The Shadow Church

“Of all the hours I spent as pastor there, that one haunts me most.”

Bill Knott

At first glance it looked like a Victorian sewing cabinet—a polished oak front with miniature drawers just the right size to hold collections of buttons, patterns, and spools of thread. Among the unused furniture in the church’s back closet, it seemed a handsome, well-turned piece.

But the threads the cabinet held were living, and the patterns they revealed were ominous. Drawer after drawer held neatly typed and alphabetized cards for each person who had ever been a member of that congregation, then more than 100 years old. Generations of church families yielded to my scan: birthdates, baptisms, marriages, and deaths—all carefully recorded with a church clerk’s yen for vital data.

I smiled to see the names and birthdates of my senior members: how had they aged so gracefully? But I also winced at the final entries made on dozens—hundreds—of small cards: MISSING; DROPPED FOR NONATTENDANCE; APOSTATIZED; DROPPED BY REQUEST.

An hour in the dim light of the storage closet made the sobering reality clear. Beyond the roster of the current church, whose names by then I knew by heart, lay a shadow church of former members five times its size, though never gathered in one spot. Accounting for the usual demographic data of my region—life expectancy; job moves because of Rust Belt economics—I could quickly estimate a living population in our city of former or missing Seventh-day Adventists three times our current membership.

For every member I knew and visited, there were three others still living who had once been part of our church—not even counting those still “on the books” who never found their way to worship or to fellowship.

Of all the hours I spent as pastor there, that one haunts me most. In what other arena of our lives—business, medicine, education, or even (dare we say it?) friendship—would we tolerate such losses? Where else would we accept the disappearance of colleagues, companions, and even family members with the stolid equanimity that accompanies the disappearance of fellow believers?

Some of our coolness in the face of loss may itself be owing to the stories we tell each other. Didn’t Jesus Himself say, “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:14)?* For too many who understand themselves as part of God’s end-time remnant, the expectation that they will be part of a dwindling number of the faithful makes tolerable what should normally cause tears, inspire compassion, and incite activity.

But Jesus told as many narratives of multiplication and growth as He did of loss and deficit: why should our self-understanding as His disciples embrace only the latter? The shepherd wasn’t satisfied with 99 still in the fold, nor the woman who could safely touch 90 percent of her wealth. The father’s love went seeking both the prodigal among the pigs and the elder brother still at home. It’s in God’s nature never to settle in the face of loss, or be satisfied when some modest and righteous remnant chooses heaven.

As with the Lord, so with His church. It’s time for Adventists in every congregation to begin a strong and systematic seeking of those no longer with us. The work begun in dusty closets and old records is fully as important as the time and treasure we commit to winning new disciples.

Apologies in hand, kind hearts and listening ears wide open, we join with Jesus in His never-ending work of reclamation. The names still buried in old clerk’s reports, like dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision, may yet live again. The hope they find, the heaven they gain, are real enough, and worthy of our finest effort.

The Great Reclaimer said it best: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

* Bible texts are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Bill Knott