Saturday, January 17, 2015

Losing the Shut-Ins: A Call for a Revival of the "Sunshine" Ministries

GT Ng - General Conference Exec. Secretary
The Adventist Church as reached 18.1 million members, making it the fifth largest Christian denominantion in the world, after the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Catholics, Anglicans and Assemblies of God. In making that announcement, Executive Secretary of the world SDA church, G.T. Ng lamented that we were losing large numbers of members at the same time.

I think, from my own experience, I can tell you why.

The Baby Boom Generation, both here and abroad is aging out of the church. This shouldn't be happening. People like me are supposed to be free now to give of their time to the church and to the nuture and mentor the next generation.

Instead, too many of us are living on fixed incomes that may or may not last as the economy is steadily decimated by government over-spending, taxation and unbridled entitlements. As we age, a particular problem is the loss of mobility that comes with aging. In my own home state, in East Texas where my family is, one in five adult East Texans can't drive. One in four are over the age of 65 and that number is increasing dramatically as boomers like me careen into old age on a wing and a prayer and without a good survival plan.

We are the generation that chose causes we cared about and dedicated our lives to them. Most genuine causes don't have very good retirement plans for volunteers. Sustentation keeps our church pastors in decent cars and vegetarian food throughout retirement. Not so much for teachers of my era or the volunteers who have held up the church over the decades.

Sadly, now that so many of us are beginning to lose the ability to drive and the extra cash to pay for our church activities, we're being forgotten. And it does cost to "volunteer" for the church. Local churches have notoriously tight budgets. One of the most expensive volunteer jobs you can take on in the local church, for instance, is "Pathfinder Director". Pathfinders are one of the lower tier items on the church budget. They only get money if all the other bills in front of them get paid, so if you want to be a good Pathfinder Director, you need to either be able to foot the bills yourself or be a very good fund-raiser.

Our seniors are disappearing from the church and with them the people with the most time and skill at working with church ministries and mentoring new members. I know from experience, that if you get without transportation and stop showing up for church, you can get forgotten very quickly. Six months after my wife and I lost our ride to church, the word got round that we'd gone back to Texas, even though I'd contacted the pastor by email and have several friends in the church who follow me by email.

It's pretty quickly out of sight out of mind with many of our churches. People are busy. We have other concerns and we just don't notice when people stop coming. Older people tend to be a bit proud too. We don't want to be a burden on people and we don't want to be asking for a ride all the time. We can watch Doug Batchelor online on Sabbath morning so we do that. We can pay our tithe online or give it to 3ABN so we do that. 3ABN thrives as a ministry almost entirely on gifts from elderly shut-in church members.

I never imagined myself as a shut-in, but suddenly I am. We are part of an invisible church congregation within the church and we have been forgotten.  Let me suggest a couple of things you can do to reclaim some of these lost members. These programs should also apply to new members young and old.

  1. Track who comes to church and who is absent. Make a church mugshot book (there's a ministry for someone with a digital camera and desktop publishing software right there).  Develop a printed checklist and make a deacon with a mugshot book responsible to record who shows up and to log the visitors list as well. It does not have to be an intrusive process. Just tagging faces to names on a checklist. After a while you'll have several deacons who know everybody by face and name.
  2. Find out who goes missing by entering church attendance records in a database that tells you who has missed more than a week or two. The database can be done by entering the attendance record or you may be able to do the whole attendance recording on a computer tablet. This is not expensive and can help you keep from losing track of members.
  3. Have the deacons follow up. Deacons are supposed to help by visiting the sick and comforting the grieving. They can also help by following up on missing members. Assign each deacon and elder a few names to call or visit.
  4. Have the church secretary develop a big map of where every church member lives on a big cork board, and not just the active members. If a church member doesn't have a ride to church, tack a flag on the board. Ask in church for volunteers to call those transportation impaired members and offer them a ride to services. Volunteers can look at the map and identify stranded members they drive right past on the way to church and pick them up. Don't wait for members to ask for a ride. Offer them one and keep on offering them a ride. Get them to church! If they are too sick to attend, offer to bring them lesson study books and books from the church library or DVDs and CDs of the weekly sermons.
  5. Check to make sure everyone is being offered a ride and visit them. Ask the visitation committee to visit every shut-in member on the list at least once a quarter.
  6. Provide recordings or videos of services to shut-ins.  It's relatively inexpensive to make DVDs and there are lots of Internet streaming services that allow you to stream Sabbath services in the Internet. Many older shut-ins depend on the Internet for keeping in contact with the church and their friends. Use that to keep them connected with the local church. 
For relatively little money and by distributing jobs among church officers and volunteers, you can use this system to identify lost members and shut-ins and rebuild your weekly attendance. Members should not be leaking out of the church because of our sheer neglect.Here's a place where you can offer leadership in your church. As Christians we take care of our own - at least we're supposed to. Instead of complaining about losing members, how about we just stop losing them.

Tom King

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