I first met Juan1 in second grade, and we quickly became best friends. We loved playing soccer together on the dirt field outside our school. After classes, we often walked home together, choosing to keep the money our parents had given us rather than spend it on bus fare. Together we had a lot of fun, and looking back on it now, it seems as if we have always been friends.
We grew up together, went to Adventist schools, were both baptized when we were 12, and attended Sabbath School and church each week. Through the years, however, our lives drifted in different directions—I drew closer to the church while he wandered farther away. But in spite of our increasing differences, we kept in touch.
Nearly 20 years after Juan stopped attending church, we were corresponding by Messenger when I noticed that he seemed to be becoming more open to spiritual things. As time passed, we continued messaging back and forth on deeply spiritual topics. One year later, realizing that he was ready to come back, I invited Juan to attend church with me, and he agreed.
Two weeks later, as we walked through the church door together, a well-meaning but misguided church elder who had known Juan since we were kids greeted us. Trying to be funny, the elder exclaimed, “Juan! What has the devil done to you that you haven’t been in church for so long?”
They were the first words my friend heard after not being in church for 20 years. I wanted to disappear through the floor. Fortunately, Juan did not disappear. He was rebaptized and has remained in the church. I’m glad I was there to support him. But what about those who do not have such support? What about those who do not remain? What about those who do not return at all?
My experience with Juan got me to thinking about the many members who slip away and never return. What can we do to bring them back?
When I was serving in the South American Division in 2011, this question came to the forefront. While the church was baptizing many people, we were aware that many were also leaving, and not necessarily just the newly baptized ones. Some had been members for 5 or 10 years. Realizing that we were losing about 30 percent of our members every year and that the church had no specific plans for how to bring them back, we began to pray and plan.
We discovered that an important responsibility of the church clerk, according to the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, is to review the list of members and keep in touch with those absent.2
Since the church clerk is a frontline worker in reclaiming members, we offered full-day training for all church clerks throughout the division—union by union and conference by conference—encouraging them to go over their membership lists, look for inactive members, and take a leading role in reclaiming them for Christ. In addition, we suggested that they share the list of inactive members with their church boards so that the elders could visit and pray with such individuals. We instructed the churches to give the lists to active members, inviting them to review it for those whom they might know, pray for them, and then reach out to them in some way.
The division made plans for an annual special Sabbath during which every local church focused on welcoming back former members. The congregation would prepare a warm, uplifting program for that Sabbath. Everyone—from Sabbath School teachers to deacons, elders, the pastor, and all other members—would then be ready to welcome the special guests and let them know that they had been missed. During the sermon itself, the pastor would make an appeal for the inactive members to return. Each guest would receive a special gift, such as a musical DVD, and be individually invited to a fellowship meal that would follow the service.
Leading up to this special day, the division prepared several resources, including a packet with a suggested sermon, posters, other advertising material, and an attractively printed letter intended for the former members. The letter gave a brief overview of what was happening in the church, and stated that the person was missed and that we would dearly love to have them back. Church members were to hand deliver the letter to those for whom they had been praying and then invite them to attend the special Sabbath service
What were the results? We were amazed to see how God blessed. The next year, in 2012, 14 percent (24,732) of the total 174,767 baptisms across the division were rebaptisms. The following years have continued to reveal a high percentage of rebaptisms, ranging from 12.8 to an incredible 15 percent, as reported by the division’s executive secretary, Edward Heidinger.3
While undoubtedly other factors contributed to the growth in rebaptisms, we believe that the intentional, personal outreach to former members played a significant role. Rosani Biondo shares her experience of coming back:
“I was born into a very active Adventist family. My father loved music, and we practically lived at the church. I was very fond of camping. When I was a teenager, my father was the cook, so we always participated in church camps, and I loved it.
“I married young, and after seven years, my husband and I separated. And then I found myself drifting away from the church. I think I used it as an excuse to leave, but I was still very sad. I got involved with another person who was not from the church.
“At first, I felt that I was so free, doing the things I wanted. It seemed attractive at the time. But what really happened to me was that I was far away from anything meaningful. I never sat down to play the piano again, never opened my mouth to sing, although I had loved singing in the choir. Although I was very apathetic toward the church, I still felt that the right religion was the one in which I had been raised. I knew that if one day I wanted to attend a church, it would be the Adventist Church. And I still remembered what my parents had taught me when I was a child.
“Achieving worldly success, I bought what I wanted because my job paid well, but it did not satisfy me. You buy something, something else, and then you buy more, and more. You walk out of a store unsatisfied. No matter what or how much I bought, I still felt sad and didn’t understand why.
“Then, I met someone who is now my husband. Although he didn’t belong to the church, his cousin did. So he knew all about Adventism but hadn’t been baptized. When I started our relationship, his cousin said, ‘Tomorrow we are going to church. Do you want to go?’
“That was when I started back to the Adventist Church. But I hated appeals, and when an appeal began that Sabbath, I walked out. Yet the next Sabbath, I went again. Seeing the preacher, I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to listen to his sermon. I won’t listen.’ But as he began to speak, he caught and held my attention. I think it was the Holy Spirit preparing to touch my heart. The pastor made an appeal at the end aimed at certain groups. First, he reached out to those who had once been Adventists, inviting them to return. As he spoke, I did not stand in response, telling myself, ‘I won’t go up. I won’t.’
“He then turned his attention to another group—those who had become acquainted with the Adventist Church but had not yet had the opportunity to be baptized. Suddenly, though, as he was making that appeal, he paused and said, ‘No. I will go back to the previous group. I feel that someone needs to come who did not join those who responded.’ My legs started shaking, my heart raced, and I felt as if my heart were in my throat.
“‘I know that there is someone who needs to come,’ the pastor continued, ‘and if you want to come and cannot, if you feel stuck to the bench, take the hand of your friend and come.’
“Then I said to myself, ‘He is not calling us—God is. The Holy Spirit wants us there.’ Standing, I went to the front, crying. The pastor walked forward to meet me, and I said, ‘How much time I have lost! Wow! Do I need more signs from God? God is calling me. He cares for me. Even amid all of those in this world, He did not give up on me.’
“The day of my (re)baptism was like a victory! My whole family was there. That day I realized how long I had been out—17 years. My mother hugged me and said, ‘Seventeen years I have been praying for you, my daughter.’
“I had not realized that it had been so many years. When I walked out of the baptismal tank, I felt very light. Even though I realized there would be new tests, I knew that I would not be alone anymore.
“I lost so much time that I could have helped the church. But today, I am back, and whatever comes, I remember that God takes first place in my life. I saw the importance of how Christ rescued me.”
Like Juan, Rosani is one of the tens of thousands of former Seventh-day Adventists who have returned. Who in your community, in your congregation, in your family, is waiting for an invitation to return to Christ? How many people are on the membership roster of your congregation who, like lost sheep, have wandered away? Does your heart long for those who are “groping in darkness yet longing and weeping and praying for light?”4 If so—do you have a plan to help them find their way home?
1 Pseudonym used.
2 Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 19th ed.(Silver Spring, MD: Secretariat, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2016), 82, 174.
3 South American Division Executive Secretary’s Report, South American Division Year-End Meetings, Brasilia, Brazil, November 2018.
4 Ellen G. White, Manuscript 46, 1900
Sidebar:Tips for reclaiming members
1. Plan an intentional and specific strategy for reachinginactive members.
2. Involve your church members. Have them choose oneor more names of inactive members whom they might know. Invite them to pray regularly for their selected individuals and engage with them in some way.
3. Train greeters, deacons, and elders to be alwayswarm and friendly (never judgmental or asking uncomfortable questions) to all who walk into the doors of the church.
4. Alert Sabbath School teachers and other leaders towatch carefully for members who have missed even one or two weeks and then let them know that they were missed. It’s always easier to bring someone back after two weeks rather than two months or two years!
5. Keep returned members engaged in the church by immediately involving them in some type of ministry.
6. Work with returning members who may be strugglingwith habits involving tobacco, alcohol, or other challenges. Do not condemn but offer hope and healing. If needed, consider helping the person to connect with another professional such as a health-care worker or counselor.
7. Pray regularly for your members, especially yourinactive ones, and follow through with your plans to bring them back.
For more resources, visit the Summit on Nature & Retention 2013 page on the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research website at adventistresearch.org/nurture_home and Nurture and Retention page on the Secretariat website at secretariat.adventist.org/nurture.