A special committee has just concluded its work and is now ready to report at the Autumn Council. This group was called together to consider the problem of our apostasies and if possible find some way of decreasing these tragic losses. No subject could be more important than this; and although we thank the Lord that our losses are not quite so large as they were a decade ago, yet all too many are still losing their way and departing from the faith. This is a pastoral problem and should challenge the whole church.
A number of recommendations are being placed before the Fall Council. These will appear in a later issue. But we realize that we are coming to the end of this year 1952. In a few weeks many of our church boards will be studying our church rolls. Thus it is timely to urge our pastors and our church officers who will of necessity be dealing with this problem that it behooves us to search our own hearts before engaging in this solemn work.
For one to be dismissed from church fellowship is perhaps the greatest tragedy that could ever come to him. Nothing else in all human relationships can be compared with it. It is far worse than death. When one falls asleep in Jesus he is laid to rest in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. We can look forward to meeting him again. But if one who has walked in fellowship with the people of God should fall away and "sever himself" from the company of God's people, then that is a separation not for time only but for eternity unless a miracle of grace might restore him. Moreover, the church should never cease to pray for the restoration of that one to the fold.
One who today is careless and indifferent may have been brought to decision out of great wrestling and prayer on the part of some faithful Bible instructor or minister. At the time he took his stand he may have suffered for his new-found faith. But in the joy and enthusiasm of his first love he gladly gave up his employment and suffered the rebuff of friends and loved ones. Yet, when his name is being considered, often the des tiny of that one rests in the hands of a group that knows little of his background, nor have they agonized before God to bring a soul to decision.
The church roll is more than a balance sheet, and careless members are more than just so many digits that can be returned or crossed off. They are blood-bought souls that cost heaven the death of the Creator Himself to bring them back to God.
Some time ago we visited a home and found the family sad and wounded. We could scarcely understand it, for when we saw them a couple of years earlier they seemed so happy in the Lord. But something had happened. Just two weeks before we called a letter had been sent to them, and we quote:
"As clerk of the church I have been requested to inform you that in view of continued absence from services and apparent lack of interest in the functions of the church, consideration will be given at its next regular business session, _______ [date], to dropping your name from membership.
"It is hoped that we may receive an expression from you on or before the time mentioned or have the pleasure of your presence at said meeting, which may tend to obviate the necessity of such action being taken. You need the Lord and the Lord needs you.
They were stunned when they received that letter, and we too were stunned when we read it. It seemed so cold, so formal, so businesslike, and so un-Christlike. It was true that these good folks had not attended the meetings for quite a considerable time, but there were reasons. They had been ill and transportation was not convenient. It is true that had they put forth stronger efforts they could have attended some meetings at least. But here was a group, not one of which knew the struggle those dear ones had gone through in coming to a decision. But even worse, not one of them had personally visited them, yet after sending this businesslike letter they felt free to strike their names from the church roll. And the tragedy is that before we arrived, that board meeting had convened and these poor folks were no longer members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, at least as far as the records were concerned.
As we read this letter and learned of the action, we could not help comparing it with another letter that had come to our hands some time earlier. A 'member of another Christian group had become interested in the third angel's message and had already begun to keep the Sabbath. She was desirous of separating from her former church and had indicated her desire to her former pastor. He had visited her on one or two occasions and later two ministers came, one of them the superintendent of the whole area. These two men spent four hours or more with this sister as they endeavored to point out the error of her ways. These men were not bitter, but they were greatly concerned. However, their statements and their arguments did not convince her. She was seeking a clear "Thus saith the Lord." It was evident that they were making no head way with her. They could not shake her faith in the message of God.
But they were earnest men, and after laboring hard and long and prayerfully, they then produced a document which they asked her to sign. It was a testimony to be presented to their headquarters showing that they had done their best to dissuade this woman from her position. This letter stated that they had done their best to labor with her, and when at last nothing could avail, they had then asked her to sign a statement clearing them of the charge of carelessness. All three signed it the two ministers and the sister. It was an eye opener to us, and as we compared these two letters we could not help feeling that there are others who seem to indicate a far greater concern for the members of their, flock than do we, at times.
It is easy to drop members. It requires no particular effort to get rid of folk. But as we have already stated, to separate a name from the church records should be the saddest and most humiliating experience that can ever come to a church. Occasions will arise when some will need to be dis missed, but dare we drop a member from the fold of God without earnest, prayerful, and personal entreaty? As true shepherds let us recall that the great Shepherd of the sheep gave His life for the flock. Dare we then be careless in our responsibility as undershepherds? Some things we will have to meet in the judgment. Members who are weak do not need dropping as much as they need helping. When a child is sick we do not drop him, nor do we expose him to the cold; instead we bring him into the warm fellowship of the home. We assure him that he is loved. And should not this be the way we should treat every child of God that is under our care, especially those who may be spiritually sick or have lost their way?
As our pastors and the church elders meet with their boards this November or December, let us do all we can to hold our dear believers in the fellowship of the saints. This is not a plea for a weak membership, but it is a plea for kind, sympathetic shepherding of the sheep.
Doubling our membership means more than going out and bringing in the notoriously lost. It means holding all those we possibly can and building them up in the faith. A disgruntled, wounded ex-Adventist is the worst possible advertisement for the truth. Let us see to it that our actions do not cause souls to turn away from the truth with bitter hearts.
There are many causes of indifference and apostasy, but let us make sure that one of the reasons is not our cold, indifferent attitude. When the sheep is lost, the shepherd, if he is a true shepherd, will go out even at his own peril and do his utmost to bring that dear one back to the fold. And every member of the church board is an undershepherd to care for the spiritual as well as the financial and the material interests of the church, and the spiritual interests are primary. Then let us build barriers against the enemy and hold the flock of God in the shelter of His fold. Let us pray that the call going out to the world field from this Autumn Council will challenge every worker, conference administrator, and church officer to do a more faithful work of shepherding the flock.