Going back to a church and a community where you once pastored or fellowshipped is always an emotional experience.
It’s encouraging to see the stalwarts who labored with you in the various community and evangelistic events that were run, still faithfully serving God to the best of their ability.
There’s the joy of seeing former Adventists you had visited, who never showed an inkling of returning to church, but are now fully committed disciples of Jesus.
It’s satisfying to see people you baptized and left as babes in the faith now on the church board and leading Sabbath School ministry to children.
There’s the complete wonder of seeing those you ministered to in Bible studies and seminars, who never made a decision at the time, now rejoicing in the truth of Jesus and involved in helping others find new life through faith in Jesus.
I would like to stop writing right now, thank God and just dwell on the above stories, but that’s not the complete picture.
There are those you remember fondly who are not there anymore. After inquiring, you discover a few have passed away and await their joy in Jesus. Others have transferred to new churches. However, other stories just bring heartache.
There’s the Sabbath School teacher who was excellent at building a group and engaging people in the Scriptures, who no longer chooses to fellowship at the church because of hurtful untruths spread around.
There’s the lady who led in an exercise class that had many community people participating, who no longer attends because the church board did all they could to block and stop her ministry because of the clothes people chose to wear while exercising.
There are the kids I grew up with in Pathfinders and Sabbath School, now successful lawyers, architects, and businesspeople, who are just not there. Nobody seems to know why.
There are the contemporaries of my children who went to the same Adventist school and enjoyed the same church activities, who are now living with their boyfriends or girlfriends.
There is a doctor, a mechanic, and a florist, but none of them find church attractive. Some are antagonistic; others just drifted.
Seeing the above hurts. They are the 50 percent of all Adventists globally who statistically do not associate with us anymore.
Local churches are very fluid. The power of the Word of God and the Spirit change lives that are challenged with relational breakdowns, financial debt, lack of meaningful work, abuse from a partner, jealous retribution from a friend. But sometimes these human frailties impact others and give people a reason to leave the church.
There is much latent pain within many churches as those who used to be there and are not anymore are our son or daughter, cousin, brother, sister, uncle, father, mother, best friend. Not having them in church hurts. We pray and know that God hears and acts, but God never chooses to force the will of these people who are loved more by Him than us. We know this, but it still hurts.
As we pray for others, we need to pray for ourselves so that we can endure to the end (Matthew 24:13). For life in the church can be an emotional rollercoaster.
How else can we deal with such pain? Besides prayer, we can choose to be different. Emotions are the E or energy that bring motion. E-motion. Energy-motion. Emotional pain can thus be turned into positive action. Let’s use the pain of loss to move us to become more real: listening, praying, supporting and advising each other without any judgment (Matthew 7:1,2; Romans 13:8; Colossians 3:13). That’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. That’s the kind of church we all are looking for.
Glenn Townend is president of the South Pacific Division (SPD) church region, based in Wahroonga, New South Wales, Australia.