Problems and Possibilities
Don't call them backsliders—you'll hurt their feelings!" people often object. But I know of no other term that really fits. "Former members" means little, for one might be a former member of the Dallas church and a present member of the Houston church. So I just call them backsliders and everyone knows whom I am discussing.
For years many pastors have urged me to write out detailed suggestions regarding how to work for backsliders. (Notice, I did not say "how to deal with backsliders" but "how to work for backsliders." There is a vast difference. We often deal with backsliders, but what a pity we seldom work for them!) So at last I am taking the time to write out these suggestions.
My evangelistic work takes me into fifteen hundred to two thousand homes a year. Each family averages two to three persons. So every year I make contact, personally, with nearly five thousand people. About one half or more of these are backsliders. It would only be natural that I would form some rather firm opinions about backsliders and their needs, as well as the church's need in helping them.
Some observations I shall make will not always be entirely flattering to the church and its representatives. We must bear some share in the tragedy of backsliding. If we will face up to our own faults and open-mindedly evaluate the backslider's problems and needs, we can help him and ourselves. It is dangerous for us in the organization to feel that we are "in need of nothing."
So I must speak frankly in dealing both with backsliders and some conditions that have helped to turn members into backsliders. I realize that in speaking frankly I must bear the responsibility personally for the organization, and no department should be blamed for the opinions I here express.
First, we need to recognize that few become backsliders because they were poorly indoctrinated. This is the charge I most often hear at institutes of various types. But such is not the case. Only a fraction of one per cent give up because of doctrinal misunderstandings or disagreements.
Many are out because of things that we as evangelists, pastors, conference presidents, conference treasurers, college presidents, church elders, and deacons have done or said to them. We will have to face our share of the blame, and if we will admit our guilt we will have taken the first big step toward reclaiming the lost—meeting him more than half way.
Hosts of people are really backsliders but still consider themselves Adventists. They listen regularly to the Voice of Prophecy, Faith for Today, or It Is Written. They go to church occasionally, but they are unattached to the church. They wouldn't belong to a different church for anything; yet they are not united with us. There are far more of this type than we realize.
One thought that should encourage us in going out to work for backsliders is that the majority of them still believe this message, and hosts of them plan definitely (or vaguely) to return someday. Many backsliders are watching with deep concern the solemn developments of the signs of the times. What an hour in which to be living, and what a challenge to be working with all our zeal to bring back those who were once with us but who are now out in the cold and the night.
It might be helpful to list the various ways we have obtained our leads to find some twenty-five thousand backsliders the past few years:
1. From colporteurs. Our colporteurs are on the firing line—close to the people. An alert colporteur will constantly be on the lookout for backslider leads.
2. From singing bands. Every Adventist knows about Ingathering singing bands and often backsliders exclaim to the solicitor: "Yes, I know your work; I used to be an Adventist myself." Every such lead should be placed on the church's backslider list, giving, of course, the name and address. (See end of Part IV in this series.)
3. Member-neighbors. An active Adventist will soon discover backsliders, or new Adventists, within a small radius of his home. The same is true in the factory, at school, and in the offices where our people are employed. Every member should be educated to be on the lookout for exmembers, to report these and to work for them.
4. Doctors and nurses. Again and again we find some of our best leads through this wonderful right-arm-of-the-message group of workers ministering to sick bodies. They also discover many sick souls.
5. Bible schools. Our radio and TV programs are constantly unearthing the names of many backsliders—often whole families. These leads, followed up in the home, pay high dividends.
6. Religious census surveys. Some of these are made by the Government; some by other church groups; some by Adventists in door-to-door surveys. Many excellent leads have come to us from such surveys.
7. Church clerk's books. These are the poorest leads, for if the person is merely a name or an exstatistic on the clerk's records, there is little live connection with the church. However, these too need to be followed up. We should remember, of course, that it will take effort and persistence to track down the correct and up-to-date addresses of long-ago backsliders. But it will be worthwhile.
8. Church visitors' register. Every local visitor who registers at our church on Sabbath morning should be followed up by a visit in the home the following week. This has proved to be one of our richest leads to backsliders. The very fact that they were out to church shows some current interest.
9. References from Adventist relatives. Our members should be urged to report in full on all backslidden relatives. This perhaps supplies our largest list of leads.
Varying Types of Backsliders
It will help us in dealing with backsliders if we can learn to catalog the various types. If we will learn to recognize them we will more easily be able to help them. No one can be dogmatic and say this one can be reached and that one cannot, but it will help if we divide backsliders into two major groups: (a) those difficult to reclaim and (b) those easier to reclaim.
We will not be able to arrange these within each group in any particular order, but we will deal with them as we come to them, just as we do in a normal day of visiting in from twelve to twenty homes. We will make observations about the various types as we go along, but will reserve our general suggestions on approaching backsliders till our next section. For the sake of brevity, please permit me at times to use an outline sketch and incomplete sentences.
First we will discuss the more difficult types to reclaim. We mean no reflection on any profession or group as we deal frankly and honestly with these more difficult groups.
Types Difficult to Reclaim
1. Former institutional workers. For some reason an institution becomes impersonal. It is generally a poor policy to encourage new members to connect with an institution. They miss the kindness and love, the personal touch, of the church, and when dealt with on a businesslike basis, sometimes take offense, stumble, and fall. In doing so they blame the whole church for some unfortunate experiences they have had with department heads, fellow associates in the department, or supervisors. Once they leave the church they have a tendency to brand every member with the unfavorable characteristics of the few they clashed with in the institution. Tolerance, longsuffering, and kindness, perhaps unappreciated at first, will win back such backsliders and convince them that Adventists are not hardheaded slave drivers, as they may have come to believe.
2. Former professors. This is one of the most difficult, if not impossible, types to touch. The pattern is too consistent. They have gone to non-Adventist schools seeking accredited degrees. They have "broadened" their attitude on religious standards and teachings, and now they "look at things differently." After a few unfortunate clashes with fellow faculty members and board members, they drop out and find their place in some school of the world. Here they take satisfaction in feeling that they have attained and are appreciated—they have graduated from association with a peculiar people.
This type is usually coolly detached, calculating, condescending, or out-and-out haughty, and has need of nothing. No argument fazes them and they spurn kindness. Only sickness or personal or family tragedy may win them back. But do not cease praying for them.
3. Physicians and surgeons. There is something about the training, the irregularity of hours, the press of duty, the association with the world, and financial prosperity that greatly strains a medical man's connections with the church. Those who survive the rigorous tests make some of our finest church workers, as all can testify. But there are hundreds of doctors who no longer walk with us.
We need to pray for our medical workers, for their tests are great. Backslidden doctors generally are too busy to feel their need or to sense how far they have slipped. They are difficult to approach because they are too busy to talk at the office, and a visitor at the home often feels frozen out as an intruder. An occasional telephone call or a few words of encouragement dropped by an Adventist patient seems to be about the only avenue of approach here.
4. Spiritual neurotics. Fortunately, there are not many of these. They become ensnared with pseudopsychology, spiritism, crank health fads, Pentecostalism, dreams and visions. Not much can be done for them. A small minority may outgrow their condition and return to normalcy; but many of these, if pressed into a rather shaky church connection, would only do harm in the body of the church.
5. The overly prosperous. Some Adventists have not had much in their earlier days. They become carpenters, builders, and finally big contractors or businessmen, real estate developers, and manufacturers. Caught up in the meshes of prosperity, lodge and business associations, clubs, et cetera, they have grown proud and "in need of nothing." Their prosperity proves them successful, they believe. Their gold is their god; their lodge is their church; their club members are their brethren.
Little can be done to reach these till reverses strike or depression comes. Then they are not hard to help, and really appreciate a proffered hand of assistance. Till then we can but wait and pray and hope. Perhaps a mother's death or a child's sickness will bring them back in spite of temporal prosperity. If so, they will make good and helpful members as they come to realize that "a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth."
6. The intellectually proud. There are some who are proud of their skepticism, their doubts, and their ability to "get the preacher in a corner" in a discussion. They are forever scratching in the gravel or chiseling on the rocks of Mars' Hill. Only the love of Christ can soften such. Discussion and argument is worse than wasted effort, for each discussion but more firmly fixes them in their own opinions.
7. The independent. There is a class that rebels against authority. They like to express this attitude by refusing submission to church rules and regulations; they delight in the anarchy of spiritual individualism. Only physical calamity of some type seems to shake these to a consciousness of their need of humility and accountability to law.
8. Apostates. This is probably the most hopeless of all types. They were with us as workers and church leaders. They went out from us in pride and rebellion and have taken satisfaction in fighting the truth they once loved. Do not fight back! Don't fight fire with fire. Do not debate with them. Do not endeavor to throw back their arguments. We must assure them that we love them and that if they ever return to the fold, we will be most happy. Love alone will win apostates. And some, even of these, are returning.
(To be continued)