A little more than one hundred years ago the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was organized by twenty delegates from six conferences. The official world membership, if we can say anything was reliably official in those early years, was 3,500. At the close of 1962 the world membership stood at more than one million. The current membership, along with the multiplied thousands that have been laid to rest during the past one hundred years, evidences the blessings of God that have attended the preaching of the third angel's message. It is evident that God has wrought mightily in behalf of His truth. We wish this picture of accomplishment in Adventism might be terminated at this point of the presentation. To do so, however, would be unrealistic to our challenge.
Our loss of membership by apostasy condemns us. Someone may suggest that the church has always lost members. To the one who fully appreciates the gift of God through Jesus Christ, it is little comfort to be reminded that the early church, in its purity, had to deal with apostate members such as Judas and Demas.
Only eternity will reveal the value of a soul saved. Conversely, only then will we fully understand the tragedy of a soul lost. Unlimited are the areas we might profitably discuss that would be helpful in minimizing apostasies.
My assignment is to consider the Sabbath morning worship service as a medium for alleviating the problem. The subject is difficult because of the difference in circumstances that exist in churches in contrasting areas of the North American Division. Our churches in Alaska have a different problem as compared with chuches in Florida. In many conferences our churches are dependent on the local elder to conduct the worship services, while in other conferences there are congregations that enjoy the ministry of their pastor each week. It is difficult to make applications that will be of value to varied congregations and circumstances. And yet, I suppose basic principles will apply regardless of geography or the size of a congregation.
Possibly, to begin the discussion, the question might be in order Why do people leave the church? It would seem doubtful that as a denomination we have explored this question to the extent that we can answer authoritatively. We may have ideas, and some of our conclusions are possibly correct. However, there may be important factors involved that we have not uncovered or brought into focus.
To illustrate, shall we use the experience of Demas? Why did he leave the church? In his association with Dr. Luke, Paul, and other church leaders, he was surrounded with the atmosphere of dedication and commitment. I am sure he saw few if any inconsistencies in the lives and ministry of these brethren. I doubt that anyone could have been as closely associated with the apostle Paul as was Demas without having become rather thoroughly acquainted with the teachings of the church. It seems only logical that the brethren kept him busy. Thus, it is unlikely he had available time for sampling worldly pleasure.
Then what happened to Demas? We know little more than the statement made by Paul in 2 Timothy 4:10, "Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world."
What were the contributing factors that took him into the world? Someone suggests that he chose the world. This is true, but why: Why did he go the way he did while Mark, who got off to a shaky start, became a pillar of strength in the church: I would emphasize that in the experience of Demas he had the association of the saints of the church. I do not see how it could be a lack of knowledge. Also, these early church leaders were men of devotion. Miracles followed their prayers. Demas had every advantage, yet he went the way of the world.
I have used this experience, not to confuse or discourage us, but to point out one important factor. Holding our membership is more than association, environment, or knowledge. It is more than routinely studying the Sabbath school lessons seven times a week, subscribing for the Signs, These Times, the good old Review, or attending church school or a Christian college. All these are very important, but brethren, each and all of them may become only a "form."
Which of us has not seen more than one attend a Christian school from the first grade through college and yet because of the vicissitudes of life seen such a one slip out of the church? Unfortunately we have seen gifted men with keen minds who have preached this message effectively lose their way and join the world. They certainly did not lack knowledge.
I have said all this that we may more fully recognize that somehow, somewhere, we must inspire our church membership to believe and experience the joy and pleasure that comes in fellowship with God and His church. We must lead our people into the blessed realization of experiencing the deep satisfaction and security that is found in putting on the whole armor of the church. The Sabbath morning witness of the church must be so effective that church members will look upon the world as sounding brass and tinkling symbols as compared with the peace, confidence, inspiration, and satisfaction they find with God's people. Such a goal is more than an ideal. It must be a reality. With less, we will continue to bewail the stream of good people who enter the front door of the sanctuary and casually march through the church, out through the back door, and into the world, without having been greatly moved or inspired by what they saw or heard in the church. The casualness with which so many perform this routine should shatter us, and the observation is made with no thought of criticism. It is merely a fact that can easily be supported by interviewing those concerned.
To further point out the problem that will lead us into a few suggestions of solution, let us remember the following:
- Most of those who have left the church continue to believe that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the remnant, true church.
- They would not join another church for religious reasons. They might possibly join such an organization for social contacts.
- In most cases they will argue for the doctrines of the church when talking with others.
- In many cases they are sincerely ambiguous as to why they actually stepped out of the church.
Thus we must conclude that their departing from our midst was not due to a nonbelief in the remnant church or to a lack of knowledge.
How or when or where might we have contributed to holding them within the church? It is my opinion that the proper use of the worship service is an important solution. This is one service of the church in which we usually have the best representation from our church membership. If we are to face up to the problem it seems logical we should do so at the worship hour. How?
The music, the order of service, the message from God's Word, must be so dynamic that souls will go forth from that service challenged, thrilled, inspired, condemned, and encouraged to the extent they will know the church is their strength, their refuge, their greatest source of joy, and their only avenue of security.
At a recent athletic event in Los Angeles it was announced over the radio that 5,000 tickets would be put on sale at 6:00 P.M. All of the other 49,000 tickets were already sold. A few minutes after 6:00 P.M. there were people lined up for the equivalent of about one mile, paying up to $3.50 per ticket so they could attend this particular sports event. Why?
Recently I noted on a certain newscast the thousands of persons who sacrificed to join the march on Washington, D.C. There was every indication that these persons were happy to join this demonstration. Why were there so many who would leave their jobs and spend their funds to make the trip to Washington? It was because their whole heart was in the project.
Is not the challenge the church offers the needy human heart far beyond any of these in importance? A better question might be, Is the church fully meeting its commission in appealing to the heart?
Is it possible that we are losing altogether too many of our members because the worship service is filled with mediocrity? In too many instances the order of service is not well planned; the music is a display of talent rather than the overflowing of the heart in praise to God. The sermon is lukewarm or possibly cold. It has no fire or challenge. People leave the service undernourished, ummoved in spirit, and unchallenged in heart.
What can we do? The pastor is the key. He is the backbone of the future of this church. Humanly speaking, his church rises or falls with him. It is he who will bring a spirit of revival—or of lukewarmness. It is he who will inspire his congregation or chill them. As administrators we must do more in helping our pastors to become mighty men in representing God's Word. There must be developed men who are Bible preachers. We have a constituency that immediately recognizes when a man is merely rehashing what someone has already digested.
I had a certain member, without criticism, observe to me that on a certain Sabbath his pastor was off to a good start in his sermon. Real spiritual nourishment was being presented. He said this continued about fifteen or twenty minutes, then it seemed the well went dry, and the pastor filled the next several minutes with stories and unchallenging remarks. This observation was made regarding a pastor that is far above average in Adventism. I believe it is time for conferences to spend more money in sending more men to our Seminary to prepare them for a more effective ministry of the Word. Once these men are at the Seminary we need to make certain they are under the kind of leadership that will make of them strong preachers of the Word. Philosophy, conjecture, sensationalism, and speculation—this kind of preaching will not hold members. An educated and enlightened church membership demands that we train more effective ministers of the Word.
Generally speaking, a congregation responds favorably to spiritual nourishment. In a mutual friend's home I was sitting across the table chatting with a doctor. The conversation turned to the subject of his pastor. With deep feeling he expressed his appreciation for the spiritual strength he received from the messages presented by his pastor on Sabbath. He also mentioned his regular attendance, along with hundreds of others, to the mid-week service because he enjoyed so much the studies given. In the course of the conversation the doctor made a very important observation: "My pastor causes me to think." From another church I received a letter from a housewife in which she commended the fine sermons presented by her pastor. She stated that their family often discussed the sermon on the way home from church.
There is another area worthy of our consideration. The flame of evangelism must permeate our worship services. The strongest soul-winning program of any conference will be the result of every church conducting a worship hour that will appeal to its membership as well as to the nonchurch-member visitors. We need to do more in using the worship service as an appeal to the community. The church membership should be encouraged to bring their friends to the worship service, knowing that it will be the kind of environment that will appeal to them.
The spirit of fellowship should pervade the worship service. There are many lonely people in the world. Some of those individuals are in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In many homes there are Seventh-day Adventists who stand alone. They need warmth, friendship, and fellowship on Sabbath morning. Such a fellowship is more than the mechanics of acting friendly. In reality the pastor reflects either warmth or coldness. He sets the pace. He must be relaxed and friendly. More and more Adventists are building large churches. This makes it even more imperative that we have the atmosphere of friendliness in our churches. What can be done to bring in this warmth and friendliness? I know one pastor who is using a registration procedure that is unique. At a proper time in the service an usher presents to each pew of worshipers a registration card. Each individual in that pew is to sign the register. Thus, in a large church, people become acquainted with the names of those who are sitting next to them. Other churches are using the procedure of a few minutes of fellowship at the close of the worship service. In the warmer climates this is done on the patio. It does seem important that a spirit of fellowship pervade our Seventh-day Adventist churches on Sabbath morning.
A proper worship service is not a cure-all for the problem of apostasy. On the other hand, a disorganized, irreverent, promotion-filled eleven-o'clock hour does nothing to inspire, encourage, or spiritually feed our people. As administrative leaders we need to prepare our pastors for a more effective preaching of the Word from the pulpit. We may spend millions of dollars building institutions. Such is good, and there is a need. However, we must spend more money if necessary in developing effective pastors. We should have a burden for this because our church membership reflects the need.