The reason most churches do not have a program of visiting their inactive members is not lack of concern for their inactive. It is due to the substantial pain that is evoked in the visitation process.
The pain of the inactive member has been carefully studied in recent years. It has been found that very often an anxiety-provoking event in the individual's life or the life of the congregation is at the center of the problem. This event makes the person very upset, anxious, and usually very angry, and may be stimulated by a large number of situations.
I remember one of the first such visits I made, to a middle-aged couple who had dropped out of the church one year after I had become pastor. They had remained inactive for approximately four years. Although they tithed on a sporadic basis, they did not attend any meetings., church functions, or worship during this four-year period. When I called and made an appointment they were more than willing to see me. It was a snowy, wintry day in Rochester, New York, when I pulled up to their home. We chatted about surface issues. Then the wife said to me, "You have not been here for four years. Why not?" The tone of her voice was hostile and the question was not one of inquiry but of hidden resentment. My response was, "I didn't know that people who were once active in the church, like you were, went through such severe pain in the process of becoming inactive. I certainly was not sensitive to your cries for help, and I am sincerely sorry for my insensitivity. I hope you will forgive me." The woman began to cry. Her husband came and sat beside her on the couch and put his arm around her. For the next two hours I sat and let them share the deep pain that was inside them because of leaving the church.
I happened to be the anxiety-provoking event in their leaving. In listening to them, they were able to share their hostility toward me around the issue that occurred nearly four years earlier. They related how they had lost the community in which they had found great comfort and love, and how they felt bad about the alienation with me personally but did not know how to go about bringing about reconciliation. They related how their children had been out of the church school and youth fellowship for that same period of time and that they felt inadequate as parents; and finally, how, once they had left the church community, they did not know how to gracefully return, and there fore stayed on the outside. They had, in fact, cried for help to me through the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, but at that time in my life I was not sensitive to the cries for help that people give prior to leaving. If I had been sensitive to that earlier, I would have saved a lot of pain for them and myself.
A second example will clarify some insights into the pain of leaving a church. During my original research in visiting inactive members (from which the book The Apathetic and Bored Church Member evolved) I visited a couple in their thirties. Six months earlier their 3-year-old baby boy had died. In the parish to which they had moved, the pastor made only one call on the family after the death of the child, and no one from the congregation came to visit them in their time of deep pain. Both the husband and wife cried openly during my time with them. They were in extreme grief, not only from the loss of the child, but also from the lack of the community support from the church that was so necessary at that time. They were in the process of rapidly leaving the church, disillusioned by the people and disappointed in their pastor. This existential pain was traumatic to their very existence, and it took all they had to hold onto life itself.
These two visits are not atypical of the inactive church member. Almost without exception, in every inactive family visited I discovered enormous inward pain concerning the church, its people, its pastor, and even God Himself.
There is an intuitive awareness on the part of the congregation that when you visit an inactive church member, you are going to have to deal with hostility, anger, and guilt. And most persons do not know how to relate meaningfully to someone who is in deep pain. We avoid those people and therefore add even more pain to what they are already experiencing. This leads to the second part of the dilemma of the pain of the visitor.
When I, as a visitor, hear the story of another's pain, it triggers my own feelings. I hear the words, the tone; I see the body language; I hear the truth coming through the story that is told. Another person's hostility usually evokes anger in me. Their self-condemnation provokes guilt; their noncaring attitude may elicit personal feelings of rejection and thoughts of disgust. The dynamics that occur produce an awareness in myself that I really don't care to confront. My temptation, as a visitor, therefore, is to avoid any situation that will evoke such reactions in me, because I do not want to have to deal with my own inner struggles.
One of the great values of a ministry to inactive members is that it provides a type of cleansing process for both the caller and the callee. In order to be an effective visitor, people must learn the skills of real listening and must also be aware of their own inner feelings. By calling on another person we get in touch with our own struggle, and the call allows us to work on it rather than perpetually avoid it. How ever, my call can be used by God to bring about reconciliation with the person I am visiting, to let him know that other persons do care, and that I can honestly feel his pain.
I know of nothing more theologically sound than that kind of relationship, God's pain is deeper than any pain I can suffer when one of His lost sheep wanders from the flock. But His joy is exceedingly greater when that sheep returns, when the lost son comes home.
Calling on the inactive member is a deeply theological activity that is at the heart of the gospel. For the gospel, after all, is the message of reconciliation.
Reprinted by permission from the January/February, 1979, Church Growth: America. Editorial offices: 150 S. Los Robles, Pasadena, CA 91101.