Fordyce Detamore, a great evangelist of yesteryear, declared that when it comes to seeking God’s lost sheep, “Be as persistent as the FBI.” He says, “It was Friday afternoon, the last week of our evangelistic series. We had tried every way possible to get in touch with a certain backslider. While the pastor was inquiring about her at a nearby dry cleaners, I spied an old fire escape at the rear of the building. We had been unable to get any response at the front of the three-story apartment. As I reached the third section of the fire escape, I began calling the woman’s name quietly. Soon she appeared at the window. I went down to the front of the building and there made proper contact with her and had prayer before leaving. The next day she took her stand for rebaptism. She said it was the thought that someone would even climb a fire escape to rescue her that made her decide to come back into the church. But firemen do that all the time.”1
We want to sound a global alarm. An unprecedented crisis exists in the Seventh-day Adventist Church: members around the world are leaving. God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. He calls us to participate with Him in reconciling former members unto Himself and the church. Reasons for leaving the church are varied: personal conflicts, emotional instabilities, doctrinal dis-agreements. Sometimes believers, as Jesus expressed in Matthew 13, do not allow the Word of God to truly sink in and change their lives, and when trials come, they lose their bearings and leave the
family of God. These are God’s lost sheep, and time is running out for many of them. We desperately need a rescue timetable, and here it is: plan a homecoming event for God’s missing sheep, and prepare for it by following these crucial steps in the ministry of reconciliation.2
1. Praying for—April-May
First, we need to pray. Intercessory prayer is a consistent petition to God for accessibility to the hearts of former members. Many former members are hostile to their local church. Some members show indifference to former ones. The ministry of reconciliation occurs in the context of the great controversy between Christ and Satan. Intercessory prayer gives God access to the hearts of former members and current members. Church members should be encouraged to pray for former members. People who pray for others are inclined to think and feel favorably toward those for whom they pray. Time spent in private prayer will be rewarded with high receptivity among members and former members for reconciliation (Matt. 6:6).
The local church can make a list of all its former members and present those persons to God at weekly prayer services, family worship, prayer conferences, and special days of prayer and fasting.
Recruiting means selecting people to implement the ministry of reconciliation. The Sabbath School council or church board may select these persons. They should have a good reputation and demonstrate conviction and commitment to reconcile former members to Christ and His church. The gift of discernment may be a vital asset for recruits. This ministry requires persons who will implore the Holy Spirit to give them access to the hearts of former members. The Holy Spirit will teach them how and when to listen or speak.
The church clerk or Sabbath School clerk should have records of former members. The profile of former members should consist of their names, addresses, baptismal date, and reasons for leaving. This information is critical for the reconciliation team.
Training will equip people. The content of the training should include the theology of conversion, discipleship, conflict resolution, empathy, listening skills, emotional healing, and spiritual healing. Trainees are required to complete 20 hours of training. Find trainers in your congregation or a sister church who have the skills and knowledge in the areas listed. Students also need to learn how to apply their knowledge in real-life situations of reconciling former members.
Contacting is a series of informal conversations with former members. The initial conversations greet former members as brothers or sisters. Such a greeting implies acceptance and belonging to a family that still cares for and loves them. This assurance sometimes provides the springboard for former members to vent their anger and bitterness with the church. When this occurs, listen to the pain and express apologies. Follow the counsel of James: be slow to speak and quick to listen (James 1:19). Interruptions tend to delay the outflow of pain and bitterness. Just listen with empathy to their pain, anger, hurt, whatever they are feeling. These initial conversations primarily help former members experience release from their anger and bitterness.
Listen for hidden meanings and feelings behind words. Then reflect those feelings to the communicators. Reflective listening facilitates emotional healing.
Acknowledging consists of verbal or nonverbal responses to former members’ emotional expressions. You may acknowledge emotional expressions with relevant exclamations: “Terrible!” “Awful!” “I feel your pain!” Acknowledgments encourage former members to pour out their anger or share their joy.
You are not to acknowledge or deny the authenticity of their statements. Rather, acknowledge the feelings conveyed by the statements of former members. Sometimes a former member might say: “The pastor is a wicked person.” Though you can acknowledge the pain in their sentiment, do not affirm that sentiment.
6. Empathizing— July-August
Empathizing means identifying and reflecting a person’s feelings to assure him or her that you care. Sympathy means you feel sorry for someone’s situation, even if you have never been there yourself; empathy, in contrast, is when you truly understand and can feel what another person is going through. In empathizing with former members, seek to understand the issues; but, more importantly, try to feel with them. By accurately reflecting the feelings of former members, you identify with their feelings of infirmity.
7. Apologizing— July-August
Apologizing means taking responsibility for the pain caused to a person. You may not have caused the pain; however, you may apologize on behalf of those who did. The apology comes after the person has released their anger or bitterness. It may go something like this: “Brother/Sister, we apologize sincerely for the pain and sorrow we have caused you. Our actions have caused grief and frustration to you and your family and have caused you so much sorrow. On behalf of the church, I apologize sincerely for the heartaches.”
Sometimes a former member may refuse to accept your apology. If this happens, remain calm. Look straight at the person and repeat: “We are sorry for the pain we have caused you.” Keep the focus on the apology.
Sometimes a former member may request apologies from specific persons. You can arrange for such a meeting of apology in a neutral place. A special orientation should be given to persons making the apology. These persons (members) should be encouraged not to defend themselves or rehearse incidences or feelings. The task is simply to apologize. Reconciliation is the goal.
8. Assuring— August-September
Assuring means giving former members assurances of God’s love. Some may be aware of God’s love for them but still be reluctant to return to church. Church leaders should convey feelings of appreciation and belongingness to the family of God. Always address former members as brothers or sisters. If a former member should reject these salutations, you should maintain and insist that the church still considers the person to be a brother or sister. Your verbal and nonverbal communication should convey assurance, appreciation, and acceptance.
9. Testing— August-September
Testing is an informal evaluation of the readiness of former members to reconcile with their church. You may test their readiness in several ways.
First, you may offer an appropriate book to read. Second, extend an invitation to fellowship with the church one of these days. The initial invitation should be indefinite. Such a statement helps build an expectation in former members. It helps them make mental adjustments for returning to their local churches. A specific date for returning is given to them at an appropriate time. Give former members time and space to heal.
Third, ask former members to make decisions between positive alternatives. For instance, to request a follow-up visit, you may say, “Would you prefer my second visit to be on Thursday or Sunday?” Or, “In the morning or afternoon?” You are requesting a follow-up visit between two positive alternatives. Make it very easy for former members to decide to reconcile with their churches.
10. Anticipating— September-October
It is necessary to help the local church to anticipate the return of former members. The pastor should inform his local congregation ahead of time. The specific date should be announced six to twelve months in advance to allow the local congregation to make mental adjustments for the return of former members. Both former members and the local congregation should anticipate reconciliation.
11. Praying with— September-October
Seek an opportunity to pray not only for but withformer members. This prayer time is more effective after former members have poured out their anger or concerns to you. The former members may be more receptive to prayer after you have apologized on behalf of your church. Ask if they would prefer to pray together in their kitchen or dining room, or inside or outside the house. The freedom to choose between two possible alternatives is the critical issue. The choice indicates the readiness of the person to pray. Once the place is chosen, move quickly. Look into the eyes of the former member and begin to kneel. The person follows your nonverbal communication and kneels with you. If the person refuses to kneel, then pray in whatever posture is convenient to that person. The content of the prayer should focus on four things:
- Confess the sins of your church.
- Ask God to forgive your members.
- Pray for God’s blessings upon the former member.
- Express the hope that the former member will fellowship with you one of these days.
It is appropriate to pray with a soft tone of voice. Make a deliberate effort not to mention misdeeds of the former member; simply pronounce God’s blessings on the person.
12. Reconciling— October-November
Reconciling means restoring a broken relationship with a friend or community. Sometimes members may need training on how to reconcile with former members. This training should be given to the entire church. This training is different from the 20 hours of training for the recruits. This basic training is for all active church members. In that way, every member has the knowledge, attitudes, and skills to restore broken relationships. The training may include listening, acknowledging, empathizing, apologizing, and an understanding of Ephesians 4:31, 32. Members should practice listening without defending themselves from true or false accusations. They should avoid rehearsing past experiences with former members. Such rehearsals retard reconciliation. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for willing hearts to be reconciled.
13. Hosting— October-November
Hosting requires three types of readiness:
1. Mental preparation. The host church needs to be aware of the date, and members need to be informed of the contents of the program. The information includes seating, protocol, modes of greeting, arrival, use of words, non-verbal communication, and principles of conflict resolution. Such information increases the expectation of church members and reduces their anxiety.
2. Emotional readiness. One month prior to the homecoming, a reconciliation service should be convened to provide avenues for members to reconcile with each other. This reconciliation service is based on Ephesians 4:31, 32. These verses emphasize the exchange of negative emotions for positive emotions. They inspire members to forgive each other. Why? Because God has forgiven them. Therefore, forgiveness means extending grace to others just as God freely extends it to us. Forgiveness means freely sharing the grace of God.
3. Physical preparation. This may include seating design, painting, cleaning, consideration of aesthetic impact, and a prayer or reconciliation room. It is the responsibility of the church board and Sabbath School department to prepare the church for the homecoming. It is a time of rejoicing (Luke 15).
14. Homecoming Sabbath— November-December
The homecoming Sabbath is a celebration of the return of former members to their local church to worship. Homecoming Sabbaths for former members have their origin in Luke 15:1–32. These verses convey the love of God for former members. He is always waiting to welcome home the “lost sheep in Israel” (Matt. 10:5, 6).
The rejoicing includes welcoming, eating, singing, preaching, testimonies, drama, teaching, reconciliation, forgiveness, crying, and laughter. The love of God is at the center of a homecoming Sabbath. The purpose of a homecoming Sabbath is to demonstrate the love of God for former members and churchmembers.
The theme of the homecoming Sabbath is “O love that will not let me go.” It communicates the persistence of God’s love for His people. The goal is to remind the former members of the love and goodness of God, which leads both former and current members to repentance.
A homecoming Sabbath needs to be authentic. The words and actions of members need to be congruent. Our smiles, hugs, and commendations should be genuine. The former members can detect hypocrisy or masking. The homecoming Sabbath is a time for transparency, simplicity, and authenticity. It is a time to be vulnerable. Members should not be afraid to admit their own failures. This is authentic religion.
15. Reintegration— November-December
Reintegration means restoring former members into the fellowship and ministries of the local church. The process of reintegration takes time. Members who began the reconciliation process should continue to work with former members to prepare them to reenter the ministries of the church. The former members may need (a) reconciliation with church members, (b) indoctrination, (c) rebaptism, (d) training for ministries, and (e) placement in ministries. The church board should supervise and coordinate the reintegration process. It is the final stage of the reconciliation process.
It is our privilege to participate with God in the ministry of reconciliation. He has reconciled us to Himself and now invites us to participate with Him in the process of reconciling others—including former members. Before we can give them the Bible, we need to create an environment of relationship, love, kindness, and laughter that leads to an environment of love for the study of the Word. Former members need time and space to experience emotional and spiritual healing. Some stages overlap with each other to create a movement toward reconciliation with Christ and His church. This process takes time. We recommend one year for completing the process.3
God initiates the ministry of reconciliation. He gives us an impulse to turn or return to Him. He also gives us the ministry and message of reconciliation. If God chooses to reconcile former members unto Himself, who are we to resist His initiative?
1 Fordyce W. Detamore, Seeking His Lost Sheep (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1965), 65, 66.
2 Adapted from Samuel Telemaque, Christ’s Ambassadors: Reconciling former Members to Christ (Grantham, UK: The Stanborough Press, 2019).
3 Libna Stevens, “Adventist Church in Inter-America Embarks on Mission to Seek Former Church Members,” Seventh-day Adventist Church, Inter-American Division, Jan. 16, 2019, interamerica. org/2019/01/adventist-church-in-inter-america -embarks-on-mission-to-seek-former-church -members/.