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        The candidate undertook this study to assess the attitudes of elders in churches of Christ in Kanawha and Lincoln Counties of West Virginia regarding inactive Christians, to examine how well they believed they could work with inactive Christians, and to explore how willing the elders would be to learn how to deal with inactive Christians more effectively.  This chapter will summarize the study, will discuss the major findings from the study, and will make recommendations for further study.


        In Chapter I, the candidate told how he first came to encounter elders who seemed less than willing to work with inactive members.  He argued the study needed to be conducted because God cares deeply for the inactive Christian, elders have great responsibility toward inactive Christians, inactive Christians have placed their souls in jeopardy, and churches of Christ in West Virginia have experienced decline in the past several years.

        In Chapter II, the researcher explored relevant studies concerning inactivity which preceded this one.  He first exegeted several passages of Scripture which examine the pastoral role of elders.  He then discussed the difficulty in elders’ working with inactive Christians that Marian Guinn’s suing the church in Collinsville, Oklahoma created.  The candidate also looked at relevant studies dealing with the causes of inactivity, returning to the church, and how the elders should work with inactive members.

        The third chapter outlined the phenomological approach the researcher utilized to conduct his research.  The candidate gathered the names of sixteen elders, nine of whom participated in the study.  In the interviews, the researcher asked about the participants’ life context, concrete details of how they were working with inactive Christians at present, and the meaning they made of their experiences. 

        The fourth chapter provided the results of the data.  The first part of the chapter provided case studies from the nine participants.  The chapter’s second part utilized data gleaned from the participants outlined according to the three-part interview guide the researcher utilized.  This final chapter will discuss the major findings in the study and propose further research.


        In Chapter I, the candidate proposed six hypotheses, which the data either confirm or deny.  This summary will first examine each hypothesis and whether the data confirm or deny it.  

Hypothesis One: Elders are Aware of Their Responsibilities Toward Inactive Christians

        The data confirm this hypothesis.  All nine participants spoke of the high responsibility they have toward those who have wandered away.  One elder simply said, “Being an elder is a big responsibility.”  His counterparts unanimously echoed his sentiments.  One participant went beyond the previous quote and said:
I think an elder should be very concerned about inactive Christians.  I think that’s what one of the major roles of an elder is, to be concerned about inactive Christians, but I also think that it’s a job of every Christian to do whatever they can, but I think that if that’s part of the flock then, you know, then you’ve got responsibility to do the best that you can, whether it be preaching to them, calling them, sending them cards, not forgetting them and letting them know that they’re not forgotten.  I mean I think people—the longer they get away with something like that without any contact, the more apt they are to stay that way, but I think that if they know that there is, there are people concerned about them, and that if you can let them know that their soul is in jeopardy, that God does care, and if you ever believed, and if you ever was a Christian truly and believed in God and the destination of your soul and eternity, then sooner or later that thought’s going to come back, unless something really weird goes on in your mind, and I think that we have to do the best we can, and I think it is an elder’s responsibility.
That participant, along with all the others, had a great desire to “be shepherds of God’s flock” that is under their care (1 Pt 5:2).

        The church has every reason to take heart in these results.  Although churches of Christ in West Virginia have experienced recent decline, the elders in this study will not sit idly by and watch the church lose members.  Rather, the elders in this study recognize they have a unique responsibility among the people of God to seek wandering sheep.

Hypothesis Two: Elders Do Not Feel Qualified to Work with Inactive Christians

        The data do not confirm this hypothesis, but the participants in this study do feel qualified to work with inactive members.  Instead of being paralyzed by fear in not knowing what to do, the elders in this study actively sought inactive Christians.  One participant described the way he works with inactive members.
Well, I used to soft soap it a lot.  But now I just go head on.  I walk in like a bull in a china shop and say, “We want to know what the problem is, and what can I do to help?”  [We] try to get the bottom of it, rather than just skirting the issue.  I dunno if after you have talked with them and somebody else has talked with them if you went to them and had the backing of the church to say we’re going to withdraw from you—“If you’re not back making your confession at such and such a time”—I just wonder if that would not cause them to think more than all the talking and the begging, pleading you could do.  But you have to have the backing of the church in order to get that done.  But we’ve got to find some way to get them back but I don’t know what it is.  I’ve tried and tried and tried. But, we’re getting very few of them back.
While this participant’s “bull in a china shop” strategy may not fit with earlier research regarding reaching inactive Christians, he clearly feels qualified to work with fallen members.

        No other participant related feelings of inadequacy for the task.  In fact, the participants related how they had worked with inactive Christians in the past and continue to work with them at present.  The student recounted in the previous chapter how one congregation systematically examines which members may be moving toward inactivity.  In describing their methodology, one of the congregation’s three elders told the researcher:
Well, as of today, there’s mainly one way that we deal with anybody in that category, even the slacker.  We have three elders, and we each have a list of names, and if somebody doesn’t attend in, I mean it’s really up to the elder, but we say like try to make it a week.  If somebody misses all three services in the week, then we put forth some kinda of effort to contact them—whether it be phone, card, visit, and see if we can, you know, generate interest.
This elder felt qualified in working with inactive members, and he seeks to put forth efforts to reach inactive members.

Hypothesis Three: Elders Believe They Lack Communication Skills to Work with Inactive Christians

        The data do not confirm this hypothesis; each participant believes had has the appropriate communication skills to work with inactive Christians.  The researcher has already mentioned the participant who said that he goes to converse with inactive Christians “like a bull in a china shop.”  Obviously, he sees himself as possessing appropriate communication skills in working with wayward members.  
Other participants spoke of conversing with inactive Christians in a kind, caring manner.  One elder said, “I don’t believe getting them and chewing them . . . . I just try to be persuasive with them and try to do it in a nice way.”  Another participant spoke of the preparation he undertook before visiting with an inactive member: “I myself have always tried to make it a practice to try to figure out just how I . . .  need to approach and deal with them.”  The subject believes he possesses the skills he needs for the task and considers carefully which specific skill he needs before approaching an inactive member.  Another participant spoke of his frequent phone calls to a particular sporadic member.
I’ve got one person that I call and she has, well, “I’m been in Florida.”  Well, I think, well that’s a good excuse.  Uh, she’ll say, “I’ve been in Florida and, you know, I’m gonna be back next Sunday.  I just got back this week.”  And never see her, so we’ll call her again.  “Well, I’ve been sick.  Haven’t been feeling good; I’m just wore out all the time.  I know I should come; I’m planning on it.”  And then last time I call her she didn’t even give me that much hope.  But see now the way we kinda look at it is once something like that happens, the next thing we need to do is go visit her.
The subject believes he has appropriate communication skills, and he attempts to use those skills when he telephones or visits this inactive member.  

Hypothesis Four: Elders Fear Anger Which Inactive Christians Often Express

        The data do not confirm this hypothesis.  The researcher has already mentioned the elder who said that he talked with inactive Christians “like a bull in a china shop.”  Obviously, if he feared anger on the part of inactive Christians, he would choose a different strategy.  The same participant specifically mentions that, although he used to have concerns about anger being expressed, he no longer has such fears: “I don’t know that I have any fears anymore.  I used to.  You have fear of being rejected, of being looked down on, this type thing.  But any more that doesn’t bother me.” 

        Another participant specifically mentioned a case when an inactive member became upset with him and his fellow elder.
I recall one young lady . . . who was coming to church, kinda coming.  [She was] supposed to be a member and was living with a man and wanting us to help her . . . . We both went to her and said, “You know, we can’t help you in your current situation.  You’re not faithful to God.  You’re living in sin.”  She didn’t like it very well, but I don’t think either one of us hesitated to do it.  In fact, she didn’t come back anymore.
The participant’s concern rested in doing the right thing, not in how the inactive Christian perceived the situation.  If he had concerns about anger she might have expressed, he would not have so easily confronted her with her sin.

        Only one participant mentioned anger in the interviews, but he did so in a different context.  The elder told the researcher that he was fearful “that their reason for maybe leaving [is] that they’re mad, maybe at me.  And I wouldn’t want that.  That’s the reason I like to talk to them personally to find out what the problem is.”  Yes, he feared individuals who had left the fellowship might be angry, even at him, but he went to them to diffuse their anger.  He did not avoid individuals because of potential anger.

Hypothesis Five: Elders Fear Working with Inactive Christians Places Them and the Congregations They Serve in Legal Jeopardy

        The data do not confirm this hypothesis.  On no other hypothesis did the researcher find such strong feelings as on this one.  Not only do the elders not fear legal action, but several stated they would do what they believed was right regardless of possible legal consequences.  One participant recounted an elder’s meeting in which he was involved shortly following the trial in Collinsville, Oklahoma.
We had some folks that needed discipline.  And this was right after the deal out in  . . . Oklahoma . . . whenever the lady sued the elders of the church and all that stuff.  And I said, “We need, you know, we need to do something about this.  We need to withdraw.  We need to go see ‘em, and we need to go through the steps of, you know, Matthew 18: go see ‘em and if they won’t hear, then take a couple and go and then talk to the church and withdraw our fellowship from them to show them . . . . It’s not to prove to us or to the world that they’re not a part of us . . . . It’s to show them that they’re lost.  It’s the whole idea about church discipline from 1 Corinthians 5 so that they know that they’re not in a right relationship with God beyond a shadow of a doubt.”  He [a fellow elder] said, “I ain’t doing nothing like that.”  He said, “I’ve worked too hard for the things that the Lord’s give me.”  He said, “I’ll not be a part of that.” So, anyway that has kinda been the—I think since that thing out there in Oklahoma—I think church discipline dropped off from whatever it was to below the radar.  I think that’s had a big impact on people.
Obviously the case did not have a big impact on that participant, for he desired to carry out discipline in spite of any legal repercussions.

        Only one participant was unaware of the situation in Collinsville, Oklahoma, and that participant was not a member of the churches of Christ at the time.  However, none of the eight participants aware of the case allowed the fear of legal action to prevent their carrying out their pastoral responsibilities.  One elder succinctly stated, “I remember the case.  I think it was in Oklahoma.  I remember that – that is always on your mind, but you cannot let the world influence you.”  

Hypothesis Six: Elders Desire to Know How to Work with Inactive Christians More Effectively

        The data confirm this hypothesis, for the elders often spoke of wanting more effective means to work with inactive Christians.  One participant mentioned books on discipleship in his personal library which he used to help pastor his flock, including inactive Christians.  Another participant majored in Bible at a university affiliated with the churches of Christ and spoke of continuing efforts he undertook to learn how better to help God’s people.  One elder spoke of his frequent trips to the Tulsa Soul Winning Workshop: “I used to go to Tulsa every year to the workshop for a long time.  I’m kinda past that now.  It was a great trip.  We had taken a lot of people.” 
        One elder spoke of efforts he has undertaken to shepherd his flock more effectively.
We sent out a letter a year or so ago encouraging our members to let the elders when they were going to be out of town.  Now, we emphasized we’re not trying to be nosy, we don’t care particularly where you’re going, but we would like to know that you are planning to be out-of-town or that you’re sick.  We like for them to call us when they’re sick.  ‘Cause it’s easier for one person to be responsible for his action than for me to be responsible for about seventy people.  So, we’ve encouraged them to call us when they’re going to be away, and we have a lot of people who did that and some of them are a little drifting away from that plan, but, you know, you just have to remind them every now and then that we’d like for you to do this.  But most of them, we know where they are.
In another context, the same participant told how he proposed the three elders evenly divide the congregation to watch for members’ becoming inactive.
Well, there was some folks that we knew were not showing up very often.  So, we wanted some type of plan where the elders would, uh, well, I don’t know how much they told ya, but, you know, we divided the congregation into three groups and each one of us is responsible for a third of the congregation.  Uh, we felt rather than the whole group trying to be responsible for everybody that it was simpler for one man to kinda watch out for these others and then you can.
The elder constantly kept looking for ways to reach more people and to do so with greater effectiveness.

Other Findings

        In addition to the hypotheses the candidate desired to confirm or deny, he discovered several pieces of information he did not expect to find.  The candidate will now discuss those results.

        Only one participant in the study had a religious heritage outside the churches of Christ.  On the one hand, such a finding should not be terribly surprising, for elders “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that [they] can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Tit 1:9).   Clearly those raised within the churches of Christ are better equipped to understand the theology prevalent among that group and oppose those who refute such theology.  However, those converted to the churches of Christ as adults can mature to the point where they hold firmly to the message, teach sound doctrine, and refute error.  No doubt, many elders in the first century church came from various religious backgrounds, from paganism to Judaism.

        Because elders have such great responsibility in teaching sound doctrine, the student was surprised to find that no elder in this study mentioned using the Bible to converse with inactive Christians.  Several participants spoke of calling individuals to see why they were not regular in worship attendance or talking with such individuals face-to-face.  While the literature review found the importance of talking with inactive Christians and listening to their stories, the importance of Scripture in such conversations cannot be ignored.  Scripture has the power to convict the inactive Christians of his error—“The word of God is living and active.  Sharper than any double-edge sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb 4:12).

        The researcher was also somewhat surprised to discover that only one participant had ever been inactive himself.  Again, because of the high qualifications for elders, this result should not be terribly surprising.  However, the one participant who was inactive returned to the church several years before he ever became an elder.  No doubt there are other elders among churches of Christ in the United States who were not active in the church during part of their lives. 

        The candidate believed that he could discover a different line of thought among elders who had been inactive and those who had not been.  The researcher did learn that the one participant who had been inactive worked with inactive members in light of his own negative experience described above.  However, were the candidate able to identify more elders who had been inactive in the past, a clearer distinction could have been made between elders who had never been inactive and those who had been inactive.

         Another surprising finding was discovering an elder who participated in this study who became an elder after being a Christian only five years.  The Scriptures require that an elder “not be a recent convert” (1 Tm 3:6).  Granted, the New Testament does not specify what a “recent convert” is, and many of the elders in the apostolic church had likely been Christians a relatively short period of time.  Yet, the student was quite surprised to find a congregation who had ordained an elder so quickly after his baptism.

Results in Light of Literature Review

        The literature review demonstrated the pastoral responsibilities of elders toward inactive members.  The study demonstrates that the elders in this study understood quite clearly the pastoral responsibilities they have.  The elders with whom the candidate spent time knew they had responsibility toward inactive members of their congregation.  One participant even cried as he discussed inactive members and how his heart aches when he sees people who know what they should be doing and do not do the right thing.

        There can be little doubt that when Marian Guinn sued the church of Christ in Collinsville, Oklahoma that churches of Christ were greatly impacted in their practice of church discipline.  However, the case did not seem to impact the way the elders in this study viewed their responsibilities.  Eight of the participants remembered the situation quite clearly, and none of the participants was concerned about the case impacting how they dealt with inactive members.  One elder in the study said that the case should cause churches to proceed with discipline carefully, but he still believed churches needed to do what Scripture required of them.  Two participants particularly mentioned that the case did not impact them, for they would work with inactive members even if they were threatened with legal action.

        The experiences of the elders in this study confirm earlier research on the causes of inactivity.  One participant specifically mentioned Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, and several others mentioned “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things” (Mk 4:19).  The following table provides quotes from the participants which fit the Parable.

Quotes which fit the Parable of the Sower

"Sometimes it's the attraction of the world.  Sometimes they're just lazy.  Sometimes they'd rather go fishing or whatever."
"Tvs, newspapers, radios, things of that nature.  they just have more interest in them than they do in serving God and saving their soul."
"Some of the reasons are taht, in my opinion, the times in which we live, the church is just not 'exciting' enough for them.  They're looking for a lot of exciting things, a lot of mysticism, and entertainment."
"I think that's another factor, that people just get involved in so many things of the world that they just let those things pull them away.  I've seen that happen more than one time."
"Worldly things.  Sometimes it's family problems.  Sometimes it's problems within the congregation itself.  But, I think it's more worldly attractions, things to look at in the world that they want to do rather than work on their own soul."

        The elders in this study understood clearly that worldly attractions caused individuals to leave faithful service, just as Jesus said.  Other factors were mentioned only nominally for probably two reasons.  Because the elders spend time teaching and interpreting Scripture to the congregations they serve, their understanding of the problem of inactivity is shaped by Scripture.  Thus, when queried about the reasons for inactivity, the participants returned, either consciously or unconsciously, to what they knew best—the Scriptures.  Additionally, the elders have not read the literature reviewed in the second chapter.  Thus, they are unaware of the psychological and sociological causes of inactivity.

        Two elders at least alluded to other causes referenced in the literature review.  One participant mentioned that the congregation he serves as lost large numbers of young people.  He said, “We’re losing our young people.  We’re losing them.”  As mentioned in the literature review, a great percentage of members become inactive prior to reaching twenty.  Another participant mentioned anger as a reason individuals might leave the church.  When asked what fears he has about working with inactive members, he said, “That their reason for maybe leaving is that they’re mad, mad at me, and I wouldn’t want that.”

        The literature review also discussed the need to disciple new converts as Jesus instructed in the Great Commission.  Unfortunately, the elders whom the student interviewed did not have any system in place to disciple new converts.  The candidate asked each participant how the congregation he serves goes about keeping members after their baptism.  No participant told of any systematic method the congregation utilized.  One congregation did have a new converts’ class for a while, but they discontinued the program, for “that doesn’t work the best in the world.” 

        Only two participants seemed to recognize the need to disciple new converts.  One elder did mention his desire to establish a “mentoring” program at the congregation he serves, a program quite similar to the discipling program in place in the International Churches of Christ.  When asked how the congregation he serves seeks to keep new members from falling away, another participant said, “It’s a continual work.  It needs to have a lot of teaching, especially with the individual to help them in their troubles, because it seems like today little troubles is a deviation from the Lord, in falling away.”  However, the participant could not identify how the congregation seeks to help new converts with their troubles.

        As discussed in the literature review, if churches wait longer than eight weeks after a member begins to become inactive to call upon the member, that member will likely not return to church.  The elders in this study uniformly understood the importance of acting quickly to reach members moving toward inactivity.  The following table provides quotes from the participants about how long they wait to contact inactive members.

Length of Time Participants Wait

        “About three weeks—maybe I shouldn’t wait that long, but it usually is.”
        “The second time they miss.”
        “I wouldn’t say there’s any, you know, particular period of time. Usually a week or two.”
        “I try to do it [call inactive members] every week, if they’ve been gone for a week, but no more than two weeks.”
        “We try not to wait too long.  Like, maybe, if we haven’t heard from them in a week or so, try to get in touch with them and see what their problem is.  Sometimes a phone call will work, but if it goes very long, we try to go see ‘em.  

Personal Reflections

        The candidate greatly benefited personally from undertaking this particular project, benefits which will now be enumerated.  First, the researcher grew immensely in his appreciation for elders in churches of Christ.  When he first began conducting the research, the student fully expected to find elders with a laissez-faire attitude toward inactive Christians, probably as a result of his earlier experiences.  Yet, the elders, by and large, took a much more proactive stance in working with inactive Christians.  Nearly every elder could detail work he had undertaken within the last month to bring a wanderer home.

        The candidate’s deeper appreciation for elders also materialized through the hospitality the elders uniformly demonstrated.  The researcher had not been in the home of a single participant in the study, and he had not met several of the participants.  Such factors did not hamper the warmness with which the candidate was greeted at each home.  All the elders in this study talked warmly before and after the interview, several had their wives prepare pies or cookies for the meeting, and many took the candidate through a tour of their homes and discussed the importance of several family heirlooms.

        The research project also helped the candidate deal with his introverted nature.  The student has always cringed when needing to telephone or to visit someone he did not know well.  However, the present study required him to do just that.  The researcher began the project with much apprehension, but he grew greatly more confident as the study progressed.  This newfound confidence will aide the candidate as he works with inactive Christians himself.


        The present study did not contain as much data as the researcher had hoped.  The candidate intended to interview at least ten elders for the present study, but only nine elders agreed to participate.  Because of the low number of participants, the results cannot be generalized to a larger population.  If future research examined a larger sample, the church could learn more clearly how her elders worked with inactive Christians.

        The current study needs to be replicated in larger churches.  One congregation averages ninety on Sunday morning, and the other churches generally have somewhere between fifty and sixty present at their Sunday morning assemblies.  Elders in larger congregations are naturally confronted with more pastoral challenges in seeking individuals who have wandered.  Elders in larger congregations likely have far more experience in working with inactive Christians.  Research dealing with how those elders understand and carry out their pastoral duties could advance understanding this problem far beyond what this study could do.

        Additional studies should examine how closely elders model the examples from their youth.  This investigation found that elders tend to follow the pattern of the leaders they witnessed as young men.  Yet, the current research did not discover to what extent such a relationship exists.  Future inquiries examining this aspect could greatly help the church understand how elders function and how elders can better equip young men to serve in that capacity in the future.

        This dissertation identified one participant who had been inactive in the past, and his work with erring members has been greatly impacted by that experience.  Additional analysis could take place to discover to what extent elders work with inactive members in a manner similar to the way others leaders worked with them in the past.  If future research examines that correlation, the church may understand more fully how elders seek to pastor wandering souls.

    Future research could also greatly benefit by exploring the attitudes of elders concerning the disciplining of inactive members.  The study briefly touched upon the subject, but did not explore the attitudes of elders regarding discipline in great detail.  The participants in the present study believed the withdrawal of fellowship needs more practice among churches of Christ.  When asked about the most effective means of working with wayward members, one elder stated:
I still think that the secret to getting them back is having the fear of being withdrawn from the whole congregation is the one thing that would help more than anything else. But it seems that this is something that when you get to  thinking about it I’m sure you’ve seen the church get black eyes from people who left the church and how many times did you see the church actually withdrawal from them?  It’s just something that the religious world does it, and I don’t know why that we can’t do it.  It’s a tough way to go.  It’s a tough love when you get to thinking about it.
The same participant fears that too many active Christians remain in close contact with their inactive brethren: “I really think that when somebody really turns their back on
Christ, and you’ve done everything you can to try to restore them and get them back, I don’t think we ought to be buddy, buddy with them until they change.”  Another participant also expressed his frustration that the congregation he serves has yet to withdraw from wayward members: “I mean, there are certain cases that, you know, defies all logic as to why you wouldn’t withdraw.”

        Other investigators would do well to look for a correlation between elders’ attitudes toward inactive members and their attitudes toward the withdrawal of fellowship.  This study seems to suggest that elders believe disfellowshiping wayward Christians may entice inactive members to return to the church, but the data show that no elder could positively correlate negative church discipline and the return to church by inactive Christians.  Perhaps an examination of additional congregations would show a positive correlation and open new avenues to the church in dealing with inactive members.

        The candidate truly hopes that other researchers will take this study and begin to examine carefully how elders shepherd inactive Christians.  Concerned Christians could then take such research and develop curricula whereby elders could learn to shepherd wandering sheep more effectively. Copyright © Dr. Justin Imel