Lost! Who? When, Where? Our records reveal that during 1941, 4,488 members were lost to the remnant church through apostasy. Tragic, is it not? From 1937 to 1941 the number which fell out by the wayside totaled 21,665; and during the ten-year period, 1932-41 inclusive, 40,897 apostatized. These figures apply only to the membership in North America. Doubtless, if complete information for the world field were available at the present writing, the losses abroad would be equally as serious as those already referred to in the United States and Canada.
While there is no desire whatever to deepen the shadow or to make the situation appear more distressing or disturbing than it is, yet in this connection it will be very informative to take a retrospective view of the last two decades. As we do this, we discover that for the twenty-year period, 1922-41, our baptisms totaled 191,992, while the apostasies reached the number of 90,521, as against a net gain of only 92,618. Again the comparisons given are solely for the North American Division.
Apostasies! Think of it--90,521 in two brief decades ! Just how or where these members turned back, the records do not reveal. Suffice it to say, they were lost! Their light went out in darkness! How pitiful and how unnecessary!
In presenting these facts, we have no intention of judging, condemning, or criticizing. Far from it ! In fact, we are of the firm conviction that no one class of workers, no one organization or administration, has been at fault in this matter. It is a situation in which we are all concerned. We are in it together ; we must face it together ; and we must soberly and solemnly take it to heart. Any other attitude would be unfortunate.
Such a condition—this large number dropping out in apostasy—is nothing less than alarming. Indeed, it is appalling. It is one which earnestly calls for a thorough, thoughtful, prayerful study. It is a condition which confronts or affects, at least to some degree, every conference and mission field organization. It demands attention. It challenges the church and her leadership to discover the cause, if at all possible, and to apply a remedy. To proceed as at present is unthinkable. There must come a change, a decided change for the better.
While we recognize, according to the parable of the sower, that there will always be some shrinkage in church membership, yet we cannot help concluding that 90,521 apostasies in twenty years is far too large a number. Especially is this true when compared with a net gain of but 92,618 during the same period. Truly, such figures as these present an exceedingly grave and serious status. Such a major shrinkage should move us to our knees. It should cause us to seek sincerely and earnestly to know why this condition prevails.
Just what is wrong? Wherein lies the trouble? Why this failure to hold our members ? Surely there must be a cause. Can it be we are working with faulty tactics? Are we following unsafe methods ? Are we stressing the organic or material features of our program to the neglect of the more spiritual ? Is there some weakness in the conduct of our departments, which will give us a clue to what may be a reason for such losses ? Have we permitted any unwise procedure to creep into our evangelical work? Are we giving too much emphasis, placing too much stress, upon the financial side of our work, important though it may be ? Are we promoting too many goals, putting across too many campaigns, while finding little time for spiritual matters? Is our machinery becoming top-heavy, with less and less divine power from above to carry it forward effectually?
Indeed—and I ask it very earnestly—are we permitting these things to overshadow the all-important objective of keeping the church strong in spiritual power and development ? These questions afford at least some food for candid thought and unbiased consideration.
Somehow we are led to feel that these questions do indicate a basis for the present situation. In fact, the church faces grave danger when activity is overstressed. In this connection one religious leader has written : "An alarming weakness among churches is that we are producing Christian activities faster than we are developing Christian character." This is an unusual declaration. The more you ponder it, the more you are convinced that that which this writer presents as an "alarming weakness" does give us some guidance in our search for an answer to our problem. While thinking upon the foregoing forceful utterance, may we not also draw upon a statement made some time ago by E. Stanley Jones. He puts it this way :
"Whenever we have been troubled in conscience about our spiritual condition, we have added a new wheel—a new committee or commission, a new plan or program, and in the end we have found we have added one more wheel, but with little or no power to run the old or the new—turning old and new wheels by hand power, by sheer hand power, instead of lighting central fires. So much of this is force, nerve wearing, instead of spontaneous and healing. Pentecost is not a living fact with us. Hence we worship machinery instead of winning men."
The point which Doctor Jones is here trying to develop is that we spend too much time over plans, methods, and machinery, to the neglect of the spiritual ; hence our loss in spiritual matters. This very same weakness and danger has been pointed out by the messenger of the Lord as follows : "As activity increases, and men become successful in doing any work for God, there is a danger of trusting to human plans and methods. There is a tendency to pray less, and to have less faith."—"The Desire of Ages,” p. 362.
Dear fellow workers, we cannot help believing that herein lies our failure. In the hurry and bustle of activity we have been prone to look upon the bright side of material blessings. We have gloried over goals attained. We have prided ourselves upon gains made in many lines of missionary endeavor. But sad to say, spiritual life, spiritual power, and spiritual devotion have been somewhat relegated into a secondary position. The result—a tremendous loss in spiritual influence and in membership.
So serious has the whole situation become that, during the recent Autumn Council, the following measure was adopted, with the hope that change for the better might be radically and effectively brought about, and that very soon. The Commendation reads:
"Conserving Our Membership Gains
"Whereas, The hour has manifestly come for a great forward move in soul winning; and,
"Whereas, The lowered standards of life everywhere about us declare that the church of Christ is facing her greatest test, when those not firmly established in the faith of Jesus will be sifted out and lost ; and,
"Whereas, The heralds of the advent message are soberly admonished through the Spirit of prophecy to live lives of consistent holiness and earnest purpose, thereby emphasizing the truths proclaimed from the -pulpit, and recognizing that those who appear to have a burden for souls while preaching to the people, and when out of the desk seem destitute of spirituality, really deny the truth they profess;
"We recommend, 1. That all our workers—ministers, Bible instructors, institutional and office workers—exemplify personally by holy life and conversation the exalted truths we are commissioned to proclaim.
"2. That our ministers and all who have a part in instructing new converts be careful to instruct and prepare thoroughly all candidates for baptism and church membership in all the verities of the third angel's message.
"3. That before receiving baptism, the candidates be given time to reveal by a transformation of life their understanding of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, and that before this ordinance is administered, converts become thoroughly conversant with the doctrines and precepts of this message.
"4. That our pastors and district leaders, recognizing that these new members are only babes in the faith and are therefore deserving of sympathetic care, encourage these new converts in every way to grow up into the full stature of Christ.
"5. That our ministers and church leaders carefully guard against such promotion during the Sabbath worship hour as would militate against the spiritual growth of the flock.
"6. That earnest appeal be made to all our church members to live lives that will rightly represent the truths of this message before these new members, thus helping in the conservation of all our gains."
The statement speaks for itself. It is candid and clear, and needs no labored argument concerning its import. It does express, however, a clarion appeal for concerted action in bringing about a decided change in the proper development of those newly come to the faith ; and it sets forth safe ways and means for conserving those already won to the truth. Certainly it is worthy of careful perusal ; it should not be passed over lightly as if of little consequence. It should be read, reread, and pondered sufficiently to grip the soul. Let it impress the heart of every worker and church officer to the extent that definite and speedy action be taken to bring in a new day. To permit the past or present status to remain unaltered is but to pave the way for greater losses in the more difficult times just ahead.