Any study of the trends which cause loss of church membership in North America must be approached in a spirit of humble consecration to the task of holding our believers in a fellowship with the Saviour, and with an earnest prayer that they may be sanctified. An analysis may be helpful and enlightening, but it is of little or no value if it does not lead to a renewal of spiritual power in behalf of those for whom we are concerned. A study of the causes of undue losses in church membership can be of value only if it leads to action in stopping the gaps and rescuing those who are drifting in their spiritual experience.
Our Unconverted Youth.—In my opinion, the largest losses are not apparent through any regular statistics gathered by the denomination, but are from among those youth who are really never won to membership in the church. A few years ago the young people's department gathered statistics covering 8,963 children and youth from six to twenty-five years of age, inclusive. These young people were from among a church membership of 18,259, in seventeen different conferences in different parts of America. Of this 8,963, the number of young people over fifteen years of age who were not baptized was 4,832, or 63 percent. In one union conference it was found that at no given age did the church baptize one half of the children and young people of that age who were members of Seventh-day Adventist, families. In a large union conference, 9,000 young people were listed, of whom 5,600 were not baptized.
These figures, which are regarded as fairly accurate, are a shock to our sense of the fitness of things. Although we are winning many to the truth who never had contact with it in childhood, it seems a pity that so many of our youth who have always been sympathetic to our faith and attended Sabbath school until they were fourteen or fifteen years of age should be lost to us.
Not Thoroughly Indoctrinated.—Those of our young people who are taken into membership, and converts from evangelistic efforts, are ofttimes not thoroughly indoctrinated or converted when baptized. A feeling exists among young people's workers that there is a lack of preaching the doctrines in our regular church services. The doctrines presented in the church service cannot always be given in the same form or by the same outline as they would be if given to an outside audience in an evangelistic series, but our membership should constantly be convinced of the beauty and force and power of salvation that exists in the doctrines of the advent message. We should encourage Bible study on the part of the church. And our messages, instead of being mere exhortations, should sometimes be developed in the form of Bible studies with the members using their Bibles.
The preaching on Sabbath should be of a nature to interest the young people. This is particularly true of large institutional centers where it is easy for youth to miss attending church, and their absence not be noted from week to week.
Suggestion has been made that a baptismal committee could well be appointed in connection with large evangelistic efforts, not to take the place of do the work of the pastor, but to assist him, and to ensure care and thoroughness in the instruction and examination of the candidates. Then, too, an effort should not be left until the membership newly taken in has been trained in a love of the Spirit of prophecy, and been definitely linked up with the church activities by joining missionary bands, the Sabbath school, etc. Members drift if they are not made to feel a definite, regular connection with the work of the church.
Sometimes an evangelist is moved away from the church where the effort is conducted before the natural allegiance of the new church members has been transferred from him to the church. If he is withdrawn immediately after the effort, it frequently happens that some of the new converts drift back into the world. Sometimes an unannounced race or rivalry between evangelists for the largest number of converts leads to baptizing people before they are thoroughly instructed. Competition or goal setting among workers is a good thing if it is not carried to the point where standards are lowered or the work is too hastily done. In one case, of which I was told recently, an evangelist was instrumental in bringing about 15o people into the church, but within a year after he had left, the actual number of those in attendance from among the newly won members was only about 50.
Allowed to Drift.—The membership is in some cases allowed to drift without proper spiritual care and personal visitation. The Spirit of prophecy makes it clear that the responsible leaders of the church should know the spiritual condition of the membership. But sometimes leaders assume that because members are attending church, their spiritual condition is all right. Not having contact with them in their homes, and not knowing the problems with which the individual members are wrestling, they are suddenly surprised to find some leaving the church.
In the case of a large number of Adventists who lose their spiritual experience, the first evidence of this loss of interest becomes apparent in failure to take an active part in the Sabbath school. They may come to Sabbath school with lessons ill prepared for a time, and then begin to miss attending Sabbath school, but come to church. The elders or other church officers should be apprehensive regarding members who do not show full interest in the work of the Sabbath school.
In some cases there is a failure to use the young people in the church in lesser responsibilities. Many young people have maintained their active interest in the life and work of the church by participation in the orchestra or choir, assisting as ushers, acting as Sabbath school teachers, etc.
"The elders and those who have leading places in the church should give more thought to their plans for conducting the work. They should arrange matters so that every member of the church shall have a part to act, that none may lead an aimless life, but that all may accomplish what they can according to their several ability. . . . It is very essential that such an education should be given to the members of the church that they will become unselfish, devoted, efficient workers for God; and it is only through such a course that the church can be prevented from becoming fruitless and dead.. . . Let every member of the church become an active worker,—a living stone, emitting light in God's temple."—Review and Herald, Sept. 2, 189o,
Criticism and Distrust.—Harsh, faultfinding complaints against members for infraction of church regulations sometimes entirely discourage them. Members at times do certain things with a clear conscience; yet others who do not believe in those things brand them as outsiders. In the case of young people, many of them assume the attitude that they would just as soon "have the game as have the name." After an individual has committed an error and desires to return to the fold, he is sometimes confronted with a cold, critical attitude.
"When one who has wandered far in sin, seeks to return to God, he will encounter criticism and distrust. There are those who will doubt whether his repentance is genuine, or will whisper, 'He has no stability ; I do not believe that he will hold out.' These persons are doing, not the work of God, but the work of Satan, who is the accuser of the brethren. Through their criticisms the wicked one hopes to discourage that soul, and to drive him still farther from hope and from God. Let the repenting sinner contemplate the rejoicing of heaven over the return of the one that was lost. Let him rest in the love of God, and in no case be disheartened by the scorn and suspicion of the Pharisees."—"Christ's Object Lessons," p. 190.
Lack of Faithful Labor.—Another reason for undue losses in membership lies in the manner in which members are dealt with when question arises as to their conduct. Lack of careful investigation before dropping delinquent members from the list is unfortunate.
In one large church which I attended for a while, the church board recommended about twenty names to be dropped at one time. Among them was one that was dropped because of failure to attend church. The actual fact was that on the Sabbath before his name was dropped he had been on the front seat of the church in the service.
Failure to Transfer Membership.—In these days of changing conditions, members sometimes move from one location to another. If an individual is a bit weak in his spiritual experience, or is going through a period of discouragement, the time when he changes from one locality to another may be a time when he drops out of church fellowship ; and because his own church cannot labor for him, and his new church is not aware of his presence in the community, he may be lost. In one extreme case, it was reported to me that almost the whole of two churches moved away without transference of their membership, and hence the members were largely lost sight of. These moves were due to sharp changes in economic conditions, and may be regarded as unusual, but alertness on the part of our pastors and church officers would save us from untoward experiences of this nature. Members who move should be encouraged to arrange promptly for the transference of their names to the church of the new locality.
—To be concluded in February *
* Presentation at North American Presidents' Council, just prior to 1937 Autumn Council, Battle Creek, Mich.