SUMMARY, CONCLUSIONS, and RECOMMENDATIONS
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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
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
“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.
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
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
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
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.