The best way to reclaim a backslider is to prevent him from becoming one, and an effective way to prevent backsliding is to miss the missing from Sabbath school. It is well-nigh axiomatic that every missing member is a potential backslider. To lose one's hunger and thirst for a study of the Word of God is the first step into an indifferent experience, and indifference paves the way for backsliding and apostasy.
There is no better way to reclaim a backslider than to steady him spiritually at the first sign of wavering. That first sign might well be his frequent absence from the Sabbath school. It would seem, therefore, that the key to the problem here under consideration might well be found in missing the missing—whether their absence is from the Sabbath school, the church service, prayer meeting, communion service, or any gathering where the family of God meets for fellowship, study, and service.
Let us explore a bit the implications of this unique phrase—"missing the missing." Could it be that the church has grown indifferent to the deflections from its fellowship? Could it be that in a truly alarming sense the missing are not missed? Of this we admit a possibility. We are a busy people. We live and labor under tremendous pressures. Our interests are many and varied. Our programs are numerous and multiplying. It could be that while the church moves forward relentlessly, bent on finishing the work, in search of the spiritually unborn, the spiritually weak—the discouraged, the worldly, the burdened, the indifferent—stand in the shadows and watch the procession from the side lines unnoticed, while their hearts long for the touch of a friendly hand, the invitation from a burdened heart for them to fall into line and rejoin the march to the city of God. But we are too busy to halt, too preoccupied with the work of God to really miss the missing.
Indifference Toward the Missing
Is it possible that we may grow indifferent to the missing and eventually forget them? I am reminded of the pastor who, in a church board meeting, responded to the question of the visiting educational superintendent with the affirmation that all the eligible children of the church were in attendance at the local church school. The elder, hesitating to contradict his pastor, asked whether he really was sure that they were all in. Replied the man of God, "Yes, indeed. Oh, there may be a very few on the fringes who are too far removed by distance to attend, but in the main they are all in." The discussion resulted in a careful census of the church's greatest asset. The result was startling—twenty-eight children in the church school and seventy-two outside. What the elder had detected, the busy pastor had missed. We may fail to really miss the missing.
The leadership of the movement is quite conscious of its missing members. Our statistical secretary makes us uncomfortable and just won't let us forget. But our consciousness is largely statistical. We recite the figures and bemoan the picture they paint. We miss 17 per cent, or 23 per cent, or 40 per cent of our church members from the Sabbath school; we are startled by the revelation that in the year 1956 in the North American Division we added 17,742 new members, but at the same time dropped 8,242 from our fellowship; we are concerned that the relation of Sabbath school attendance to church membership stands at 83 per cent when we know that it ought to exceed 100 percent. But we fear that our concern is largely statistical—not personal.
We miss 17 percent, but we do not miss John Jones and Mary Smith and little Tommy Brown. We do not miss them as the frenzied population of a modern city misses a single little child who fails to return to his home at the close of school, nor yet as the family misses the indifferent youth who has wandered from the shelter of home in search of satisfaction in the world of sin! We constitute the family of God, but the missing are often treated as strangers. We hesitate to confess that on the local church level, leadership often looks upon the missing as so many names to be dropped in order that church goals may be lowered.
One of the major tragedies of this late hour is the fact that in the full knowledge of our missing and our losses, the church continues quite unalarmed and complacent. Of ttimes this indifference is evidenced in the shrug of the shoulder accompanied by the current expression, "So what?"
God is not complacent. He calls for an alarm to be sounded in His holy mountain. The deep concern of His heart is indicated by His outstretched hands to those who once knew Him, whose love has diminished and whose ardor has cooled off! Where can one find a more heart-stirring appeal than that voiced through Jeremiah: "Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am married unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion: and I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding" (Jer. 3:14, 15).
A Sense of Personal Loss
Our passage and publication of resolutions on this matter continue to be ineffective. Something more personal is desperately needed now. Somehow, I know not how, God must generate in our hearts as leaders a great sense of personal loss in the presence of our missing and our losses. The spirit of Moses must come to possess us. The willingness to forfeit admittance into the kingdom if God cannot redeem our backsliding people is an experience foreign to my heart. Not until it possesses my soul can I transmit it to my fellow workers and to local leadership all along the line. We proceed as though some new program would bring the answer to this perplexing problem. It won't! A passion for the lost—persistently cherished in the hearts of us all —is the only effective remedy. We must come to really miss the missing and feel in their absence a great sense of personal loss. That, and that alone, will result in persistent personal contact with the absent ones. That sense of loss alone can result in special prayer meetings for the straying. When the burden of the lost rests upon us personally, the ministers of God will weep between the porch and the altar; and laity and leadership will possess and manifest the spirit of the Master, who left the ninety and nine to search for the one missing sheep, and we, like Him, will not rest or relax until the missing are found.
Only Effective Means of Reclaiming Backsliders
It is our failure to miss the missing that leads us to devote our thought and attention to general corrective measures. These are good, but in the ultimate quite ineffective. If we are not careful, they may even become a substitute for the only effective means of reclaiming the backslider and bringing back again the missing—namely, a deep personal interest in and labor for the missing, individual by individual.
The missing cannot be "resolved" back into the Sabbath school or church fellowship. They must be searched out and found by those whose hearts are aflame with the love of God. Paul gives us the formula: "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault [and missing Sabbath school and backsliding from church fellowship most assuredly is a fault], ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted" (Gal. 6:1). For this personal concern and effort there never can be any substitute. On the flyleaf of my Bible years ago I penned this truism: "No one will ever enter the kingdom except he be loved in."
It is an interesting and truthful observation that just as the beginnings of all effective labor for the backslidden and the missing is to be found in a sense of personal loss (that is, missing the missing), so likewise, the first step back into the Sabbath school or church fellowship results from the assurance of having been missed. How many there are, even of those backslidden ones we regard as utterly devoid of interest in spiritual matters, who in their aloneness, when memory floods the heart, sigh as did David: "I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul" (Ps. 142:4).
Many youth I have seen reclaimed to Christ and the church by the simple expedient of someone's bringing to them the assurance that they were being missed. I have said to many a young man, "Bud, we just cannot go on without you. Heaven would not be the same if you were missing"; and I have witnessed a new interest light up in the indifferent eyes, and felt the pressure of the hand as the lips assured me, "I'm coming back."
Finding the Missing
In an attempt to crystallize these few observations we make the following suggestions:
1. That every Sabbath school and every church adopt as a divine assignment the task of finding the missing and reclaiming the backsliders who once were associated with the Sabbath school and the congregation.
2. That as an effective motive for personal labor, every effort be made to make the congregation and individual members of the church deeply conscious of personal loss in the missing and backslidden members. This sense of loss should be brought by the pastor to the church board, Sabbath school and other officers, and through them to the Sabbath school teachers and class members. This can be done effectively by:
a. Keeping an accurate list of missing and absent members.
b. Assigning the missing and backslidden to the Sabbath school and church members for personal labor, this to continue indefinitely.
c. Making the missing a matter of special prayer at Sabbath school, church service, and prayer meeting.
d. The organization of personal workers bands.
3. That every effort be put forth to let the missing and backslidden members know that they are missed The means by which this can be done are legion.
4. That every attempt be made to find out the cause for absence from the Sabbath school and backsliding from the church. The removal of the causes should challenge our best efforts. It should ever be remembered that the Sabbath school and the church exist for the sake of the members—not the members for the sake of the organizations. Attendance cannot be compelled. Membership rests upon a voluntary basis. The sole appeal to our people for regularity in attendance cannot be that of loyalty alone. The programs we provide must attract. The services we offer must appeal. Our people have a right to expect help in return for the time they spend in attendance. There is little sense in advertising a banquet if there is nothing to eat. In some Sabbath schools and church services the continuous confusion makes these hours of divine appointment unattractive. Such situations can and should be corrected.
5. And finally, that the goal of every Sabbath school hour and every church service be the deepening of personal fellowship with Christ. This experience, and this alone, can steady our people in these days when it is easy to abandon faith and cast off spiritual restraints.