The fine art of engaging and encouraging members new and old
The local Adventist church has a beautiful message and a compelling mission focused on biblical truth and evangelism. Active churches run programs to connect with their local communities and host annual reaping series designed to encourage decisions. Reports are sent to the local conference. Smiles and celebrations ensue.
But that’s not the full story. In some parts of the world “one in three people [leave] the church after being baptized, in less than three years. The precise ratio [is] 43 people lost for every 100 new converts.”*
Let that sink in. Nearly half of those who join the Seventh-day Adventist Church are gone within the first three years.
The obvious question to follow such a sobering statistic is What can we do to reverse this trend?
Prayer is key, for without it all our efforts will fall flat. But what can we combine with our prayer efforts, something practical that we can implement to slow the tide? Here are five simple steps to help retain new members.
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
Chances are you won’t be able to reverse member exodus while it’s happening. It’s almost too late. But you can learn to adapt so that it doesn’t happen again.
Sit down with your leadership team and map out a simple, sustainable method to increase member retention. This process usually revolves around three simple practices: (1) Build relationships with new members (at least three close church friends for every new member). (2) A “next step” for recently baptized members (most churches baptize them and forget them—no further training; no further study; no discipleship). (3) Consistent pastoral care. The pastor shouldn’t be the only one doing this. Each elder should be charged to care for a particular number of members (be sure to observe proper boundaries for vulnerable or single members).
Listen to Understand
The previous step is necessary to prevent backsliding. But once this ball is rolling, it’s nearly impossible to stop. But we can help stop the momentum. Don’t do anything without prayer. From there, meet with those who seem to be pulling back, and do nothing but listen. Do not preach. Do not scold. Do not give a Bible study about the importance of church attendance. And please do not approach them with “spiritual life threats” (such as “We are living in the end-times”; “You won’t make it if you . . .”; or “You are going to be lost if you . . .”). Instead, simply listen. When you do talk, do it to clarify, ask questions, and encourage, not to “put them in their place.”
Serve Their Needs
People drop out of church for a variety of reasons. Most of the time it’s a life crisis, a situation or issue they find embarrassing or overwhelming. Sometimes they drop off because someone in church hurt them, or because they simply did not feel connected. Yes, sometimes they begin to doubt the church’s doctrines.
Whatever the case, don’t defend the church or its teachings. Instead, seek to serve. Treat them as you would a wounded person by seeking to mend their wounds and nurture them back to health.
Maintain a Connection
You may be thinking, All this sounds awfully passive! Isn’t there anything a little more forceful we can do to get them to snap out of it? After all, we’re dealing with eternal life, aren’t we?
The answer to that question: it depends. You cannot undo years of spiritual malpractice by suddenly getting tough with people. If your church has failed to nurture, strengthen, and disciple believers, what gives you the right to freak out when they fall away? Where was all that energy when they were among you, struggling, ignored, and unnoticed?
But there are rare cases in which you might come down a bit tougher. If the person is a close friend, someone you have invested in, then you have more leverage. Tough words spoken in love go much further when they are said in a context of loving connection. This is why prayer, listening, and serving are so important.
But if all else fails, maintain a connection. Make sure the person knows that even if they never return to church, they are loved and cared for there.
Change the Environment
When a plant fails to grow in a particular environment, don’t reintroduce the plant to the same environment. Instead, change the environment—temperature, sunlight, air, water, etc. Make sure that the environment is conducive to growth.
Sadly, many churches lose members, then reintroduce new ones to the exact environment that caused the loss of the previous ones. If we are serious about retaining new believers we must change our environment into a healthier, more growth-inducing climate that will disciple new converts in their walk with God and others.
* Adrian Zahid, “Beyond the One Project: The War Over the Local Church,” thecompassmagazine.com/blog/beyond-the-one-project-the-war-over-the-local-church-5a.