It’s no secret that people leave the church. This fact has Seventh-day Adventist leaders in Inter-America focused on a major initiative to seek and reconcile thousands of former members across the more than 22,000 churches and congregations in the territory.
Coined as the Inter-American Division (IAD) “Ministry of Reclaiming and Discipleship of Former Members,” the initiative was officially launched through an online program on January 12, 2019, from Miami, Florida, United States.
Seeking Missing Members
“This is a very important moment in the life of the church in Inter-America,” said IAD president Elie Henry as thousands watched in churches and offices online. “We must change the course of our actions and consider a new way of reaching [former] members and ensure to have a loving and friendlier church community.”
Henry pointed out a clear invitation in the Bible for this ministry as he reflected on Ezekiel 34, appealing to leaders and members to take note of those who once were at church and for one reason or another are no longer attending.
"We need to ensure that our church is involved in an intentional campaign to find those who are out of sight," Henry said. It's not a new problem, but as time goes on, the problem seems to become larger, he added.
Pointing to a recent survey conducted by the Adventist world church’s Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, IAD’s executive secretary, Leonard Johnson, said the findings revealed that nearly 14 million members have gone missing during the period between 1965 and 2015 across the world church.
"That means that one out of three members has been lost over the past fifty years," Johnson said. For IAD, that translates to just over two million members during that period, he said. “If we had those members up to 2015, our membership could be more than six million today. So it’s not a world problem only but a problem in [our territory].”
From 2016 to 2018, more than 153,000 members have dropped or gone missing across the IAD, according to the official tallying done throughout the division’s 24 unions, or major church regions, Johnson said. Among the many issues that the survey pointed out was the way relationships are important to help members stay connected to the church.
Sabbath School Class Impact
Building relationships is a key element in retaining and seeking members, so the initiative is being driven by the ministry of the Sabbath School class structure.
“The Sabbath School class needs to be a community of grace and as such has a biblical foundation for the ministry of reconciliation,” said IAD Sabbath School director Samuel Telemaque, who is spearheading the initiative.
“Our mission is to search for former members and invite them to be reconciled to God, reconciled to the church through a process of seeking to appeal to the heart of the member,” Telemaque said. “Before we can give them the Bible, we need to create the environment of relationship, love, kindness, and laughter in the Sabbath School class that leads to an environment of love for the study of the Word.”
The appeal to church leaders and active members gathered to watch the online program throughout the IAD territory touched on understanding the process to reclaim members, as highlighted in a practical guide that was distributed across the IAD in November 2018, Telemaque said.
The guide, which was voted by top administrators and leaders during IAD's Year-End Executive Committee Meetings in November 2018, emphasizes conversion as an act of returning to God and the church and examines the function of love in the conversion of former and active members. It also focuses on the stages of reconciliation and gives practical instructions on how to implement a ministry of reconciliation for former members, in addition to discipleship of former members and reintegration into the fellowship life of the church.
The online program also touched on the cost of discipleship, the importance of intercessory prayer, the call to the ministry of reconciliation, and more, not only to take place through Sabbath school ministries but also youth ministries, the pastoral ministry, and public campus ministries, among others.
“This is not an event, it’s a process,” Telemaque said. “The process includes recruiting and training those individuals who will seek out former members, thoroughly identifying all missing members, searching, contacting, listening, and acknowledging their pain, apologizing on behalf of the church, and welcoming them back.”
The initiative will see a scheduled homecoming Sabbath celebration on September 7, 2019, where thousands of former members are expected to flood churches and congregations across the IAD.
“Let’s work together through the Sabbath school, youth, and all departments to restore and reclaim former members,” Telemaque said.