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Filling Empty Pews

In any given community there are dozens (in some communities potentially hundreds) of former Adventists who have left the Seventh-day Adventist church for various reasons. From time to time, we as a church talk about what it would take to “bring them back.” Realistically, some will probably never come back. They have chosen to live without us, and we need to respect their decision — regardless of how we feel about it.

Others might come back if they thought it was safe. Some felt the churches they left were so “toxic” that they no longer enjoyed being in our midst. Regardless of why people choose to leave us, we as a church need to grow in our ability to love unconditionally. This is something we all struggle with.

Scripture clearly teaches:

“Let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8 NLT).

“No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us” (1 John 4:12 NLT).

Ellen White said, “If we would humble ourselves before God, and be kind and courteous and tender-hearted and pitiful, there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one.” –Testimonies to the Church, vol. 9 p. 189

Our problem is not that we have people missing from our churches. Our real problem is that they are missing from our hearts. We simply don’t have the time to care. We are so busy and occupied with our lives that we don’t give much thought to the needs or spiritual welfare of others. There is no connection between us. We may hold the same tenants of Adventist belief, but that’s pretty much it.

The driving principle in reclaiming former members should not be to fill empty pews, but to allow God to fill our empty hearts with compassion and concern for the people who are no longer with us. Jesus invites us to love them for his sake, regardless of whether they ever rejoin our church families.

For God’s sake, love them. Love them into the church. Love them apart from the church. Love them in spite of the church. Just love them.

Robert Fuller, a software engineer who now worships with Adventists again after being absent for a long time, gave me these suggestions from his own experience on how to relate to former members or anyone we would like to reach. Fuller says, “if we want to be effective, we need to pay attention to these points.”

  1. Meet people in their environment.
    Follow Christ’s lead and spend most of your time meeting with people in the real world. Don’t try to “get them to church” — that’s God’s job.
  2. Develop and maintain a relationship without expectations.
    Remember, we are asked to believe and love. The Spirit is the only one who saves. And always keep in mind that people can sense an agenda (which is usually repulsive).
  3. Let the Spirit lead the conversation.
    Seek to strengthen your relationship with the Spirit so that you can discern when to speak of spiritual things. Don’t try to force the conversation, or the activities. Also, bringing up church or the Bible at the wrong time can shut down the conversation when a person is not ready to speak of spiritual things.
  4. Be ready to listen.
    You can’t let the Spirit lead or build a relationship if you’re always doing the talking. In addition, sometimes people will need to air their grievances, which often need to be heard, thought about, and maybe responded to.
  5. Share your own story.
    When they ask, tell them about your personal relationship with God. If you’re going to share the Word, do it within the context of your life. Remember, the Bible is supposed to be the “living Word,” not a litany of chapters and verses.
  6. Don’t rely on shortcuts.
    When someone does not share your beliefs, a spiritual book, magazine or article can be perceived as a cop out if the person is not asking for it. Instead, it is usually perceived as pressure, and also lacks personal context. Some of the titles and covers can be quite irritating to someone not seeking spiritual things.
  7. Spend time together.
    Remember, do not come to them with an agenda or time-line. We tend to get caught up in our need for evangelism results rather than focusing on relationships.
  8. Learn to love on all dimensions.
    Don’t insist on your own way (agenda), be patient (spend time), long-suffering (be willing to listen), gentle (not applying pressure), etc. In fact, continually re-examine your relationship through the lens of love.
  9. Always leave the door open.
    You may need to back off. That’s okay. But if they come back and you discern the Spirit at work, be ready to accept them.
  10. Be ready to help them grow.
    Too often we Adventists focus on the “saving” and forget about the “living.” Although saving is good for storytelling, living is more tedious and allows time for doubts, despair and other feelings to come up. If you build a relationship with the person you’ll be ready to help them mature; otherwise, they may fall away after the initial euphoria fades.*
* Robert Fuller writes from El Dorado Hills, California. He recently experienced spiritual rebirth and is eager to share his journey with others.
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About Rich DuBose

Rich DuBose

is director of Church Support Services for the Pacific Union Conference

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