Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10).
How tragic! Paul’s close friend and fellow worker (Col. 4:14; Philemon 24) abandoned Paul at the time Paul needed him most. Not only that, Demas abandoned the message and mission of Jesus.
Sometimes we’ll lose people to the church family permanently, no matter how hard we try to keep or reclaim them. Jesus lost Judas (Matt. 10:4). The apostle John said some never really were part of the church family (1 John 2:19). Some must receive constructive biblical church discipline1 with the hope they will repent and return.
But the best biblical models for reclaiming are probably found in Luke 15:
1The Lost Sheep (verses 1-7). The sheep wandered away. It was lost. It was scared. It didn’t know what to do. It would have died if the shepherd had not gone looking for it. Some people wander away from Jesus and/or the church family. They don’t know how to find their way back. The church family must go looking for them, help them, love them, and carry them back home. It’s never enough to say, “They know where we are. They can come back whenever they want.”
2The Lost Coin (verses 8-10). The coin was lost in the house. It didn’t know it was lost. The only way it could be found was for the lamp (the Bible; see Ps. 119:105) to be lit and the Holy Spirit’s cleaning to start (see John 16:7-11). Some people who attend church services regularly—both members and leaders—are actually lost, but they won’t realize it until the truth as taught in the Bible is clearly taught and the Holy Spirit is allowed to transform their lives.
3The Lost Son(s) (verses 11-32). The younger son hated living at home, so he left, went to a far country, and wasted his life and resources. He was lost. He knew the way home, but once he “came to himself” (verse 17), he didn’t think he would be welcomed if he came home. He was right—but also wrong. His father ran to welcome him. His older brother, the other son, did not welcome him.
There are people who have misunderstood or hated the rules of God and have left the church and messed up their lives. They know where the church building is and when the services are held, but they aren’t sure whether they’ll be welcomed if they come back. Those who have experienced the love of the Father God will welcome them. Those who haven’t won’t welcome them back.
Here are the methods that I, as a pastor and church leader, have used in reclaiming people who are lost sheep, lost coins, or lost sons (both types).
1Strengthen the church family by putting in place healthy systems for:
a. Preaching. Since we in my church enjoy a variety of speakers, often developing teams of new and young preachers, we make sure that each speaker has healthy attitudes;that the messages are Christ-centered, Bible-based, practical, have a call to action, and are simple but powerful.
b. Mentoring relationships. The church leaders need to be developed as mentors for group leaders, starting in huddles at church board meetings. As new groups are added, the group leaders are mentored, and then they mentor those in their groups.
c. Entry/reentry into the church family. If we bring people into the church family in a healthy way, clearly identifying what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist and mentoring them after membership, they are far more likely to remain in the church and to become involved in the mission Jesus gave us.
2Distribute spiritual growth packets. Here’s what worked for us and why.
Why give packets?
a. It helps member families strengthen their relationship with the Lord.
b. It helps connect all member families whether attending or not. It’s an opportunity to contact inactive members in a friendly, encouraging way, listening to their stories and pointing them to Jesus while inviting them to reconnect with other believers.
c. It helps us connect with guests.
d. The packets are especially helpful when the resources are coordinated with the preaching theme(s).
To whom do you give packets?
a. Every family on the church membership list.
How often and how do you give out packets?
a. At least once a year, but preferably quarterly.
b. Leave packets in the lobby for two weeks so people can pick up their own packet and also take some to distribute to others (usually organized alphabetically).
c. During the following two weeks, organize packets by geography and ask Sabbath School class members to distribute them. Mail to out-of-towners.
d. Have extra packets for guests. Ask them to fill out an information card and exchange it for a spiritual growth packet.
e. Have extra missionary books available in stacks of five for people to use to start a mission group.
What should be included in the packet?
a. Missionary book on same theme as sermons that quarter.
b. Letter from pastor/elder that includes positive updates.
c. Bible reading bookmarks.
d. Response card (to help out-of-towners and inactive members connect).
e. Item from church school.
f. Stewardship commitment card and tithe and offering envelope.
3Add groups, especially ministry, mission, and Sabbath School groups. Each group becomes a landing place for new and reclaimed members.2
Gayle had grown up in an Adventist home, and when she graduated from an Adventist academy, she also “graduated” from the church. For 26 years she chased her dreams and watched her relationships crumble as her addictions destroyed her life. She moved to another state and enrolled her children in the Adventist church school. It was five years before she had the courage to set foot inside the church building next door.
On the Sabbath she stopped at the church, she found a warm welcome and friendly people. Within six months she was baptized, along with her husband, who was happy to see the change in her. She discovered that a Sabbath School group was just starting a ministry to the homeless in a park, many of whom had struggles with addictions. She knew she could help because she’d been through some of the same struggles they were going through. As the ministry became consistent, inactive members started showing up at the park to help. Some said, “This is what the church is supposed to be doing. Count us in.” Some of the homeless were baptized—including Wally,3 the worst alcoholic in the area—and became powerful witnesses throughout the city.
Today Gayle is serving on the staff of an Adventist conference, after having served with her husband as a volunteer Bible worker, volunteer evangelist, Bible worker trainer, church planter, and prayer coordinator.
There are thousands of other Gayles wanting to come home, hoping for a warm welcome. There are thousands of Wallys, lost and waiting for someone to lead them home. And there are thousands of people “in church” waiting to hear the Adventist message clearly and to become involved in mission.
What is your first step in reclaiming them?
Dan Serns is director of evangelism for the Texas Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Alvarado, Texas.