Caring for church dropouts

Most churches lavish much attention on people entering the church and strangely neglect those leaving. Church growth is holding as well as winning. This article gives a successful strategy for reclaiming former members.

Skip Bell is secretary of the Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He earned his D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary and specializes in small groups.

Cleveland, Ohio is home to 3,595 Seventh-day Adventist Christians, 30 percent of whom do not attend church. When these inactive members are added to the persons dropped from fellowship but still living in Cleveland, the number of dropouts in the city grows to more than two thousand.

Cleveland is not unlike hundreds of other places in North America where there are large numbers of inactive and former Seventh-day Adventists. Most churches have a significant percentage of their membership who are inactive; in 1983 alone churches in the North American Division dropped 13,911 per sons. What is being done to restore these people to active fellowship in the family of God?

Teaching how to care

Many congregations do have a caring ministry for the church dropout. The Grants Pass, Oregon, church initiated a ministry group in the Sabbath school called a Care Class in 1981. Prepared by weekly training, support, and prayer during their Sabbath school class, the group began calling on inactive and former members in the community. Verna, who is now an active member in the church, describes the visit she received after not attending church for more than ten years. "When the members of the class visited I felt someone cared. I was very low spiritually and emotionally, but they kept visiting me. For the past two years I have been growing in the Lord and am now a member myself of the Care Class. I want to do something for someone else, especially my family, as these dear friends have done for me. They helped me make friends in the church during the difficult time of returning. I thank God for the Care Class."

The Pleasant Hill church in Oregon now has a ministry to inactive members as a result of the concern of one member in the Care Class in Grants Pass. A class member made regular early morning long distance phone calls, including prayer, to Richard, an old acquaintance from academy days, who had left the church as a young adult. Faith combined with caring removed the years of inactivity and pierced the concerns of this successful real estate developer in Eugene, Oregon. Now Richard and his family are active in the Pleasant Hill church and leading out in the caring ministry of the church.

The Stone Mountain church in the Georgia Conference began a ministry group for calling on inactive members in March of 1984- The church prepared a list of thirty inactive people from the church's two hundred members. The church held weekly study, training, prayer, reporting, and planning meetings. Several people on the list are now attending church again as a result of the ministry of this group.

There is hope for the church dropout. Thousands of people like Verna and Richard can be restored to active participation in the church if they know someone cares and will listen to them. Several years ago John S. Savage, a consultant and specialist in calling ministries, wrote a report on the visitation response of 186 inactive members of nine Christian congregations in Indiana. Of those who were totally inactive, 28 percent returned after one call by a well trained team of lay visitors from their former church. Dr. Savage reports in this study and other similar research projects that the longer people are in the inactive state the more difficult it is for them to return. After a person is inactive for five years, the return rate drops to 22 percent or lower. Whatever the return rate may be in your community, the success of ministry to inactive members is validated by repeated research and experience. There is hope for the church dropout.

We should not train visitors to expect that all dropouts will return. What we should do is remind ourselves of the value of each individual person before God. Jesus described the value He placed on one soul by comparing His love to that of a shepherd who secured his ninety-nine sheep in the fold and then went out to search in the wilderness for one lost sheep until He found it and brought it home. God's love stirs us to care enough to go and search for one individual who might be restored to the church.

Why people drop out

The skills to become effective in a ministry to inactive church members begin with an understanding of why people drop out of the church. Inactivity is preceded by a cluster of anxiety-producing events, either in or outside the church. Then come unnoticed cries for help, anger, behavior changes, hopelessness, and finally dropping out. The following experience is typical.

Bruce was 42. He was happily married and had two children, a boy 19 and a girl 17. He was strong in his religious beliefs and active in the church. His job as a supervisor in a manufacturing plant was secure, he thought, until a new management team arrived and made some changes in an effort to turn around recent dismal performance in the plant. Bruce began to feel the need to retrain himself in order to meet the changes he saw coming. No one noticed anything different about Bruce at church. During the same period of time, his son dropped out of college, lacking the goals and perhaps the ability needed to cope with academic demands. Anxiety about the future and about personal worth began to build in Bruce's mind. Bruce had a responsibility at the church: He was a Sabbath school superintendent. When a well-meaning member offered some suggestions for the program, Bruce replied with unfamiliar cynicism, "I guess I can't handle this job anymore." His cry for help went unnoticed. Conflicts at the church began to multiply for Bruce, and when no help came he began to feel angry. When asked to continue his responsibility in the church, he refused, saying, "I have done all I can do." He soon stopped paying tithe, then began to miss church frequently, and finally stopped attending. After a few months he had developed new interests in camping, his weekends were busy, and he no longer missed the church.

The dropout track so evident in the case of Bruce is described in the "Skills for Calling and Caring Ministries Lab" (Lab 1) pioneered by Dr. John S. Savage and frequently presented by trained Seventh-day Adventist pastors across the country. People with spiritual gifts for exhortation, mercy, or pastor/shepherd work are being trained as effective listeners and callers to help people like Bruce. The lab helps caring church members identify persons on the dropout track, become good listeners, know how to deal with emotions and resistance, and learn how to help a person renegotiate his commitment to the church and the Lord. The training, if actually applied soon enough by a concerned member, can result in thousands of people who will be active members of God's church when our Lord returns.

Organized outreach groups

Organized outreach groups fill the key role in successful ministry to church dropouts. An organized outreach group forms when people who have common spiritual gifts and interests organize to meet the needs of a target population. Hundreds of truly concerned Adventist Church members have been trained to call on inactive members and are motivated and gifted by the Holy Spirit to do so but simply do not make it part of their regular life agenda. While the church benefits from their increased sensitivity and skills as communicators, little is done intentionally to restore dropouts. Churches that have had success in restoring dropouts, such as the Grants Pass, Pleasant Hill, and Stone Mountain churches, all have small groups organized for outreach with a commitment to their group contract, a discipline of accountability, and the encouragement and prayerful support of the group.

Members of such a group benefit from their own deeper fellowship, the opportunities for caring communication that result, the nurture provided by the group, the sharing of experiences in ministry, and the training they receive. Beginning such a group requires a vision for ministry and some planning. Here are the steps for forming an organized outreach group.

Step 1—Vision. Every small ministry group begins as a vision in someone's mind. A small group existing for the purpose of ministry to inactive members is no exception. It begins when someone feels a commitment to such ministry and has a belief that the ministry will be effective for reclaiming persons to the church. God uses the counsel of persons in other churches who have had experience in ministry to inactive members, a Lab 1 training program, or articles in Christian journals and books to spark such a vision.

Step 2—Prayer. When a member or members of the church have a vision for ministry to inactive members, they need to consider prayerfully what God's will is for that ministry. They need to ask God to confirm the calling to ministry by the counsel of others and the support of the church. Prayer will help clarify the motives for such a ministry and what results should be expected.

Step 3—Dialogue. Persons who have a vision for ministry to inactive members should dialogue with others about the idea. They should speak with the church pastor, personal ministries leader, elders, and others in the church who can give counsel. The member should describe the emerging vision for the ministry, including its purpose, expected results, and operation. At this point the idea is being formed and shaped through dialogue with the church body. There may be a need to present the idea to a personal ministries council or evangelistic council of the church. Ideally, the pastor and church members ought to be able to encourage the person with such a vision to move forward with God's leading.

Step 4—Precontracting. Following dialogue with other church members and appropriate affirmation, the initiator of the new organized outreach group should make brief contacts with other church members who he feels may have spiritual gifts that could be employed in a ministry to members on the dropout track. He should share ideas for how the group could operate, including frequency of meeting, training, and accountability for ministry. This sharing should take five to ten minutes per contact and close with an invitation to give prayerful consideration to participation in the group. The precontracting interview should be followed by a second encounter within three days for the purpose of identifying the interest for participation in the group. Such precontracting inter views should continue until a nucleus of at least four people are found for the new group. Precontracting is a form of recruitment of interested persons. No pressure should be used; the more spontaneous and Spirit-led the formation of the group is, the greater its success will be.

Step 5—Sounding the call. Commit a few minutes during the worship service or personal ministries period to an interview or dialogue regarding the vision for a new ministry group within the church. The purpose of the group should be concisely identified, the "gift mix" utilized in the ministry should be identified, and an invitation extended to attend the first meeting of the small group or a Lab 1 training event designed to launch the new ministry group. It is very important for the church to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in equipping members for service through their various spiritual gifts. "God has set in the church different gifts. These are precious in their proper places, and all may act a part in the work of preparing a people for Christ's soon coming." ' In the process of sounding the call to join the new group, people are asked to consider prayerfully the employment they are making of their spiritual gifts and whether or not God would have them become active in this ministry. This step in the formation of a new group is unique to a ministry group. When the invitation to join is given, it is an excellent time to ask the congregation to support the ministry of the new group through prayer. Some churches invite two or three lay members of the congregation who have a special interest in the success of the newly formed ministry group to come forward and pray for a special blessing of the Holy Spirit on the members involved in the group. Such an action is a recognition that through baptism every member is ordained for ministry and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Step 6—Lab I training. The best time to have a Lab 1 in your church is when a small group of people have committed themselves to such a ministry and committed themselves to one another in a small support group. The newly formed group can participate in the Lab 1 training event together and form a group contract as an integral part of closure of the Lab 1 experience. Such a strategy is far more effective than randomly sending a number of people to a Lab 1 and hoping that they will form a group following the seminar. The training and encouragement of the seminar will be of immeasurable value to the new ministry group. Most conferences provide the resource people necessary to conduct this training event in their churches.

Step 7—Group contract. The contract of a small group helps it become an authentic community. "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works" (Heb. 10:24, R.S.V.). A group contract is a plan by which the group members go about creating community, growing in their relationship to Christ and one another, and supporting one another in ministry. If a group does not define its purpose, procedure, discipline, and target populations, there will be no accountability and little depth. Tensions may result. The initial meeting of the small group is the most important because it gives people a chance to clarify the purpose of the group and make a commitment to it. The points to consider in contracting include the purpose, goals, ingredients of a typical meeting, study content, accountability for attendance, process for joining, duration of the contract, length of meetings, location of meetings, time of meetings, worship within meetings, confidentiality, concerns regarding children, refreshments, interruptions, leadership, and decision-making. Perhaps the most important discussion in forming a group contract is accountability for performing the ministry. It is essential that members of the group commit themselves to actual employment of their spiritual gifts in the calling ministry to church dropouts in order for the group to be successful. Accountability is provided by the encouragement and reporting that is a part of group life. Samples of group contracts can be found in the resources listed at the end of this article. Contracting is the item of concern for the first group meeting.

Step 8—Operation of the group. As the small group begins to operate, keep in mind that groups progress through stages. In order for a leader (and an entire group) to encourage depth in group interaction, these stages must be recognized. At least five stages are common: dependence upon the leader, resistance to freedom of operation, development of interdependence, displays of independence from leadership, and mature interdependence with shared leadership. Most groups take three or four meetings to arrive at maturity. Some may take longer.

It is important to emphasize at this point that there are benefits to be derived from establishing a specific number of weeks for the ministry group to continue before recontracting. Thirteen weeks is about as long as a group should go before it provides an opportunity for people to reinvest or terminate from the group. Recontracting is an opportune time to adjust the operation of the group, focus the mission, bring new members into the group, and provide an opportunity for those who have found it difficult to exercise their gifts in that ministry to leave without feelings of guilt. From the very beginning the group should have set a date for such recontracting.

Step 9—Ending the group. Every small group comes to an end. It would be extremely rare for a group to continue for years without termination. Rather than allowing a group to dwindle to an undignified death, establish a time for the ending of the group. Such an ending can be celebrated by a social function or sharing of what has happened in the lives of the participants as a result of ministry through the group. It may be marked by a change of seasons, such as the beginning of summer. Ending a group properly makes starting the group again at a later time far easier. People feel good about a definite closure that has involved communication and celebration. No one should feel guilty about terminating a small group that has benefited church dropouts and has provided an opportunity for growth within the active membership of the church.

This ministry in small groups is one way of fulfilling this counsel: "Why do not two or three meet together and plead with God for the salvation of some special one, and then for still another? In our churches let companies be formed for service. . . . The formation of small companies as a basis of Christian effort has been presented to me by One who cannot err. If there is a large number in the church, let the members be formed into small companies." 2

There are numerous resources that can help a church or individual members who are interested in forming organized outreach groups for reclaiming church dropouts. These resources include: John Mallison, Building Small Groups in the Christian Community (New South Wales, Australia: Renewal Publications), Richard Peace, Small Group Evangelism (Downer's Grove, 111.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), and The Caring Church Manual (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1983). A complete bibliographical list of resources for churches interested in small groups is available in the book by John Mallison. Also available is a small group manual authored by Skip Bell. It too has an extensive bibliography. "Together in Christ" is available for $4.95, including postage, through the Ohio ABC, P.O. Box 831, Mount Vernon, Ohio 43050

1 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washing
ton, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915),
p. 481.

2 ————, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol.
7, pp. 21,22.

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Skip Bell is secretary of the Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He earned his D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary and specializes in small groups.

April 1986

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