After years away from church, Brian Litzenberger invited his wife, who was not a Christian, to a local Adventist church. That Saturday (Sabbath) a couple of decades ago, nobody greeted them or acknowledged their presence in the church. When they returned home, his wife said, “I will show you what communication with a Superior Being is really like.”
Before Litzenberger knew what was happening, one of his friends, who had recently died in an accident, “appeared.”
“Ask him anything,” Litzenberger’s wife told him.
He complied, asking his friend things only both of them would know. The apparition answered correctly every time.
Litzenberger, who had grown up in the Seventh-day Adventist church but had drifted away in his teenage years, got scared. He still believed what the Bible says about the dead — that there’s no such thing as roaming spirits of dead people, but only evil angels playing their part.
“I must go back to reading my Bible,” he thought.
After some ups and downs and a struggle to overcome alcoholism, Litzenberger not only went back to church but has spent the past two decades sharing his story and inviting others to experience God.
“God wants an intimate, personal relationship with each one of us,” he said. “And He will still act if we put ourselves in His hands as tools to be where He wants us to be.”
On April 5, 2019, Litzenberger’s life story was one of the highlights on the opening night of the Nurture and Retention Summit at the Adventist Church world headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States. The 2019 event, themed “Discipling, Nurturing, and Reclaiming,” drew 120 church leaders from around the world to reflect, discuss, and review best practices to strengthen church members and reach out to those who have drifted away.
Every Soul Is Precious
“We are here because every soul is precious and close to God’s heart,” said General Conference vice-president and chair of the Nurture and Retention Committee Geoffrey Mbwana in his opening remarks. “The question is, ‘Is it also close to your heart?’” he asked.
Noting that God has called us to be shepherds, Mbwana emphasized, “People are Christ’s most precious possession.”
Echoing that sentiment, Adventist Church Ministerial Association associate secretary Anthony Kent prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for reminding us of those who no longer fellowship with us. We know that You have never forgotten — even from the moment they were conceived — and that nothing has happened to separate them from Your love.” And he added, “Lord, help us never to forget.”
Kent also referred to what he called “our failure to disciple and nurture.” “Lord, teach us how to rejoice when sinners repent and enter your kingdom … without boasting of our baptismal numbers,” he prayed.
Baptism Is Just the Beginning
According to some leaders, recent data shows the current challenges, as church members’ attrition rate seemed to have increased in the past few years. “When you look at the numbers, they tell a story,” Mbwana said, in reference to data from the church’s Annual Statistical Report and 2018 Global Church Member Survey. The numbers show that losses are at more than 40 percent of accessions, meaning that for every 10 new members, at least four members leave the church. So part of the goal of the event is to look at the numbers and discuss proactive ways to curb that trend, he said.
For Adventist Church Sabbath School and Personal Ministries associate director Jim Howard, the church’s goal should be more than retention. “The issue is not retention but spiritual life,” he said. “If we want our members to stay, we need to send them out. If we want them to hold on to the truth, we must teach them to give it away,” he emphasized.
Howard called to discuss the relationship between active membership, including outreach and evangelistic initiatives, and member retention. “Could it be that the best strategy for church growth is the same strategy for member nurturing and retention?” he asked.
For Global Mission Center of East Asian Religions director Greg Whitsett, retention is also about openness to the members’ and our own challenges.
“We tend to celebrate the good things God has done, but the church is also full of wounds and scars,” he reminded the group. Whitsett called on local churches and pastors to become better at dealing with brokenness. “We need to preach more in the first person,” he said. “If I can be open and transparent, the people in the pews will be more open with me.”
Litzenberger, who now serves as a lay pastor in Orlando, Florida, agreed. He shared that as a church-attending teenager, he had begun to ask questions but did not get straight answers. “People would just tell me, ‘You have to trust God and pray more’ but didn’t address my doubts,” he said. “We have the concept of portraying perfect Christianity when we go to church. But God uses small, imperfect, broken people to give glory to His name.”
Willingness to Reach Out
But what to do for church members who — for various reasons — have already drifted away from church?
For Kent, an effective member reclaiming process starts with a willingness to reach out. In reference to three landmark parables of Jesus in Luke 15, He prayed, “May we, collectively as a church, and as individuals, be as energetic as the shepherd seeking one lost sheep out of a hundred; may we be as diligent as the woman seeking her lost coin; and may we be as welcoming and loving as the father of the returning prodigal.”
Litzenberger reminded the group that reaching out is not an impossible task. “We know how successful Jesus was in connecting with others. Well, the same power that was available to Jesus is available to us,” he said.
In light of the magnitude of the task, Kent prayed that God’s blessings might accompany the three-day event discussions. “May it be a time where we learn, grow, discover, change, and improve,” he said.