While evangelistic campaigns are regularly conducted and much applause is given to the numbers baptized, the shrinking church, leaving through the open back door, has become a cause of great concern within the Adventist churches in Bermuda. How to close the back door, reverse the continuing decline, and reclaim the missing, while encouraging members to remain faithful to God, and to encourage them to develop an unshakable, unwavering relationship with Him is the problem facing the church today.
Following is a disturbing statistic gathered over five years by the Bermuda Conference: on any given Sabbath, two out of three members are missing from church fellowship. Sydney Gibbons and D. Randolph Wilson, both retired Bermuda Conference workers, were thus engaged by the conference to travel the length of Bermuda to connect with missing members, and to encourage them to return to church fellowship, worship, and service for Christ.
After identifying almost 1,000 missing members from six churches, Gibbons and Wilson contacted some 469 individuals during the 10-week visitation initiative.
In reaching out, their goal was to communicate concern for the spiritual welfare of missing members; to encourage them to give the church another chance to provide love, acceptance, and support; and to apologize for any failure of the church that may have contributed to their nonattendance.
Since people were working during the day, the majority of visits took place in the evenings. However, when contact through home visits proved difficult, on-the-job visits and telephone calls were made in an attempt to connect with missing members. Gibbons reported that the majority of missing members were welcoming and expressed thanks to the conference for reaching out to them. Seniors in particular, who for reasons of illness or age have not been able to attend, appreciated the visits and indicated they would enjoy regular interaction with their pastor and members. A few people were surprised that their names had remained on the church records; others are not yet ready to return to fellowship, but are faithful to God and want to remain as members.
Gibbons and Wilson apologized to some who expressed displeasure at the church because of hurtful behavior from members, for decisions taken by the church in matters of discipline, for a failure of the church to offer help in times of social need, and for actions taken that favored rules over relationships.
Regrettably, others want nothing more to do with the church and wish to have their names removed from church records. Many non-attending young adults are among those who feel unjustly treated by members and church-voted actions. They see no need to attend church regularly, and believe the church needs to become more relevant.
A long-serving member stopped attending when she could no longer look at those in leadership whom she viewed as hypocrites. However, after a visit from her pastor, and after years of absence, she is attending church again.
Gibbons and Wilson say the high point of their visitations was when four missing members from three families came to church and invited two additional family members. Another highlight was seeing smiles and hearing words of praise to God from members whose spiritual life had grown between visits. Gibbons and Wilson believe that visitation of members is imperative and that the gap between missing members and church fellowship closes significantly when leaders and members find better ways to consistently show that the church loves every member equally and unconditionally. They also desire attending members to pray for missing members continuously, to love them unreservedly as Jesus loves, and to embrace completely those who return to church and need time to reestablish habits of faithfulness to God.
At the end of the 10-week initiative, the report on missing members was shared with the conference executive committee, pastors, and leaders of the respective churches. Pastors were assigned the responsibility of making further contacts and encouraged to strengthen ties with reconnected members. In some churches, the names of missing members were posted and attending members were encouraged to help reach out to the missing.
Hebrews 10:24, 25 states, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, . . . encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Evangelism coach Chris Walker, in “Church Dropouts—why people find it easy to leave” (evangelismcoach.org), advises the following to help close the open back door:
• Build systems that allow friendships to happen. Small groups and service events are excellent ways to make friendships happen.
• Help people serve and contribute. Empower people to serve out of their giftedness and passions.
• Plan common experiences. Engage in various community service outreach events, adopt mission projects, and plan activities that provide opportunities for bonding.
• Foster the DNA of care and seeking. Encourage members to always be looking out to see who is missing. Close the back door by caring for those who hurt.
We must care about our missing members, be intentional in our efforts to reclaim them for the kingdom of God, and help them on their journey to developing a lasting relationship with Christ that is sure and steadfast. In so doing, Gibbons says, we must not forget to:
• Show compassionate love with a sustained commitment to enhancing temporal and eternal well-being. People join groups and remain where they feel welcome and where their needs are satisfied.
• Remember, people are more important than numbers, whether the numbers be baptisms, dollars, or other indicators that make the church or its leaders look good for self-serving purposes. People leave the church when they feel duped by a false perception of being loved. Unkind and hurtful actions by church leaders or members often counteract early impressions of love that led a person to join the church.
• Show unconditional love, whether people join the church or not; and, if they become Seventh-day Adventists, show kindness, whether or not they conform to our beliefs and practices. Demonstrating acceptance of people should overshadow expressions and actions that communicate disapproval of unacceptable behavior.
• Engage the real mission of the church, which is the salvation of souls. Church organization, structure, and authority provide order and efficiency to fulfill mission. The institution is the servant of mission, but often appears to be its master. Most members who leave the church do so because of the limitation institution (of religion) and its leaders or members. Very few leave because of Jesus and His gift of eternal life. The church that exists to fulfill the mission of God welcomes former members and sustains believers.
• Grow Christians as disciples of Christ. The goal to lead people to encounter Christ as Savior and Lord is more sustaining than leading them to conform to a system of beliefs, religious forms, and church traditions. It’s easier to walk away from a church that hurts you than from a person who loves you and whom you love. Let love for Christ lead us to love one another sincerely. “By this, all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another”—John 13:35, NKJV.
• Seek the lost sheep who drifted from the fold without knowing how to return; the lost coin which is unaware of its lost state; and the lost family member who decided to leave the church, but who has not forgotten the joy of belonging to the family. When the lost come home, celebrate their return. Don’t count the cost. Don’t be condescending. Have a party! Have a blast! Celebrate! (Study Luke 15:1-32.)
Jesus cares; we must care too!