I was interested to learn, a few months ago, that some folks in Silver Spring had discovered how many were "slipping out the back door" of the church. It made me think of those European explorers a few centuries back who came back from sea voyages saying they’d discovered a new land, even though that land was occupied with people who had apparently discovered it long before. We out in the congregations have been experiencing the hemorrhaging for a long time. Especially small congregations. While we read in the Review about the fantastic stuff the church leaders are inventing with their share of our tithe, about the cool things happening at our colleges and hospitals, and the big shows being put on at every convention and event, the Seventh-day Adventist Church where we experience it day by day is evaporating in front of our eyes. To our shame, we haven't known how to stop it, either.
Could we just drop that jejune phrase about people slipping out the back door? It suggests something furtive, as though members are escaping from the church, undetected and undetectable. Like mice, scurrying along the baseboards. We tried to catch them, but they were too cunning. Nonsense. We know who they are. Often we know why they left. Sometimes we contributed to their leaving. These folks used the same door we do. They just didn’t come back into it.
The biggest problem with congregations (and I mean no hyperbole: this is the biggest problem) is that they're private clubs. Adding to fellowship people who are being saved (Acts 2:47) is something we talk about and plan activities for. But we’re not fully invested in the outcome. It’s a fiction similar to "I really want to lose weight," when no matter what we say, we’d rather eat. And no matter what we say, we like to do church with our friends, with people who are like us. Otherwise, why do so many others never fit in?
A friend wrote me a few months ago, "I keep hearing about people slipping out the back door. My problem has been getting in the front door." He’d recently moved to a different city. "I have visited practically all the Adventist churches. Mostly I am ignored. Someone gives me a bulletin with a quick ‘happy Sabbath’ and the rest of the time no one sees me. In Sabbath School class I raised my hand and made a comment, hoping someone would acknowledge me. No one did. One Sabbath I saw a woman standing alone in the narthex. She told me she had come because she’d been searching for a Sabbath-keeping church. She’d attended three weeks and I was the first person to talk to her. She thought she probably wouldn't come back."
The Christian church started out as a porous organization. Crowds just sort of tagged along after Jesus, and were welcome. We’re not porous anymore. We have buildings, membership rosters and a creed. There’s an inside and an outside. That’s why we winch people in through doctrine. We expect that when we pull them through that needle's eye, they'll turn out like us. And if they do, they can stay. Otherwise, they don’t come back.
I don’t think we understand this about ourselves, our conflicted relationship with soul-winning. It's buried in the organizational subconscious. The Freudian clue is our obsession with baptisms. It's the liminal experience that we celebrate, not the ongoing one. Like how the world loves weddings and complains about marriage. It's reflected in the money and effort we put into evangelistic events, over against the tedious, sometimes conflict-filled life of most congregations. We want to advance the message, but we don’t really need friendships with new converts, especially if they are (as they often are) poor, uneducated, lower class, and needy in all sorts of ways.
In every church I've pastored, early on I go through the member list with church leaders. "Who are the Brandons?" I ask. "Oh, they came to some meetings that a visiting evangelist had, got baptized, and we never saw them again." Back door? They never made it in the front one. Church rosters are littered with the leftovers of an intentional methodology of advancing the message rather than growing healthy congregations. (I once heard a highly-evangelistic church leader say that we do evangelism to warn people, not win people—which, it turns out, may be a legitimate SDA doctrinal view.) Let's admit that a large share of the accessions from those visiting evangelists are not really being brought into the church, but only onto someone’s spreadsheet. It’s weasely. We know it and so do they. It's like those political candidates who buy their own books to make them best sellers.
Generally complaints about this are met with, "We brought them in. You failed to keep them." I say, if your system is designed so that you get to pack your trailer, drive away and brag in the union magazine about how many baptisms you got, with no accountability for what happens afterwards, well, shame on you. That reasoning isn’t going to work with me anymore, and I hope others see through it, too.
If there are any church leaders reading this, I’d like to impress on you how it saps the life out of congregations to go through this again and again and again. It’s happening less than it used to (a positive side-effect of needing more money for executive travel budgets, convocations and committee meetings is that we’ve shed some of those trailer evangelists) but after all the years of doing this and seeing the results, why, why, why, in heaven's name is it still being done at all? I beg of pastors and congregations: if you are going to bring people in through doctrinal meetings, keep it in-house, where members know that if they don’t engage the new converts no one will; where the responsibility for new members doesn’t slither down the road with the evangelist.
. . .
Once it is discovered how many people on the church books aren't active, then you'll doubtless hear another phrase beloved of Seventh-day Adventists. "Let's trim out the dead wood." That pretty well sums it up, doesn’t it? Anyone who isn't here playing church with us is dead wood. Never mind they're alive as can be. Never mind that they left because we ignored them. Never mind that they might need our help desperately. They're dead wood. Think about that phrase as you say it to yourself. Dead wood. Some churches drop people who were never contacted until they got their disfellowshipping letter. And why not? They're dead wood. (I always go visit the dead wood, and often find I’m the first person who has contacted them in years. Surprisingly, I’ve always been welcomed.)
Oh, and by the way, you wanna know who the bulk of that dead wood on the church books is? Your children. Yup. All those darlings we baptized along the way. So whose fault is that? Oh, we'll blame this bad pastor, or that person who said something offensive to them. Somehow the church has to be responsible, doesn't it?
We pastors get a balcony view of our congregations, their lives and families and decisions. So sometimes when I hear people wondering why their children aren't in the church, I'm a little surprised. You really don't know why? Of course, no one can guarantee that your children will stay in the church. They have free will. I even believe they could be saved being good Christians in another church. But you tell me that their leaving the church hurts you, and you can’t understand it. I’m not a parent, but my impression is that some Adventist parents are ham-handed in how they go about creating a relationship between their children and the church. Relationships require a sensitive, well-tuned wooing, what we used to call (before the phrase was stolen to mean sex) making love. That is to say, you have to create love between your children and the church. If some parents had shown as little skill when courting a spouse as they did trying to get their children to love the church, they’d still be single.
What effect did it have on the little ones when they heard you and friends talking about all the problems in church, about the incompetent pastor, the bad music, the boring sermons, what a pain it is to take church positions, the problems with the church school? How about all those times you tried to split the difference between church and what the children wanted to do—sports on half the Sabbaths of the year, for example, because you didn’t want to deprive them of that wonderful experience you missed out on? Do you remember when I hinted that you might send your children to a Seventh-day Adventist college, because there’s good evidence that that's where happen some of life’s most important decisions (like who they marry) that will determine a person’s spiritual trajectory? Oh, dear, no, you said. Way too expensive for our family. Okay, I can understand that. But the $40,000 SUV that you managed to afford about that same time… Just sayin'.
I have occasionally entertained this notion: that some Adventist parents are subconsciously trying to give their children permission to leave a church that they themselves resent but feel too guilty to leave. I know, it's a whacky idea, way too deep for an amateur psychologist like me. But I just can't think of any other explanation for the contrast between stated desire and actual decisions.
Hey, they're your children. But if it matters to you that they left, at least consider the possibility that they didn't leave through the back door of the church, but through the front door of your house.
Maybe it’ll be OK now, now that Silver Spring has discovered our back door problem. Expect four or five new committees, several new studies, some articles in the Review, and a DVD with a workbook.
But just remember this:
People can leave our fellowship if they want to. And they will if being with us isn’t a happy and rewarding experience. It’s as simple as that.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5827