Reclaiming inactive church members.
Tommy Stevens of Tombstone, Arizona shared a testimony at one of my conferences recently about reaching out to church members who do not attend Sunday School. Most of them did not attend worship, either. Using a party-driven strategy, they were very effective in reaching inactive members.
You can see the testimony at http://sundayschool.ning.com/video/video/show?id=1535935:Video:7047
It raises an interesting question: does inreach matter? Is it spiritually significant to get people attending groups who are already members of our church, or should we concentrate on reaching the lost?
Consider the words of Nelson Searcy, Pastor of The Journey in New York City. I loved his book Fusion but I disagree with him on this point. Here is what he says, (page 99), "Remember the golden rule when it comes to inviting people back after a certain number of times: Reach rather than reclaim. Growing churches put their energy in reaching new people that God is bringing their way while stagnating churches concentrate on reclaiming people who have passed through and fallen away."
First, I disagree that this is what stagnant churches are doing. I am in a lot of stagnant churches and I don't see them diligently and effectively reaching out to the already reached. They are not reaching out to anybody. That is why they are stagnant.
Second, I disagree that it is OK to ignore these people. (Strictly speaking, Nelson Searcy and I are not talking about the same thing here; he is talking about how much effort we place in reaching people who have visited the church several times but have not joined. He is talking about how much effort we should give to people who have visited six months ago verses the effort we spend on people who visited six days ago. I am talking about reclaiming church members. Still, I think the principle here applies.)
Let's look at what the Bible says.
So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. Ezekiel 34:5-6 [NIV]
What is interesting to me about this passage is this. God does not criticize the sheep for wandering off. I get the feeling that the way God sees it , sheep are just doing what sheep do. The problem was with those who ought to be looking for them and are not.
"They were scattered and no one searched or looked for them." That is half of Southern Baptists. The application is: someone ought to be searching and looking for them.
The New Testament speaks of this as well:
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Galatians 6:1 [NIV]
My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back,  remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. James 5:19-20 [NIV]
Bottom line: churches ought to care about the lost and our own inactive church members.
How to reach inactive members
There is a delicate problem in reaching out to inactive church members. If we ask them to come back to church and they don't come, and we ask them again, and they don't come, and we ask them again and they don't come, the tone of the conversation starts to head south.
If we are not careful, the tone of the conversation can communicate what is exactly the opposite of the gospel message. We communicate condemnation rather than grace. We don't say it, but we communicate, "You are a bad person for not coming to church."
My answer: invite every member and every prospect to every fellowship every month. Call them up once a month and say, "We are going to have a party next week. We sure would like to see you." I have seen it happens more times than I can count: you get them to the party and you would not be able to keep them from class.
One of the great things about this strategy is you can invite them again and again and again and it doesn't come off as condemnation. It is just friendly. I have seen it happen many times where people did not respond until the 6th, 8th or 10th time. Once they came to the party, pretty soon they got involved in class.
I have known a number or churches that showed significant growth just by reclaiming people who are members of the church but do not attend. God cares about these people; we should care too!