April 2015 Feature: Love Me Tender
April 2015 Feature: Love Me Tender
Prodigal Members Share how They Were Nurtured Back Into the Church Family
Story by Mark Tyler
Kevin Booth left the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the early ’90s to go on the road as an Elvis Presley impersonator and became a country singer in a honkey-tonk band. He returned a decade later because his soul just couldn’t rest, even though he was following his dream.
“You think you can manage a relationship with Christ and still be in the business, and one thing leads to another,” Booth explains. “You’re sitting around the club and they say, ‘You never have a drink with us. Have one drink with us. It won’t kill you.”’ Then there’s another, and another. That leads to other vices.
“Everybody thought I was the happiest guy in the world,” Booth says. “But, when the lights went down and the crowds were gone, I would lay in bed at night with my eyes open.”
Booth never renounced Adventism, so occasionally he would find a church while on the road. “Once you learn those great truths, you can’t go anywhere else,” he says. “But, I was in a band playing 23 to 24 nights a month.”
Booth, like so many, just lost touch. “It wasn’t anything that the church did,” he says. “You tell yourself, ‘I’m going to get started this week,’ and it would never happen.”
What made the difference for Booth was an Adventist girlfriend, now his wife, who supported his career but encouraged him to return to the church. When they got married, Booth quit the band. He started attending Chesapeake Conference’s Hagerstown (Md.) church and now does a stage show celebrating Elvis’ gospel music.
“People aren’t just going to walk through our church doors,” Booth says. “We’ve got to go out and find the hurting and find the lost.”
Read and share these other articles from the April Visitor:
Feature: Love Me Tender
Underscore: How Are We Addressing Gossip?
Peggy Lee Departs Her Favorite Port of Call—CURF
Editorial: Parable of the Lost Band
5 Tips for Approaching Missing Members
6 Practical Ways to Stop Gossip
Creating a Path Home: Williamsport Church Member Seeks After Missing Members
Seeking the Familiar Lost
This, in part, is why Chesapeake developed Connect 2 Reconnect (C2R), a one-year, conference-wide initiative aimed at reaching the familiar lost, which ran 2013 to 2014. Gary Gibbs, Chesapeake’s ministries development director, says they started the program after realizing that at least 50,000, and perhaps up to 100,000, inactive members and former Adventists live in their conference territory.
“These people have a connection with our church,” says Gibbs. “They are our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, former classmates and friends. But, do these people still feel some connection to the church?”
Gibbs says 19 of Chesapeake’s 74 churches participated in C2R, with some reporting rebaptisms, while nearly half of the conference’s congregations hosted a Welcome Home Day for inactive members. “In order to ‘reconnect’ inactive and former members to God’s church, we must first ‘connect’ with them,” Gibbs says. “It takes two persons to do this reconnecting—we must take the initiative and they need to respond.”
Falling Through the Cracks
According to David Trim, director for the Office of Archives, Statistics and Research, in his 50-page report Nurture, Retention & Discipleship: An Integral Part of Evangelism and Witness, the worldwide Adventist Church has baptized nearly 32 million people during the past 40 years, ending in 2013. But, more than 11 million (about 35.73 percent) of them have left the church.
Surveys conducted in 2011 by the Office of Archives and the Center for Creative Ministry, an Adventist research group, revealed that members’ views of the church varied when they left. But, a common thread was present amongst those who came back: 27 percent thought highly of the church when they left but felt they had lost touch; 21 percent thought highly of the church but felt they could not live up to the standards; and 17 percent were angry over the way the church treated them when they decided to leave.
Also clear from the studies is that those contacted by other Adventists, or who maintained social relationships with church friends, reported being more open to the possibility of return. However, 40 percent of those who left said they were never contacted.
Leaving When Life Happens
Donna Kelso Nelson, a member at Allegheny West Conference’s Glenville church in Cleveland, discovered Adventism through her ex-husband, a man born and raised in the Glenville church. But, after their marriage failed, she drifted in and out of the church for more than 20 years.
“Life happened,” Nelson explains. “It was not a very amicable or very pretty situation. I felt betrayed by the church. I felt like the church had sided with him. That was my perception. That was my reality.”
Nelson got divorced and moved. In 1988 she took her daughters to Columbus, Ohio, and attended an Adventist church there. Her actions are consistent with other data from the Nurture, Retention & Discipleship studies: 10 percent of people were either married or divorced in the year before they left the church, and 11 percent relocated to another city.
When Nelson, also a Cleveland native, did visit Glenville, she didn’t feel welcome. “I felt like I was an outcast,” she says.
When she returned to Cleveland for a new job in 1990, she stopped going to church altogether because she couldn’t bear to go back to Glenville. Instead, she visited churches of various faiths. However, Nelson reports, “There was something about the truth that I learned in the Adventist Church that would not let me fit in no matter how nice the people were in other denominations. But, I didn’t make up my mind to come back on my own.”
About three years ago, when MyRon Edmonds became Glenville’s pastor, his wife, Shanee’, also a Cleveland native, reached out to Nelson and her daughters. “She said, ‘It’s my mission and my prayer to bring my family back,’” Nelson recalls. “I kept telling her, ‘I’m not coming back. They’re a bunch of phonies.’”
Nelson’s daughters did return, and they invited her to a New Year’s Eve service, where her life began to change. “The Holy Spirit convicted me that I needed to get over myself, get over my past hurts and all of those ill feelings that I had toward various members, because the only one hurting in all of this was me,” Nelson says. “People that hurt you have a tendency to hurt you and move on with their life. Meanwhile, you have all of this stuff bottled up.”
Today Nelson works as Pastor Edmonds’ administrative assistant. “What I had to do was let it go, for me,” she says.
Shifting the Ministry Paradigm
Pastor Edmonds suggests the church in general be more inclusive. “You can’t chase down every prodigal, but we can change the environments in our churches so that, when they come back, there are loving environments,” Edmonds says, noting that many prodigals do try to come back. “They are giving the church chance after chance and the church just keeps blowing it.”
Pastor Edmonds says part of his mission at Glenville is to increase participation in ministry through outreach, rather than placing such a heavy emphasis on the divine worship hour. “Certain people leave because they were invisible when they were there,” he says. “When you refocus, it creates room for anybody who wants to get involved.”
Kris Eckenroth, pastor of Pennsylvania Conference’s Grace Outlet church in Reading, also focuses on getting missing members involved. When Eckenroth, a Reading native, returned to his hometown, he and a friend made a list of more than 100 people they knew had fallen away. He knew then that he wanted to reconnect them.
“We aggressively went after them, and we’ve created a casual, friendly, nonthreatening atmosphere,” he says. “The goal wasn’t just to get them to come to church. The goal was to involve them in the mission of Christ to reach the community.”
Pastor Eckenroth reports that, at one time, about
65 percent of the 100 people attending were people who had stopped going to church. Now it’s about 30 percent. He says that when people become active in ministry, church takes on a new relevancy to their everyday lives. “Our goal shouldn’t be to get people back to church,” he says. “As we minister to people and meet their needs, they will come back.”
When it comes to reaching younger members who have left, Reed Richardi, associate pastor for outreach and evangelism at Potomac Conference’s New Market church in Harrisonburg, Va., says they gravitate to house churches and small group ministries. “Community is something that many are looking for, a place where people can share their struggles, where people care and they’re not looking to judge but encourage them,” he says.
Richardi works with four house churches that allow time for testimonies, prayer, music, Bible studies and fellowship. Many who go are in their ’30s. “Those who are engaged in a house church don’t find the community of traditional church to be very authentic,” he shares. “It’s hard to be vulnerable and open if you’ve got 100 people sitting in pews.”
Offering members intimacy can be key to them staying. “If you look at the way Jesus made disciples, it was life-on-life that made an impact,” Richardi says. “That’s how people were changed.”
Mark Tyler writes from Elkton, Md.