How To Keep Members From Leaving Your Church

An open letter to my former church, in which valuable advice on how to retain members is humbly offered.

The biggest problem facing the Seventh-day Adventist Church is arguably how easily they lose church members. They constantly praise one another for each new baptism, but chronically ignore established members who no longer attend.

It is very common that established members stay away because of hurt feelings; life-long members and those who are used to having things their way often go out of their way to speak or behave as if they were immature toddlers. It is the burden of the younger and more emotionally mature members to pick up the broken pieces, seeking out and restoring those members who were assaulted by brother or sister so-and-so at the potluck, usually verbally, usually with an uninvited bit of advice beginning with words like, “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but…”

You could look at this problem as one that has two phases. The critical phase is the first one. This is because relational hurts can usually be healed, sometimes easily, with simple human contact and friendliness. Forgiveness for past mistreatment is not hard to get from disgruntled former members, if they get enough treatment of the opposite kind, and get it sooner rather than too late, and with any consistency. Everyone needs to belong to a group and feel accepted and valued by their group; that’s a basic human need, and churches can (if they want to) do a good job meeting the need. So surveys and data and summits and sermons on the retention topic should (and do) hammer the relational piece hard– discipleship, friendship, nurture, compassion, etc.

What is missing is what I would call the terminal phase of becoming a former member, which is all about the doctrines. Left outside the cocoon of church attendance long enough, and the group-think loses its hold on you. You stop censoring your own doubts and questions, as you were trained to do (not overtly, but subtly, by having such thinking modeled for you by all your fellow members). And now in the era of easy access to empirical research data, anyone can lose the habit of ignoring their doubts and questions about doctrine. If they seek answers outside the approved church channels, they can learn for themselves why their questions were valid. And not just valid, but healthy— critical to their recovery from the kind of viral, contagious group-think which is so integral to the experience of “spiritual life” or “faith.”

I know I’m not the only one who found the neglect of their church leaders and fellow members to be benevolent neglect. But perhaps I benefited more than many did by such benevolence. Letting me go unnoticed for month after month without showing up in the pew next to them on Sabbath, year after year turning down more and more leadership invitations, was actually for my own eventual good. What my former church may count as a loss (unless they feel glad to be rid of me!)– my name on their membership rolls, my teaching of their academy high school Bible classes and adult Sabbath School classes– I now count as a major personal gain.

It probably varies from person to person, but given enough time outside the cocoon of constant contact with the indoctrinated, your own indoctrination wears thin, like a garment wearing out. Holes in the fabric turn to rips, tears turn to entire areas of doctrinal garb discarded as useless and irrelevant. So what I would call phase one is the critical phase–the emotional/relational phase. If a former attendee is neglected long enough, phase one will inevitably lead to phase two, the doctrinal rejection phase. Former attendee becomes a former member, and sometimes that (happily) leads all the way out of religion entirely. That’s my theory, anyway.

If I had been as interesting to my church when I “backslid” as I was in the first days I showed up at evangelistic meetings, baptismal classes, and those first few Sabbaths I attended (way back in 1986, in Battle Creek, Michigan), I could very likely still be a happy member in good and regular standing. But I am NOT complaining! I actually really appreciate the fact that no one volunteered to uphold the caring image of the denomination in my last church (Visalia, CA) or among my last church employers (Central California Conference), extending even to a family member (nephew) who happened to become my principal (he ended up being instrumental to the school board in getting me pushed out of my teaching job, and to the conference in getting me to accept one of those ‘offers you can’t refuse’ if you want your family to retain their health insurance and tuition discounts).

I’ll admit it, at the risk of overzealous current members jumping on this as if it is the ONLY important reason I am a former member: All the lack of support was at the time extremely painful, and I’m certain was the major cause of a deep depression I’m only recently emerging from. BUT! I am only emerging from that dark time because their neglect allowed me the time to view my old cherished doctrines from the perspective of an outsider.

I now view faith as a failed epistemology, a tried-and-discarded method for knowing what is real and true about the world and life. Faith is a virus that infects human cognition, and religion is the primary carrier of the contagion. Reason is the vaccine. The scientific method is the antidote. Being good without God, and joyful without guilt, I feel whole and happy and content for the first time in my life. I joined when I was age 20. Although a multi-year process, I count age 45 as the year I left. Now 48, I feel more mentally and emotionally integrated and stable than I ever could have within the confines of the viral hive mind that is the SDA denomination. Sure, I regret giving away the prime years of my young adulthood to a failed epistemology. But at least I’m no longer mentally splintered by the cognitive dissonance required by faith.

I urge you all, if you want to gain some crucial insight into what your own doctrinal beliefs look like from the outsider perspective (regardless of what specific doctrines you believe), please read The Outsider Test for Faith. Even if you just preview it on Amazon, or get the gist of his ideas from his online presentation, you’ll perhaps gain some much-needed insight into your retention problem. I’m not sure anyone who used to be a Seventh-day Adventist member who makes it all the way to what I’m calling phase two (doctrinal rejection) has EVER been reclaimed as a member. Somehow I doubt it. But if you aspire to reach these kinds of “formers,” you must understand their view of your church. This book (and website) is the best I have found at crystallizing it. A former evangelical minister and college professor, trained in theology, philosophy, ethics, and Christian apologetics, the author knows how to be thorough and how to “speak the language” of his former religion, even while brilliantly spearheading the counter-apologetics movement within atheism. You just might earn some respect among those “formers” you’ll no doubt be visiting soon, in the aftermath of this latest drive to reclaim us, the ever-growing hordes who have ‘fallen off the path upward to heaven.’

Good luck! 😉