When you obtain the name of a backslider, do not give up trying to locate him even though the address may be uncertain. We have inquired of the police, the fire department, water, light, and gas offices, post office, corner grocery and telephone company, in our search for a missing person. The dividends are rich and rewarding.
If the address is correct, but the individual is not at home, go to the neighbors to ascertain the time he is usually home. Be as persistent as the FBI.
It was Friday afternoon, the last week of the series. We had tried every way possible to get in touch with a backslider. While the pastor was inquiring about her at a nearby dry cleaner's, I spied an old iron fire escape at the rear of the building. We had been unable to get any response at the front of the three-story apartment. As I reached the third section of the fire escape I began calling the woman's name quietly. Soon she appeared at the window. I went down to the front of the building and there made proper contact with her, and had prayer before leaving. The next day she took her stand for rebaptism. She said it was the thought that someone would even climb a fire escape to rescue her that made her decide to come back into the church.
When you find the person, introduce yourself at the door as a friend from the church who just dropped in to get acquainted. Be warm and friendly, but not gushy. Be sincere; be kind. Most homes will open for you. After a few moments of getting acquainted, a few pointed but natural questions will generally indicate the individual's present attitude toward the message. Let me list this series of questions in about the way we use them in any typical visit. Of course, there are variations. We do not always ask all of these questions. If we obtain a firm negative or rebellious reply at any point of the way, we must change the nature of our visit and terminate it, stirring up as little opposition as possible. But 50 per cent to 75 per cent of the people will follow through with favorable replies. Where the replies prove negative we must adapt our visit to the situation that develops. Following are the questions we usually ask:
- What work do you do? Do you enjoy it?
- Have you lived here long?
- How many children do you have?
- You used to be a member of our church?
- How long ago was that?
- And do you still believe quite a bit the Adventist way?
- Have you ever thought of returning to the church sometime?
- Is there anything to hinder your corning back? Or, What is the main thing that stands in your way?
- There is danger in waiting too long, isn't there? Or, if there are children: And with children like these, what a responsibility! The longer you wait, the less chance you have of helping them into the church.
- Won't you try to get out to church (or the evangelistic meetings) this coming Sabbath?
This series of questions brings out the important points you need to know about the individual, and the very answering of these questions helps to stir up responsive chords in the heart of the backslider. Listening to his replies will help you to make your farewell prayer more to the point.
And now a few "do's" and "don'ts" in working for backsliders. Each of these is vitally important.
As you pierce the backslider's background with questions, occasionally one will become angry and go into a tirade of criticism. He is unloading his pent-up hatred. He is bitter toward the academy principal or the conference president or the former pastor. He blames the church for real or imagined injustices. And for the time being you become the symbol of all those who have done him wrong. For years he has been repeating to himself the mean things he wishes he'd said to those who wronged him. Now you get it all.
Listen kindly; listen interestedly. By neither voice nor expression of face disagree with him. Let him rant and rave; the pus is coming out. There is hope of a future healing of the wound after it has been purged and cauterized. At the close of his tirade it is effective to put in, "You know, if I were in your place and had been treated like that, I'm afraid I would have felt just about as you do." Now he has no enemy to fight. You and he, for the time being at least, seem to be on the same side, and he is disarmed.
If a man continues abusive to me personally when I've tried my best to be kind, I sometimes interject, "How can you dislike me so? If you knew me well, I can easily understand how you might dislike me. But you never saw me before. I just came here to help you, that's all. So how can you dislike me? I'm sorry for what happened. Who wouldn't be? But remember, the Lord loves you dearly and understands your heartaches. You must be saved at all costs, no matter what others may have said or done to you. Well, I must be going now, but let's bow our heads for a word of prayer."
3. Don't defend anyone. No matter who or what the backslider attacks, don't defend anybody. Unless you are willing to observe this rule you had better not try working for backsliders. The moment you defend someone you automatically, in his mind, identify yourself as his enemy and the cause of his original trouble. From then on you are impotent to help him.
Of one thing you can rest assured—once he returns to God his bitterness will leave him. So just assure him of your love and longing for his return. He will be perplexed at your anxiety over his return in spite of his hostility. It will soften his heart, and after you have gone he will do some thinking.
One night a real-estate man exploded till 1:00 A.M., but he was at church the next Sabbath and later became choir leader. He is at rest now, but he died in the faith. His bitterness left him when he returned to the church.
In my prayer I throw in such suggestions as these: "Help him not to wait too long, but to be sure to be inside the ark when the flood comes." "Help him to know that we love him and long for him to come back." "Forgive us for the hurt we in the church have caused him, and may he know there's a welcome for him upon his return." "May his children be safe in following his footsteps, and may they lead for sure to heaven at last." "May he be able to get out to church this Sabbath and not keep Thee waiting too long." "May he know that we love him and that Thou lovest him, and in spite of all the unkindnesses he's endured, may he be willing to forgive and return." "May his last days be by far the best, and help him to forget the past." "Help us to be more careful in the future not to wound Thy child again." "We remember that it says of Jesus, 'Those [wounds] with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.' "
7. Give a brief invitation to come out to the evangelistic meetings and to church next Sabbath. However, don't try to squeeze out a promise that he will attend. That will undo the good you have done. Your whole visit should be conducted in a casual, offhand, friendly way, endeavoring to leave the backslider relaxed and with a knowledge that you really love him and care about his return.
8. Leave immediately following prayer. Don't linger. Minutes spent in a home following prayer undo the effect of your visit. This is very vital, and a point on which so many err.
And now some special "don'ts."
1. Don't try to arrange a series of Bible studies. Many backsliders take it as a personal affront to have it suggested that they go through a series of studies. They know the doctrines already. What they need is love and reconversion. Kindness and prayer, and getting them out to Sabbath school and church, and especially to evangelistic meetings, are your best hope for getting them back.
Some have gone away from a home feeling rebuffed because the backslider refused or declined studies. This is no proof at all that he is disinterested or has no intentions of coming back. It may be his blunt way of letting a tactless person know that he is already well acquainted with our doctrines and needs help other than indoctrination.2. Don't accept money from backsliders. Right or wrong, far too many people have the idea that what we really want is their financial support in the church. Let them know you are not interested in their money. A backslider once pressed fifty dollars on me, but I returned it to him, saying, "I want you to know that I'm interested in you and not your money. Thank you just the same. I plan to come and see you again. You can know I'm coming to see you and not to get anything."
The exception, of course, would be tithe. If a backslider urges you to turn in his tithe for him, do it as a favor and be sure to send him his receipt. The pastor should write him a letter of appreciation.
Here are a few thoughts I sometimes work into my visit when these problems come up: "Don't you think it is nice to bring to Jesus some of the things we like as well as the things in our lives that we hate? Bring some gifts we cherish and lay them at the foot of the cross and it will mean more to Him." "Jesus gave up all—even the gold and precious stones of heaven, for you. Would you be willing to give up all for Him?"
"True, that little bit of jewelry may not be an idol to you, but if it is so insignificant and unimportant to you, then it won't be hard to give it up, will it?" "Yes, I've seen more damage done in the church by sharp words on an old lady's tongue than a little rouge on a young lady's cheek. But we're getting ready for heaven, and let's go all the way. It's not 'How much of the world can I keep and still get into the church?' but 'How far can I go to separate from the world and be like Jesus?' " "I don't want you to give up these things because the church says you have to, or because old folks will criticize you if you don't. I want you to give them as a willing sacrifice for Jesus." "If you were having an operation you would want a very careful surgeon. Can we be less careful about our eternal health?" "You say the standards of the church are too strict, but do you really think they're more strict than the entrance requirements of heaven? After all, the church is to help us make ready for heaven."