By Carol Bolden

The fact that so many of our youth stop attending church after they graduate from high school is a large concern for parents and church leaders, as well as Rocky Mountain Conference youth director Steve Hamilton. I sat down with him to find out what is being done for the members missing from the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“When people talk to me about reclaiming lost members,” said Steve, “one of the most important factors to consider is what ‘missing’ means. If they’re missing from church, are they also missing from our social gatherings, our family interactions? Because, if we aren’t missing them until we notice they’re missing from church, were they really part of our community in the first place?”

Steve identifies the period right after they go missing as a “very awkward” stage. It’s possible that six months or a year could pass before we recognize they’re missing, possibly as a result of running into them at the grocery store or at a community event. Not having engaged with them in any social activity, church is our only reference point, making everyone feel awkward when we say we’re missing them at church. If we don’t know they’re missing until we don’t see them in church, Steve explains, then we don’t have any idea why they’re missing because we haven’t had contact with them. “The greater issue,” he says, “is not that they haven’t been at church for six months, but that they’ve been missing from our lives for six months.” That’s why inviting them back to church is so awkward. “That’s what ‘missing’ really means.”

According to Steve, this entire scenario could play out in a completely different way. Say someone hasn’t attended church for six months, but they are very much a part of our friend group from church. We still go mountain biking together, still see them at car shows, attend festivals together, and eat out with them. In that case, someone could go for years without attending church, yet be connected with the church. In this scenario, you would know if they lost a family member or were going through a rough time because you are in touch with their life. It would be easy, in this setting, to invite them to the Christmas program. You could easily say, “Maybe this is the time to come back and engage in church again.”As Steve points out, “There’s no awkward to that.”

It’s important to establish connection before trying to re-establish church attendance. Steve goes four-wheeling with several guys who no longer attend church, guys who surprised him by stopping by camp after a four-wheeling trip just to say, “Hi!” While touring the camp, he explains, the guys were reliving childhood memories. “This is where I met God as a child,” they said, or, “This is where Mr. So- and-So took us hiking on Saturday afternoons.” These guys remembered being at summer camp. Now their kids go to summer camp, and they’ve contributed in significant ways to the camp.

Connectedness overcomes the feeling of awkward discomfort, a major obstacle when people come back into church attendance.

When he gave a worship talk to RMC office staff weeks ago, Steve Hamilton told the story of his father maintaining a connection with his best friend and classmate from academy even though it took quite a bit of effort. We asked him to re-tell that story.

“My father was best friends with Mike Wilson in academy, but while he was becoming more and more involved with church and God, attending Pacific Union College as a theology major, Mike was moving farther and farther away from God into the secular world of the ’60s and ’70s, encouraged by negative experiences from academy and church,” Steve Hamilton said. “He got involved with drugs and alcohol and, after academy, never came back to church. My father kept in touch with Mike whose family was torn apart by his involvement with controlled substances.”

“As the years passed, Mike was embarrassed to return. Not only had his family been torn apart, but meth had altered his appearance. Still, Steve’s father kept track of him through the years, making a concerted effort to reconnect with him before their 50-year academy reunion, working to build a friendship comfortable enough that Mike could attend the reunion.”

“It worked. Dad and Mike went out to eat together after the reunion and Mike said he really needed to get involved in church again. This was 50 years later. All that time, he was missing from church, but not from my dad’s life, nor from his prayers and efforts.”

One truth Steve learned from watching his dad look out for Mike is that “our love shouldn’t be contingent upon someone walking through the church doors.” Instead, “we should love them because they are loved by their Maker,” he says. Jesus tells us, “Go ye . . . ,” not, “Invite to church.” Seeking and saving shouldn’t be reduced to inviting “that which was lost” to come to church.

Too often, within the church context, people are hurt and, although they once attended, they no longer do—not because no one has invited them, but because they had a negative experience with the church. Steve believes the church needs to learn how to say, “I’m sorry.” We need to recognize that we (the church) bear guilt and to interact with missing members with humility and a willingness to say we are sorry. A dynamic shift happens when we do.

Steve tells the story of a youth pastor from another denomination who had a bad experience with religion and who believes that people don’t usually stop attending church because they don’t want to attend, but because they are hurt. We need to move through that lovingly, he said, in hopes of creating a better experience.

This sounds like Steve is saying that we need to look at missing members in a new way. Indeed he is! He believes that we need to decide where we place our highest value. Is it that people walk through the church door regularly or that we are truly connected with the people around us? Do we value church attendance or do we value connectivity?

“When I value connectedness most,” Steve explains, “they wind up coming to church. Connectedness often equals attendance and involvement with church. Attendance, on the other hand, does not always equal connectedness. Settling in our hearts what we value most is critical.”

After Steve moved to Redding, California, as pastor of the local church, he watched an extreme snowboarding video from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and realized that one of the writers was Donnie Moore from his hometown. Donnie had relatives in the Redding church, but didn’t attend himself, so Steve bought a snowmobile and began riding out of Bass Lake in order to get connected with Donnie. They soon became good friends, with Steve even loaning Donnie his snowmobile so that his wife could go riding with him. Steve doesn’t remember inviting Donnie to church, but he and his wife and kids began attending. He eventually baptized Donnie and Sarah, who are now Pathfinder leaders and help in other ways at the church. Connectedness happened and the whole family came back to church, many of them becoming involved with ministry at Glacier View Ranch.

Recreational ministry brought as many baptisms through his pastoral career as did evangelistic meetings, even though five public outreach events were held each year, including health and prophecy events, introduction to Christianity classes, cooking schools, and overcoming depression seminars. Personal connectedness is key.

–Carol Bolden provides editorial support for the RMC communication department. Email her at: [email protected]