By Tim Massengale
She lived just four blocks from the church. When we knocked she came to the door with white flour on her hands. She apologized and explained she was making bread, something you rarely see people doing in this microwave age.
We told her we were from a neighborhood church and were out inviting folks to a block party that would be held in the church parking lot in two weeks. She took the flyer and smiled lightly when she read the church name.
“Oh, I used to attend there about seven years ago,” she said. She asked how the pastor was doing and inquired about several other families as well. It was obvious that she had been more than just a casual attendee. We talked for several more minutes until the obvious question came up – why did she stop coming?”
“Well, my son became sick with leukemia. He was eight at the time. It turned bad really quick. While he was in chemo he was sick all the time so I wasn’t able to come much. He eventually had a bone marrow transplant but that failed to take and he passed away that same year. I was pretty bitter at God and stopped attending church. But that’s all behind me now.”
She glanced at the flyer again. “I just might come. I would love to see everyone again…” Her voice trailed off. She smiled and asked us to forgive her, but she had to get her bread in the oven, so we had a quick word of prayer and told her we looked forward to seeing her at the block party.
Reaching Out to Backsliders
The above story illustrates the need to stay in touch with backsliders. What if we had never knocked on her door? What about the dozens – even hundreds – of other backsliders that, with just a simple invitation, would be open and receptive to attending church once again?
Churches grow three ways: births, transfers-in, and converts. Churches lose members three ways as well: deaths, transfers-out, and backsliding. We often have little control over births, deaths, and transfers. But we can influence converts and retention. It is critical that we address both sides of this equation. If we can increase converts and decrease backsliding, the church will grow at an accelerated rate.
The parable of the lost sheep specifically addresses backsliders (Matt. 18:11-14). The sheep were in the sheep fold. They knew the shepherd’s voice. They had been born (again) into the family. But now one had wandered away and needed to be brought back into the protection of the fold.
Too often churches treat backsliders like Mother Goose’s ‘Little Bo-Peep:’ “Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep and doesn’t know where to find them. But leave them alone and they’ll come home, waggin’ their tails behind them.” Rather than acting like the Good Shepherd and proactively reaching out to bring the backslider home, they take a ‘leave them alone’ approach and hope they eventually will wander back. Obviously, this is not the biblical model that we should follow.
Ten Steps to an Effective Ministry
So what can your church do to reach out to the backslider?
- Be aware they are gone. The longer they are gone, the colder the trail becomes. As soon as you are aware of the situation, pick up the phone or drop by for a visit. Start the healing process quickly. And of course, pray for Godly wisdom.
- If you have not already done so, start a New Convert Care (NCC) ministry. Without a NCC ministry, converts can easily, quickly and quietly slip away. NCC takes attendance on every new convert each service and insures the basic needs of all converts are being met (i.e. instruction, fellowship and involvement). What is the best way to reach backsliders? Stop them before they backslide.
- Start an All-Church Care (ACC) ministry. An ACC ministry can help forestall loss among regular members. The entire church is divided among a group of ‘care leaders’ who take role on every person each service and contact them personally when they miss. If they become aware of a problem – whether it is spiritual, emotional, physical – they keep the pastor informed. Like new converts, the best way to reach a backslider is to keep it from happening in the first place. Once a church reaches a certain size an ACC ministry becomes a necessity.
- Keep the lines of communication open and clear. When saints leave, they are often angry, hurt, bitter, or cold. Assure them of your love and concern, that you will always pray for them and will be there for them. Keep an open door. Let them know that, if they change their minds, they are always welcome. It’s hard to keep from feeling they are rejecting you and your ministry. You must pray beyond the sometimes hurtful words and deeds. Remember they said and did horrible things to Christ as well. Nevertheless, he forgave them and continued to reach for them with Godly love.
- Pray for them. A list of all backsliders should be kept in a binder in your prayer room. Remind your saints to pray down the list often. You can also assign individuals to pray daily for every backslider. Prayer is, by far, your greatest tool to reach them.
- Keep them on your church mailing list. Never take them off. Send something out several times a year by first-class mail – this way you receive address correction when they move. All on your mailing list should receive flyers and special invitations several times a year.
- Call them on occasion. Keep a list of backsliders on your desk. As the Spirit prompts you, call them. Let them know you still care.
- Visit them several times a year. Add them to your visitor follow-up ministry process. Assign a drop-by visit at least twice a year. Take a tin of cookies or a mug filled with chocolate kisses. This way they will look forward to your visit.
- If they reject your efforts, honor their wishes. Some will ask not to be contacted in any way, ever again. Although this grieves our heart and soul, you should accept this and go on. But never stop praying.
- Never give up hope. Pray. Be there. Keep watching and hoping. Like the prodigal’s father, believe the day will come when they will once again worship around our altars.
The Heartbeat of God
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matt. 23:37)
Within these words it is easy to feel the passion our Lord felt for backslidden Israel. Truly all heaven rejoices when even one sinner comes to repentance (Matt. 17:7). But the Bible also clearly states that the good shepherd rejoiced when he recovered the lost sheep (Matt. 18:13), and the woman rejoiced with her neighbors that she had found the lost coin (Matt. 15:9).
Let us too weep as Jesus did over our lost cities and cry out for the masses that are in need of this truth. Let us use every method and exhaust every resource to win every soul possible. But let us not forget the prodigal souls who have wandered out of our churches and live in misery, apart from God, pastor and godly friend. I pray that every church will develop a ministry to aggressively reach out to every backslider that has wandered away from God.