The transition from church school to a public school was a jolting experience for the young Kevin Lacy. To help ease the transition, he began hanging out with a group of friends who had gone to public school all their lives, and Kevin’s own life started going a different direction. “I hung around them to adjust, and then, while I was adjusting, I just slowly was drifting and drifting further and further away from the church,” he said. The next thing he knew, he stopped attending church.
For one reason or another, church members such as Kevin leave the church. It’s an age-old problem, but one that appears to have caught the attention of more and more church leaders. At the 2017 North American Division Year-end Meeting, where church officials come together to discuss the business of the church, there was a prolonged discussion about the growing problem and how best to tackle this lingering issue.
Every Sabbath, over one million former or inactive Seventh-day Adventists are not in a local congregation somewhere in North America (Bermuda, Canada and the United States).
“When you look at these numbers, it really is astounding,” says Alex Bryant, executive secretary of the North American Division. “It shows we’re not doing very well in retaining those that we do keep.”
Then, once someone disconnects from the church, there’s a perception that there’s nothing a church can do to reach those members. “It’s just the opposite,” says Bryant who has grappled with these concerns when he served as a pastor and conference president.
In a 2012 General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research study on nurture and retention, it was revealed that 76 percent of former members are open to reconnecting with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This, says Bryant, is reason for hope as it shows most missing members are “winnable.”
So, what can be done to reach these missing members and encourage those already in the pews? Turns out there’s much and it involves the entire congregation.
Eduard Schmidt, executive director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute on the campus of Andrews University, trains pastors and lay people to understand their mission as part of the body of Christ. He advises pastors to pay close attention to early warning signs that may be a harbinger of brewing issues. For instance, withdrawal of tithe or inactivity in ministry. This is where home visits are crucial.
Schmidt advises that it’s important to act quickly when a member stops going to church since they’re usually waiting for a short period of time for someone to show up. “They’re giving cries for help, and they hope that’s the last cry and somebody will notice [their absence] and come visit,” he said.
If no one comes, the member gets really upset and thinks no one cares. “They go through the grief process,” explains Schmidt, “and they basically give up and they say, ‘Hey nobody cares.’”
Visits are equated with caring. Bryant knows this firsthand as the only Adventist in his household. If it weren’t for a couple who visited his home and nurtured him in his early years, he doesn’t believe he’d still be in the church. When they didn’t see him at church, they’d leave and come to his house, then wait for him to get ready before taking him to the service.
“They weren't the elders. They weren't the deacons. They weren't the pastors. They were just members who were concerned about this kid,” says Bryant.
“That's what people are looking for. You don't have to be a big shot in the church, you don't have to be a leader in the church; in fact, you may be better off if you're not, because they feel that you don't have any dog in this fight. You're just doing it because you love them.”
Kevin’s journey into the Adventist faith began when he was eight years old. He and his siblings, an older brother and a younger sister, had bounced around between seven or eight different foster homes before landing in the home of a kindly church member — Gertrude Petitt, who adopted all three children in 1976. They resided in Chicago before moving to South Bend during the historic blizzard of 1979.
Kevin settled into a church routine and even attended South Bend Jr. Academy where he graduated as valedictorian of the eighth-grade class in 1984. It was during that transition to high school that he found himself struggling to keep a steady connection with God and, over time, he drifted away. He dropped out of high school, his senior year just three credits shy of graduation. “Why? I can’t tell you to this day,” he says. For the next 20 years, he found new interests: cars, women and wrong influences.
Kevin left the church as a young adult, which, according to a 2011 research study by the General Conference Office of Archives and Statistics, is the age at which 62 percent of people had left the church. And it’s possible that Kevin’s experience is typical. He says no one came to visit or tried to connect him with a small group back then. However, at his church today, the congregation is organized into 16 parishes, each one overseen by an elder. “If someone goes missing, it’s easier to reach out,” explains Throstur Thordarson, South Bend First Church pastor for the past 12 years. The elders are encouraged to make at least one visit a month and get to know everyone in the parish. They’ve discovered that small groups create small communities and those communities deliver deeper friendships that double as accountability.
(Read how small groups have breathed new life into a congregation, p. xx)
Another critical component to nurturing members, especially those who are new to the Adventist faith, is to assign them mentors to support their spiritual journey. This is important since oftentimes new members have questions and even strong reasons to leave the church within a few months after their baptism.
Bryant points out that a new member needs constant handholding: “A baby doesn’t come out of his mother’s womb walking or talking; it comes out needing a lot of help. But once you continue to nurture the baby, it gets stronger and stronger, and I’ve found that to be true of new people joining the church. If you do that hand-holding, they’re usually pretty good to go in three to six months.”
These mentors become a support group, and statistics indicate that if you have six or more personal friends during the first year in the church, you’re more likely to stay.
After a stint in prison and recognizing he needed God in his life, Kevin returned to the South Bend Church where he was embraced in a similar manner to the prodigal son. “I believe that He [God] was just waiting for me to come home,” Kevin says with conviction. “Ever since I’ve been going back to church . . ., life is good.” One of the blessings Kevin experienced after his return to church was marrying a lovely woman named Cynthia. The couple celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary last October.
So, having a heart for reaching missing members boils down to striving to care for those in the family of God.
Lesa Budd of Madison East Church was jolted into action by an unusual situation. As she approached the Madison airport ticket counter, she was greeted by a gentleman who recognized her. “You’re a Budd,” he said.
Lesa was shocked because she had no idea who he was or how he knew her name. As she slowly handed him her ID, he looked at it and said, “That’s what I thought; you’re Lesa.” He then asked about her husband, Greg. “Now he had my attention,” she said. When she inquired how he knew her, he replied, “From church.”
As they chatted, he mentioned that he and his family had belonged to the Madison East Church when he was younger; he had even attended Wisconsin Academy. He said he no longer attended church since he had to work on the weekend.
As they talked, Lesa noticed how sad and lonesome he looked, so she invited him to come back to the church. She also called a friend in Florida who knew the family, thinking their son could reach out to him. But he also was in Florida.
As she prayed regarding this encounter, God began to call Lesa to reach out to inactive members who may be missing the church more than she and others were missing them. So, she decided to use an upcoming evangelistic series as an avenue for reaching them. She thought, Why not give a loaf of fresh bread and write a handwritten card telling them they were missed and invite them to attend the upcoming meetings? “We would love to have you join us,” the card said.
The first Sabbath, she and other members handed out 17 loaves with enthusiastic responses. They delivered ten more loaves the next Sabbath. The church is excited and are now waiting to see the fruits of these efforts.
“What can a loaf of homemade bread, a personal card and an invitation to some meetings do?” Lesa asks. “I don’t really know. But one thing I do know. . . These missing members will know we are thinking and praying for them, and we miss them!”
“This is what’s it’s all about,” says Bryant. “Those are people Christ died for and He is the One pictured in the parable of the lost sheep, leaving the 99 and going after that lost one. He is the One pictured having lost a coin and swept the house until found. He is the One pictured in the parable of the prodigal son, waiting ’til the boy came home.”
“That's the love of Christ! And if the love of Christ resides in your heart, I can't see people in my church, who were once members of my church, and not care about going after them. I think it comes down to that fundamental as an Adventist — as a Christian: Do I have the love of Christ in my heart? Because if I do, I can't make them come back, but I [also] can’t sit back idly and not do something to try to get them back.”