By Roger Hernandez
“There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living… 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:11-12, 30)
The son packed his belongings and left.
Gone. Just like that.
Just like today.
We lose 43 out 100.
Let that number sink in for a minute.
43 out 100. Gone.
Let me ask you a question. In what other area of your life is this ratio acceptable?
Would you go to a hospital that had 43 deaths for every 100 live births?
Would you dine regularly at a restaurant that 43 out 100 meals gave your diarrhea?
Would you buy a car from a company that out of 100, 43 were lemons? (if you own a Kia we already know the answer)
Would you let a mechanic fix your car that disabled 43 out 100 cars he touched?
Nowhere in this story do you see the older brother pleading, talking, or interceding with his younger sibling to get him to stay. He never calls him brother. Not once. He calls him names, he calls out his sins, he calls him “your son” but he never calls him brother. He let him go with no resistance. How about us? Do we have a problem letting people walk out? Here is a quote that should give us pause:
“In this century, the ratio of people lost versus new converts is 43 per 100.”
I talk to pastors all the time, and one of the concerns I hear the most can be summarized in a conversation I had with a pastor from the south:
“Last year I had an evangelistic series. We baptized 25. Of those, 1 still comes to church. Infrequently.”
We have two options before us:
1. Stop doing public evangelism because it’s obviously the problem.
2. Understand that evangelism isn’t the problem, but the way we do it can be.
I’m going to be pretty blunt here. I hope you hear what I am saying and what I am not saying. I have had multiple conversations and over 20 years of personal experience as a pastor and a pastor’s pastor. I do 6 meetings a year. I am very concerned about bringing them in. I am also very concerned about keeping them in. As we look around America, the prognosis for the church can seem bleak.
“According to the Churchless data, in the 1990s, 30% of the American population was unchurched. Today, two decades later, that percentage has risen to more than four in 10 Americans (43%).” https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/702-george-barna-david-kinnaman-on-the-rise-of-the-churchless#.VMA9V2dOXX4
Millions of people that used to attend church now don’t, across all denominations. Ours is no exception. Do lots of people still get baptized? Sure. Do many disconnect after doing so? Regretfully yes. We can do better. We must.
It all starts with examining a familiar entry point of many into our church. It’s called evangelism.
I believe that evangelism is like having a baby. If you want to have a healthy baby, three things must happen:
I see evangelism the same way. If you want to produce healthy spiritual babies, the process is seldom completed in one month. There must be an initial connection, a time of gestation and a smooth delivery done by a person that more interested in delivering a healthy baby than he is in winning the MBD award. (Most Babies Delivered)
My personal experience in the process of evangelism in North American churches, save rare exceptions goes something like this:
We make no friends with unbelievers.
We schedule an evangelistic series.
Still no friends or bible studies.
We wait for 3 weeks before the meeting to have the mailman do what we ought to do.
Still no friends.
We start the meeting, with sporadic support of the church members.
People come for a month or less, wonder why church members are not there, accept bible truths, and get baptized.
Still no friends.
A short while later, some leave. Sometimes many.
We blame the evangelist, the devil, and the new people for not being diligent enough to being able to accomplish in one month what has taken us a lifetime to conquer.
Rinse and repeat.
When you have conception, pregnancy and delivery in one month, that’s called an abortion. If you are concerned that you have fetuses filling you pews, now you know why. That’s why I wrote a book about a model I use for evangelism, called Everyone Welcome (available at the ABC) that increases retention rate by 30-40%. Still not perfect, but an improvement.
So, why do people leave?
1. Some leave because they stopped believing in God.
2. Some leave because they stopped believing in some or all of the fundamental beliefs.
3. Many leave because of conflict, disconnection, and personal struggles.
While the following quote might not be true in every case, it certainly applies to many of the people that have stopped attending church: “Behind every heresy there is a hurt”.
Our own data shows a disturbing trend:
“Veteran Adventist Church researcher Monte Sahlin said the reasons people drop out of church often have less to do with what the church does and its doctrines than with problems people experience in their personal lives—marital conflict or unemployment, for example.” http://news.adventist.org/en/all-news/news/go/2013-11-19/at-first-retention-summit-leaders-look-at-reality-of-church-exodus/
You have probably heard that in order to stay connected to the church, most people need at least six friends. Most don’t have even one. Hence the exodus. Great for a Bible book. Not that great for an ecclesiastical reality.
So what are we going to do about it? I ask you to consider the following suggestions. Most of these ideas I have tried myself or seen done in real life churches, not the imaginary world some church growth guru made up.
Every baptism must be celebrated. Only the devil and likeminded individuals get upset when a prodigal comes back home. Since the best reclaiming strategy is to keep the ones we have, I encourage you to do this:
a. A video of the testimony to be shown at the baptism. It will remind them in days to come why they made the decision.
b. A video and pictures of the baptism itself to be given to the new member.
c. A banquet for new believers. It can happen quarterly or whenever there is a baptism. There is joy in heaven. Let’s join them.
We grow better in community. Note the attitude of the older brother and contrast it with the father. One ignored and resented. The other celebrated and embraced. Why not try the following?
a. Assign a healthy Christian to mentor the new believer. One of the most damaging things that can happen to a new believer is to be blasted with unbalanced materials as they begin their Christian walk. I will have more to say on this on another chapter.
b. New believer class. The minimum they should be in it is 6 months. The ideal time is a year. Ground them in Christ. Teach them Righteousness by Faith. Teach them how to share their faith. Help them know why they believe.
c. Visit them at least monthly for the first 6 months. It’s like a marriage. If it passes the first six months without either one quitting, the probability of them staying together increases.
I did an evangelistic series in a church in Memphis, TN. Baptized 25 people. The board voted that every single one of them was to be involved in some sort of ministry. Some were assigned to be deacons, others to prison ministries, some were given responsibility in small group leadership or in the children’s department (with background check). When new soldiers come to the battlefield we don’t tell them to sit down for a while, we give them a weapon and let them join in. They don’t become generals overnight, but telling them to sit on the side of the road and watch others fight can actually be detrimental to their well-being. Do this:
a. Assign new believers to a specific, gift based responsibility.
b. If your church has small groups, have them join one. Make sure the leader visits them.
c. One of the first things a new believer should do is be involved in an evangelistic event. A series, a revelation seminar or an outreach event. New people have more unchurched friends they can share their faith with. Don’t miss that opportunity.
If someone ends up leaving and you want to bring them back, what are you bringing them back to? Is the church ready to receive the prodigals?
Recently I received a message from a desperate mother. She pleaded with me to speak with her children that had grown up in church but were gone now. All three of them. I can as a parent sympathize with her. The worst thing that could happen to me, counting death as an option, is to reach heaven without my kids. It makes me sad just thinking about the possibility. So I understand the pain this mother feels. As I meditated on her request I became doubly sad. One because of a mother that is wanting her children to come back to church. The other reason is that the church is probably not ready to receive them. Why would they go back to that same church with mostly the same people that caused them to leave? The same church that has no relevant worship, that fights about responsibilities, that majors in minors and that has very few remaining young adults. A church that is more concerned about dress, diet and drums than about developing a person into a disciple. Infighting. Politics. Legalism. Why in the world would the kids want to go back to the same thing they left? If you are going to be intentional about keeping and reclaiming, the atmosphere and the culture must change. That does not mean you change the doctrines or the biblical principles. What it means it that lives out the principle of trying to be as holy as Jesus, but not any holier. When churches forget about the gospel, they start making methods into Messiahs. Jesus is attractive.
Churches tend to drift inwardly. It’s like walking on a treadmill. If you are not intentional about moving forward, you go backwards. There is not standing still. Everything your church does right now is either moving you closer to your goal or keeping you from it.
What can we do this week?
The problem many times is not that the church members are not friendly. The problem is that we are friendly with ourselves. We have good friends, to whom we gravitate towards and sit next to in worship, talk to at the end, and invite over after church. Stop being friendly with only your friends.
Intentionally (there is that word again) look for people that are new. Engage them in conversation. Sit next to them, introduce yourself and welcome them. I know you’re not in the hospitality committee, do it anyway. It’s amazing the effect it has when people greet, smile and welcome you. Even if you don’t become BFF’s they will leave with a positive impression.
Their name. Learn it and say it. Nothing deflates more a new member than to be asked if he is a visitor a year after he got baptized. Look past the jewelry and makeup and see the person.
These are not hard things to do. Don’t be like the lady I met on a recent preaching assignment. I was visiting a church on a Saturday night. My teenage daughter was with me. She was in church on a Saturday night. Not at the movies. Not at a sleep over. Not hanging with her crew. She was at church! After the two hour service, a lady approached her and said: “I see that you are wearing makeup. I prefer the natural look”. My daughter without missing a beat responded: “I don’t always wear make-up, only on Sabbaths because it’s a special day”.
Don’t be like that. Say nice things to people. Compliment them on their positive traits, on the fact that they are in worship. Resist the urge to criticize or correct all the time. No one died and appointed you Elijah. You are neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, so relax. Love people for who they are. It’s my job to fish them and keep them in the boat. It’s God’s job to clean them.
Create such a positive experience for believers that even if they leave, their memories of the father’s house wouldbe so overwhelmingly positive that they will have no choice but to return.
I am pleading for you to take an honest look at your church and remind yourself and your people why it is that you exist. New people stay, or return to healthy churches. Remind yourself at least once a day that your job is not to coddle the ninety-nine, to be satisfied with the nine or to be content because at least one of the sons is still home. Every life matters, because lost people matter to God. Do they matter to you?
Evangelism works. Let’s work it the right way.
Roger Hernandez is the Director of the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventist Church.