Keep Counting Your Sheep Church Leaders Say

Mike Jones, who left the church and returned 16 years later, knows firsthand many former members won't reconnect with the church unless they find open arms and get a sincere apology.Source: Adventist News Network

[April 6, 2007] Delegates of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s annual Council on Evangelism and Witness met April 5, to discuss recent studies about church membership retention. Church member retention statistics indicate that close to 28 Adventists leave the church for every 100 who join.

According to a recent study profiling former Seventh-day Adventists in the church's North American (NAD) region, most say they left over a fundamental lack of genuine Christianity, not because they disagreed with the church's doctrinal teachings or values.

While each posed different solutions, leaders agreed the church must do considerably more to galvanize the faith of new and existing members and reach out to former Adventists.

While some leaders pointed out that apostasy is a risk of moral freedom that began when one third of the angels left heaven with Lucifer, others said the church should not assume apostasy is inevitable. Even if it is, they added, that doesn't excuse complacency in church leadership.

What the church needs, said Martin Feldbush, director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, is to shift its attention from converting to retaining new believers. "We often measure our church's 'success' in quantifiable ways, but numbers are not the best indication of the health of the church. We must move beyond numbers to nurture new believers and reclaim former ones," he said.

Allan Handysides, who directs the church's Health Ministries department, echoed Feldbush's concerns. "We can talk all we want about ratios, programs and crusades, but our basic problem is a lack of caring for the spirituality of new members in the church," he suggested.

"We don't need to create new programs so much as ask ourselves how to foster a deeper sense of generous caring and mission among our existing members. Our greatest need is not five million or 10 million new members, but to really become our brothers' keepers," Handysides continued.

Many delegates suggested the church officially form a new ministry, one designed to meaningfully connect with former Adventists. "Our responsibility is to reconcile with former believers," said Laurie Evans, president of the church in the South Pacific region. "Jesus instructs us to take the initiative [to reconcile] even if we don't feel it is our responsibility. We all know former Adventists have a problem [with the church]. What are we doing to reach out and address their hurts? We have ministries for children, for young people, but no ministry of reconciliation. Why?"

The church's North American region mails a newsletter to some 15,000 former Adventists, an initiative Mike Jones began. "They may not be coming back in droves, but I think we're making an impact," he said, adding that he does "a lot of apologizing on behalf of the church."

Jones, who left the church for 16 years, knows firsthand many former members won't reconnect with the church unless they find open arms and get a sincere apology. Don Schneider, president of the church in North America, agreed. He said the church's record of reaching out to former Adventists is, regrettably, far from admirable. Schneider then apologized publicly to Jones for not personally contacting him during the years Jones stopped attending church.

Delegates then discussed practical ways church leaders and local members can keep Adventists from losing faith in their church community and drifting away. Their number one suggestion? Get--and keep--new believers involved.

Paul Ratsara, president of the church's South Africa-Indian Ocean region, said church members are most likely to leave during the "gap period" between baptism and full church involvement. "The problem," he said, "is not with new believers, but with the church's discipleship methods. Converts need to immediately be put to work to share Christ." Ratsara cited New Testament examples where Jesus instructed those he healed to go and tell their neighbors straightaway.

Another delegate illustrated the point with Jesus' feeding the 5,000. In the story, Jesus' disciples distribute the food to the crowd. "If a disciple didn't give the bread away, he had no motivation to return to Jesus," the delegate said. Similarly, if new members aren't sharing their newfound faith in Christ, they're more likely to leave, he continued.

Lowell Cooper, CEW chair and a world church vice president, urged the delegates to brainstorm ways to inspire local congregations to overhaul their attitudes toward new Adventists, adding that little ultimate good comes of "just talking amongst ourselves."

"If Adventists would consistently 'live the life,' there would be less need for crusades," said Claudius Morgan, from the church's Caribbean Union. He added that many congregations excessively depend on once-a-year evangelistic efforts to compensate for their inactivity in the community. "We need to empower local pastors and church members to do the continual, everyday work of outreach," he said.

Bertil Wiklander, president of the church's Trans-European region, questioned whether church structure is an effective means of communicating with local congregations "where the work of nurturing really happens." Church structure, he said, "can be a hindrance when the message is lost before it gets to pastors and church members." He urged the world church to seriously consider new methods of effectively addressing what he called the "trickle-down effect."

World church president, Pastor Jan Paulsen, said church headquarters must accelerate the speed at which it informs local pastors and church members of its recommitment to former Adventists. "We must do more to send a strong signal to the world church that we value nurturing new believers very, very highly. We simply have to hammer it home."

Peter Prime, associate secretary for Evangelism and Church Growth in the church's Ministerial Association, responded candidly. "Let's be real," he urged. "We are wasting our time if we are converting new members only to let them drift away."

"Gaining millions of new members is futile if we don't have the basic infrastructure to nurture their spiritual growth," Prime continued. "We cannot build a cohesive, dynamic church community if we leave new members disconnected. We do not need more programming, but more overhauling to reflect more fully Christ's model of outreach."

What the church needs most, Handysides chimed in, "is a revival and resurgence of care."