We hear it at probably 90 percent of the consultations we lead. Some good hearted person asks us if we’re going to make some recommendations on how the church can reconnect and reactivate formerly active church members who have left the church.
No one likes our answer. No one.
“Yes, we’ll be making a recommendation on reconnecting with your Missing Members. And the recommendation is this: Do Not Do It.“
Now, we say that with a caveat. If you have a Missing Member who’s not been at church for a week or two and you (not the pastor, but YOU) don’t know where they were, then YOU (not the pastor, but YOU) should give them a call to check on them. It’s your responsibility and no one else’s.
On the other hand, for those Missing Members who’ve been gone for months or years, then the recommendation stands. Do not invest any time in trying to reactivate them.
The primary reason is because to do so will waste your time and resources. Very few people who have intentionally left a church, or have been gone for more than a few months, ever return … no matter how much time and effort and love a church extends. We know this from experience … because lots of churches ignore our recommendations and go ahead and try anyway – with dismal results.
Let’s consider the reality of the situation.
To begin with, nearly all of your Missing Members left the church for some reason. Most of the time that reason was because they got offended at something or another.
They didn’t like a sermon.
The pastor didn’t call often enough.
The Sunday school curriculum was too conservative or too liberal.
Someone sat in their pew.
Or any of a hundred other reasons.
And here’s the reality … if they left once because they got offended, they will leave again because they will get offended again. The church is made up of broken and fallen people who are not perfect. The truth is, most of us aren’t even very “good.” But what we are good at is stepping on toes, not meeting expectations (realistic or not), and we’re generally really good at offending each other at one time or another. And when someone isn’t able to practice Jesus’ instructions for reconciliation in Matthew 18:15–17, then they’re not able to forgive. And if they can’t forgive, then they will take offense and they will leave. Again.
Second, if you did manage to reactivate a couple of your Missing Members, you can be sure they’d be returning with significant baggage – the kind of baggage that will get unpacked, will cause conflict, and will get in the way of growing the church. Again, these folks left for a reason and no matter what that reason was, it’s likely that the reason will resurface sometime in the future and the process will repeat itself, this time with more harm than before.
But more than that, if your Missing Members left the church for a reason and if the church didn’t do diligent follow-up after they left (and for the record, churches rarely do), then they’ve probably also taken on some “the church doesn’t really care about us” baggage along the way. And though sadly there is a modicum of truth in that, this kind of baggage will almost always erupt in future conflict that hurts the church.
In the end, when someone leaves a church, it’s because they do not perceive they’re being blessed. And if someone doesn’t feel they’re being blessed, they will find it difficult to be a blessing to others. Instead of investing in trying to bring back former members, it’s in the best interest for all concerned that every Missing Member find a church where they can be blessed and where they can be a blessing as well. In other words, you need to let them go.
Which brings us to the final reason why a church has no business trying to reactivate Missing Members. Your Missing Members left the church. They didn’t do it accidentally – they made a choice. They’re adults. And when adults make a decision, it’s incumbent upon us to honor their decision. And honoring their decision is the most honorable thing a church can do.