How to Keep Former Members from Ever Coming Back

The Adventist church is growing by a million members a year worldwide. It’s become the eighth largest international religious body in the world.

But before you get too excited, know that for every million who join, 250,000 leave, according to the church's world headquarters. And these are just those who formally go off the books. No reliable figures are available for those who just drift away. Which brings to mind two questions: (1) How can we do a better job of retention? And (2) how can we reclaim those who’ve slipped away? This article will deal with the second question.

Here’s one answer worth looking at: Relationships almost always precede reclaiming! We believe the importance of listening cannot be overestimated. It is simply imperative to have ongoing communication with the inactive before most of them will return. A lot of listening, not a lot of telling them they should come back to church, is what builds relationships.

During Mike’s 16 years out of the church, his mother fell into the pattern of many parents who, longing for their inactive or former-member children to become active in church again, come across as nagging. Again and again, she would tell him, “I wish you’d come back to church.”

And he would reply, “Why, Mother? I’ve accepted Jesus. I try to harmonize my life with His principles. And you know I’m not saved by my church membership. Why is it so important to you that I come back?”

His mother would reply, as so many parents do, “I just wish you would.” But Mike just dug in his heels.

And so we’d like to say it again. We need to listen more and talk less. It’s a first step in reconnecting. Having said that, how does one get started?

The venue really doesn’t matter. Go with whatever works—a phone call, an offer to do lunch, a get-together over a mutually enjoyed activity, an e-mail exchange. Just remember to pray first over the person with whom you hope to connect. After all, if all the resources of heaven are available to those seeking to reach the wandering, shouldn’t we enlist those resources?

And then we need to put on our ears! If we will take the time to listen to an inactive or former member, we just might learn what caused them to leave in the first place. An incredible amount of healing can take place through empathetic listening.

Dennis O’Cain is a case in point. He came back to church just over a year ago. And his wife played a major factor in his return by listening to his issues. Briefly, here is his story.

Dennis grew up as an Adventist in the Seattle, Washington, area, was baptized in 1980 but left the church a few years later after a divorce and a case of major disappointment with the “unfriendly” churches he was attending.

He was out of the church for a number of years. One reason he stayed away, he says, was his divorce. He felt like a loser. Also he was fearful the failure of his first marriage might discourage others. But the Holy Spirit never stopped convicting Dennis, particularly when he didn’t keep the Sabbath.

The Holy Spirit also used Dennis’ second wife, Heather, a non-Adventist, to listen to him and then to encourage him to go back to church if that would give him fulfillment. Says Dennis, “It really helped having an understanding wife who was willing to listen to my constant yammering about whether I should return to church or not.”

Dennis responded slowly. Most former members do. Few leave in a hurry and few return quickly. Dennis was no exception. He didn’t return for two years from the time of his marriage to Heather in 1999. But during those two years, Heather invested a lot of time listening and encouraging him.

Two years later, her listening bore fruit and on Dec. 21, 2002, Dennis gingerly made his way through the door of the Volunteer Park Church in Seattle. The visit went well, and he’s hardly missed a Sabbath since. Dennis says he appreciates the pastor, Sam Chetty, for nurturing him by putting him to work using his own unique talents. He also says his bouts with depression have lifted since his return to church.

A lot of inactive and missing members like Dennis have returned to the church recently. An estimated 40,000 have returned in the last decade, according to Paul Richardson, Center for Creative Ministry director. And some believe many more would return if they were approached and invited in the right way.

Every inactive or former member has an interesting story to tell. And most of them are willing to share those stories with us if we demonstrate that we’re safe people and really care about them.

How do we get started listening? By asking questions. Simple questions. Questions such as, “How’s everything going in your life?” “Haven’t seen you forever. What’s new?” Or if you’re talking with a younger person, “Hey, what’s up? What’s happening?” Once your contact starts talking, listen, listen, listen....And then listen some more!

During the listening process, asking someone about his or her relationship with Jesus can be fine, too, if it is done in the right way. Once, after sharing with a former member how Jesus had helped me, Mike, to quit smoking cigarettes, I asked her if she had a personal relationship with Jesus. Her immediate reply was, “No, I don’t know how.” And I had the joy of helping her receive Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior.

In addition to listening, why not also send those you love the Voice of Prophecy’s new e-mail newsletter, "Getting in Touch"? It’s directed to those who are not active in church to let them know they are not forgotten either by their church or by their Lord.

You can submit names and e-mail addresses using the form in the sidebar. If you can’t access your contact’s e-mail address, send the names of inactive or former members by regular mail to: Reconnect Now, Box 2525, Voice of Prophecy, Newbury Park, CA 91319

All names will go into a national database at the Voice of Prophecy.

In the meantime, keep your ears on and your heart open to the inactive or former members you care about. Say your prayers, be patient, and watch the Holy Spirit work.

Editor’s note: For those wanting to learn how to listen more effectively, a 30-minute video, “The Fine Art of Connecting!” with Lonnie and Jeannie Melashenko, can be ordered from Voice of Prophecy at the address above.

January 01, 2004 / Feature