who are drifting away from us, if by our own carelessness these souls have been lost—these souls for whom Christ shed His precious blood?
* Discussion in preliminary Presidents' Council, October 21.
Instruct in Spirit of Prophecy
GLENN CALKINS (President, Pacific Union Conference): I believe, brethren, that we ought to make very earnest endeavor to place in the hands of all new believers,—and old believers as well,—the writings of the Spirit of prophecy, encouraging them to study these writings, and to read -for themselves the wonderful instruction God has given this people.
There is a very definite lack in the material provided by our publications of the proper kind of instruction for new converts, with respect to the Spirit of prophecy. If I am properly informed by those who are actively carrying the evangelistic burden in the field, there is nothing among our publications today that they can use extensively in placing before new converts and interested people the beauties in the Spirit of prophecy, and their need of accepting the divine gift in the church and living out its teachings in their own lives.
I am wondering if there would not be fewer apostasies in our churches if new converts were more fully instructed in this divine gift that God has placed in the church. In these writings there is instruction covering every phase of our daily life. And if we will only follow that instruction, our feet will daily progress toward the kingdom of God. When the children of Israel were making their way toward the Promised Land, God gave them daily instruction regarding every phase of life,—how to conduct themselves in their homes and on their travels, their relations with each other and the peoples about them, how to dress, and what to eat,—and then, during the years that followed, whenever a crisis faced those people, He raised up a prophet to lead them.
Modern Israel is on the march toward the Promised Land. I think God would have us daily heed the instruction which He has given us through the Spirit of prophecy. It would be well for us to provide for our evangelists and pastors an inexpensive pamphlet which could be widely used in laying before the people the value of the instruction given by the Spirit of prophecy, and their need of that instruction in view of its important bearing on our daily lives.
Place Responsibility on Board Members
W. B. Ochs (President, Canadian Union): I have been very much interested in all the suggestions that have been offered regarding the holding of our members. I should like to add another which worked successfully in holding our members where I have labored. Some years ago, I was pastor of one of our churches in the East with a membership of over three hundred. We had twelve members on our church board, and divided the three hundred names among the twelve church-board members, assigning a group to each as his own special responsibility. Then I requested that during the next six weeks each board member visit each of the members in his group, and stated that at the end of that time we would come together and study the situation.
We came together in due time, and I asked them, "Well, what have you to report?" The responses were something like this: "This brother is all right, but that sister is drifting." So I put that sister on my visiting list, and called on her personally. We placed all those who were careless or drifting in any way on a list calling for special attention, and as pastor and Bible workers, we worked for them. We saved those people from leaving the church, and put the responsibility back on the church leaders so that each felt the responsibility of a little flock of his own.