It’s a bright, sunny day. You’re at the beach – perhaps playing some volleyball with friends, building a sandcastle with your daughter, or jumping in the waves with your spouse. Suddenly, from out deep in the water, you hear a voice calling, “HELP!” You scan the horizon and spot the source: a child has gone out too deep and seems to be caught in an undertow. No one on the shore seems to hear the voice or if they do, they are not acknowledging it.
Your eyes turn back to the child; you can see he is struggling. His head dips below the water only to pop back up a few seconds later. In a split second, you know what you must do. You run to the lifeguard stand, alert the guard, grab a life preserver, and run into the water towards the child, the lifeguard at your side. As the two of you paddle out to the deeper water, you are focused, determined. And, because of your quick reaction and the lifeguard’s skills, you are able to rescue the child, finally bringing him up on the sandy shore – exhausted, but alive.
In our previous blog, we saw that many of those who leave the Adventist church are not pursued; many of them leave and feel forgotten by fellow church members and their local church’s leadership. How do these feelings affect dropouts’ attitudes towards the Church? Is there any hope for bringing them back?
In a recent study (2014) conducted by the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research former and inactive Seventh-day Adventists were asked how they presently feel about Adventism. Over half (56%) of respondents indicated that while they have happy memories of their time in the Church, they no longer feel that Adventism is for them. Another 18% felt bittersweet towards Adventism, while 17% said that they simply don’t care about the Church in general. An unfortunate remaining 9% felt either hostile or actively opposed to the Church.
The same study also asked respondents how they would rate their openness to reconnect with the church. Thirty-six percent of respondents indicated that they would likely be open to reconnect with the Church, one third (33%) indicated that they would be somewhat likely/unlikely, and 12% indicated that it was very unlikely that they would be open to reconnect. Interestingly, 19% of respondents indicated that their openness would depend on the circumstances of the Church’s approach (ASTR, 2014).
What are we doing about these former and inactive Adventists? If we see them out in the waves, drowning, perhaps not even calling for help, are we content to resume our normally scheduled activities, or are we rushing the life preserver to them? If you know the Lifeguard, then you know what the answer should be.
With over one third of respondents indicated that they would be likely to reconnect, as well as another 19% of respondents conditionally open to reconnecting, it is vital that we do not neglect these former members any longer. We must actively reach out to those who have left our church, not only to bring them back into the Church itself, but to help them reconnect with Jesus. As their relationship with Him slips, so does their assurance of spending eternity in Heaven. Can you imagine the anxiety or hopelessness this must create? Below are some ideas for reaching out to those who have left:
- Look through old church directories for names of those who no longer attend. Send a postcard or call the number listed in the directory. Let the inactive members know that you are thinking of them and invite them to come to an upcoming service or church event.
- Set up a visit with those who have left. This could be as simple as getting together for ice cream on a hot summer day or inviting them over for lunch. Facilitating and restoring relationships is the first step to bringing those who have left back to Jesus.
- Love unconditionally. Those who have left may have done so due to moral failure on their own part or, since leaving, may have made decisions that are not in congruence with Adventist choices. It is important that dropouts do not feel that they are being judged; they must be welcomed back with open arms, just as they are.
- Host a “See What’s New” event for your church. Invite active members, as well as those who have not come to church for some time. Have your children’s Sabbath School leaders discuss what the kids are learning, your adult Sabbath School leaders discuss meaningful experiences they have shared together, or have your pastor share his vision for upcoming outreach.
- Say “I’m sorry.” Be willing to apologize to former members for any hurt done them, or even for the mere fact that nobody contacted them. I’m sorry,” can be two of the hardest words to say, but sometimes they are just the balm needed to soothe a hurting heart.
It is impossible to bring dropouts back into the church on our own – just as it would have been impossible for you to save the drowning young woman alone. However, by aligning ourselves with the Divine Lifeguard and following His instructions, it is possible that those who are lost may be rescued!
To read further:
Survey of Former and Inactive Church Members
2015 General Conference Session Report: Membership Audits and Losses (PDF)
2015 General Conference Session Report: Membership Audits and Losses (PowerPoint)
Retention and Reclamation: A Priority For the World Church
Created in collaboration with the Institute of Church Ministry.