Caring for new converts

During 1977 approximately three persons left the Adventist Church for every ten persons who joined. The solution to such excessive losses, says the author, is to stop trying to determine who is at fault, and develop an attitude of caring for the new convert.

John Fowler is the president and Ministerial secretary of the Missouri Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.


According to the quarterly progress reports published by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 30,542 individuals were accepted into the Adventist Church in North America by baptism and profession of faith from October 1, 1977, to September 30, 1978. During that same year, 12,468 apostatized or were re ported missing. Thus those dropped from the church rolls constituted almost 41 percent of all accessions to the church for that year.

For the world field the picture is somewhat better, but not markedly so. During the calendar year 1977, 243,735 persons were united to the Adventist Church worldwide, while 80,526 were dropped in the same period for apostasy or as missing. Thus for the world, the percentage of those dropped from church membership during 1977 com pared with those added stood at approximately 33 percent.

Adventists might find a measure of relief from this gloomy picture in the fact that some estimates have placed the apostasy rate among American churches as a whole at 50 percent. However, an apostasy rate of 30 to 40 percent is certainly nothing to be pleased with, especially when we remember that even these figures do not always reflect completely the spiritual health of our churches. If accurate statistics could be had for the remaining 60 to 70 percent regarding their church attendance and participation in church programs, we might have a truer picture of the spiritual condition in our churches.

Dr. Roland Leavell, for years president and professor of evangelism at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, writes somewhat satirically about those who join churches: "5 percent do not exist, 10 percent cannot be found, 20 percent never pray, 25 percent never read the Bible, 30 percent never attend church services, 40 percent never give to any cause, 50 percent never go to Sun day school, 60 percent never go to church Sunday night, 70 percent never give to missions, 80 percent never go to prayer meetings, 90 percent never have family worship, 95 percent never win a soul to Christ." —Evangelism: Christ's Imperative Commission, p. 147.

Blame for the problem of apostasy is aimed in a number of different directions, with very little being done within the Seventh-day Adventist Church to come to grips with a situation that should demand the attention of the entire church. When the apostasy of new converts is discussed by pastors or church members, they usually blame the evangelist. If the evangelists are discussing the problem, they often blame the pastor and the church. Such pointing of fingers serves no valid purpose. Why endeavor to place blame when the very process tends to alienate and divide the church? My purpose in this article is not to determine who is to blame for the large number of members who lose their way, but rather to study the problem objectively and offer some suggestions for caring for new converts.

To begin with, let us look at the work of the public evangelist. No doubt part of the responsibility (not blame) for apostasy involves the evangelist. The cliche is that an evangelist is no better than his last meeting. This concept puts a great deal of pressure on him to hurry people into baptism without thorough preparation. It is easy for the evangelist to fall into this trap without even being aware of a wrong motivation. Since the evangelist is also a human being with an egotistical human nature ever seeking to exalt itself, the temptation to push for numbers is ever present. (The same is also true of the pastor.) Every evangelist must contend with these powerful motivations. Some possibly even resort to Madison Avenue techniques in their evangelism. However, few people respond to a blatantly hard-sell approach, so the number of converts brought into the church by this method is small.

Despite such seemingly inherent weaknesses, most observers (with a few notable exceptions) find little to object to in the work of the evangelist. Indeed, if the primary cause for apostasy lies with the evangelist, then the apostasy rate should closely parallel the rate of baptisms realized through the work of public evangelists. Available evidence does not support such a relationship.

During the early 1930's, Seventh-day Adventist evangelism flourished. Unprecedented numbers joined the church under such evangelists as Charles T. Emerson, John Ford, and H. M. S. Richards, Sr., until in 1933, baptisms reached a peak of 12,711. Criticism of evangelism was nothing new, even in the 1930's; however, during this period criticism increased dramatically from many directions. The result was a quick decrease in baptisms. Significantly, the apostasy rate did not decrease; in fact, it continued to increase. The apostasy rate climbed from 34 percent of all accessions to the church in 1931 to 55 percent in 1937, which was a very low year for baptisms—less than 2 percent of church membership.

If unethical evangelistic practices cause a high apostasy rate, then high apostasy levels should normally run parallel to large numbers of accessions to the church. Yet in 1943, when the ac cession rate was only 2 percent, the apostasy rate was 57 percent!

Some feel that the requirements for church membership are not high enough and that if we demanded more of those desiring membership the apostasy rate would be less because those who did join would be screened more carefully.

In such an approach the needs of the institutionalized church are allowed to dictate our actions, rather than the Bible or the needs of the individual. The danger in this concept is that individuals seeking membership in the church may be handled in a similar way as those seeking employment with an institution. Only those who can offer the most to the church are welcomed. The purpose of Christianity, however, is to benefit the individual, to seek to meet the needs of the lost, the depraved, the handicapped, those most helplessly entangled in sin.

This loving approach is obvious in the New Testament church's requirements for membership. Acts 2:41 reveals the basic preparation demanded. The very day they accepted Christ and repented of their sins, they were baptized and accepted into the church. This does not mean that we should follow the incidentals of the New Testament church and baptize people the day they decide to follow Christ, nor does the text imply that the people baptized knew little or nothing about the responsibilities of church membership. It simply indicates that the people were not subjected to a long list of detailed requirements or to a probationary period before being accepted into the church.

A possible factor giving rise to a higher-than-necessary apostasy rate is a narrow concept of conversion. In Mark 4:28 Christ compares conversion and the subsequent growth toward maturity to the development of a tender plant. "First the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear." This is a picture of a gradual growth from the moment of germination or birth. While we use the word conversion to mark the beginning of the Christian experience, we also recognize that conversion is an ongoing experience. Revival and reformation, growth and sanctification, continue throughout life.

Since baptism simply marks the formal beginning of this experience, we must allow for much of the reformation that takes place to do so following baptism. Naturally, certain standards of reformation must precede baptism. We expect victory over smoking, drinking, et cetera. Yet we must remember that even though a person may gain victory over cigarettes by means of the Five- Day Plan preceding baptism, the habit of twenty or thirty years (or even the desire for the tobacco) is not eradicated from the life in five days. In many cases, months of discipline and encouragement are necessary before the battle with desire and habit is completely won.

If the individual as well as the church would realize this truth and work accordingly toward maturity of Christian experience, many apostasies could be avoided. Often more loving and patient work for individuals is necessary after baptism than before. When this concept is lost from view, the individual baptized is usually forgotten and often lost for ever.

Thus we find that our definition of evangelism greatly affects our under standing of the church's role in leading a person to a mature walk with Christ. Evangelism must be seen in terms of making disciples and not just getting decisions. It is the perennial work of the entire church and not a special work of special people on special occasions. In every phase of evangelism the church is clearly seen as the focal point. Certainly the church has a primary role in caring for new converts.

Ellen G. White wrote on this subject: "Those who have newly come to the faith should be patiently and tenderly dealt with, and it is the duty of the older members of the church to devise ways and means to provide help and sympathy and instruction for those who have conscientiously withdrawn from other churches. . . . The church has a special responsibility laid upon her to attend to these souls who have followed the first rays of light they have received; and if the members of the church neglect this duty, they will be unfaithful to the trust that God has given them."—Evangelism, p. 351.

How, then, can the church better fol low up and care for new converts? Obviously each situation must be tailored to meet the specific needs of individuals, yet basic needs can be categorized and used as a general guide. Two that seem to encompass all others are fellowship and instruction. In the preceding quotation, Ellen White spoke of "help, sympathy, and instruction" as needs of new converts. To radically change one's life style is no small accomplishment, and only by the grace of God and the tender care of the church can a person hope to realize this reformation.

The only specific program currently in use by Seventh-day Adventists for the care of new members is the guardianship plan. This simple program assigns a specific church member to each new convert at the time of baptism. Particular duties of the guardian in promoting and maintaining the new member's spiritual health are clearly outlined. Unfortunately this plan has not been vigorously emphasized, with the result that little has been done with it beyond its introduction at the time of a baptismal service. It is important for pastors and church members to realize that this work of caring for new converts is a vitally important part of evangelism and that serious work must be done if success is to be realized. Soul winning is a science, and holding new members takes the same thought and care as winning them.

The difficulties of staying close to new members could be largely resolved if the church became the center of evangelistic activity, with the Sabbath school as the primary agency for operating the entire evangelistic program. The Sabbath school class, working as an evangelistic unit, would make the initial contact, prepare the person for baptism, and provide the fellowship and training necessary for the ongoing experiences of conversion and reformation. Active involvement in a supervised program of witnessing would provide both fellow ship and instruction. Ellen G. White saw the value of this approach in holding new members and admonished, "When souls are converted, set them to work at once." —Ibid., p. 355. In fact, she indicates that the baptismal vow is a pledge to work actively for the salvation of others. "By their baptismal vows they are pledged to make earnest, self-denying effort to promote, in the hardest parts of the field, the work of soul-saving." —Ibid., pp. 354, 355.

If the church takes seriously its task of evangelizing the world, then its new members should be trained and enlisted in the total work of the church. Then they, too, will find a sense of belonging and mission. They will receive fellow ship and training that will result in faithfulness to Christ and His church, as well as a productive ministry in other souls won for the kingdom of God. The apostasy rate can be checked.

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John Fowler is the president and Ministerial secretary of the Missouri Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

April 1979

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