By Tim Massengale
Pastor Mark North studied the New Convert Information Card on his desk. Finally he reached a decision, picked up the phone and punched in a number. On the third ring Elder Vernon Baker answered.
“Hey, my friend! It’s Mark. Have I caught you at a bad time?”
“No, not at all,” the elderly pastor replied. “What’s up?”
“Well, we had a young man visit our service last light. He came to the altar and received the Holy Ghost – or perhaps I should say he was refilled with the Holy Ghost. He’s a backslider. He said he used to attend your church about six years ago as a teenager. You baptized him I think. His name is Clayton Morris. Ring any bells?”
“He received the Holy Ghost? Wonderful! I remember Clayton well. He and his mom came to the Lord during a revival over ten years ago. They both received the Holy Ghost. His mom quickly backslid, but Clayton continued coming. I think he liked a young lady in our youth group. Anyway, after a couple of years he got caught up in high school football and stopped coming. We stayed in touch with him and his mom until they moved out of town three years ago. I ran into him several weeks ago at the mall and we talked at length. I told him we missed him, were still praying for him, and hoped he would get back in church. I could tell he was still tender to the Spirit so when he mentioned he had moved to your area, I encouraged him to look you up. He’s a great young man. He must be, what – about twenty-two now?
“He just turned twenty-three. He wrote on his information card that he used to attend your church so I felt I needed to give you a call.”
“Well, I’m thrilled to hear he’s back in church. I think he has real potential. If you can get him grounded in truth, he will be a solid saint.”
Mark nodded. “We already have him set up for a home Bible study and he said he would attend our New Life Class on Sunday morning. He really got a great touch of God – spoke in tongues for over ten minutes and jumped all over the place. He seemed to really pray through. I talked with him afterwards and he spoke very highly of you. I felt like he’s sincere in his desire to live for God.”
“That’s fantastic!” Brother Baker exclaimed. “That’s a real answer to prayer. We have had him and his mom in our Prodigal Ministry for a long time. This could be an inroad to getting her back in church too.”
The Prodigal Ministry
“I hope so too,” Mark replied. “Now, what’s this Prodigal Ministry? You been holding out on me? I thought I knew all the programs and ministries in your church.”
“It’s a part of our Outreach Department. Tom and Sandy Hoffmeier oversee it. It’s our ministry to reach out to backsliders. Once a person leaves the church we have a system set up to contact them several times a year by mail, telephone and occasional visits in order to invite them to various church events. We also pray for them regularly. It’s my conviction that we have an obligation to never forget them and to keep reaching for them as long as they are receptive.”
“Does it work?” Mark asked.
“Well, let me see – hang on. I need to set the phone down.”
Mark could hear paper shuffling in the background and then Elder Baker came back on. “I was looking for my annual growth evaluation report for 2010. Let’s see … here it is. Last year we had 214 people receive the Holy Ghost. Of those, 59 of them were backsliders who prayed back through. I’m pretty sure most all those 59 were the result of our Prodigal Ministry. So, yes – I would say I’m pleased with the results.”
“So am I!” Mark said. “We occasionally see backsliders return, but only a few each year. So, tell me, how does the ministry work?”
“Well, it’s not all that complicated. Like I said, when a person stops attending our church for any reason other than transfer, we give their contact information to Tom and Sandy and they start the process rolling.”
“And that process is?” Mark queried.
How It Works
“First of all, you need a program in place that tracks both members and new converts. Last year our new convert retention rate was 68%. That is pretty good, although it could be better. It also means that 32% of those we baptized stopped coming for various reasons. Jesus told us to be a ‘Good Shepherd’ and search diligently for every soul that strays from the fold. So we take roll on all our members every service.
“Our entire church is divided up among thirty-seven Care Leaders. Each Care Leader is responsible for taking roll on those families assigned to them – about 18 – 22 families per leader. Each week they speak in some way with every person in their care group, usually at church. If they don’t see them at church they call them by phone. When a person or family misses three services, they always try to find out why. Any person or family that is struggling in any way, whether it is spiritual, emotional, physical, is brought to my attention and either I or one of my staff will begin working with them. I can confidently say that no one leaves our church without our being aware of it and having done everything we possibly can to rectify the situation.”
Mark leaned back in his chair. “Wow! I knew you had something like this going, but I always felt we were too small to worry about it. Sadly, we have people backslide and sometimes I don’t hear about it for a month or longer. By then they have usually grown cold and indifferent.”
“I had the same problem,” Brother Baker replied. “That’s why I launched the All Church Care (ACC) ministry. The ACC ministry does considerably more than just take role and it’s a separate program from the Prodigal Ministry. But my point is this: you have to be aware when someone is struggling and often their attendance is the first indication of a problem. You should try to solve the problem before the person decides to leave. The longer they are gone, the colder the heart becomes. So as soon as you are aware of the situation, you should pick up the phone or drop by for a visit. Start the healing process quickly. And of course, pray for Godly wisdom.
“The second key is a strong New Convert Care (NCC) ministry. NCC takes attendance on every new convert each service and insures the basic needs of all converts are being met – that being instruction, fellowship and involvement. Personally, I think the best way to reach backsliders is to stop them before they backslide.
“But if they decide to leave and you can’t convince them otherwise, then the third key is to keep the lines of communication open and clear. When saints leave, they are often angry, confused, hurt, bitter, or spiritually cold. You need to 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.
“The fourth thing we do is pray for them. We keep a list of all backsliders in a binder in our prayer room. I regularly remind my church to pray down the list often. We also assign individuals to pray daily for every backslider. In my opinion, prayer is our greatest tool to reach them.
“Next, we keep them on our church mailing list and never take them off unless they ask to be removed. We try to send something out several times a year by first-class mail – this way we receive address correction when they move. Everyone on our mailing list receives flyers and special invitations many times a year.
“I also keep a list of backsliders on my desk. As the Spirit prompts me, I call them. I simply let them know that I am here if they need me and that I still care.
“We also want to visit them at their home several times a year. So we add them to your visitor follow-up ministry process. We try to assign a drop-by visit at least twice a year. We always take a tin of cookies or a mug filled with chocolate kisses. This way they always look forward to our visit.”
Never Stop Praying
Mark cut in. “Forgive me for interrupting, Elder, but do you ever get any bad responses? People asking you to leave them alone for good?”
“Sure. Occasionally they ask us to not call or visit again and we always honor their wishes. Although this grieves our heart, we accept it and go on. But know this, Mark, we never stop praying. I try to never give up hope. I Pray. I try to be there for them. I keep watching and hoping. Like the prodigal’s father, I truly believe the day will come when they will once again worship around our altars.”
Brother Baker paused and on the other end of the phone, Mark was silent for several long seconds, lost in thought. “Mark? Are you still there?”
“I’m sorry, Elder. I was just thinking about all the backsliders we have had over the years and wondering if it was too late to try and reach them. I wish we had started doing this years ago.”
“I don’t think it’s ever too late, Mark. Remember when Jesus mourned over Israel and said, “…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) It’s easy to feel the passion He felt for backslidden Israel. All heaven rejoices when even one sinner comes to repentance (Matt. 17:7). But the Bible also 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).
“I think 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.”
“Ouch! Mark exclaimed. “You really drive your point home. So, can I get your job description for your Prodigal Ministry Director and your All Church Care Ministry Director?”
“Of course,” the elderly pastor replied. “But now I need you to do me a favor.”
“Sure. What’s that?”
“Visit Clayton’s mom. Since they moved to your area a few years ago, no one has visited her. She’s been on my heart ever since I talked with Clayton at the mall.”
“Of course! I’ll go by this week. And thank-you, Elder! You have opened my eyes to a tremendous need.”
As soon he hung up, Pastor Mark North got up and made his way to the prayer room. There was a long list of people he needed to pray for and the time to start this ministry was now.
If you would like a copy of the Job Descriptions for the Prodigal Ministry Director and the All Church Care Ministry Director, please send an email request to: firstname.lastname@example.org.