Conserving Our Membership

One of the most serious problems that we face in the Seventh-day Ad­ventist Church today is how to conserve our membership. For the year 1954 in the North American Division, for every thousand received into the church by baptism and profession of faith, 360 were dropped for apostasy or as missing. This is a 36 percent loss. That is too great a loss!

N. F. BREWER, General Conference Field Secretary

One of the most serious problems that we face in the Seventh-day Ad­ventist Church today is how to conserve our membership. For the year 1954 in the North American Division, for every thousand received into the church by baptism and profession of faith, 360 were dropped for apostasy or as missing. This is a 36 percent loss. That is too great a loss! It is not easy for a person to accept this truth. It means an entire change in his life—his habits, his eating, his dressing, and his day of rest. It takes much effort, and much anxiety, patience, and prayer. We spend thousands of dollars on our public efforts in our endeavor to win souls. We open the front door of the church wide, but do not close the back door; and many are drifting out. Surely we ought to study this important problem and do something about it!

Reasons for Apostasies

Every backslider has what he considers a good reason for his backsliding. While there can be no legitimate reason, here are some of the causes of apostasy:

1. The individual may not have been truly converted when he came into the church. There are many people who have a head conviction, but not a heart con­version. They believe the truth. They know it is the truth, but it has not changed their lives. It may be that in our eagerness to get people into the church, we have encour­aged some to come in without experiencing the new birth.

Some time ago a woman wrote a letter to the General Conference. She had a brother whom she was trying to win to the truth. She wanted us to do something about it. This brother had known and observed Adventists for forty years, but evidently he had never seen anything consistent enough in their lives to bring him to accept the message. "If something could be done," wrote this sister, "that we would have a body of converted believers, what an ad­vance step that would be in spreading the truth! . . . God bless our ministry and ministers." And then she made a statement I do not like to read: "May we have a more converted ministry who will bring more people to true conversion before bap­tizing them."

This will give you an idea of how some of our laity are thinking. One of the rea­sons why members are going out of the church is that they are not truly converted when they come into the church. When trials come they just drift out.

2. Perhaps someone in the church has said something the member did not like. It may have been true or it may have been false. Most of the time it is not said with any intention of hurting or offending. It is generally very small when first uttered, but if that person takes it to heart, it grows and grows, and soon he is drifting out of the church.
3. It may be that some are looking to other members as their example instead of looking to Christ. Then when one of these members sins, he says, "If that is the way Adventists live, then just count me out." If we only realized how we are being watched by other members, by our rela­tives, and by the outside world, how careful we would be! But when we realize that we are ever in the presence of God, how much more careful we ought to be. 0 that God would give us a new awareness of His constant presence with us. How many things would be left undone and how many we would not neglect!
4. Some grow cold and leave the truth because of a lack of prayer and study of the Bible. They think they have no time for secret prayer and for family worship. Their children never hear prayer in the home, except perhaps for the blessing at mealtime. Later the children drift into the world. Then it is that parents with heavy, burdened hearts plead with God for the salvation of their children.

At a camp meeting some time ago I spoke on family worship. A woman came to me after the service. She said she had never had family worship in her home. "I am a widow," she said. "I have a daughter thirteen years old, and we are going to begin having family worship tonight." I encouraged her all I could. Next morning she came to me with tears in her eyes. She said, "My daughter refused to have wor­ship with me. What can I do?" She was thirteen years too late! But situations like this need not remain hopeless.

I wish that something would come into our ministry that would press this matter of family worship back to the churches and back to the people. How can we ex­pect our children to grow up in the Chris­tian faith without family worship? How can we expect to go through the time of trouble successfully if we do not prepare for it? The Catholics have a slogan, "Fam­ilies that pray together, stay together." I think we ought to have as our slogan, "Families that pray together, stay in the truth."

5. Members marry non-Adventists, and their companions lead them away from the church. How many young people we have lost just because of that! Ought we not to be warning our young people not only that marriage with unbelievers brings "shad­ows" that "are never lifted," but that "to connect with an unbeliever is to place yourself on Satan's ground. You grieve the Spirit of God and forfeit His protection"? —Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 364, 365.
6. Some members do not think they get the spiritual food they need when they come to church. How many church mem­bers give as an excuse for not going to prayer meeting, "I do not really get much help when I go." Fellow workers, let us make our services such that the members will feel they are missing something good if they are not there.
7. Some are tempted by Satan and fall. They go into worldliness. They lose their spiritual interest. Unless someone goes after them and tries to win them back when they first show a lack of interest and neglect coming to church, they are lost to the church.

There are two classes of backsliders. One is illustrated by the prodigal son and the lost sheep. The prodigal son knows he is lost. That sheep knows it is lost, but it does not know its way back. Then there is the other class illustrated by the lost coin. The lost coin is unconscious and unconcerned about its loss; but it is still silver. And we have to work with those two classes.

Preventing Apostasies

How we may prevent many apostasies:

  1. Make sure inquirers thoroughly know Bible doctrines as taught by Seventh-day Adventists.
  2. Let them prove by their lives that they have experienced the new birth and are truly converted before baptism. Too many are "in the church but not of it."
  3. At the first indication of losing inter­est or nonattendance at church services, either visit the backsliders yourself or ar­range for others to visit and encourage them.
  4. Train older members to extend a warm welcome to new church members and visitors.

C. L. Torrey told of an experience he had some time ago. He was away from home. He went into a church, saw an empty seat, and went to sit down. A woman said to him, "This seat is reserved."

He tried again. "I am saving this seat for someone." He tried three seats, but all were reserved. Then he went to the back of the church and sat down. After the service he went out. Not one soul spoke to him. No­body knew him. Suppose he had been a non-Adventist coming for the first time to our church!

Let us emphasize and hold up before the people the real privileges of being a church member. Let us impress upon our converts the fact that in entering this church they become a part of the great Advent Movement that encircles the world.

To be a member of God's remnant church —what a fellowship! What a source of spiritual power! What a joy and sense of security! One writer has put it this way: "Make membership mean much."

Reclaiming Former Members

Now when members grow cold and leave the church, or are dismissed, how are we going to win them back? How did Christ win them back?

You remember the story of the lost sheep. When the lost sheep was found, what did the shepherd do? Did he take his staff and strike it and say, "You naughty sheep, you caused me so much trouble; I have searched hours to find you, and you have strayed away from the flock. Why didn't you stay with the flock?" No. When he found that sheep he took it right into his arms. He bound up its wounds. He just pressed that sheep against his heart.

How careful we ought to be in winning back the straying sheep of God's flock, to make them understand that God loves them, and that the church really cares when they stray out of the fold of Christ. How much is a soul worth? What did it cost to redeem that soul? It was the very life of our Saviour. Surely souls that cost so much ought not to be treated with cold­ness and contempt.

Why did the Lord use a sheep to il­lustrate His tender care for His children? Because the sheep is one of the most help­less of animals. When it gets lost it can't find its way back. And when a sinner is lost it is very hard for him to find his way back. We must go after the lost sheep and not say like some spiritual shepherds, "Oh, if it comes back I'll open the door of the sheepfold and let it in, but I won't go after it.''

In China I visited one of our former members. I had not seen him for a long time, for I had not been in that part of China. He used to be one of our most efficient preachers. I found out where he lived and went over and rapped on the door. A voice said, "Come in." When I entered he quickly put his hand behind him. I sat down and talked with him; he recognized me right away. I didn't say any­thing about his hand going behind him, but I knew why he did it. He had been smoking a cigarette and didn't want me to know it. After we had talked a while I had prayer with him. He rose with tears in his eyes, and said, "You are the first Seventh-day Adventist who has crossed my thresh­old for twenty years." And he lived within a mile of our church. Fellow worker, I wonder how many there are within a mile of your church that were once members and have not been visited for twenty years?

When I left he came out to the gate with me. In parting he said, "I have gone astray a long way. I know this truth. I was once a preacher. I have thought many times of forsaking my wayward, evil ways, and giv­ing my heart to Christ again and returning to the church. But," he continued, "I do not think they want me back in the church. I do not think I would be welcome." And the sad fact is that too many self-satisfied church members today actually do not want those who have once backslidden to come back into the church, even though they are repentant.

In the parable of the prodigal son we have not only the wayward son but also the elder brother. You remember what he said. "No, I am not coming to your feast. If that backslidden brother is there, you won't find me there." This is what Sister White says:

"The return of the prodigal son was a source of the greatest joy. The complaints of the elder brother were natural, but not right. Yet this is frequently the course that brother pursues toward brother. There is too much effort to make those in error feel where they have erred, and to keep reminding them of their mistakes. Those who have erred need pity, they need help, they need sympathy. They suffer in their feelings, and are frequently desponding and discouraged. Above everything else, they need free forgiveness."—Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 104.

In some of our churches today there are members who manifest the elder brother's attitude and spirit toward those who have wandered from Christ. There is a work that must be done with these members to pre­pare them to extend a warm, hearty wel­come, and to receive repentant ones back into church fellowship.

"There is need of shepherds who, under the di­rection of the Chief Shepherd, will seek for the lost and straying. This means the bearing of physical discomfort and the sacrifice of ease. It means a tender solicitude for the erring, a divine compassion and forbearance. It means an ear that can listen with sympathy to heartbreaking recitals of wrong, of degradation, of despair and misery."—Gospel Workers, p. 184.

When we go to a backslider let us listen with sympathy to what he has to say. Let us not argue with him. He has his reasons for being outside the church. It may be that somebody has done something that has of­fended him. Let us say we are sorry that it happened. After he has told you his whole story he will feel better. Do not condemn him. Do not tell him that the other person was right. It may well be he was wrong.

"If you see one whose words or attitude shows that he is separated from God, do not blame him. It is not your work to condemn him, but come close to his side to give him help. Consider the humility of Christ, and His meekness and lowliness, and work as He worked, with a heart full of sancti­fied tenderness."—Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 125.

"O the lack of deep, soul-touching sympathy for the tempted and the erring! 0 for more of Christ's spirit, and for less, far less, of self!"—Christ's Object Lessons, p. 192.

"We need more of Christlike sympathy; not merely sympathy for those who appear to us to be faultless, but sympathy for poor, suffering, strug­gling souls, who are often overtaken in fault, sinning and repenting, tempted and discouraged. We are to go to our fellow men, touched, like our merciful High Priest, with the feeling of their infirmities." —The Ministry of Healing, p. 164.

"While very sensitive to the least blame in regard to their own course, many are too severe in dealing with those whom they suppose to be in error. No one was ever reclaimed from a wrong position by censure and reproach; but many are thus driven further from the right path, and led to harden their hearts against conviction. A spirit of kindness, a courteous, forbearing deportment, may save the erring, and hide a multitude of sins."—Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 519, 520.

"Until the judgment you will never know the influence of a kind, considerate course toward the inconsistent, the unreasonable, the unworthy."—The Ministry of Healing, p. 495.

You will notice that three classes are mentioned in this statement: "The incon­sistent, the unreasonable, the unworthy." And yet we ought to be kind to even these.

"When we meet with ingratitude and betrayal of sacred trusts, we are roused to show our contempt or indignation. This the guilty expect; they are prepared for it. But kind forbearance takes them by surprise, and often awakens their better impulses, and arouses a longing for a nobler life."—Ibid.

That is the way to win them back God is giving a special invitation to backsliders to come back.

"The Lord is giving the erring, the weak and trembling, and even those who have apostatized from the truth, a special call to come fully into the fold. But many have not learned that they have a special duty to go and search for these lost sheep." —Life Sketches, p. 187.

"The love of God still yearns over the one who has chosen to separate from Him, and He sets in operation influences to bring him back to the Fa­ther's house. . . . A golden chain, the mercy and compassion of divine love, is passed around every imperiled soul."—Christ's Object Lessons, p. 202.

"Although a man may have sunk to the very depths of sin, there is a possibility of saving him. Many have lost the sense of eternal realities, lost the similitude of God, and they hardly know whether they have souls to be saved or not. They have neither faith in God nor confidence in man. But they can understand and appreciate acts of practical sympathy and helpfulness."—Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 259.

While there is life, there is hope. We are not to give up working for those who may seem to be beyond hope.

"All the resources of heaven are at the command of those who are seeking to save the lost. Angels will help you to reach the most careless and the most hardened."—Christ's Object Lessons, p. 197.

No matter how degraded or sinful a person may be, we are to see in every human being one for whom Christ died.

We are to visualize the sinner transformed by the power of God.

"The Lord wants His people to follow other methods than that of condemning wrong, even though the condemnation is just. He wants us to do something more than to hurl at our adversaries charges that only drive them farther from the truth. The work which Christ came to do in our world was not to erect barriers, and constantly thrust upon the people the fact that they were wrong. He who expects to enlighten a deceived people must come near to them and labor for them in love. He must become a center of holy influence." —Gospel Workers, p. 373.

Why is it that we do not now see large numbers accepting this truth and coming into the church? What is hindering the work of the Lord?

"The Lord does not now work to bring many souls into the truth, because of the church members who have never been converted and those who were once converted but who have backslidden."—Tes­timonies, vol. 6, p. 371.

"We have no time to lose; God calls upon us to watch for souls as they that must give an account." —Ibid., p. 62.

My dear fellow workers, would to God that I could say something that would stir our hearts and impress upon each worker the duty of seeking out those who have once known this blessed truth, but who have strayed away from God and the church. Let us make this our first work.

Let us seek out those who have grown cold and indifferent and bring them back into the warm atmosphere of fellowship in the church. They are just as precious as others who have never heard this truth. Let us really do something about this!

You will be surprised to find how many really want to come back into the church but think nobody cares and that they are not welcome or wanted. Let us not con­stantly remind them of their mistakes, but let us show by our sympathetic, understand­ing attitude that we do love them and want them to return to the church. Let us inspire in them new hope and a longing to come back.

The Lord is married to the backslider and calls him to return, promising to heal his backslidings.

"Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the Lord; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the Lord, and I will not keep anger forever" (Jer. 3:12).

"I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him" (Hosea 14:4).

May God give us such a compelling bur­den for those who have once known this truth, but who have left their first love and strayed away, that we will not rest satisfied until they return to the fold.

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N. F. BREWER, General Conference Field Secretary

December 1955

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