I started pastoral ministry 25 years ago in a district that had 14 churches, a senior pastor, and a Bible worker. The Bible worker and I were given the task to seek out, visit, and reclaim missing members. Because the mobile phone was not as widely available then, we used the only means of transportation at our disposal: legs and bicycles. It was through this work that we met Joe and Mary.1
Joe was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church in his late teens. Within a year he was elected as a deacon and continued his spiritual journey and faithful service. By 23, he was elected an elder-in-training, followed by (at 25) an ordained elder. Joe served faithfully, preaching, teaching, conducting evangelistic campaigns, and doing the duties of a servant leader. A couple of years later, Joe became ill and was hospitalized for a long time; he lost his job, and a few of his family members died—and the church showed no care, no visitation, no compassion. Upon recovering from his challenges, Joe stopped attending church.
Mary was baptized as a teen but also became pregnant as a teen. The father of the child was another teen at the church; both names were promptly dropped from membership. They were never visited, counseled, or treated decently. In fact, they heard of the church’s decision through a friend who happened to have been at the business meeting. They both stopped attending church.
We began a ministry of compassion and contrition. Through genuine caring and with an honest apology for the attitude of the church, both Joe and Mary, following a very long and painful process, came back.
The retention question
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is losing members at an alarming rate. Even though the evangelism in our churches is winning people, we lose about 49 of every 100 baptized. This hemorrhaging of our members cannot continue. It is expected to get worse, especially in countries where soul winning is difficult; and if it continues, entire conferences maybe closed for lack of members.
General Conference Secretary G. T. Ng, in addressing this issue, made a serious statement: “This 49 percent apostasy rate is alarming and is a serious drain on the human and financial resources of the church.” Then he asked some pertinent questions: “What happens to an army with 49 percent desertion among its soldiers? What happens to a school when 49 percent of its students drop out of classes? What happens to a factory when 49 percent of its employees decide to defect?”2
I hope we know the answer to these questions. Ng concluded by admonishing church leaders that their job titles did not make them the most important people in the church. That designation, he said, belongs to the ordinary member. The ordinary member, sometimes underused and often unappreciated, remains the church’s greatest asset. It is the ordinary member who is needed to nurture new members and to reach out to those who have left the church.3
The statistics concerning people leaving the Seventh-day Adventist Church are alarming. Practical guidance is needed to help our members organize themselves in order to reclaim former members. Some conclude that this is an impossible task; or, by stating that in the last days there will be a falling away, some may excuse themselves from the effort. Others may simply shrug their shoulders and try to reason it away by saying that salvation is a personal choice. Though it is true that one’s eternal destination is based upon choice, it is also true that we are our brothers and sisters’ keepers, and they are souls for whom Christ died and still part of our family, the family of God.
Relying on a series of church outreach events and activities is not enough to keep new members. While that must be done, our initiatives must also focus on transforming the life and conduct of the local church. Local church members should strive to model the traits that they want to see in new members.
In response to this problem, evangelism must return to its biblical foundation of disciple-making. Missiologists agree that the loss of members in mainstream denominations is symptomatic of a much deeper problem: a breakdown in relation-ships and a failure to make passionate disciples, all as a consequence of an insufficient reservoir of social capital. This problem is directly related to a potential misinterpretation of our mission: are we called to grow the church through large numbers of baptisms, or are we called to make disciples?
The two goals are not mutually exclusive, but they are distinct. Every disciple is a member of the family of God, but not every member is a disciple. Dr. Mario Philip, in his article “Stopping the Leaking Bucket Syndrome,” writes that “a disciple is fully converted and demonstrates a commitment to the master’s cause. I believe that we must begin by linking discipling with membership-retention initiatives because if these two are separated, the entire missional mandate is eviscerated.”4
Ellen White posits that “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 for the truth’s sake, and thus cut themselves off from the pastoral labor to which they have been accustomed. 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.”5
The cry for nurture from the brothers and sisters in our churches can be heard if we listen. The same cry—and even louder, from those who have left— must be heard.
In my quest to explore new words, I was excited when our six-year-old daughter came home with a word to learn: solstice. Solstice is when the sun appears to meet its most northerly or southernly excursion relative to the celestial equator on the celestial sphere. The day of a solstice in each hemisphere has either the most sunlight in the year (summer solstice) or the least sunlight (winter solstice) for any place other than the equator.
Where is the solstice in your church? I believe that our churches can experience much more sunlight by adhering to the following recommendations:
1. It is the duty and responsibility of church leadership to plan spiritually, lovingly, sensitively, and practically for the return of former members.One of the most damning statements I ever read from Ellen White is this: “I am sorry that there are those in positions of trust who very sparingly cultivate the sympathy and tenderness of Christ. They do not even cultivate and manifest love toward their brethren and sisters who are in the faith. They do not exercise the precious tact that should bind and heal those who go astray, but instead they exhibit cruelty of spirit, that drives the wanderer still further into the dark, and makes angels weep. Some seem to find a sort of pleasure in bruising and wounding souls who are ready to die. As I look upon men who handle sacred truth, who bear sacred responsibilities, and who are failing to cultivate a spirit of love and tenderness, I feel like crying out, ‘Turn ye, turn ye; for why will ye die?’ ”6
2. We must understand that nurture, reconciliation, and reclamation do not happen overnight. It is a Holy Spirit–led process that takes time. These also require a great deal of human investment. Priority must be given to the needs of others over our own real or perceived challenges. We must get to a place where an investment in people must not be measured in monetary instruments.
3. Each church should go through a planned cathartic process of dealing with conflict resolution. The church should establish a robust structure for reconciliation when quarrels, disputes, friction, and discord arise. Of those who left the Adventist Church, 62.12 percent said that the primary trigger for leaving was conflict-related, 31.6 percent said conflict was their secondary trigger, and 32.87 percent said it was their tertiary trigger.7 Based upon hard evidence, it makes sense to have a robust conflict resolution program in each congregation, or at the least accessibility to such expertise.
4. We must cultivate a revolutionary prayer and fasting culture in the congregation. Not just prayer, but intercessory prayer—agonizing, self-deprecatory prayer. Joel 2:17 reads: “Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar; and let them say, Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the people, Where is their God?” (KJV). The real strength of any congregation is the participation and predominance of prayer.
5. We must establish a ministry of reconciliation in every congregation. God has given to the church a message and ministry of reconciliation: “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18, 19, KJV; see also Ephesians 4:29–32). There is a great cry in our congregations for such an innovative ministry, so do it.
6. A values-led ethic and ministry should define the very core of our churches. In Values-Led Lives,Llewellyn Edwards posits that love is the highest value and that we should be creative and practice abundant, wasteful, indiscriminate, and excessive love.8 A values-led church would seek to place the needs of people high on the agenda. Such a church would take offense at the creation of hoops for people to jump through in order to experience the grace of God.
7. We must develop a model of disciple-ship that focuses on one person or family at a time. Sam Neves identifies six principles of discipleship in a postmodern context: identifying the disciple within an existential crisis; establishing a spiritual gifts model for the team; instigating a trail of discovery of God’s purpose for the disciple; offering a choice of world views and guiding the disciple to experience the reality of the great controversy; and training the disciple to rescue others.9 Whether you subscribe to this model or not, we should be intentional in working with individuals and families to make discipling a very positive, involved, and spiritual experience.
I gave my life to Christ when I was about 15 years old. I never missed a service. I attended every church program and found my church to be quite loving and caring. One Sabbath morning, about a year and a half after my baptism, I decided not to go to church. I was not sick but, discouraged, just decided to sleep instead. About two o’clock that Sabbath afternoon, I heard my name being called. I looked out of the window, and what I saw I will never forget. The men of the church—very concerned about my absence—had come to visit me. I never missed another service again.
After a quarter of a century of being a pastor, I can point back to that event as the one that really opened my eyes to the fact that church should be about companionship. People are still yearning for love, care, and nurture— twenty-five years later.10 People are still looking for that connection between words, action, and deeds—25 years later. I found it in the church where I was a member. I hope people will find it in the church where I am a leader— twenty-five years later.
2 G. T. Ng, “The Leaky Bucket Syndrome and How to Fix It,” Summit on Nurture and Retention, November 19, 2013, Silver Spring, MD, United States. See Andrew McChesney, “Every Adventist Urged to Help Stem Membership Losses,” Adventist Review, Oct. 9, 2016, adventistreview.org/church-news/story4451-every -adventist-urged-to-help-stem-membership-losses.
4 Mario Philip, “Stopping the Leaking Bucket Syndrome” Evangelical Review of Theology 42, no. 1 (January 2018): 69–79.
5 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 351.
6 Ellen G. White, Letter 43 (June 14, 1895, to J. H. Kellogg).
7 “Adventist Survey of Why People Leave the Church,” Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research.
8 Llewellyn Edwards, Values-Led Lives: The Way Jesus Wants Us to Think and Act (Grantham, England: TheStanborough Press Ltd., 2017), 25.
9 Sam Neves, “The Matrix Model of Adventist Discipleship,” in Narrative Meaning and Truth: Fulfilling the Mission in Relativistic Contexts, 2nd ed.,ed. Bruce A. Bauer and Kleber D. Gonçalves (Washington DC: Global Mission Center, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2017), 162, 163.
10 Adrian Peck, Being Church: Missional, Accessible, and Engaging (Grantham, UK: The Stanborough PressLtd., 2017), 126.
Sidebar: Making it real
It has been quite a few months now that I have been making efforts to reclaim Maggie and her son. I first met Maggie and her son when I preached at the church they visited. She seemed very eager to learn the Word of God, and her son struck me as quite intelligent and a remarkably smart boy who was also interested in Bible study.
After their months of study with the pastor and elder, I received a personal invitation from the family to attend the baptismal service. It was a joyful occasion as Maggie and her son entered the baptismal pool together. The entire church seemed very happy and supportive. Maggie testified that while she was receiving Bible studies, she studied via Skype with her cousin in America, and he was being baptized the same day in the United States.
But soon after the baptism, the problems began. Her enthusiasm for evangelism was seen as a threat to those who did nothing to win souls. She decided to get a divorce because she was in a very abusive relationship, and that made matters worse in the eyes of the members. She now had to find a job, home, and other necessities, and there was no support. She and her son eventually stopped attending church. No one called, visited, or enquired.
One day I visited that congregation and asked about those precious people, only to be told they no longer attend. I managed to make contact and am working with them to be reconciled with the church. It is a painful process. The member-ship of the church also needs help to change.
It is not enough for a father to say he loves his children when he abuses them. It is not enough for me to say that I love my wife; I must demonstrate it every day. The challenge for the church is not just to state what it should do but to actually do it so. Can it be embedded into the very fabric and DNA of our being?