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In Chesapeake, Churches Pursue Missing Members
“I’ve come to learn that some awful things have happened here in the past, things that I can’t believe,” says Cesar Gonzalez, pastor of Chesapeake Conference’s Cambridge (Md.) church and Beacon of Light church in Salisbury, Md. “These stories are decades old and people absolutely don’t forget. This Sabbath is an opportunity to do something different.”
With excitement in his voice, Gonzalez explains that he and his members are planning a special Sabbath for those who haven’t been to church in quite some time. To prepare for this Sabbath, the members of both churches have prayed for each former member and written them letters inviting them to attend a special Sabbath program. His church members are not the only ones looking to embrace missing members this Sabbath. Over the next two weeks, some 30 churches across the Chesapeake Conference will participate in a “Reconnect to Worship” Sabbath. Spurred on by estimates that some 50,000 former Seventh-day Adventists live in Chesapeake, conference leaders have been planning and preparing their pastors and current members for this special Sabbath. Gonzalez alone notes that if all the missing/inactive members came back to his small churches, membership would double.
“Many inactive members would like to return to church, but they don’t know how to take that first step. That’s why we’ve designed the Reconnect to Worship Sabbath as an easy re-entry point,” explains Gary Gibbs, conference evangelism director. “The services on this day will be inspiring and hope-filled. And the church members are especially sensitive to make this reconnecting Sabbath a positive experience without the awkwardness that returning members often feel. No one will ask them ‘Where have you been?’ or other embarrassing things. Our goal is to help every returning person experience a positive worship experience in a community that their soul longs for.”
This particular project has Gonzalez’s members “excited in a way that they normally aren’t about evangelism.” Among them is Debi Strom who joined Beacon of Light last April. When she heard about Reconnect to Worship Sabbath, she eagerly volunteered to write personal letters to inactive members. “I wanted to make them feel special because that is what Jesus did,” she said. “I think people are paying attention to the signs of the times, and I believe that they are primed and ready to come back if we are aggressive in love. That starts with how we greet them when they walk through the door.”
For Strom those efforts are personal. A victim of domestic violence, she was forced from the church some 30 years ago, while she lived on the West Coast, when she sought a divorce. “I kept praying but I was very angry with the church,” she said. “I even went to other denominations, but I was lonely for my church. No other denomination teaches the whole Bible like we do.”
The members at the Martinsburg (W.Va.) church are hoping that their 200-plus members are yearning to come home too. There are more than 400 members on its books but each Sabbath only half of them show up for church. When asked why this is, Pastor Steve Finny, the youth pastor, says, “Life gets busy and you drift away. It takes a little bit of prompting.”
Finney and Tom Boggess, the senior pastor, have started prompting inactive members with letters updating them on what is happening at church, postcards inviting them to Reconnect to Worship Sabbath, phone calls and visits. Finney says it’s not just the pastors who are getting involved in reaching out. “I’ve taken some youth visiting with me. We sing songs and pray with our inactive members. We keep the visits quick. We just want them to see us,” he says.
This Sabbath he is hoping that some of those outreach activities will result in seeing some new, old faces in the pews during their Easter cantata held over for this occasion.
At Sussex Central in Georgetown, Del., where Douglas Rennewanz is the pastor, the membership is about 50 but only 25 are attending. “We need to get the [missing members] back,” he says. “This Sabbath gives members an opportunity to go beyond themselves and reach out to people they haven’t seen in years.”
Rennewanz has been a pastor for 38 years and spent the last two at Sussex Central. He says that while he has lost some members to a nearby church that is bigger with more activities for young people and families, he has “high hopes for this Sabbath.”
So does Pastor Andre Hastick. Although there are 70 members on the books, only an average of 35 people show up regularly to the Aberdeen (Md.) church, on Sabbath. “We’ve been preparing for this for quite sometime,” Pastor Hastick says. “We’ve been praying systematically about inactive members, friends and families. Then we’ve followed up with phone calls, text messages and connected with them in their homes. We’ve also challenged each member of the congregation to bring at least one person. This is an opportunity for both in reach and outreach.”
This Sabbath they’ve invited a guest singer, will host a special potluck and then a social event in the evening. “Our singular focus is making disciples. At the end of the day, a lot of discipleship is about finding opportunities to forge relationships for Christ.”
For Chris Holland, senior pastor of the Hagerstown (Md.) church, reconnecting will not just be a one-time thing. “We are actually planning at least quarterly reconnecting Sabbaths. We have a high Sabbath planned with a very good church service and then a fellowship meal to follow,” he says. “I don't know how many will come. We are actually prepared that none may come, but that will not stop us. This follow-up and pursuit of missing, former and inactive members is now a part of our lifestyle and lifecycle of our church. It will no longer be what we do, but who we are.”
For a list of participating churches, visit http://ccosda.netadvent.org/directory.
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